Sunday, July 12, 2009

Who Needs a Computer?

Apparently not my 85-year-old cousin, whom we visited over the weekend. This cousin is not a boring old lady, either. She’s a spitfire. More fun than a crate of Looneytoon characters (without the speech impediments). She said she understands that if she was in the workforce these days, she’d have to use a computer. But retired 20 years, and busy with an active social life and many interests, she doesn’t have time to sit around browsing the internet. She has no interest in email, which she views skeptically as little more than people sending dull jokes around to each other, hacking into one another’s private files, and attempting to steal someone else’s identity. “The only thing I might use a computer for,” she says, “is research. And for that I just call my son.”

So I turn to her son and I ask him how he provides her with the research. “Well,” he smiles indulgently, with a smile that reveals just how much he loves his mother, “once I get the information, I read it to her over the phone, mail it to her, or bring it with me when I come to visit.” She doesn’t have a fax machine, which does not concern her one iota. “What would I use that for?” she asks, and then launches into a rant about Facebook and “twattering” (we think she means Twitter). My cousin asks me if I use Facebook. I explain that I check out Facebook a couple of times a day, that this is new in my life, and I like it because there are people I connect with regularly on Facebook who live far away and would normally not be part of my daily life. Facebook makes it possible for me to have an ordinary day-to-day connection with quite a few people whom I like and would not otherwise have had any contact with for many years at a time. Facebook gives me that global village on a personal level. Although I am careful not to let it suck up too much of my time and I skip most entries by the people who post too much.

I have to say that I remember vividly the exact moment in 1986 when I realized that I needed a computer. Prior to that moment, I could not fathom what a regular person would do with such a thing. Maybe if I was a mathematician, I thought. Or maybe if I had to do a lot of accounting. Then I got a job writing a book for an educational publishing company. My friend Jim gave me the key to his front door and permission to use his computer during the day while he was at work. He gave me a one-hour lesson in the use of WordPerfect on his Kaypro. DOS operating system. No mouse. I was struck by lightning. My life changed forever. Today, my ability to work from home and have the independence and freedom that I have had for the past 10 years is a direct result of the capacity of a home computer and the internet. I am truly grateful for the technology that makes my lifestyle possible.

Yesterday, when I looked at my 85-year-old cousin, I tried to imagine a life in which a computer is useless, a life rich with in-person experiences in the local village. It reminded me to step out of my own cultural context more often for a different perspective.

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