Categories
Society Technology

Why you’re doomed to techno-befuddlement by the time you’re 70

A friend aspires to be as adept at using consumer technology in 30 years – when he’ll be in his late 70s – as he is today.

This will be me and my friend in 30 years’ time. Children will smirk at us before being re-submerged in their entertainment vats.

He believes many older people have been lazy about keeping up with the underlying advances of the past 50 years.

And he argues that because he works in software engineering and makes an effort to understand the principles behind new technology, he will be in a good position to achieve his goal of being able to program his semi-bio-engineered cyborg gardener using mind control as easily as his grandchildren in the year 2054.

I believe he’s missing the point, and we’ve had many debates.

Silver surfer wipeout

We first got onto this topic after my friend expressed frustration with his septuagenarian mother, who was struggling to read her online banking webpage.

She’d had the Internet for years! Why couldn’t she just fill in the boxes and click the right buttons?

Because, I argued, she didn’t grow up with it. It’s not in her bones, or her muscle memory, or the appropriate synaptic connections.

While most older people I know have basically got the hang of parsing webpages by now, it was fascinating watching them try in their early encounters with the Internet.

Very often they’d start reading from the top left. They’d scan right, then return to the left hand side, drop their eyes down a bit, and continue the process.

They were reading the webpage like a book!

Ever wondered why anyone clicked on banner adverts or got confused about content versus text ads in the sidebar?

Now you know.

Reading a webpage like a book is bonkers to my generation.

Most of us grew up with – or at least encountered – video games.

We were taught very young to treat the screen like a plate of tapas to pick and choose from, rather than as a sacred text.

Perhaps even those who missed games (many young girls, in the early days, for instance) were still trained to have a roving eye by the frenetic activity of Saturday morning cartoons, or by the visually didactic offerings of Play School and Sesame Street.

Older people grew up on books, and watched movies at the cinema that were first staged like theatre productions. Their hands were held by the film’s creators through the viewing. Though they couldn’t articulate it, they mostly knew what to expect next (what shot, what reaction shot, what panning shot, and so on).

Whereas we were taught to take what we needed from a screen. Webpages, when they came, were no big leap.

Of course we were also young, inquisitive, and took pleasure in being adaptable – qualities that do seem to wane.

In any event, reading webpages has diddly-squat to do with understanding hypertext or TCP/IP.

Similarly, many of our parents well understood what a video tape was capable of doing.

The reason they struggled to program their VCRs was because they grew up in a world of wooden horses and plastic cars and just one fancy piece of electronics in the corner of the living room that at first they weren’t allowed to touch.

Are you already a luddite?

If you’re in your mid-to-late 40s and you believe your grandkids won’t be helping you with your household appliances in 30 years, ponder the following:

  • Do you spend fewer than 10 hours a day consuming content via a handheld digital device?
  • Do you still own a CD or DVD collection, or even an iTunes library?
  • Do you take a photo of every meal you have in a restaurant and then distribute it on social media?
  • Do you ever answer your front doorbell?
  • Do you take 546 portraits of yourself in front of every cultural landmark you pass, and know which is your good side, the right angle for your chin, and what’s your best filter?
  • Are you innately au fait with the rule of three?
  • When was the last time one of your memes went viral?
  • Do you answer your phone and/or leave voice messages?
  • (You actually have a landline?!)
  • Did you meet your last three partners on dating apps?
  • Has your Facebook account been dormant since 2016?
  • How often do you Snapchat something you’re ashamed of?
  • Do you fall asleep with your iPhone?
  • Can you even imagine sitting in front of adverts on the TV?

Sometimes you should be answering yes, and sometimes no.

Hopefully the questions speak for themselves. Most of us my age are already past it.

And this is just 2010-2020 technology. If you’re under 30 and you’re thinking “sure”, wait until you see what’s coming next…

The future is child’s play

My point is that what defines technological advances, eras, generations – and alienation – is not how the technology works.

It’s what people do with it.

A clue my friend is going to be metaphorically reaching into the befuddled darkness in his old age with the rest of us is he thinks none of the stuff in that list is new, and that it’s mostly stupid.

He doesn’t use Snapchat, he says, because he hasn’t got time, but anyway it’s just text messaging with pictures.

Posting photos of every dinner to Instagram is pointless, narcissistic, and distracting.

And so on.

Yes, perhaps I agree with him – but I would because I’m his age.

Our parents thought Manic Miner was a waste of time, too.

My father – who worked in Information Technology all his life – said I was in too much of a hurry to encourage him to get a home email address. Who was ever going to email him at home?

Whereas young people play with the new technology around them.

It’s not even new technology when you’re young. It’s just the world.

Their play may seem silly at first. But often they’re learning how to navigate the future.

Photographing your dinner seems ridiculous to those of us who made it to 46 without a daily visual record of what we ate.

But we weren’t cultivating multi-faceted media personalities from our pre-teen years with as large a footprint online as off.

I sent my friend a video this morning. It shows kids having fun using their AirPods as covert walkie-talkies in class:

My friend replied as follows:

A typically convoluted and wasteful solution. I’m sure they have great fun doing it, though.

(To get his tone, read his second sentence in the sarcastic voice of Basil Fawlty, rather than with the camaraderie of a Blue Peter presenter.)

His response illustrates why my friend will surely have to call out the droid training man six times before it’s finally packing away the grocery deliveries the way he wants it to.

Or why he’ll be one of the last to order an autonomous car that has a hot tub instead of a driver’s seat.

Or why he’ll never meet a partner on Tinder who will only make love after micro-dosing LSD.

Or why he’ll insist on sending text messages, rather than sharing head-vibes via an embedded emote transmitter-receiver.

Or why he’ll die of a heart attack because he hadn’t tracked his blood via a wearable monitor disguised as a signet ring.

Or whatever actually does come down the road; the challenges of tomorrow’s technology won’t look like those of today.

I don’t mean to make fun of my friend. I applaud his aspiration.

But he has got a solution for a totally different problem.

Categories
Society

The four horseman of the Apocalypse for the after dark High Street

Cardiff, 2010: Those were the days (BBC)

Economists and pundits are befuddled by the decline of the UK High Street, and all the pubs and restaurant chains that have shrunk or gone bust.

Most blame high rates but I find that unconvincing. It’s hardly new.

Others point to Brexit uncertainty. While it’s true this act of gross national self-harm hasn’t helped anyone bar a few politicians, it’s surely not what’s ailing Britain’s purveyors of boozy revelry.

No, I believe it’s all about sex.

Carbon dating

Most people over 40 have no idea just how ‘dating’ – or ‘hooking up’ – has changed since we were young.

I put both terms in quotes, because these are American imports that weren’t even really a thing in the UK 20 years ago.

Like good investing, getting horizontal in Blighty used to be simple but not easy.

Boy had a few drinks. Girl had a few drinks. Semi-drunk boys and girls met somewhere social, got off, thought “you’ll do”, and hung about until they realised they wouldn’t or they got married.

Sadly, imports have destroyed this traditional British way of life.

First there was the TV show Friends, and latterly Tinder.

Nobody is putting themselves out there

I’ll illustrate via the experiences of a friend of mine.

Let’s call him Frank.

Frank has gamed the algorithms of dating apps like Tinder and Hinge.

Looking at his profile is a glimpse into what life must be like as an Instagram model with a winning way with a bikini, or as Barack Obama on Twitter.

Frank’s profile is a long stream of Likes, Matches, and interactions. He browses them at his leisure, and engages a few in chat.

When Frank has decided he’d like to meet one, he sends them exactly the same 12-word semi-witty suggestion that he has found gets the highest positive response rate.

I know… romantic.

Needless to say all his photos have been A/B tested, too.

Furthering his odds, Frank is in the demographic sweet spot for men – early 30s, works out, decent earner, still has all his own hair.

Okay, he is probably in the foothills of the spectrum, but that doesn’t matter in the era of apps. If anything it’s a boon.

He’s interesting enough to talk to in real-life, if a bit insensitive.

Frank gets lots of traction from dating apps, that’s my point.

But it is a truth universally acknowledged since Austen that when it comes to the sexual marketplace, the grass is always greener.

We don’t serve your kind in here

Frank wants to be a real-life player, like the men he read about on dodgy Internet forums when he was a teenager.

And perhaps because I’m more than a decade older, Frank decided I’d be the perfect ‘wingman’, in the parlance of such tribes, to go out with him for non-screen mediated interactions in social venues – or, as we used to call it, “on the pull”.

Our missions are a perpetual disappointment.

Of course the truth is going on the pull was almost always hugely disappointing. So Frank is getting some authentic reality right there.

Throw in a first-generation PlayStation, Blur on a CD player, and a couple of bottles of Hooch, and Frank could be living the ’90s dream.

But as one who did live that dream, I had to inform Frank after several doomed Saturday nights that this was even worse.

Because – in short, rounding down – nobody is doing it anymore.

They’ve just stopped.

Okay, I’m sure students on campus are still getting off at the college disco or whatnot, but in everyday life, women have stopped going to pubs to meet men, and men have stopped going to look for them.

If women are in pubs now, it’s to meet and socialise, and who can blame them.

Browsing long streams of “hey!”s and/or propositions on a dating app with a hot chocolate must be a ten-fold improvement for the average woman compared to being drooled on by the least shy, most cocksure, or most drunk male on a Saturday night.

As for men, I think dating apps are a cruel place for most of us in terms of garnering the attention of women, but really it was the same back in the old days. We just didn’t have apps telling us to expect anything different.

Anyway, back to my point – most people have realised the only thing they’re likely to attract in today’s near-empty pubs is a cold.

There’s probably a broader trend here, too, informed by movements in identity politics and #metoo, perhaps.

People no longer seem to signal their status like they used to, and they have less fun with / less tolerance for it all.

In other words, they don’t flirt in most social spaces.

In the long run this is probably for the good, especially for women who can do without low-level harassment in the workplace, but still it’s easy to forget how much has changed.

Twenty years ago I worked in an office where the newest recruit – male or female – was hazed by having a bunch of framed porn photos on their desk until someone newer was hired.

I didn’t work for Hustler. It was just an office of normal media people. I don’t remember anyone thinking it was especially off.

Yikes. We’ve changed.

Goodbye to all: apps

Which brings me back to my four horseman. (Can you hear their mounts stamping at the door and braying to be heard?)

I believe the epochal shift in sexual and social dynamics – mostly due to dating apps, but with a strong supporting cast – has changed nightlife forever. (It’s probably doing much else besides.)

As I mused to Frank at the end of one of our uneventful evenings, I see four apps in particular as the riders of the Apocalypse that have spelled doom for traditional nightlife:

  • Tinder – And Hinge, Bumble, Plenty of Fish, Grindr, and all the others. People no longer need to go out, spend money, and get drunk to meet to people. So they don’t.
  • Netflix – …and chill. Clues in the vernacular. Even if you’re not chilling with that special someone who made it through your Tinder funnel, you’re probably bingeing on a box set rather than trying to ring fun out of a provincial nightclub.
  • Deliveroo – Why get a sweaty kebab when you can have your favourite chain meal whisked from dark kitchen to your door in 30 minutes?
  • WhatsApp – You don’t even need to go to the pub to drown your sorrows. Cheap beer and a group of your fellow unlucky lovers will get you through those long nights of the soul.

Now I know what you’re thinking.

There’s that pub near you that’s always busy, or you were out on Friday night in Shoreditch in London and it was rammed.

Yes, yes. There will always be a few successful pubs that are hubs for the local community, presuming we don’t transition to living in vats wearing VR headsets.

I suppose too that there will always be the very trendiest parts of town, the most Instagrammable new restaurants, and the odd capital letter Event that stokes your target demographic’s FOMO.

I’m talking about the continental landmass, not those exotic islands.

The waters are rising, and the end times are upon that old world.