Going mobile with my parents

When you follow this blog, you know that I am quite active in pushing the agenda for ‘young people,’ as they venture out into the world of work, and I often push the importance of digital literacy as a basic skill. This post is about older people though – my parents to be exact. Before getting on to my soapbox on how everyone needs to be able to use digital technology to function in this evermore digital work, I have point out that while the need for those two age groups may be similar, their interaction with technology will not be the same.

My dad vs. Facebook

When giving talks or seminars, I often tell the story when I asked my dad to become friends on Facebook. It got me into hot water, to say the least, and following an irate 20 minute phone call at a bus stop in south London, we’ve since been having a debate about this topic (i.e. for the last three years). The arguments against the usage of social media are plentiful (i.e. Facebook and Google being evil mostly), and mine (that the world is working this way now) are acknowledged, but ultimately countered with ‘I choose not to engage’. In that, they indeed have the advantage that they probably won’t need to engage with social media – as opposed to younger people who do need them almost to prove to an employer that they exist, or in some twisted sense, authentic. However, they are dependent on some online services, and will become increasingly so as they age – and the world changes around them. To be clear, my dad is no technophobe – he has worked on programmable ‘calculators’ since before I was born – and still does – but his approach is certainly very selective, in a sense that it is somehow ‘stationary’: The web is being used for email communication and finding information. From a piece of hardware. On the desk. In the study (even though it’s a laptop and there is WiFi). Engagement with e-commerce, flight bookings, and other forms of account management are outsourced to the younger generation (normally me).

Going mobile

However, in dragging them into this brave new world, I have chosen my battles well, and have pushed them to use first a tablet, and now smartphones. With the tablet I gave them two years ago, it was astonishing: my mother, who never has in her live used a keyboard, took to it much quicker than my father, who had used computers when they still contained tubes. It was interesting to experience in practice see what ‘intuitive’ really means in user interface design. She has now opened forms of independent dialogue with me that used to go through ‘the computer’ in the house – in my dad’s study. On another flo … you get the drift. The smartphones introduced the idea of the internet being available outside the home (even on another floor!), and them being reachable during their many travels.
There are a number of considerations behind this: being able to be contacted – and to reach out – when on the move becomes much more important when mobility impairments become the norm. There is also the aspect of being able to know where they are, and being able to support, or organise support wherever they are. This goes especially for the time when there will only be one left. Our and their mortality is a fact of life that has been on the forefront of my thinking ever since last year, I could reach one of my oldest friends just in time before he died – in no small measure thanks to mobile internet technology.

What have I learnt?

This is not easy to answer, as the learning is still going on: watching my parents calling each other and playing with the smartphones at the dining table at home is as entertaining as it is touching. It is also a phase of orientation and learning for them. In my view, in this post-modern world, digital technology and the mobile internet are life-lines, at least in a metaphorical sense. My parents will never become avid Facebook users, but we are able to connect to them, and they can use some of the technologies to reach out and stay in touch. And that is exciting.

September 5th, 2014 by