Do you ever feel like you’re barely keeping up with modern technology? Maybe it’s a recent phone update that leaves you disoriented. Or you want customer service from a human but you’re forced to text with an AI. Perhaps you get decision fatigue scrolling through endless streaming options on TV, not sure what to take a chance on next. You’re not alone in experiencing feelings of weariness, frustration, and even grief about daily life in the digital age. But while your peers can certainly relate and provide some relief, you may have overlooked a potent source of wisdom about technology from an unlikely place — your elders.
I recently experienced this with my friend Dorothy. I just got word that she passed away at 91, but I was blessed to know her for the last few years of her life. In 2021, Dorothy and I connected on the subject of technology in an unlikely place: the comments section of a news website. Dorothy shared her experience as a telephone company switchboard operator from 1949 to 1952. In her initial comments, she recalled a nugget of wisdom she’d once heard from someone: change is not always progress.
We got to talking. Born in 1932, Dorothy has lived in several states in America and held jobs at a telephone company, the U.S. Air Force, American Airlines, a travel agency, a Tupperware sales agency, and more. She’s lived through countless technological developments in every area of life. Just in the realm of communication, she’s gone from a crank phone to a cordless phone, black and white TV to Netflix, and a teletype machine to a desktop computer.
“Basically, it’s the story of our lives,” she tells me in one of our chats over the phone, “and the tools we use to live.”
Leading the Tech Boss Life
Dorothy lived out what I call the tech boss life, embracing the tech tools she needed while leaving aside what wasn’t helpful to her. She didn’t own a smartphone, didn’t have any social media accounts, and though she received emails, she had never actually sent one until we met. But she ordered her groceries online, commented prolifically online about current events, played games on her computer, and watched TV shows via various apps on Roku.
In her book “Stories of Elders: What the Greatest Generation Knows about Technology that You Don’t,” anthropologist Veronica Kirin interviewed 100 elders across America about their experiences with technology. She notes that it is often “the speed of development that causes our discomfort with tech.” After absorbing a richness of perspective from her interviewees, Kirin concludes that “firm roots in history will provide a steady foundation for this evolution” of technology that each of us lives through.
What about you? Has the barrage of modern technology left you spinning, isolated, or frustrated? One way to better manage today’s technology is to get a big-picture view. And the only people who can help you do that are those who have lived through more technological advances than you have — your elders!
Here are three ways they can help.
Context, Encouragement, and Wisdom
First, your elders can give you context. Until you place something in its larger context, you won’t fully understand it. Seeing today’s tech as part of a larger landscape built on the technology of the past will give you context in your own life.
For example, my friend Dorothy was once “the voice with a smile” when she worked as a switchboard operator. Hearing about her job informs my own view of phone communication. An actual human had to once connect one person to another so they could talk on the phone. These days, many of us would prefer to text than call. Though it’s tempting to communicate via text, we should try whenever possible to connect with a phone call. We too can be the voice with a smile for someone.
Second, your elders can give you encouragement. Quite simply, they’ve had a lot more practice navigating technologies than we have. Listening to their experiences and perspectives will educate and encourage us.
It can be stressful and confusing to keep up with the dizzying pace of technological innovation today. Prior to the industrial revolution, innovation in technology moved at a human pace, dictated by the men and women who shaped and used various tools for their craft. Now we have teams at countless tech companies around the world actively updating current tech and introducing new tech. It can be hard to keep up. Learning how our elders coped with technological advances will encourage us in our own journey.
Finally, your elders can give you wisdom. Part of being a tech boss today is learning to manage your relationship with technology. We have more information available to us today than at any other time in history. But the wisdom to sift through all the information and make healthy choices? That’s not as easy to come by. In sharing their insights about technology, our elders can give us wisdom to make appropriate choices about tech, whether it’s deleting a social media account, finding a lower-tech solution to a problem, or deciding how much personal information to give to a tech company.
In the end, technology is all about you — your creativity, your story, your resilience. Although technology brought us together and we often talked about technology, Dorothy and I were just two humans sharing the road for a while, exchanging stories and learning from each other. Seek out your elders too, and listen to their stories about technology. They may not have all the latest gadgets, but they have something much more valuable — a grander view.