My iPhone sounded off the other morning while I was lingering over the Bangor Daily News, which I still enjoy in print, and a second cup of coffee. It was a new ringtone — a hollow “doodley-doo” I hadn’t heard before. I picked up the phone and saw a photograph of my younger son, Luke, who was contacting me from Singapore, where he has been on assignment for the past week or so.
He wasn’t exactly calling, though; he was using the smartphone application “WhatsApp,” which connected his phone to mine via the Internet and allowed us to carry on as easy a conversation as if he were sitting across the kitchen table from me. I had downloaded this new app the week before, knowing he would be out of telephone contact during his travels in Asia and that an Internet-based service was the only way I would be able talk with him. The fact that I understand this distinction, however vaguely, astounds me.
There is nothing like writing about technology to make me feel like a codger, which I really am not. I use basic tools like the Internet, social media and my cell phone all day long for work and in my personal life, which I recognize is not the case for all baby boomers and certainly not for our parents’ generation. But I will admit to a certain, lingering “gee whiz” response to learning about new ways to use these tools, and a degree of enchantment at how they help me keep up with my adult sons and other important people in my life.
I didn’t warm up much to digital technology in the early days, although I recognized its importance enough to take a basic course in programming when I was in nursing school in 1983. Ten years later, I opened an email account through the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, a small commuter campus where I was working toward a B.A. in English.
I remember summoning the Internet for the first time on a clattery computer keyboard in the university library. By that time, I had begun to use public computers to compose papers for my classes. It was a great advantage to be able to cut and paste and save my work to a floppy disc — although I missed the snappy little Royal portable electric typewriter that had been my trusty companion since high school.
But I had never dialed up the World Wide Web, that mysterious new man-made force poised, for better or worse, to take over the world. There, in the library’s computer cluster, I watched as the blinking cursor paused and the screen went dark. Then, suddenly, I was connected to my email account. By design, there was a message waiting from my friend Becky, who worked at a college here in Maine and was the first person I knew to use email. I opened her message with trepidation and was filled with awe as I understood the implications of this brand new way to communicate. It was at once personal and impersonal. It offered a blend of deliberation, spontaneity, nuance and control that made it completely different from a telephone call or a letter. I was hooked.
Within a few months, I brought a Packard-Bell computer home from the store, and my then-husband helped me set it up in the closet I used as my home office. Our small sons were entranced with the games they could play, which were included in the machine’s bundled software. I was able to do more of my schoolwork from home, and I developed a robust email correspondence with Becky and a slow-growing list of friends who were tooling over to this new way of staying in touch. Because accessing the Internet required a pricey, long-distance connection to a neighboring phone system, I would compose my sometimes voluminous emails off line and then dial up the connection to send them, eliciting a heady melody of electronic boops and buzzes that let me know it was working.
Fast-forward 23 years or so, and these memories take on a quaint nostalgia. Email and Facebook are as much a part of my daily routines as the BDN and that all-important second cup of coffee. I am never far from my computer, my iPad or my iPhone and am quick to Google Episcopal churches in Singapore, a recipe for Chicken Provencal or the etymology of the word “proletariat” as the spirit moves me.
My husband, Douglas, and I look forward to weekly visits with our granddaughter in Southern Maine using the video-calling service Skype, which has been around so long it’s just about passe. My older son, Jackson, keeps us apprised of his work-related travels through the real-time mapping app Glympse. And, most recently, WhatsApp brought Luke’s cheerful voice into our kitchen from halfway around the world on a wintry morning when I needed a boost.
The codger in me still balks when someone suggests I bring a new digital element into my life. But each time I do, I find it’s all getting simpler and more intuitive. And, while I am becoming more comfortable with the myriad ways technology connects me to my world, I hope I never entirely lose my “gee whiz” response to the power and potential of the digital world.