RFD Maine — Old age versus the Digital Age

By Tom Seymour | Oct 09, 2012

Although I officially became a senior citizen about one month ago, I don’t feel old. In fact, looking in the mirror, my features don’t seem much different from what they were 10 or even 15 years ago. My ability to learn difficult musical compositions appears to have grown more pronounced over the years and my general mental acuity remains unimpaired. I’m still fairly sharp and all in all, a viable, contributing member of society. And yet, to some degree, I’m a dinosaur and well out of the loop.

Computers and digital devices have become my bugaboo. Even the common telephone is no longer user-friendly. Televisions and radios require lengthy study before I can even figure out how to turn them on. I’m a victim, a victim of the digital age.

Computer crash

Sooner or later every computer will crash, so when it happens we shouldn’t become too upset. If buying a new computer were all it took to get on the e-road again, it wouldn’t bother me that much. But unfortunately, a new computer usually means a new program and that means learning how to use that new program, something that seems more difficult each time around.

My computer, the one loaded with Windows XP, crashed this summer. The computer wizard was able to transfer my files to a new machine. But since Microsoft recently announced that it will soon cease sending updates for XP, it made sense to go to their newer operating system, Windows 7. It didn’t seem that two programs from the same company could differ greatly, but that was only wishful thinking.

It took four or five trips back to the computer store to get me rolling. Among other things, I could not call up my old files, could not decipher how to save and send photos and was unable to get online. As it turned out, my satellite thingy, the little black box from Verizon, was faulty. The company sent me a replacement.

It’s been almost three months now and while I can perform most needed tasks on my new computer, I cannot do much of anything the same way twice. The simplest operation has become terribly complicated. When quizzed about this, the guy in the store said that Windows 7 was designed to be more user-friendly, but he felt that it fell short of the mark. That, it seems to me, was the understatement of the year.

Help me

Back in my younger days, most every device you bought came with an owner’s manual. Many of these were written by people who spoke and wrote in English as a second language and consequently, the manuals were confusing. But at least they had pictures and with careful study, a person of average intelligence could assemble and learn to use almost anything. Not so with modern electronic devices.

While new computers do come with user’s manuals, the manuals only cover the most basic operations. As for learning how to navigate in any particular program, the makers have thoughtfully added a “help” section to their toolbar. But again, these help menus have little practical value.

Somehow, every time I go to a help menu for a specific problem and scroll down through the oodles of topics therein, the thing fails to address my problem.

And then we have online help menus. Never, ever, has any online help menu helped me to solve the simplest problem. In my estimation, all help menus are totally useless.

Digital publishing

My newspaper career began 40 years ago, as the Waldo County correspondent for the Bangor Daily News. Back then, everyone used hard copy, that is, stories on paper. You could hold a news story in your hand and read it. These were typed up on a typewriter.

Photos were done with black-and-white film. In order to get my news and other features to Bangor, I had to meet the Bangor Bus at the bus stop in Belfast, which was in front of Carbone’s Store near the center of town. This sounds tedious, but it wasn’t any problem for me and in fact, never, ever, did the paper lose a story or photo. It all worked out just fine.

Contrast that with today, when we type on computers and send our stories electronically. I have worked with magazines that routinely lose both stories and photos. Fortunately for me, most of my pieces and also photos get saved to a folder in my computer, just for safety’s sake. This means loading up my electronic storage space with material that will probably never get used again. But everything needs saving still, on the off chance that someone will lose something or other.

Track changes

"Track changes," two words that make me cringe. Some book publishers, including one I write for, have taken to electronic submissions and also electronic revisions. To do this, the editor sends the e-copy and that shows editor questions. Answering these questions requires opening the thing and turning on something called “track changes.” If left on, all author answers will appear after editor questions.

I recently spent several days doing just that. After clicking on track changes, the program was supposed to turn on and stay on. But after sending my copy back, the editor told me that I had not left track changes on. She apologized for not making it clear how to use that feature. So my work was in vain and needs redoing. Ask me how much I like this track changes feature. But better plug your ears and also, send young children out of the room, because my response won’t be pretty.

GPS device

I am a Registered Maine Guide and, as such, am proud to have map and compass skills. But silly me, maps and compasses are passé now, having been supplanted by a nifty little hand-held electronic device known as a GPS unit.

Recently, a big-name manufacturer sent me a GPS unit to review for a magazine. After unpacking the thing, it took one hour to figure out how to turn it on. The thing has no off-on button, only a little embossed sign in an inconspicuous place, consisting of a small circle with a line through it centered in a larger circle. It is impossible to see in poor light and I only managed to locate it by feel.

This device came with some spartan instructions, all of which were 100 percent ambiguous and therefore useless. I asked two different people for help in figuring out the device. Both of these men have their own GPS units. But neither could figure out how to use mine. So if two knowledgeable computer guys cannot divine how to operate the unit, how can someone such as me, a computer-challenged unfortunate, ever have a hope of making any headway?

Too bad, but the only answer for me is to send the device back. I would prefer not to review a product at all rather than write a bad review.

The rest

Stereos, DVD players, radios and just about everything else have become non-user-friendly. I cannot program my device to record a movie and in fact have difficulty in saving a radio station to a preset mode. Virtually everything I do with these devices amounts to no more than poke-and-hope, a sad commentary on this brave new world of digital devices.

But this story will end on a happy note. Radio Shack still manufactures a radio that instead of pushing buttons to change channels, utilizes an old-fashioned radio dial. This is one of my most cherished possessions. Imagine my delight on a Saturday night as I slowly turn the dial to catch some distant station. I have in the past even gotten WSM from Wheeling, W.Va.

Old age versus the digital age. The digital age may win, but we oldsters are not down for the count yet. Not as long as we can cling to our maps, compasses and old-fashioned radios.

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