As We See It

With his usual in-depth rigour, John Swart tells us this week about Pelham seniors and their use (or not) of computers, the internet and email. Research shows that there remains a percentage of seniors reluctant to adopt computer technology, a finding just as true in Pelham as elsewhere. There is a tendency for those plugged-in to the online world to tut-tut at older friends and family who aren’t, lamenting that they’re losing out by not jumping aboard the digital bandwagon.

But these ornery hold-outs, these anti-technology party-poopers, they aren’t necessarily wrong.

Without some smarts you don’t make it to your eighth or ninth decade. Maybe it’s the most mature among us who see that for every improvement technology brings there is a corresponding detriment, a piper to pay, and these seniors are done paying him.

In 1950, at lunch one day in the Los Alamos National Laboratory canteen, the physicist Enrico Fermi famously blurted-out, “Where are they?”

His fellow sandwich-eating physicists understood immediately. Fermi meant, with so many billions of planets in the universe and the odds of extra-terrestrial life so high, why was there no evidence of it? Where, he was asking, were all the aliens?

The Fermi Paradox remains 67 years later, another seven decades in which evidence of alien life has yet to turn up.

Some say that the reason is obvious, found not in theology but in psychology. It is in the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself, goes the argument. Once nuclear capability is attained, once planetary resources are exhausted, only a few generations remain until a civilization destroys itself, its planet, or both.

Is it alarmist to view Twitter and Facebook as two further steps toward self-annihilation? Given their roles in spreading “fake news” during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign—and the consequent result—it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, comrade.

And here we’ve reached the nub for many, including many seniors. It’s not necessarily the technology that’s bad; it’s the speed with which it’s spreading. “Speed kills,” went the 1960s campaign to get drivers to slow down. This was repurposed in the 1970s to get drug users to slow down. “Speed kills” needs a 21st century comeback for communications technology.

Lies and propaganda have always existed. But the ability to infect the gullible around the world in a matter of hours is new, and an existential threat to humanity.

So let none among us pity those seniors who shun the online world, who are content not to post photographs of their meals on Facebook, content not to add their self-promoting Tweets to the cacophony of narcissism that passes now for personal communication.

While some studies conclude that Facebook users are happier than non-users, more research says otherwise.

The key term here is “user.”

Among others, a 2015 study, Passive Facebook Usage Undermines Affective Well-Being: Experimental and Longitudinal Evidence, finds that Facebook members who post infrequently are likely to find that the site provokes anxiety and depression. Even those users who post often, conclude other studies, can find themselves in a “self-promotional envy spiral, a one-upsmanship arms race.”

As envy mounts, it’s easy to forget that Facebook isn’t reality, that users tend to promote idealized versions of themselves—minus warts, minus wrinkles, minus bulimic offspring, minus gambling addictions, cheating spouses, and self-medicating alcoholism.

Suddenly those online-averse seniors look pretty clever, eh.

Not only have they dodged the frustrations of the machines themselves—and these remain plentiful, even in the era of Windows 10 and OS X Sierra—they’ve also managed to avoid the pot of coal at the end of the not-so-bright rainbow.

All well and good, but not the end of the story.

Like it or not, traditional means of communication, from ordinary face-to-face conversation, to books and newspapers, to broadcast radio and television, to our Town’s way of communicating with its residents—if certain staff get their way—are being replaced by digital imposters.

We seem unable to stop the substitution of non-partisan mass communication with highly biased versions of reality that serve limited, selfish needs—everyone in his own bubble, with his own truth.

Out with responsibly edited news, in with politicians’ Tweets masquerading as facts.

Yes, books are still printed. Radio and television are still broadcast.

Among printed media, community newspapers stand the best chance of survival.

But the digital future is here and gaining speed. It wouldn’t be the end of the world—not yet, anyway—to learn how to use an iPad or other tablet, the least stressful gateways to the web and its store of knowledge. Books, videos, audiobooks—all are easily accessed on a pad-type device.

Take advantage of Pelham Library’s introductory classes. Dip your toes into digital. There’s no requirement that you also dive into the Facebook or Twitter pools, where the no-urinating signs are so often ignored. Online it’s your choice—you don’t need to suffer the bad to benefit from the good.

All the same, if the prospect of learning how to use an iPad remains daunting, relax. If your gut tells you that books on shelves, in-person conversations over coffee, and handwritten letters sent by post have been good enough until now, let no one leave you doubting otherwise.