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Guest Column: Marginalized, Or More Connected?


Author Maxine Hancock and her grandson, Maxwell Hancock, share "real" time in a restaurant in Calgary, AB.

Author Maxine Hancock and her grandson, Maxwell Hancock, share "real" time in a restaurant in Calgary, AB.

In this issue, author and lecturer Maxine Hancock shares her "take" on digital technology and aging. Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology at Regent College (Vancouver, BC.), Dr. Hancock lives with her husband, Campbell, near Canning, Nova Scotia.

We were in Calgary visiting family when we happened to find ourselves near the Apple store on the day of the release of a new iPhone. The mostly young crowd buzzed with excitement, like bees around a hive on a sunny late-August day. There was a determined consumerism mixed with an almost reverent attentiveness that I had never seen before.

I suddenly understood that, whatever the new digital age was, I would never fully belong to it. Despite using a computer for writing since the mid-1970's, digital technology would be for me merely about tools, not about identity or lifestyle.

And yet, even as I write, I realize my life is continuously affected by the digital revolution. I am, for example, sitting in my home in rural Nova Scotia, finishing this article so that I can be ready to watch my 15-year-old granddaughter swim in the Illinois State Senior Championships, live-streamed on-line. Our family lives scattered across North America, yet we have frequent visual, audio and textual contact by way of texting, Facetime, Facebook, Instagram and email.

I was recently asked to comment for CBC's Cross Country Checkup on the question: "Does digital technology – with the smarts of the techno young privileged over experience and wisdom – contribute to the marginalization of the old and their store of experience and knowledge? Or may it, in fact, be a gift to the aging? " I found the answer to be "both . . . and" rather than "either . . . or."

Without doubt, the rapidly changing world of technology has created new dimensions and new challenges for older adults. It may be easier to see the negative potential of the new technologies than to note the positive, as all of us have faced the frustrations of learning and relearning ever-updated programs and systems. We always feel a little bit behind, maybe even "stupid." The danger, however, may lie more in becoming unwilling to learn new things than in the pressure to do so.

But I think there may be bigger problems than refusing to try to learn new things. We may get tricked into substituting "virtual community" for real community, resulting in ever-increasing isolation. A favourite cartoon has been pinned up on my bulletin board for some time: the scene is a funeral home chapel, with rows of empty chairs and only two or three people in attendance around a casket. One woman says to another, "I thought there would be more people here. After all, he had 3000 friends on Facebook."

The point is clear: keep some friends who are present in flesh and blood, people you can go for lunch with or who can drop in for a visit, who can give you a hug or reach out and hold your hand. People who might be able to come to your funeral.

Of course, the flip side of this is that through such social media as Facebook and Instagram, we are able to keep in touch, if only in a fleeting way, with a wide circle of friends accumulated over a lifetime. The function once served by mailed Christmas cards and personal letters is now served swiftly and directly by the Internet.

Skype allows for a kind of conversation with friends, colleagues and loved ones. Facebook means that we have frequent updates and glimpses of people we care about. Nonetheless, if I had to choose between posting or responding to an update on Facebook, and going for lunch with a friend, lunch will win out every time.

When, a few months ago, my husband had major heart surgery, Facebook friends sent me words of encouragement and "likes," all of which we appreciated. But it was friends close at hand who brought soup and cookies and casseroles and gave me a hug when I needed one. Glad as I am to keep in touch with distant friends, it is friends nearby who sustain and support us physically.

I have found that when I am finished a Skype conversation, I feel as though I have nearly met my friend or student or colleague, but that, after all, the representation is not the person. And there is really very little comparison between the experience say, attending a symphony concert and watching the camera watch one; or of participating in worship with a local congregation and watching a televised church service. The technology necessarily alters the experience. As Marshall McLuhan told us a long time ago, "the medium is the message."

It takes an act of will and physical energy to stay connected to human community through sharing actual experiences, but failing to do that to whatever extent we are able, results in incalculable loss. We are, after all, not just thinking machines, or bundles of nerves desiring stimulus: we are whole persons who thrive only in connection with others.

A very costly effect of technology is the alienation of the young from the old, and perhaps even of our own selves from our store of experience. The dream of sharing stories with our grandchildren, or of baking cookies together, or going out for a walk in the woods has, for many of us who are grandparents or great-grandparents, largely faded as children have discovered the instant "brain hit" of electronics.

And this touches on another subtle effect of digital technology. For our own aging brains, living in the sound bite and "jolts-per-minute" world of technology leaves – not only for the young but for ourselves – an ever-diminishing space for reflection or for such activities as journaling. We are in constant danger of missing out on the reflective side of old age, perhaps sharing in our culture's under-valuing of the accumulated experience of life and world that is ours.

Our own brains, as well as those of our grandchildren, are under the assault of constant stimulation and the 1001 digressions that hypertext links offer. These all work against thoughtful reading, mediation, prayer and reflection.

But of course, there is a flipside to this discussion. I am glad to have connection through social media with former students and friends from other eras of my life and to be going out for lunch today with a friend. I am happily writing this article digitally, knowing that when it is done, I can push a button and send it in a few seconds to the editor. I can allow my concerns about technology to silence me, or I can recognize a new forum where "people of age" can tell stories, find new conversation partners, explore ideas and represent aging as they are living it, with all of its gifts and losses.

But right now, I have to click onto YouTube to watch my granddaughter swim.