James Thurber, in My Life and Hard Times, described his grandmother’s suspicions of electricity, at the time a new and mysterious technology. She “lived the latter years of her life in the horrible suspicion that electricity was dripping invisibly all over the house. It leaked, she contended, out of empty sockets if the wall switch had been left on. She would go around screwing in bulbs, and if they lighted up she would hastily and fearfully turn off the wall switch and go back to her Pearson’s or Everybody’s, happy in the satisfaction that she had stopped not only a costly but a dangerous leakage. Nothing could ever clear this up for her.”
I thought of Thurber’s grandmother when I read about how slow older adults have been to get online. The Pew Research Centers Internet and American Life Project reports that in 2012, the percentage of adults over age 65 using the internet exceeded 50% for the first time. However, as Paula Span notes at The New Old Age blog, the increase may have been largely because quite a few earlier adopters in the next younger age cohort had aged into the over 65 group. Among those over 77, only a third are online.
Span cites complaints by Laurie Orlov, a tech industry analyst, about the lack of “a national effort to get 100 percent of seniors online.” I wonder how successful such an effort would be, though. About five years ago, my brother-in-law decided to help my parents, then in their early 80s, get online. He set up a computer in their basement, hooked it up to the internet, and tried to teach them to use it. They never did.
Perhaps there comes a point in our lives—a point determined by mental set, need, and circumstance more than by age—when we become wary about new technologies. We may see them as dangerous, as did Thurber’s grandmother. We may think of them as a world apart, one that can be entered only by means of mysterious and arcane incantations. Or we may just see no point to them. My mother states she got along fine without the internet all of her life, so she doesn’t see why she needs it now. She gets irritated when she receives instructions to pay for trash pickup online or the library refers her questions to their website. She knows, though, that if she hangs on the phone long enough, she will eventually get help from an actual person, so that’s what she does.
Almost 65, I’m comfortable with computers, the internet, and social media. I don’t text, though, and I don’t tweet. I’ve gotten along fine without them to this point, so why change? Yes, I know. I’m becoming my mother. I’m OK with that.