Get off my lawn

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You remember the late 1990s. Money grew on trees, and if your money-picking arm got sore, you could just hold out your skirt to catch the falling sky-money. Take my friend X, who made $90,000 one year freelancing as a PowerPoint guy. Masters of the universe who didn’t understand caps lock threw bags of cash at X to do Microsoft makeovers on their overhead projector transparencies. Do a little light typing, add a shutter click here, add a whirly effect there, collect $90,0000.

It’s been more than 10 years, but my bitterness is still fresh as a daisy. At the time I was dutifully rounding out my higher education. He had dispensed with the whole thing at 16, taught himself how to negotiate the internet before AOL had sent its first free CD, and off he went into the stratosphere while I ground out essays and sweated through exams. The worst part is that those exorbitantly expensive PowerPoints often didn’t even see the light of day, he told me, because sometimes the meetings would start and no one knew how to open the program. My esophagus burned.

My traumatic history was resuscitated a few weeks ago when I saw that e.p.t., the pregnancy test, was following Christie on Twitter.

A pregnancy test has a Twitter account and is following people. It was in line with the acceleration I had witnessed over the past couple of years in job postings for “social media coordinators.” These are a good idea for companies with a coherent social media strategy, but as a massive survey identified back in October, it can just as easily backfire.

The TNS Digital Life study looked at the online behaviour of 72,000 people across 60 countries. One thing they zeroed in on was the fact that every company seems to now have a social media arm, whether or not it’s appropriate. “The race online has seen businesses across the world develop profiles on social networks, such as Facebook or YouTube,” said the TNS press release. There’s just one problem.

57 per cent of people do not want to engage with brands via social media – rising to 60 per cent in the US and 61 per cent in the UK. Instead, misguided digital strategies are generating mountains of digital waste, from friendless Facebook accounts to blogs no one reads.

I was immediately reminded of X. The social media coordinators these companies hire are the latter-day Xs, creating useless  Twitter accounts and tumbleweed-strewn blogs for companies that are panicking to adopt a technology no one wants them to use.

But here’s the thing. They don’t have a choice, just as the PowerPoint guys were forced to hire X.

In December, New Scientist interviewed Kirkpatrick Sale, who has been called the leader of the neo-Luddites. The movement is about “questioning technology’s embrace, and trying to get society as a whole to make decisions about whether they want this,” Sale said.

I’ve always thought of Luddites as quaint and tilting at windmills, but Sale is making a point that I’m increasing starting to consider. Why don’t we get to choose exactly what level of technology we feel comfortable using?

I mean, to some extent we do. I am still free to roll my eyes when I see a tweet informing me that so-and-so has “checked in” at the train station. My mother is free to roll her eyes when I beg her to learn the incredibly simple art of text messaging. It’s not rocket science! It’s just texting. But her refusal is absolute.

My mother has a mobile phone, but she only turns it on when she wants to make a call. She has not set up voicemail. She does not do text messaging. So if I want to reach her, I can dial her number until I’m blue in the face– until she decides that she needs to get in touch with me, that thing is functionally a brick.

It’s genius, really: technology strictly on her terms. By contrast, my phone is on 24 hours a day and it’s always on me. It’s become accepted etiquette to apologise for not answering a 2-day-old text. Because everyone knows everyone’s phone is always on. Everyone knows you saw that text. It’s actually considered intrusive now to call people on those phones that are constantly on. Quoth another study:

“With email and instant messaging services, getting a 25 year-old to pick up the phone is a real challenge. The younger generation think it rude to call people, as the call is immediate and causes an interruption. They would rather send an email, text or IM and give the recipient the opportunity to deal with the question in their own time.”

An here’s the point. My mother is free to use technology on her terms, but I am not. That’s because she is retired, and I’m not. For work purposes, I need to have a LinkedIn account, a well-managed online footprint, and I should really have a web site. Without my smartphone, my professional life would be more difficult by an order of magnitude.

But the line between professional necessity and just plain necessity is blurring. Sale, who recently started using a computer and an email account, told New Scientist that the ideal level of technology he would want to live with is “enough technology in my community to house, feed and bathe ourselves efficiently.”

That ground is shifting under our feet. What happens when the smart grid, smart meters and smart houses become a reality? Granted, that’s not soon. But look at digital wallets and the idea of ending cash. Today it is possible to live, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, without cash. But the flip side is that it has become equally uncomfortable to live by cash alone. When will it become impossible?

The people who have to convert their perfectly good presentations to PowerPoint and the people who feel they must hire a social media coordinator for a pregnancy test that was perfectly good without a social media coordinator are in the same boat with the rest of us: none of us is entirely in charge anymore of the technology we’re being forced to adopt. Faced with this reality, we have two options. We can immerse ourselves and keep up with the pace of technological advances, be perpetual adapters. Or we can tell the world to get off our lawn and outsource the upkeep to an overpaid young person– to mixed results.

But we don’t seem to have the third option anymore, which is to live completely within the technological framework that makes us feel comfortable. I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Being forced to display adaptability has been shown to be good for our brains, keeping us from sliding into mental decrepitude. But being forced to live by someone else’s roadmap just chafes me. This entire post was inspired by the fact that I need to learn how to program. Seriously?

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5 thoughts on “Get off my lawn

  1. Oh no! Does this mean I should delete LWON’s Facebook page? It’s so pretty. And I spent $90,000 on it.

  2. Thanks for the thought-provoking post! The closing line surprised me, as I think of learning how to program as a very different kind of skill than learning how to *use* programs (like PowerPoint or Twitter). I got this perspective, I think, from Andrea diSessa’s book “Changing Minds: Computers, Learning and Literacy.” He makes the case that truly widespread computational literacy–essentially, programming–has the capacity to transform society the way the advent of traditional literacy did. He focuses especially on its potential in science education, which is neat.

    Anyway, I don’t think it means “Everyone MUST learn to program!” (I’m only a very indifferent programmer myself), but I see technology differently now. Programs come and go, but programming is here to stay.

  3. “It’s actually considered intrusive now to call people on those phones that are constantly on. It’s rude to force your friends to come up with an excuse for missing your call.”

    So it’s true! I’ve been wondering about this and when that started being the case. I was wondering whether it represented my cohort’s transition into 30-something decorum, but this makes more sense.

  4. Indeed, Jessa:
    http://www.ukfast.co.uk/press-releases/millennial-kids-phone-fears-hamper-business-growth.html

    “With email and instant messaging services, getting a 25 year-old to pick up the phone is a real challenge. The younger generation think it rude to call people, as the call is immediate and causes an interruption. They would rather send an email, text or IM and give the recipient the opportunity to deal with the question in their own time.”

    I’m going to edit the post to throw that in there.

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