My dad is 84. I remember when his office got its first computer – I must have been around eight or ten. He would come home with tales of how the secretary – whom everyone loved and who, despite her glamorous blonde hair, was far from an airhead – had lost some file or other again, thanks to the silly machine. He had no time for this new technology. He kept his files, his records, his drawings, his specifications, his letters, safely and securely on paper, in filing cabinets, where they were swiftly to hand when the need arose.
About six years later the recession (the other recession, the one in the 80s) hit the building trade hard (history repeats itself) and with it, the architectural firms. His company was reduced to two men – himself and his partner, now the senior members – who retreated to their respective homes and worked from there, renting out the floor that used to be a workspace for thirty employees.
Luckily, we had a basement room that he could use as an office, and I remember the day all his huge hanging files of blueprints and plans were moved in, in giant cabinets that took up most of the space, leaving a thin passage for him to walk between, and of course a place for a tall stool at the angled drawing board. It may have been then that we acquired our first home computer – an Amstrad with a nice green screen and square type that functioned mostly as a word processor. It also had two games, which I played to death. It never occurred to us to get any more games for it, though I suppose they were available.
Luckily for us, my dad’s partner is a couple of decades younger and an early adopter of new technology, so every time he upgraded his computer we would be the happy recipients of the hand-me-down. Thus we progressed, eventually, from the Amstrad to an Apple, and a newer Apple, and finally even one with a colour screen. I learned to type from Mavis Beacon on one of those Apples, for which I will be eternally grateful. There was even a modem attached by this time – a phone-line modem, the sort that crackled and screeched and cost as much as a local phone call – which in Ireland is not free. But nobody ever used it, because it was too much of a hassle, and the Internet was not very interesting yet, and it took a long time to work.
My dad only ever used the computer as a word processor, and continued to print out, photocopy, and file all his paperwork just as he had always done. He never saved anything, except by accident, so that every now and then I’d go home and try to clean up the desktop, littered with things nobody wanted any more. My mum used it too, for her official correspondence, in the same way. I set them up with an e-mail account, but they never used it. “I’m too old for that,” my dad would say, self-deprecatingly, when I suggested that it might be nice to have. He couldn’t really see the point. He continued to do his drawing work by hand, faxing things through to people who couldn’t wait, sending letters by snail mail, talking on the phone. He was past retirement age, but he kept going as long as he had clients who would work with him in spite of his Ludditeism.
In only the last few years, things have changed. He really has retired now, the office downstairs is mostly disused, he and my mother face health problems of varying types. They have mobile phones, which stay nicely charged in their cradles, and are never used. I doubt either of them could figure them out at this point. Texting would be way beyond them.
But then. This is not a sad story of how technology that seems peripheral can become so central to life that people have difficulty interacting with you when you don’t use it. This is a story of hope and new beginnings. Of old dogs who do, after all, learn new tricks.
Because my dad’s partner, a good man without parallel, refused to give up on the idea of setting my father up with technology that could improve his life. He upgraded his iPad and gave Dad the old one. Dad got the house wired for broadband (though Eircom seemed to sit on that particular challenge for about six months). My dad mastered the art of the touchscreen, figured out that this one was pretty hard to mess up, kept at it, and now sends me an e-mail most days. I can send him little tidbits from our day, a photo embedded in an e-mail so he doesn’t even have to click away to see it, and he and my mother can see into our lives over here, so very far away, from a new angle.
My dad doesn’t like the phone. He’s the sort of father who says “I’ll get your mother,” at the first opportunity when I ring home. If trapped, because she’s not home, he’ll talk about the weather, or current affairs. (He gets his news from the radio at 9am and 1pm and the television at 9pm promptly. Missing the headlines is a bad, bad thing. I put a shortcut on the iPad to The Irish Times website when I was at home, but I’m not sure if he’s using that yet.) Anyway. I’ve inherited his dislike of phones, to some extent, so e-mail is the perfect medium for both of us. I don’t think he’ll be on Facebook any time soon, but baby steps are fine with me.
It’s a tiny thing, but it’s a great thing. If Steve Jobs is to thank for this, then I’m thanking Steve Jobs. I’m also thanking my Dad, who’s not been feeling so great lately but has powered through and made himself keep at this, picking up the iPad every day and trying to send me a message, even though sometimes it doesn’t seem to work, or the router has a red light and isn’t doing what it should, or he might think he has nothing to say. I’m proud of him for finally admitting that he’s not too old a dog after all.