Build. Hack. Play. It's just what we do.

Supposedly, women don’t like others to know how old they are. I don’t care who knows, and in fact, for the purpose at hand, it’s important to make it clear that I was born at the end of 1950 and am therefore... you do the math.

I’ve been “online” for over 30 years now (signed into CompuServe in 1983). I’ve seen a lot of things change over time, mostly for the better. But one thing that has gotten worse over time is the assumption that older people are either hopeless Luddites, or they just don’t get it when it comes to computers or other gadgets, and in any case there’s just no use trying to explain. “Grandma” has become a synonym for “clueless.”

Frankly, it’s the younger people who don’t get it, and I’d like to explain why.

Anyone who was born prior to, oh, about 1960, grew up in an era where gadgets were both expensive and fragile—and for the most part, they belonged to someone else. Your parents bought the record player, the radio and the TV, and the phone belonged to the phone company and there was only one phone per house, usually mounted on the kitchen wall. The notion of “personal electronics” didn’t really exist, unless someone had a lot of money to buy a transistor radio (and those things cost a small fortune when they were new and it was a rare day indeed that any child would be trusted with one, lest it end up in pieces).


So, if you broke something or messed something up in any way (and believe me, it was easy to break and mess things up in those days) you caught hell from its owner, first thing, and then maybe it could be fixed or maybe it couldn’t, or maybe it would cost too much to get it fixed so it wasn’t, and it was ALL YOUR FAULT. Is it any wonder that people who were conditioned to be extra cautious lest they mess things up and catch hell for it are still reluctant to do anything that might mess things up?

And then there’s the terminology. Regardless of age, people understand things far better when they’re explained in familiar terms. For example, when I was studying to get my ham radio license, voltage and current were always, always explained in terms of water through a pipe, which didn’t make sense to me. Then someone explained it as potential and kinetic energy, and since I understood that kind of physics I was good to go from then on.

OK, OK, so what’s the point? The point is that most older people are neither clueless nor stupid (just like most younger people). They’re working with a different set of experiences. If Grandma doesn’t “get” her digital remote no matter how often you explain it to her, it might be because your explanation doesn’t make sense to her. If Grandpa doesn’t want to try something new on the computer, it might be because he’s afraid of breaking it beyond repair (something that doesn’t make sense to a younger person but is perfectly legitimate for someone who’d had the law laid down for years about how a kid had to keep his cotton-pickin’ mitts off Dad’s hi-fi). If Aunt Mildred can’t figure out her cell phone, it might be because she spent over half her life with rotary dial phones (because push button phones cost extra).

If you were put in front of the technology from an earlier age, it’s likely that someone would have to explain it to you (and you might break it, trying to learn). If the person doing the explaining responded by getting exasperated and excoriating young people in general for being clueless or impatient or stupid, instead of trying to find common ground for understanding, how would you feel?


Would you know, without being told, how to work a keypunch machine, or how to keep records from getting scratched and dusty, or how to set up a tonearm and stylus and calibrate a record player’s speed, or how to tune a crystal radio? Heck, would you know how to work a skate key or thread a reel-to-reel tape recorder? That’s all stuff I knew how to do when I was younger, and I wouldn’t put anyone down for not knowing it all today.

If you want Grandma to understand, try speaking her language for a change. And if you don’t know how to do that, maybe you should get Grandma to explain it to you.

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