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An engineer at Bell Labs demonstrates an early mobile phone. Photo/Getty.

Our love-hate relationship with digital technology

Jenny Nicholls' survey on digital use looks at life before apps. 

It was an unremarkable black plastic slab which, said my aunt’s neighbour, could do sums. He had brought it back from a holiday overseas, and it was the first electronic calculator I had ever seen. I reported sagely back to my parents that it was as pointless as the electric toothbrush we saw on TV. Why would anyone pay so much money for machines like these, which did simple everyday things like cleaning teeth and sums? I was 11.

Three years later, a cardboard box arrived in the mail with a thrilling, rather NASA-ish brand and model number: Texas Instruments TI-58E. My younger brother, a shrewder judge of the zeitgeist than me, had saved his pocket money for months to buy it. My sister and I learned that if you held it upside down the LED lights could be made to say SHELLOIL, BOOB and gO 2 hELL.

Today I get it, I really do. I Twitter, I Instagram, I Facebook, I Airbnb and I Uber and Zoomy. I post “digital assets” for work on Instagram while standing at pedestrian crossings in the rain. I email on the bus and edit Wikipedia on the ferry.

Oh, how we laugh at vintage James Bond movies, in which our hero spends half the film searching desperately for a phone booth.

Yesterday I was thanked by a robot. The email from Wikipedia read: DPL bot left a message on your talk page. “Hi. Thank you for your recent edits.”

As books gather dust on my bedside table, I peacefully snarf the London Review of Books, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the New York Times, The New Yorker, Noted and Newsroom on my phone.

That’s modern life. Isn’t it?

Not necessarily.

“I have a dumb phone, which is perfect for sending/receiving calls and sending/receiving text messages. I have no desire to own a smartphone. I have a real life!” Moira, 65, wrote to us – on paper – in response to our digital survey in the July issue.

“I bought a Nokia phone in 2006,” says Pat, 77, “and it has never broken down, so I’m still using it.”

Pat is no Luddite. “Having a computer at home is like having my own vast encyclopaedia – if a question arises, I just google it!”

We ran a readers’ survey because I wanted to hear from the experts – those who have watched the digital world unfurl, who can remember the years before email and GPS and “apps” for the weather and fast food. I wanted to know what they like and dislike about the new world, and how much cocking a snoot at digital technology really matters.

Every response was thoughtful and considered. I wish I had room to quote them all. So thanks, Graeme, Owen, Pat and Anna, all of you who wanted to remain anonymous, and Moira who was the only one to use snail-mail.

Related articles: Why I long for the days when footpaths were safe and Lime scooter-free | The psychology of psychopaths and social media users | The trolls and tribulations of social media

There's an app for that. Image/Jan Vasek/Pixabay.
In 2017, according to the Minister for Seniors, 350,000 SuperGold Card holders were using a smartphone and 500,000 the internet. This is nowhere near the number of seniors with a card – a figure the government currently puts at 750,000.

With the release of a new app, several of our writers worry the SuperGold Card will soon be issued in an app-only format, targeting with sadistic precision those who need discounts the least. But a government pamphlet, the “SuperSeniors” newsletter for June, is reassuring. “SuperGold discounts will still be available to everyone with a card, even if they don’t use the website or app.”

It seems the app will be a guide rather than a necessity, which will be a relief to the techno-phobe I know who would be trapped on Waiheke Island if buying a ferry ticket required a smartphone.

Although plenty of state-administered technologies actually work, the nerves are understandable. You wouldn’t put it past them, would you? Novopay and the debacle of the “digital-first” 2018 Census show what happens when a ministry forgets to add human beings to their algorithms.

As Alex Braae, editor of The Spinoff’s daily email newsletter The Bulletin fumed recently: “Once again [the 2018 Census] has demonstrated that many people, particularly those in lower income areas, still need comprehensive, low technology options. It’s like when Murupara ground to a halt recently because the town’s cash machine was robbed. No amount of digital service provision will change the fact that many segments of the population are simply not online, and so digital solutions won’t work for them.”

As our correspondents pointed out, not everyone has good internet access, or wants or can afford a smartphone, although you need one for an increasing range of things – such as hiring an Uber or Zoomy ride.

Still, if our survey is anything to go by, North & South’s senior readers, like Pat, have taken to new technology like hipsters to e-scooters.

Online services mean, one correspondent pointed out, no more “queuing at the bank, going to shops to find they don’t have what I want, going to a travel agent to book travel, incredibly expensive phone bills, paper maps...”

Ann, “nearly 80”, writes: “It is so much better with digital. I frequently send pics with my emails whereas I wouldn’t have sent photos in a mailed letter. My world has expanded considerably with digital technology.”

Others have watched their world contract. One correspondent misses “writing letters and [talking] with friends, especially the long evening phone calls. [And] personal service is lost. An approach to bank staff for assistance is now dismissed with “you can read it online”.

There is less incentive to use the telephone. “I find it annoying that so many have given up their landline phones. There’s no way I can look up a cellphone number in a phone book. Just as making a toll call had become so cheap, now I have to pay to ring someone’s cellphone. And chatting doesn’t seem as enjoyable on a cellphone as it was on a landline.”

To the question, “Do you think social media decreases the time people spend talking”, there was a chorus of agreement.

“It’s not an uncommon sight to see people at cafes sitting together busy on their phones and not talking to each other. People at playgrounds too busy on their phones to play with their children.”

“Social media decreases human-to-human connection and time for connecting, including within families. It’s entirely possible the Kardashians’ antics are way more exciting than your own families, but do they matter?”

“I go to a cafe and see tables of young people sitting there and they are all on their phones! What’s the point of going out? People of my generation consider it bad manners to sit at a table and be looking at a cellphone all the time.”

(Dear correspondent: the good news is that this is still considered bad manners.)

Is the digital world isolating?

“Decreasing the time people spend talking together is probably a danger, but it needn’t be. I find it easier to email someone than to ring them up or visit them, but as long as I realise this and take steps to remedy it, I don’t think there’s a problem.”

Some of our writers LOVE social media. Ann, for example. “I enjoy using social media and digital technology very much. It is easy to keep up with family and friends, takes very little time to message or text and, after the initial outlay and monthly charges, costs very little... Technology is wonderful. I use the smartphone to check the news or get the latest pics of the royals!”

Others were irked by online advertising, which seemed spookily aware of online activity. There were other issues, too:

“I hugely dislike the disconnect between reputable news research and individual opinion. I am now highly suspicious of any news event. The upshot of this is that I am receding into my own world and shutting out what I’m being bombarded with [in the] Digital World.”

“I cannot believe that humans bare their souls so freely.”

“I’m concerned that Twitter has led to a tyranny of the minority. Shops, commercial organisations and government departments react to “Twitter outrage”, but I’m not convinced that any of that outrage represents the majority.”

“I saw my wife having her whole day ruined by some troll and I decided never to have a Facebook page.” 

“I detest it in all forms. A few things sit behind my dislike, I think: the artifice that goes with feeling the need to constantly portray beauty; the soapbox and protection and – to an extent – untraceability that some social media platforms provide to trolls, predators, criminals and those who seem to have malign motives; [and] the shallowness of connecting with 90,000 people vs having deeper human connection through actual relationships with a smaller number.”

Those who once lived without digital technologies appreciate the benefits better than most. Who can blame them for mourning what has been lost?

“For many years I used a typewriter, and if that went wrong it was usually easy to see what the problem was,” writes Pat. “In contrast, my computer is a mystery to me ... I’ve come to rely on [it] for so many everyday things, but don’t know how it works. And I’m lost without it.”

From our correspondents

“I recently tried to drive to a hotel but it was not listed in the GPS system on the car so I telephoned reception and was told they didn’t know the address! This from a young person who drove to this hotel every day to go to work!”

“I find it humiliating that the TVNZ OnDemand commercial shows a frustrated pensioner asking a grandchild to show her how to use the service. This form of put-down is insidious.”

“I used to have a Facebook account but have now deleted it. The Christchurch massacre was the last straw in that the police got the guy into custody before Facebook had blocked the live stream. This was outrageous. I lived the first 60 years of my life quite happily without social media and can live out my remaining years without it too.”

“I was involved in hiring someone once and having heard that you could check out the pages of job applicants, I created a page under a bogus name. Bad idea. For one thing I found out nothing useful, for another Facebook knew who I really was. Within hours I was getting friend suggestions.”

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.