Fifty Years of Technology

My first public relations job after college came with a workstation equipped with an IBM Selectric Mag Card Executive machine. In the 1970s this was the equivalent of leaving a simple bicycle outside only to find a stick shift European automobile locked to the bike rack on your return. 

Marquette University’s College of Journalism still used manual typewriters. The Milwaukee Journal where I did stringer reporting had manuals. I saw a few electronic typewriters, maybe even Selectric, during an internship. My first, professional job was with an engineering company owned by a husband and wife. I was their first PR department. The executive secretary presented with this $3,000 or more marvel said she would leave before she used the thing. Of course, the new college graduate was the logical place to stash a purchase that didn’t work out. 

The machine had a selection of font balls, so it was possible to jazz up a document. It had a magnetic storage card to store what seemed like an amazing amount of work, about one printed page. There was a correction ribbon. Overall, the start of desktop publishing. Except no one knew that phrase. 

I battled that machine for almost a year. Learning engineering lingo and understanding the company’s products was a steep curve for someone used to covering suburban governments for a newspaper or writing press releases and speeches for a healthcare nonprofit. The wife-owner was my manager, and she had all kinds of uses for the fancy typewriter including menus for her garden club, invitations for fundraising dinner parties, their son’s class papers. I spent hours and hours teaching myself how to use the fancy Selectric. I hated the machine, and the job.

Through decades of desktops and laptops, of cables and wi fi and Bluetooth, I’ve figured how to use the next generation of technology. I probably master about ten percent the capability of each computer, printer, or apps.

Last month I turned away from replacing a fitness tracker with another fitness tracker and bought an Apple Watch. It is an unbelievable piece of technology. I can receive and answer phone calls, text messages, alerts. It pings when it is time for me to breath, stand, move. I know the current temperature, air quality, and UV. Eventually I’ll figure out how to turn off some of those amazing, but useless, features and figure out why I can’t change to other albums in my account or listen to audiobooks when I walk. No rush. 

Grudgingly I should probably thank my first employer who threw me overboard into technology without a life jacket. 

A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

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Kids and Keyboards–A Dilemma

I recently read that Silicon Valley parents are concerned about how using cell phones, tablets, and computers in the classroom affects children’s development. Wait, what?!? The creators of the screens and software don’t want their children using them? The  New York Times article described how families across the country are reconsidering the role of technology in the classroom.

Whoa. I recall fundraising with the PTO so students at my sons’ school would have computers in the classroom. We wanted our kids to be ready for the world they’d be joining. When my nieces attended a Catholic high school in Ohio, they were given laptops to use with their school work.

Truth be told, even then I had misgivings about the amount of screen time my kids had. A recent conversation with neighbors, whose children grew up with mine, confirmed that I wasn’t alone. The other mothers—an artist, a human resources manager, and a psychologist—have all seen the downsides of too much screen time.

The artist was the first to mention the impact on creativity, but all of us  expressed similar concern. When consumed by screen use, children don’t have the opportunity to daydream aimlessly or use their imagination to invent games. The other mothers and I remembered that as kids, we made up goofy games that required imagination but little equipment—building a fort out of sofa cushions or raking leaves into piles that framed “rooms” in the yard.

Another effect we’ve all seen is underdeveloped social skills. While plenty of young adults are socially adept, some of the young adults we know are awkward in face-to-face conversations. They struggle when talking with people—in job interviews and when dealing with older coworkers. For some, in-person discussions are mistaken for disagreement and conflict, instead of the normal give and take of conversation. Texting and IM’ing are more comfortable. It’s easier for them to express their opinions with the distancing filter of a screen.

None of us were suggesting that children shouldn’t use computers or cell phones. Personally, I love my phone, tablet, and laptop and recognize that using technology is a vital part of modern life. However, being selective about when, where, and how much children use technology is important. Although our kids hated it, the other mothers and I limited the amount of time our kids spent using screens.

Limiting screens is an even greater challenge for today’s parents and teachers. Teachers struggle with the disruption of cell phones in the classroom. Parents now have to contend with the potential dangers of social media and the content of their children’s Internet searches. I feel fortunate my kids were older by the time social media was widespread. That was one problem I didn’t have to face.

A younger mother I know locks up her teenagers’ phones and computers at bedtime so they aren’t online or texting into the wee hours—they need their sleep, and she needs some peace of mind. If her kids’ grades slip, they lose phone privileges.

It’s disconcerting to realize that the very screens that we sought for our kids years ago could both expand their horizons and limit their potential. But just as we did, I am confident today’s parents will figure out a way to handle the challenges of technology.

Technology Work Around

Relatively low-cost technology including a reliable computer, makes freelance work possible for over 53 million Americans. It’s not enough to be able to use the old office suites, now there are multiple suites plus programs and apps. For many talented freelancers serving as their own IT department eats project, or personal, time when least appreciated.

My desktop computer began slowing down months before I was willing to accept it should be replaced or brought to a tech service group. The unit cost about $400 when I bought it on sale five years ago. The manufacturer still sells the exact same unit at a higher price. With confidence built on owning a new primary laptop, I decided to strip the desktop model to the manufacturer’s settings then reload what I needed. There seemed to be no downside unless you count relying on a couple of websites for total tech support.

About two hours later the desktop computer was back in working order and humming along as quickly as its old processer would allow. It isn’t fast, but better than good enough for writing and word processing. My tech confidence soared.

The devil is in the details that I haven’t been able to restore. While I know using the cloud to transfer data from the laptop to the desk unit may be the culprit, I haven’t been able to correct the annoyances. For example, I now have double entries in my contacts. A mess of old files found their way into my Dropbox. One email account doesn’t want to make itself visible. So I work around or ignore these issues and work on correcting them when there is time and energy.

Staying on top of technology is a challenge for many self-employed or retired people. I have a pair of role models that define expectations. My father managed technology fairly well into his eighties when motivated to learn about streaming services to follow his favorite baseball teams. We knew his cognitive skills were slipping when there were more calls for routine tech actions. My mother-in-law was ninety-one when she began struggling with printing photos from her iPhone and keeping up with hundreds of friends online.

Our smartphones and computers are a necessity of a full life. What will be more frightening to the Baby Boomers: giving up their car keys or losing the ability to schedule a Lyft?

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