In 2015 I drove 12,000 miles across America alone to interview our oldest living citizens. I wanted to understand how technology has changed our society and believed it would be the people who had lived what amounts to a lifetime ‘before’ tech who would have the answers. I wanted to collect a diverse cross-section of American culture, and so, instead of simply interviewing elders local to me, I fundraised on Kickstarter, put my life on hold, and rented a car.
Those I interviewed are members of the Greatest Generation and were born before 1945. My conversations with these 100 elders gave me so much more than I had expected. Not only did I learn where some of my generational blind spots are, but I also was given intimate stories about the Dust Bowl, racism in the South, and how scary electricity was when it first was popularized. Several elders recall friends and relatives who wouldn’t visit their homes because they feared electricity would leap from the sockets.
This fear of new technology reminds me of the concern of many regarding autonomous vehicles. Each generation seems to have its own threshold regarding technological acceptance.
I also heard a lot of trepidation from our elders, but not for the reasons we have created for them. Our elders actually loved tech. They think it’s incredible. They watched the moonwalk in awe, had knee replacements that weren’t possible when they were children, and get to meet their newborn grandchildren born 100 miles away within minutes via Skype.
Their worry comes from concern for their youngest relatives. What they have noticed we have also started scientifically confirming — children who receive a smartphone early in life(sometimes as early as 2 years old) have a very difficult time relating to the rest of the world.
It’s not just that our elders want to communicate with us and don’t have the slang or tech capabilities to do so. It’s that these children will someday be adults, becoming politicians, lawyers, doctors, and more, but they might not be able to fully empathize with others. They become so used to interacting with a thing in their impressionable early years that they can’t function without it.
So many of the elders I interviewed asked what happens if the lights go out? Will we know how to garden, build, and interact without these little devices? Our elders don’t want us to abandon tech, they want us to know both sides. As the saying by Santayana goes, those who don’t remember history are bound to repeat it. If we aren’t rooted in how things developed up to this point, how can we make good decisions about our future?
My book records our history, experiences, and culture as lived in the 20th century. It also contains a message of intentionality from our elders. Choose how you use technology, don’t allow it to control you. They also conveyed a message of hope: So much excitement yawns before us. How exciting to be young at this time!
By Veronica Kirin
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