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From Geek to Geezer

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

It's a fair generality that the young are more technologically up-to-date than the old. There comes a time when one concludes that the wizards of invention have gone far enough. There's no point in cluttering one's mind with new gadgets and their instructions.

A 96-year-old of my acquaintance was a Navy radioman who knew all there was to know about communications back in World War II. "Sparks" continued to adopt new technology that followed, including an electric meat slicer, 10-pound calculating machine and eight-track tapes. But he pretty much stopped at the electric typewriter.

Not long ago, he asked his granddaughter to change the ribbon on his typewriter, which he doesn't use anymore, but just in case. She could have designed a website writing her own HTML code in the time it took to figure out that ribbon.

Sparks has never used an ATM. A product of the Great Depression, he feels there's something unnatural about cash coming out of a machine. He does play music CDs, but has never picked up the player's remote.

Smile indulgently at these geezers -- you who lined up for the first iPad and Android phone. You, too, will reach a point when a new gizmo seems impossible to use. (Meanwhile, I challenge you to splice the broken tape on an eight-track recorder.)

I recently used old technology (microfilm) to read newspapers from 1873. There was a wise-guy piece about the next big thing: the typewriter.

"The business boudoir of today has luxuries undreamt of in the commercial offices of a generation ago," the article started in the purple prose of the age. The older workers, the author said, would "catch sight of the fair lassie, whose fingers, dancing over scores of small keys, were doing work that three or four men could scarcely struggle through in their days."

Like the typists thrown out of work because they couldn't move to computers, the scriveners similarly suffered when the typewriter took over. The typewriter, our reporter wrote, "is a nuisance to those persons, gifted by nature with a fine Italian hand, whose living has disappeared before the inroads of the box of cranks and levers."

Typewriters went electric after World War II. Their "box of cranks and levers" began to disappear with the IBM Selectric in 1961 -- which featured a pivoting ball bearing letters, numbers, etc. This ended the crashing of levers that had to be disentangled.

Many "Mad Men" fans cherish the scene set in 1961 of Joan showing off her new Selectric, and telling another secretary, "Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology." (Sticklers for historical accuracy note that Joan was using a Selectric II, which wasn't introduced until 1973.)

All those buttons and arrows on TV remotes make many older people queasy. They are used to knowing how to use every feature on every device. They can't make peace with the idea that they own gadgets that do dozens of things that they don't have to know about.

My hope is that future consumer technology won't require so much study because it will automatically do what it's supposed to. The most resigned techno-phobe can appreciate the moisture sensor on dryers, which tells the machine to stop when the clothes are dry. Point-and-shoot cameras focus, adjust for light and decide when to use the flash. That's nice.

Google, we read, is building robotic cars that can drive themselves. Now there's something that would appeal to geezers as well as geeks -- except for the part where you program whatever the heck these cars use for guidance. I told old Sparks about this development, and he just shook his head.

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