Early Retirement

Over dinner my father looks at me and says, with a straight face: "I hear Google might start building its own phone." I'm trying to figure out which direction to take the conversation. Condescension would be too aggressive, no matter how much my inner troll wants to bait him. Do I explain that Google is not only making a phone OS, but that they will soon rival Microsoft in the netbook space with a new desktop OS? Too technical.

"Actually, Dad, they've been making phones for a couple years now. I have a few Google phones. Amanda's phone is a Google phone," I say, citing my sister's HTC Droid Eris.

I don't know what kind of phone my father carries because he doesn't call me for cell phone advice. When Verizon calls to renew his contract, he tells them he's happy with what he has, he doesn't need a new phone, and of course he'll sign up for two more years of service. After all, he's not going to change his phone number, right?

He was going to have his entire car stereo upgraded to support Bluetooth, but then figured out that his phone doesn't have Bluetooth. I was incredulous. Has there been a phone released in the last three years that didn't support Bluetooth? In a few minutes, I was not only able to find the Bluetooth menu on his phone, I was also able to save him some battery power by turning Bluetooth off. That's right, not only did he have the feature, it has been turned on for the past three years.

There is a language to technology that you have to learn early, or you have to make a great effort to understand. My generation, and generations younger than I, take it for granted. The World Wide Web opened its doors my Freshman year of college, but I've been using computers in some form for more than 20 years. I take for granted this language, which consists not only of terminology but of design metaphor, as well. I'm not a programmer, but there are certain rules of design, certain logical leaps that I expect to make.

The desktop is my favorite of these metaphors. Of course, I can imagine a virtual desk top, where virtual folders sit, filled with files, surrounded by tools that I call applications, executables or programs. For my parents, the metaphor breaks down. There is no desktop, there is only the screen. They have no idea where the image comes from, how reliable it is, or what the various pictures on the screen mean and to what they relate.

If I drill the desktop idea into my father's head, he starts to worry about clutter, and begins cleaning his desk. But he doesn't know the logical places for things, and so he thinks he can store files, programs and shortcuts anywhere. These are just drawers to him. I try explaining the difference between memory and storage. To do so, I have to switch metaphors to talk about a brain. Long term memory and short term memory. Keeping track of things and remembering things long term.

At some point, he was told that computers that are full run slower. This isn't entirely untrue, though it's very difficult for him to grasp exactly how much he can store on his 320GB hard disk drive. I use the works of Shakespeare, the encyclopedia, as notions of scale. But try explaining that a single photograph can take up more space than the entire works of Shakespeare, and it all falls apart.

I get a call that his e-mail isn't working. He tells me that the computer was running slowly, and he thought he had too much e-mail. So he threw it in the trash.

"You deleted the e-mail from your inbox?" I ask.

"No, I threw the e-mail in the trash. The little postage stamp icon. I threw that away."

How to explain? He deleted his mail program. So his e-mail was all gone? No, that's stored on a server. He never has to worry about running out of space there. When I hang up, I realize that he has no idea what he's done or how I fixed it. I'm sure it will happen again.

My father is a dentist and my mother is a nurse at a hospital. Both are well-educated people. My father calls me with questions about upgrading his entire office. I suggest Macs, which might be easier for training, but he says the program they use is incompatible. He wants to upgrade the machines, but to do that they'll have to upgrade the operating system, as well.

"What operating system are you using?"

"Windows. The one that came out in 2000. But the new computers all use Windows Vista. What should I do?"

"You should retire early."

In the end, a slick salesperson sells him on new machines, and they train the whole staff. In a few years, the program they use will disappear, anyway, and the entire system will be Web based. I'll make sure he's retired by then.

My mother's hospital trains employees well in the new computerized systems. She can't turn the computer on if it shuts down, but she knows the exact steps to check the treatment plan and file her reports digitally. The doctors, she says, are even worse than she.

"They all pretend that they're in a hurry. They don't know how to use the computers, so they say they're in a rush and ask if I can fill in their orders for them."

"Isn't that against the rules? What do you do?"

"I fill in the orders so their patients don't have to wait, then I tell on them. I tell the computer people that the doctors have no idea what they're doing."

She's smug when she says this. At least she gets to feel technologically superior to somebody.

A few years ago, I recycled my parent's old Gateway and bought them an iMac. Instead of a dial-up connection, we added Internet service to their cable package. Within a week, they had finally started sending e-mail. Within two weeks, I had to have a discussion with my mother about forwarding me e-mail chains. I had to tell my father to stop sending funny, dirty pictures to my work address. Now they can load pictures from their digital cameras, send them via e-mail or print them out. We're still working on Flickr and storing files in the Cloud.

My father bought a new laptop. He brings it to my house for a visit.

"Can you give me all the good music you have?"

I have tens of thousands of songs on my machine. More than 100GB.

"Dad, that would be like walking into a library and asking me to pick out the good books for you."

"Okay, then just give me all your music and I'll figure it out."

"The transfer will take some time. We can do it overnight, but you can't use your computer in the meantime."

"Well, just burn it to a disk and I'll take it home with me."

I can't figure out why he bought a MacBook Pro. I recommended an iPad. He just wanted to do some simple surfing, check his e-mail and watch movies on the plane. He might want to transfer pictures from an SD card, but there's an adapter for that. I ask my mother how they came to make the purchase.

"I thought you told me to buy the laptop?" I did no such thing. I ask my father why he chose a full powered laptop.

"Well, I didn't think the iPad would be able to do enough. I didn't just want to play games and watch movies. I also have to check my bank account. It's for work. I thought I needed a Pro machine."

I show them the iPad, and they aren't impressed. They're just confused. There's no mouse. There's no desktop, not like they're used to. There are so many more icons to choose from. Everything looks different. I thought it would be simpler, but it's not. It's just another thing to learn.

"So is that what you think I should get?"

I can see myself taking more tech support phone calls. Walking him through the system settings. Figuring out where the programs have gone.

"Instead," I think to myself, "maybe I'll just retire early."