Seniors and Technology

July 19th, 2011

Back in March, we were glued to our televisions watching the earthquake-induced tsunami racing onto the shores of Northern Japan. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. It was fast. It was powerful. It was engulfing everything in its path. 

This is the way I feel about the current technical revolution going on. It’s racing onto our lives with such fury that I can’t take it all in. It’s changing the landscape. It’s disrupting my comfort zone. It’s leaving me on the sidelines. Like Rip Van Winkle sleeping through a revolution, I’m waking up disoriented in a new world.

Let me identify myself. I am 85 years old and a retired Bishop in the United Methodist Church. I belong to the crowd that is often spoken of as “The Greatest Generation.” We were the change agents. We were the ones who reshaped the world. We were the ones that dared to explore space. We were the ones who dreamed beyond the boundaries and promoted thinking outside the box. 

My life has been filled with change. It boggles the mind to reflect upon the technical advances of the past 85 years. So what’s the big deal about the changes today and all the chatter about comfort zones? It is simply that a Pandora’s box has been opened exposing the world to new and unimagined things, changing things more drastically and at a much faster rate than other cultural changes we’ve seen.  

The game of football has changed, but they still have goal posts and a playing field of 100 yards. Basketball is a far different game, but the ball and the goals have not been compromised. But the field of technology has exploded. With the technical explosion the information reservoirs of the world have been exposed to everyone. What once was privilege to a few is now fair game for all. Never, in all of history, has so much been available to all. This newly exposed world is there for all who can manipulate the new technical devices.  

My cry is simple: Help!  

But let me be clear: I have no interest in being a geek, a guru, or a device junkie. I have no interest or need to be in constant contact with the world. The world goes along quite well without me monitoring it or it monitoring me. I cannot and will not compete with anyone for the grand prize of having the latest and the best. Besides, that is a never ending pursuit.

The fact remains, however, that I am losing ground. I am living and working in a world that is fast changing and I’m not keeping up. Before I am comfortable with one set of key strokes, another part of the world has gone “touch screen.”

A while ago I ventured a tiny bit further into the electronic waves with an electronic reader. My selection was a Nook–a child of Barnes & Noble. (Amazon has its version named Kindle.) I played with it a bit, and downloaded a couple of free books to decide if reading from a screen would suffice for a real book. For the most part, however, I just had a Nook for exploring some new opportunities.  

A couple of months ago, I was nudged a little deeper into the electronic waters with the announcement that the fall meeting of the Council of Bishops (which even retired bishops attend) would be a paperless meeting. All agendas and reports would be downloaded or sideloaded. This was new. Those with high-tech devices, laptops, iPads, iPhones and other similar devices had no problem. All in a day! Others of us wondered how we would fare.

With my first generation version of the Nook, I approached the meeting with a fair degree of comfort, but I knew that many of my active bishop colleagues would be light years ahead of me. The Council’s Administrative staff was great. They provided a help desk that was fabulous—no condemnations, no fretting, no stereotyping. For this first foray into a paperless meeting, the staff sideloaded the needed material onto devices for anyone that needed it. Many were far beyond this and didn’t need their help. My Nook served me well, but those with the color, touch-screen Nooks did better than I did with my earlier version. I now have the newer version.

I am not sure where or if this new Nook will fit into my work. I enjoy the ease of moving material from one place to another and enlarging or decreasing the size of fonts. I also have learned that in addition to loading books and newspapers and magazines onto my small device, I can also load anything from my computer onto it. This means I can have at my disposal whatever information I have on my computer hard drive. 

I do not know what the future holds for my electronic adventures. “Smart” devices are not yet a comfort zone for me and I feel no need to be tethered to them. But I still have work to do. I write. I still occasionally preach. I teach Sunday school regularly. I am still “on call.” At the moment I am looking into the iPad and the iPhone. Which will it be? At this moment I don’t know, but I imagine it will be the one that will enable me to do my work more effectively. At this point, that is all that matters. 

I recently saw a sign on the highway with flashing lights indicating construction ahead and a picture of a workman with his work hat and a shovel in his hand. The sign said, “Gimme a break!” 

That’s a good sign for us clergy-types to think about. In the past few months I have seen an opened laptop computer on the pulpit for the sermon. I have seen an entire funeral, including the commendation at the grave, read from an iPad. I have seen a church leadership meeting dominated by high-tech cell phones. Many among my generation would cry, “Gimme a break!”

In our churches, there are many like me who didn’t grow up with present-day technology, and some of them have no interest in chasing it today. Seeds of all kinds have to be planted and nurtured, and that holds true when introducing some of the electronic devices of our day. No question, they are good. They are here to stay—at least until next year’s version. Flashing the latest and the brightest before our people may reveal our competence in facing the new day, but hopefully we will still be mindful of those who may be technically lacking but yet yearn for a deeper relationship with the Lord.

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