“That sounds pretty stupid to me” – why chats with my 80-year-old grandma are the best antidote to tech hype

Adam Fletcher 2012-11-01 8

Adam Fletcher tells us why chats with his grandmother give him the freshest perspectives on the tech scene and make him question whether he really *does* need that monthly subscription service for butter…

GranMy favourite person to talk technology with is my 80-year-old Grandma. It’s not that it’s especially rewarding because she’s got some deep, wholesome insight, on account of the fact that she never has, nor ever will use a computer. It’s not that I think her world view should be somehow pickled, as a technologically humble, wholesome snack for future generations to enjoy. I’m genetically indebted, not delusional.

Information is plentiful, attention is scarce

It’s because that when I’m demoing her some stupid new app involving a location-aware talking teddy bear or trying to explain to her the use cases of services like Amen or Loopcam, she actually pays attention! Attention. The most sacred of all substances. Hers is still intact.

While the rest of us have had ours bludgeoned by increasingly invasive technology, until we become twitchy little bespectacled Johnny 5s “INPUT! NEED INPUT!” (Warning! This is a cultural reference to the 1980s, you may need to consult with an elder of your tribe). No, she really just sits there, doing one thing at once, giving it her full attention.

Watching the snooker. Staring out the window. Solving the crossword. If she doesn’t know the answer to the crossword, she puts down her pen – and this is going to kill you – and she just sits there and thinks. Just right there in her chair. I know, it’s adorable. She doesn’t Google it. She can’t!

Let’s go caneoing! Step 1 – buy a canoe!

You know what happens when she doesn’t know an answer? She just doesn’t know. The little answer box just sits there, blank. It brings me a certain kind of evil joy. We used to work for knowledge, I see that now. Of course she can ask someone or I think she keeps these lumps of dead tree in a cupboard, inked with so-called facts. People used to sell them door-to-door, like bibles and vacuum cleaners.

They were called encyclopaedias and prohibitively expensive for a lot of people. They are not to be confused with the ramblings of the intellectually stunted, found on sites like Yahoo! Answers or those content farm sites that make everything a list and it’s all written in a peppy voice designed to disguise a fundamental lack of knowledge:

How To Canoe!

Step 1 – “Let’s go canoeing! First, get a canoe. You could try looking in a canoe shop!”

Thanks Internetz.

Arthur C Clarke, magic and straddling the digital divide

You are probably aware of the quote from Arthur C. Clarke about any sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic? My Nan proves this. When I tell her I make money on the Internet from websites, she has the same kind of look on her face that I have when I watch a magician saw a woman in half – surprise, disbelief, suspicion, curiosity as to when he might grow out of magic and go get a real job.

Her generation is the last of their kind, at least in the developed world. My generation, well, we still remember phone books and arranging a time to meet someone, and if they weren’t there at the agreed time, they just weren’t there. But we got the internet in time (my family got their first PC when I was 14).

We get it; we can use these new technologies, but we’re behind, way behind the ease with which the digital natives of the generation below us picks this stuff up, which is actually an incorrect phrasing since for them, there is no put down, nor pick up. It’s just there, where it always was, ubiquitous.

With my generation, we’re straddling the divide, able to remember the simplicity of before, but appreciating the benefits on offer now. If it were a race, while not in the lead, we’re at least still at the races, chugging along as best we can, trying to keep up.

Fake memories, holographic holidays,  frozen space yoghurt

I don’t want to glorify isolation. My Gran regularly complains that every service is digital now, that she’s tired of being offered discounts for doing things like paying bills online, or having to explain for the thousandth time that she doesn’t have an e-mail address or mobile phone number.

In five years, ten years, technology moves so far I have no idea if she can actually avoid it, or if she’ll need to reluctantly go get some chip thing or embedded smart device thingy, just so she can do some simple mundane thing like paying her gas bill while the rest of us are off using them on frivolous things like fake memories, holographic holidays, or frozen space yoghurt.

Solving problems for those in the world with the least problems

When I ask her what she thinks about whatever shiny new piece of technology I’m excited about this week, she’ll contemplate, then often answer one of two things:

1. Why would people want to do that?
2. That sounds pretty stupid to me

On the surface, these conversations may sound about as enlightening as asking a blind person to describe the difference between yellow and a deep amber, but actually, I find them the opposite, they remind me that technological progress [forward or onward movement towards a destination] is not always real progress [development towards an improved or more advanced condition]. That just because we can, doesn’t mean we always should. That if half of all these new services, apps, and startups disappeared in an instant, it really wouldn’t matter all that much.

The attention of the media in this space is often incorrectly aligned to that half. The problems those businesses solve are often the problems of a tiny percentage of the world’s population, coincidentally the percentage with the least problems. I don’t want to preach now, because I’m not worthy to do so, this half absolutely includes 100 per cent of my small businesses. I create novelty trinkets. Maybe the three years I gave to those could have been better given in a world where 1/8 people go hungry each night. Maybe.

Poverty is hackable too

Am I altruistic enough for that? Probably not. Maybe not full-time anyway, maybe as my 20 per cent project. Maybe there’s space for our collective entrepreneurial brain power to delivering more returns to that group of the earth’s shareholders with the least voting rights. Poverty must also be hackable, right? I’m not talking about charity here, that’s important too but it’s often help 1.0, the purely symptom-fixing kind. Especially for one-on-one businesses such as Tom’s. I’m talking about high-scale, high-profit, help-people-work-out-of-poverty startups. A fanciful idea, sure. Maybe they don’t exist, I don’t know, I didn’t try to find one.

Outside of the tech bubble there are normal people, trying to get by as best they can, doing real jobs, there are also people like my Grandma, sitting solving crosswords. It’s anchoring to spend time with them. I’ll be at some tech conference or meetup here in Berlin and someone will tell me what they’re working on and it’ll be some device for measuring humidity from your balcony, or a monthly subscription service for butter and on one level I’ll be discussing with them rationally, as a butter consumer, and on another there’s a quiet little voice whispering in my ear “that sounds pretty stupid to me.”

Image credit: Flickr user Jamiesrabbits

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