Tuesday, April 02, 2013

COLUMN: Technology

Technology and Shane have a long history together. As part of their never-ending mission to make me perhaps THE most spoiled child in all of west central Illinois, my folks bought me my first computer when I was in fifth grade. Keep in mind that this was 1980, when the majority of IBM computers were wall-sized and Al Gore had yet to invent the internet. I'm not even sure I knew what a computer WAS, but suddenly I had one in my bedroom.

Within weeks, I was a full-on addict. With a lot of patience and some ominously thick manuals, I taught myself the fundamentals of DOS and Applesoft BASIC. In no time at all, I was fighting orcs, levelling up characters, going on magical quests, and slaying evil all over primitive cyberspace.

The consequence, of course, is that I also became a social pariah overnight. I'm pretty sure grade school pre-dates the whole coolness caste system, but by the time I hit middle school, once you combined my already underperforming hand/eye coordination with an unabashed desire to race home every day to master Zork II, I was on a fast-track to Nerd City.

Good thing I didn't care. Killing dragons was fun, baseball was boring, and girls had cooties. I was comfortable with technology then, and I'm comfortable with it now. I might still be a bit of a nerd these days, but I can hook up your stereo, customize your Facebook page, and show you at least ten ways (of varying state, federal, and international legalities) to download new music.

Too bad none of it rubbed off on my parents.

My mom is a smart cookie. She reads more books in a year than I will in my entire life, routinely turns balls of yarn into crocheted art, and can cook eight dishes at once and have them all magically get done right at dinnertime. My dad, meanwhile, built the house I grew up in, can turn a tree into a desk, and single-handedly transformed my ugly concrete slab of a basement into a mancave worthy of a king.

They also own a computer that's fancier than mine, complete with a Blu-Ray burner, Intel processor, surround sound, and 500 gig of memory. My mom uses it to play solitaire. My dad doesn't even know how to turn it on. I just stare at them in horror.

I am my mother's personal tech support line. Whenever she wants to do something on the computer, she calls me up -- and usually with concise concerns, such as: "I can't make the song go," "How do I like your cousin on here?" and "My Google is slow -- is it because I twittered it?" Recently, she got irked that I didn't reply to her message on Facebook -- because it turns out she sent it to a presumably confused Shane Brown of Mora, Minnesota. Worse yet, he accepted her friend request and they now chat regularly.

Last weekend, my folks came up to take me out to dinner. Little did I know that "take me out to dinner" came with an asterisk that said, "(*once you go to Best Buy and help us buy a new iPod.)"

A few years ago, I got my mom an iPod Mini, which she loved and carried around with her always. There was just one problem: she didn't know how to use iTunes and didn't want to learn. Ergo, every family dinner I've attended over the past half decade has involved me arriving, eating, and then spending the next two hours ripping and uploading songs. It's okay, though -- my folks have given me the world over the years, I figure I owe them a little indentured servitude.

But her iPod broke, and it was time for a new one. As we were looking at the new iPod Touch, a thought hit me. My folks still use crummy flip-phones. Why not make the great leap forwards and buy an iPhone that holds just as much music?

"Oh, no," my mom said. "I don't need all that stuff. It's too confusing."

"But you GET all that stuff with the iPod, too," I tried to explain. "The iPhone is just like an iPod you can make calls with!"

They didn't believe me, so I needed backup. I went up to the cell phone counter for some expertise. I just needed the clerk to explain the difference in pricing between their current broadband setup vs. an iPhone used in conjunction with a mobile hotspot. Easy, right? But I opened my mouth and THIS is what came out:

"Hi! Umm, my parents live out in the country, and they have an iPod -- well, they DID, it broke. And I want them to get an iPhone, but I also want that deal where they get, y'know, one of those thingers where they can get internet without any cable dealies, and I don't know how much that dealybob costs compared to the thingy they have now that gets internet with a plug-in thingamajig."

As I watched the poor clerk's face get more and more twisted with every word I said, I realized an ugly truth: I'm becoming my parents. Technology is starting to escape me. We're headed into a world of video phones and 4D TVs and media clouds and I am seriously falling behind in my understanding of it all. Worse yet, I haven't procreated up any offspring of my own to come home on holidays and work this stuff once I stop understanding it all. I'm going to be like the dog on the RCA logo listening to music through a big horn while the rest of the world has it beamed into their brain chips via iConsciousness or whatever.

I'm hoping there's one simple explanation at work: No matter how well you think you understand technology, there's always going to be someone out there to make you feel stupid. For my parents, that person is me. For me, it's the clerk at Best Buy. For that guy, it's probably his boss. And so and so on until you reach Bill Gates, who by divine rights should rule the planet. I'm not so sure he doesn't.

The truth is, my mom probably knows more about technology than most people her age, and maybe I should cut her some slack -- and I'll tell her that as soon as she gets off her chat with Minnesota Shane Brown.

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