I was at my monthly meeting of SSA (Silver Surfers Anonymous) on Tuesday. When it came to my turn to bear my soul, it just all flowed out, so I thought I would share it with you. I started with the obligatory confession: 'I am a silver surfer'. For the uninitiated, that's an older person who spends a lot of time using the internet usually hopelessly hooked on search engines and online shopping.
When you embrace all that techy stuff in your senior years, you also expose all the gaps in your knowledge. I had to admit to the whole room that TikTok remains a bit of a mystery. Has it any connection to 'Tic Tac', the sign language bookies used to use at race meetings in the old days? And as for WhatsApp, I keep thinking of the Bugs Bunny cartoons when I hear that word. How many messaging platforms do you need?
But the main thrust of what I had to say was about how my silver surfing impacts on my communication skills. We have two grown-up daughters. The older one and I communicate every morning regular as clockwork. We don't speak, we just share our Wordle score for the day. My other daughter stays less than 100 yards away but we communicate mainly on Messenger. Her cryptic requests often baffle me and I end up phoning her to work out what she means. We have a family group chat that definitely shows up the generational divide. When someone sends a message it usually results in a torrent of responses back and forth from the younger members, leaving this oldie with a severe case of pinging in the ears. It may be my age but if someone tells me something and doesn't ask a question, I don't feel any need to reply (not even a thumbs up).
My wife and I used to sit at nights watching the TV. At least we were both watching the same programme. Now we sit with the TV as background and our heads buried in our iPads.
But the more I unburdened myself, the more I realised that being a silver surfer isn't all that bad. My sister moved to New Zealand over 50 years ago and our communication was abysmal for 40 of these years. We were each as bad as the other. Now, thanks to the internet, we keep in touch regularly. I even know everything my New Zealand nephews and their families are up to thanks to the power of Facebook.
When gaps in my knowledge or memory are cruelly exposed, I used to resolve to find out the answer by going to the library or asking someone next time I saw them. It seldom happened. Now a quick Google search and there you have it. Memories of times and places from our past are brought back to life online in just a few clicks.
I could tell my audience was growing restless as I warmed to the many advantages of the internet. This was not what they wanted to hear. I finished with a triumphant 'shout out' to all my favourite online apps: menus, banking, shopping, taxi booking, theatre box offices, travel information, weather and those wonderful TV, film, radio and music streaming services. That's it! I'm not going back – unless there's a virtual SSA meeting you can join on Zoom.
Last week, BT came to upgrade my WiFi – it did not go well but telling you about it would be like taking coal to Newcastle. After the upgrade, I was left with no computer access and no telephone other than my mobile. Suddenly, I found myself a non-person in this computer-mad world, sustained only by my mobile phone and the apps on that, which rely on WiFi, did not work in my house, although they clicked on as I walked down the street.
I was horrified by just how much of my everyday life had been consumed by the internet and how helpless it left me. I got things fixed but not by BT. Contacting was impossible for obvious reasons. I called my own engineer on my mobile and he fixed the problem but it was £120 down the drain for his time and the modem cable BT and Open Reach should have supplied.
The past does get looked at through a golden haze but the days before the computer and the mobile phone were not as bad as people now think. Then I could have gone to my nearest bank branch – now a wine bar – or written a cheque if I needed money. Cash machines are very convenient but you cannot deal with problems on them. When you had a landline telephone, there was an operator to talk to when you wanted help, not a robot which only deals with the pre-set questions it has been programmed to 'understand'.
If I wanted to book a gallery or buy a theatre ticket, there was somebody in a box office to call. If I wanted to see my doctor, there was a living receptionist to answer the call, not that robot saying all their operatives are busy, my call is important to them and will be answered shortly. Plus, of course, that I was number 36 or whatever in the queue. I should live that long.
The horror stories about how people, sick, disabled or alone are being affected by, for example, the behaviour of the energy suppliers do chill the blood. Mine was not all that dreadful – I had a mobile and the money to pay for the work needed. But it was still one of those wake up moments – my way of life had become subsumed by the age of the internet.
The past is a foreign country where they did things differently but there are times I wish I was still living in it – even at the age I am now. Looking back, life under both Harolds, Ted or the Iron Lady seems infinitely preferable to life today under Rishi and Meta.
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