“Would you rather lose a limb or never be able to access the Internet?”
My daughter looked at me, waiting for my answer. “Well?”
We were playing the game “Would You Rather” during a lull in the Christmas festivities. The whole point of the game is to pose two random and usually bizarre alternatives to choose from. Once you do, you see how others have answered. It’s a hard game to take seriously.
Except for this question -- which hit me like a hammer blow.
“I have to say I’d rather lose a limb,” I said.
Wow. I would rather lose an arm or a leg than lose something I didn’t even know existed 20 years ago. That’s a pretty sobering thought. I am so dependent on this technical artifact that I value it more than parts of my own body.
During the same holiday season, my stepdad, whom I've written about before, came to visit. He has two cherished possessions that are always with him. One is a pocketknife his father gave him. The other is an iPhone 3 that my sister gave him when she upgraded.
Dad doesn’t do much on his phone. But what he does do is critically important to him. He texts his kids and he checks the weather.
If you grew up on a farm on the Canadian prairies during the 1930s, you literally lived and died according to the weather. So, for Dad, it’s magic of the highest sort to be able to know what the temperature is in the places where his favorite people live. We kids have added all our home locations to his weather app, as well as that of his sister-in-law. Dad checks the weather in Edmonton (Alberta), Calgary (Alberta), Kelowna (BC), Orillia (Ontario) and his hometown of Sundre (Alberta) constantly. It’s his way of keeping tabs on us when he can’t be with us.
I wonder what Dad would say if I asked him to choose between his iPhone and his right arm. I suspect he’d have to think about it. I do know the first thing I have to do when he comes to our place is set him up on our home WiFi network.
It’s easy to talk about how Millennials or Gen-Xers are dependent on technology. But for me, it really strikes home when I watch people of my parent’s generation hold on to some aspect of technology for dear life because it enables them to do something so fundamentally important to them.
These folks understand something we don’t: what Arthur C. Clarke meant when he said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
To understand this, look for a moment through the eyes of my dad when he was a child. He rode a horse to school -- a tiny one-room building that was heated with a wood stove. Its library consisted of two bookshelves on the back wall. A circle whose radius was defined by how far you could drive the wagon in a single day bound the world of which he was aware. That world consisted of several farms, the Eagle Hill Co-op store, the tiny town of Sundre, his school and the post office. The last was particularly important, because that’s where the packages you ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue (the Canadian equivalent of Sears Roebuck) would come.
It’s to this post office that my stepdad dragged his sleigh about 75 years ago. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was picking up his Christmas present. His mother, whose own paternal grandfather was a contemporary and friend of Charles Darwin, had saved milk money for several months to purchase a three-volume encyclopedia for the home. Nobody else they knew had an encyclopedia. Books were rare enough. But for Isobel (Buckman) Leckie, knowledge was an investment worth making. Those three books became the gift of a much bigger world for my dad.
It’s easy to make fun of seniors for their simultaneous amazement and bewilderment about technology. We chuckle when Dad does his third “weather round-up” of the day. We get frustrated when he can’t seem to understand how WiFi works. But let’s put this in the context of the change he has seen in his life on this earth. This is not just an obsolete iPhone 3 that he holds in his hand. This is something for which the adjective “magical” seems apt.
Perhaps it’s even magic you’d pay and arm and a leg for.