We may feel totally at ease with the new digital world we live in but we have a simple problem: our elders don’t even understand the term “digital” so they most emphatically do not feel comfortable in the new digital world we live in. Here, the term “elders” means not only our parents but also our grandparents.
It behooves us to understand what was radical and innovative when they were in their twenties and thirties to fully grasp how radical our workaday world must seem to them. Television was a radical departure from radio but it didn’t challenge their imagination at the core. Satellite communication, GPS, email, the internet and the massive connectivity of modern life do challenge our parents and grandparents at their core.
This does not mean that our elders can’t use a cell phone or a remote. It means that the broadly digital world seems to have passed them by and they don’t understand why.
Speak a Common Language
Our challenge is to find language and images that they can understand not just so they can feel more comfortable in the brave new world but also so they and we can have mutually interesting conversations. In his landmark book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Robert N. Pirsig explained that everything we understand is understood as an analogy to something we had previously understood as an analogy in itself.
So, to help our grandparents understand digital communication we need to find analogies that are closer to their field of experience.
A Common Experience
Perhaps our elders can best understand the term “digital” by comparing it to a casino online. Our elders enjoyed long weekends in Las Vegas before the massive explosion of smallish casinos all over the landscape. So being able to place bets at an online casino is not far from their range of experience.
To use the internet you don’t have to know how it works. You have to be able to accept that the world that they grew up in was almost entirely physical. Ours is also physical but the physical entities are not physical in the classical manner. Regular land-line telephones work well here as an analogy. How does a voice “travel” across wires to be heard thousands of miles away almost instantly?
It is the string and paper cup telephone of birthday parties wrought technologically sophisticated. Our grandparents accepted the truth of telephone conversations so they can also accept the internet; the information on the internet also flows through wires.
The big difference between old fashioned telephones and the internet is the vast amount of space available to the internet. The internet occupies a place called cyberspace which correlates well with the vastness of outer space. Once again, here is an analogy understandable to the digitally less sophisticated.
Television came in grainy images on a tiny screen through a giant tube. The digitally enhanced graphics of modern computer games is simply the refined technology that was welcomed into our grandparents’ homes way back in the late 1940’s.
Digital is Domesticated Data
The digital age is actually just another in many waves of technologically driven innovative ages. Humans domesticated many things that we take completely for granted: fire, smelting, agriculture, animals, and environments.
The domestication of fire led to heating in winter, to the beginnings of industry, and to cooking. The oil and gas discoveries of the 19th century came directly out of the domestication of fire: the discoverers were looking for newer and cheaper ways to create fire. The fire within an internal combustion engine is little different than the fire that propels a jet plane at 1000 kph. Neither would be possible without the knowledge that fire is heat and speed and thrust and that the search for more refined ways to produce heat, speed, and thrust has led to major discoveries.
Wires can carry many things from electricity to bits of information. The use of wires in the computer age is the result of researches studying what else can move through wires. The satellite era of communication is the answer to how we can replicate wires without using wires.
The domestication of plant food brought about agriculture in ever-increasing scale. Today’s big agriculture is the natural outgrowth of farming with a beast of burden pulling the plow.
We domesticated trees to create parchment which has led to writing which led to literacy which led to printing. Desktop printing is the representative hallmark of the digital age. Trees also gave us furniture. We domesticated sand to create glass. We domesticated iron ore to give us steel.
All of these advances have been relatively easy to accept. They represent a continuum of physical advances. Now we have domesticated space; the very air we breathe. We should be able to accept these advances by simply realizing that the digital age continues to find things that can pass through the air
And when waves pass through the air carrying information in almost instantaneous communication, we call the air cyberspace.
We need to respectfully realize that our grandparents—and even our parents—are feeling somewhat lost in the digital age. By referencing changes that they have already come to accept and even take for granted we can help ease their way into cyber-sophistication.