Unsettled In My Ways

Once there was an expression that went: ‘they’re set in their ways.’ This expression would often be used to describe individuals, nationalities, and cultures. When describing an individual who was ‘set’ in his or her ‘ways’, it denoted a maturity that, having been reached, allowed him or her to settle into their knowledge-base and neither add nor subtract from that gestalt for the rest of that person’s life.

I personally experienced this in the form of my (late) paternal grandmother, who insisted on denoting African-Americans by the term ‘darkies’. Many were the occasions when I’d attempt to explain that hate-speech was no longer acceptable, even at the dinner table. My gentle reproaches fell on deaf ears—grandma was ‘set in her ways’ and after eighty years of using her own vocabulary with no problems, she was not about to modify her speech, at her advanced age, to please others.

I would love to be ‘set in my ways’, if only it were still an option. I have been ‘set in my ways’ a hundred times in the last fifty-something years. I became a minicomputer expert—they were replaced by desktop PCs; I became an expert in MS Basic—it was replaced with dBase—and dBase was replaced by object-oriented, WYSIWYG, windows-based GUI Visual-dBase (and C++); I got used to pin-feed, multi-part ‘green-bar’ printer paper used by matrix- and band- printers—they were replaced with sheet-fed, ink-jet, color printers. Each half-year, at least one of my skills became obsolete—and a new manual, or guide, or user-instruction needed reading—and many of those early support documents were awkward, opaque translations from the original Japanese!

From standalone, to LAN, to DSL-internet, to Broadband—from point-to-point-Modems, to ‘bulletin-board’ file transfers, to dial-up web browsing, to HTTP/FTP over a T-1 via ISPs—from free-for-all systems design, to off-the-shelf apps with differing file-formats, to ‘Suites’ of Office Applications that permit shared-online documents and spreadsheets, etc.—all these things happened in tiny increments, sold as enhancements, upgrades, new versions, standardized versions, beta versions, and more powerful, smaller hardware with exponentially greater capacity and speed.

After twenty years of riding that wave, I had been kept too busy to go to college and get a bachelor degree. But as I left that job, the world suddenly decided to overturn the old wisdom, the notion that a college degree wasn’t necessarily a proof of intelligence—or even of education. Now I found myself, a capable office-manager, customer-service manager, and systems administrator of nearly twenty years, unemployable because I had no degree!

I still have no degree. My atrophied brain, my frayed CNS, and the PTSD that, in office drones, is called ‘burnout’—all these changes make a degree, at this present moment, a futile goal. But I tried the Continuing Ed. Courses, back before my liver transplant. And I tried the online-courses, afterwards. In every case (and this was also true throughout my first seven colleges/universities, from before I joined the workforce) I ended up becoming an extra study guide or TA, the person who sometimes helps bridge the gap between the teacher and the denser students. Invariably the teacher asks me something along the lines of, “You seem to know more about this class than I do—why are you taking this course?” When I explain that I’m trying to get certified with a degree, and I need the credits, or the mandatory courses, whatever—then the profs would usually ask if I wouldn’t mind tutoring the other students. I even earned my tuition for two years at one Castleton State College, in Vermont, by doing work-study as a calculus tutor.

I have also had great success as a tutor for high school mathematics, English, and science—but that was long ago. I can only brag about past proficiencies—I have accomplished nothing of note in over ten years. But even unemployed and virtually house-bound, I still can’t become ‘set in my ways’. TV becomes Cable/Satellite becomes VOD becomes “hulu”. Windows goes from “Windows NT” to “Windows 2000” to “Windows XP” to “Windows 7”. Laptops become PDAs become I-Phones, I-Pods, I-Pads, etc. My old ‘dictation’ digital audio recorder has been replaced with my ‘newish’ digital-camera/video/audio recorder with USB connector and a charger that only takes three hours (I remember when it was 24-hours and still didn’t hold the charge as long). I have a 1 terabyte external drive no bigger than my wallet. And all these handhelds and peripherals come with another User’s Manual. Still, I’m lucky I’m not a gamer—my 24-year-old son has been gaming since he was a toddler and the changes and evolutions of both online gaming and social apps are even more frequent and arcane.

But forget about the electronics—let’s just look at their collateral effects. There was a time I dreamed of owning a bookstore—now, they are nearly extinct. When our children were babies, we bought an Encyclopedia Britannica, which took up more than a yard of shelf space. Encyclopedias are no longer printed on paper—and for good reason: (1) That’s a LOT of Paper, and (2) Changes happen every minute, every second in our present lifestyle—far too quickly for the deliberate and exacting scholarship of the old encyclopedias to keep up with. Phonebooks, also, are rarely used—as are retail stores. I saw a sign at the A&P last week, offering delivery of one’s online-shopping-list postings! Actually, that is as much a step back as a step forward—groceries were often delivered by the grocer’s stock-boy in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

The immense changes, the obsolescence of so much of Americana, the removal or transfer of old businesses and services to online sites—the cultural changes that occur almost daily make this life a far more changeable one than that of our parents and grandparents. Plus, at the other extreme end, our children are spinning off into internal, digital worlds that make our changes seem like clumsy pokes at the new texture and complexity of the Information Age.

The scurrying to keep up that most people my age are doing is only just enough to keep us from losing the thread of progress—and we know that if we let it all get too far ahead of us, we may never participate in modern society again! Doctors, Lawyers, all professionals are required to take ongoing, continuing education courses in their field—and read a great deal of professional journals, besides—just to stay current in their field. Our legal system is perpetually digesting new crimes into legislation in a valiant, but perhaps doomed, effort to keep the law current with each new day’s opportunities and advances.

Many a geriatric has had to flip-flop on the issue of ‘computer stuff’—where once they swore they were too old to start learning all this new-fangled-ness, they are now flocking to the internet to talk to their grandchildren, download pics of their new-born great-grandchildren, play bridge with distant friends, find out about the latest medicinal breakthroughs, and re-connect with people that would have stayed, in the old way, mere memories (for good or ill).

And when I consider what pressure must have driven them to the internet, to email, to Facebook or MySpace or Google+ or Twitter—I shudder to think how much new stuff I’ll be forced to cram down my brain-stem at their age (I should live so long).

Thus, I am of the first generation for which there will never be an age ancient enough to allow us to become ‘set in our ways’. The alternative (i.e. apocalyptic collapse of the developed countries’ economies and governments) is no rosier, particularly in the case of senior citizens. So society has taken on aspects of the ‘moving sidewalks’ found in transport hubs and airports—we move forward even when at rest and, when walking, move at a run.

The old ways of civilization were much more integral with nature. As we aged, we became slower and duller, but more respected for our greater experience and wisdom. Now, our experiences are obsolete data, and wisdom—well, that was always as hard to come by as it was easy to ignore—nothing new about wisdom. When we wanted privacy, we simply took a walk around the block. When it got late at night, the mass media ‘signed off’ until tomorrow. When it was the day of rest, all the stores were closed and the streets were deserted. All these things were organic to a natural life. We move away from that integration with every new chipset-invention and global phenomenon. We are in danger of making civilization ‘user-un-friendly’. All this progress and change is of questionable value if the trade-off is increased stress and discomfort added to each individual’s lifestyle, or the splitting off of a new class structure, discriminating the tech-savvy from the digitally-illiterate.

And there is the basic activity of our old ways—walking, working, building, self-amusement, siestas, mid-day naps, and after-dinner constitutionals—almost gone already. How much joy will we squeeze from a world that sits at a keyboard and stares at a screen all day? I think I’d rather grow old getting ‘set in my ways’.

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