When I was little and wanted something from my parents, I would sweetly compliment right before asking. It’s foolproof (maybe you’ve tried it). The roles have since reversed. “Honey, you’re so talented with computers,” my mom smiles. “Can you please help me attach this file?”
My mother is a smart woman. She taught me to read plays by acting them out, to love history by recounting it from the perspective of the wives of late world leaders. She helped write the Constitution of American Samoa and jokes that we should always call her “Founding Mother.”
There was a rhythm to my homework in high school, always the staccato of her two index fingers poking awkwardly around the united states of the keyboard: central H, up north to E, down a country road to N, straight westward to C, north again E. Hence, she typed. She has, in the meantime, graduated to using both her index and middle fingers now when necessary, but still handwrites her thoughts and notes and lists and letters. She is appalled at the “synonym” function on Microsoft Word; before writing, she arms herself with her treasure chest: the Highly Selective Thesaurus.
She pledges her allegiance to the typewriter and how it made such a lovely sound as she typed her best thoughts. To me, the Macbook keyboard is a natural progression; the typewriter was her training wheels.
So why is it so hard for her to learn how to attach a file? I am certain this task is much easier than the bar exam. I am more certain that attaching a file is much easier than being a mother. But here I am, asking myself a question that daughters and sons and granddaughters and grandsons have asked themselves since the beginning of time: why is it so hard for our elders to grasp this tiny innovation?
Before computers, our parents had calculators, and before that, our grandparents had pencils and paper and numbers and probably believed the future would always have a place for people who memorized their multiplication tables. Before iTunes, our parents had cassettes, our grandparents had gramophones, and their parents probably thought it was crazy to think something as transformative, loud, and transcendent as music could ever fit into something so small as a pocket. Before texting, our parents wrote notes in class, and our grandparents might not have been able to read, but if they wanted love to cross continents in wartime, they found their ways. They probably did not think their grandchildren would be yelled at for not immediately informing their parents of their arrival at a friend’s house down the street. Before bullet trains and minivans, the Model T was our grandparents’ best hope for visiting somewhere far, or miles and miles and miles of the sea, and if they wanted to get somewhere, they used a compass. And if you told any of them about drivers’ licenses these days, they would probably think you’re crazy to let a 16-year-old operate such a deadly machine.
Innovation is pretty wild, once we ask about it. I am drawn to a memory of explaining the keyboard to a thirteen-year-old who is learning to type. Rizuana is my student at an after-school program in India and I gently place her fingers:
a – s – d – f – j – k – l – ;
She makes no mistakes for almost the entire lesson, but towards the end, types “aaa,” instead of “aa.” I therefore introduce to her the “backspace” and the “delete.” She looks at me, bewildered. “But why are there two ways of making the letters disappear? This makes no sense.”
I have no answer.
Rizuana is not my elder, nor did she have the typewriter training wheels. The first time she switched on a computer was October 10, 2011, which also happened to be Columbus Day. More than one person was credited with a world-shifting Discovery: as I pushed the “on” button, white letters appeared on black screen, melting and crashing and fading and switching into a blue-green Windows welcome. She, along with a few other students, looked on enthusiastically. I explained that they too could turn on the machine. I told them not to worry, that the screen will change from black to blue and that’s ok. We turned it off; it shifted from blue to black. Rizuana asked, “so does it change from blue to black or black to blue? This computer keeps changing its mind.”
She held my hand as she tried right-click and left-click; after a few minutes, she’d mastered the click trick. At fifteen minutes, she told me “a — s — d — f ” and by the end of one week, she recited the entire keyboard.
If Rizuana had grown up in the United States, she would have been exposed to the computer much earlier. It took her all of five minutes to go from confused to confident about her ability to type and click. At thirteen, she’s not yet used to the-way-things-are and, if we take her agility with typing as an example, she’s completely open and ready to learn the-way-things-might-be.
My mother, however, feels as connected to her paper as her pen feels. I think she will continue to type with two fingers. I think she will continue to ask me to attach her files. I think she will continue to save every single email, just in case. She saves paper copies of invitations and letters and report cards; corresponding emails represent the same sorts of memories.
So yes, maybe it takes my mother a little while to figure out that five thousand thoughtfully crafted words can be hidden while you close your eyes one moment, and reappear the second someone on another continent opens theirs.
I am sitting with my mother as she searches for the pixelated paperclip to click, for her document on the desktop. She knows to expect the “continue” button, but pauses, her brow furrowed like when she reads the headlines in the morning, or a book that references something she doesn’t know, or when there is not enough milk her in coffee.
“Azza, it’s blue. Is that bad? Did I break it?” I tell her no, when the button turns blue it is okay, most of the time, I think. No the computer is not broken, but again, I have no answer.
I am not a Luddite. I am, after all, typing these words and separating them with these virtual punctuation marks. However, there is something both universal and timeless about the way we see technology through an ever-evolving lens: whether that lens looks like bifocals or Google Glass, we will always and forever have to explain the latest newfangled gadget to our elders’ more ancient ears. Perhaps they will catch on (my grandparents now use FaceTime more than I). Perhaps they won’t. Perhaps they will stick to pay phones or letters with stamps or multiplication tables instead of iPhones with apps that serve all those functions.
Perhaps I even recognize this in myself. While I prefer scissors and glue and frames for my photos, my sister tried to teach me online photo collages. While I prefer having a printed train ticket, my brother tried to teach me the new NJ Transit mobile ticket. I have not tried Uber or Pinterest. Every one of us sticks to our own versions of theway-things-are as we go through our daily rituals and traditions. So I hope, at least after pondering, that I have a bit more patience. After all, the printed page or illuminated screen on which we read this piece was, at some point, to someone older, a seriously confusing innovation.