Nearly Two Decades of Technology

How easily we forget how things were …

The day I retired I prepared to leave the office after clearing my desk of myriad late twentieth century clutter.  One person was on the new shared computer, so large it required a whole desk to itself and its connected printer was on a second desk alongside.  Other teaching staff were occupied writing memos or answering telephones.  In 1996, telephone messages were written on a message sheet put on the recipient’s desk and strategically placed for urgent attention on any spare wood visible on the surface.  Daily tasks included filing documents in an assortment of coloured ring binders or large metal cabinets and, if research was required, reading information from books.  I hastened to a last meeting where a secretary took notes in her notebook to type up later.  On my return, the colleague on the office computer printed out four copies of what she had typed, put one in an internal envelope, two copies on other desks and filed one in a large ring binder.  She had several such files all clearly labelled.  Each desk in the office was covered in a mound of paper in varying degrees of importance, the staff development time and task management day having had little effect on our ability or willingness to direct much of the paper to an office bin.  On my way home I removed the film from my camera and took it in to the local chemist who had a five-day fast-track developing service.  Technology was just a word – something that happened ‘out there’, definitely not at home and, certainly, not to me.

I returned home to find letters lying on the mat, goodwill cards from colleagues positioned on the mantelpiece and several phone messages on my answer phone.  The following day I trawled my address book to find phone numbers and addresses of people to whom I wished to announce my retirement.  Awash with free time, I spent many happy hours talking to neighbours across driveways and hedges, phoning friends and writing newsy letters to relatives and others too far flung to phone.  Copies were printed for my fast-expanding correspondence file.  I read books and went shopping where the feel of the material was crucial to any decision.

One of my first purchases in my newly-retired state was a computer, my old word processor now incompatible with what was on the shelves in stores like PC World.  I also purchased a large desk for the computer’s bulky central processing unit, the two speakers and the cumbersome monitor which was actually larger than my television set.

I was soon ahead of my friends with a printer which could also send faxes due to the fact that I needed to communicate with a deaf sister.  Previously we had relied on letters or short phone calls with the help of her neighbour.  Fax made immediate contact and changed our lives.  We could be in touch in seconds with the flick of a button, changing arrangements, writing at length or announcing new family arrivals.  Visitors marvelled at my technology.  I could have said ‘we aint seen nothing yet’ but how was I to know what was round the next corner.

The next change came with the arrival of a new lodger.  Her job required her to have her own phone line, her firm footing the bill.  A package was chosen which enabled us to have three lines, one for each of us and a third dedicated to a fax.  However, when she left two years later her successor had no need of a phone line; she had a mobile.  Even newer technology knocked at the door.

Within a few years, people were starting to talk about the new ‘internet’, networked computers and the paperless office.  I was pleased not to be involved.  I thought I would never learn what was needed.  After all, I had enough trouble tuning the radios and televisions.  I had also spent hours on the new microwave instruction booklet and, unable to get the hang of it, opted instead for my traditional oven.  Perhaps I was not as good with technology as I thought.

I can’t recall the exact date I obtained my first mobile phone, but it was a large cumbersome object which required its own bag.  I only used it when driving, for emergencies, so my landline as it was now called was not entirely defunct.  Interestingly, no-one yet gave out their mobile number although the new complaint amongst parents was that young adults were running up large bills which often had to be settled by Mum or Dad.

However, around the same time, I was introduced to a new form of communication – e mail.  Even friends who were checking their mobiles frequently did not always have this facility.  I heard of a whizz kid I named Mr Computer who could set me up on the internet and with an e mail address.  It meant little other than the machine I had bought some four years previously was now out-of-date.  I was fast learning that the race for advanced technology was designed to make money for people such as Mr Computer as well as PC World and Bill Gates.

My first forays into e mailing involved few contacts. Only a small number of friends had e mail. Some only used it in the workplace, it still being an unknown quantity in the home and the use of work computers for private email was restricted.   However, slowly but surely friends acquired home computers and my contact list grew quickly as the subject line ‘I’m on e mail’ or ‘My email address’ popped up more often.  The length of e mails increased only to be matched by a decline in telephone use.

Even Christmas communications have been changed by electronic means.  A number of people on my Christmas card list pre-empt my greetings by sending a computer generated card illustrating a straggly-haired pet or even more straggly-haired grandchildren.  Inside the cover their address sits proudly in a fancy new font, boasting in addition an e mail address and sometimes even a website if they are promoting self-employment or boasting fame.  Attached is the obligatory enclosed ‘round robin’ letter announcing achievements, additions to the family, sumptuous cruise holidays and outings, all with digitised pictorial evidence.

So whatever happened to the film I took to Boots those many years ago after my retirement party?  All pictures taken were printed and paid for, even the bad and the blank.  Retirement celebrations these days are recorded on cameras smaller than a mobile phone and even taken on the phone itself.  Images are sent from phone to phone allowing interested aunties and uncles  immediate access or downloaded to a computer and e mailed within minutes.

Failing that, instant computerised photo printers occupy spaces in post offices previously used for bags of mail.  Aspiring photographers can insert a memory card no bigger than a fifty pence piece and delete unwanted images before printing the best.

The Royal Mail is now appropriately named ‘snail mail’.  Who wants letters that take two days at today’s stamp prices when lifting the iphone allows access to text messages and e mails in one hit for free?  Actually, my grandchildren do. It is exciting getting cards through the door when it is your birthday.  Even better is a letter from Granny with a pound coin taped inside.

As for the newer phones, our towns and cities are awash with people peering intently downwards towards a mini screen while walking the pavements and crossing the road.  Even new mums push prams one handed these days, their other hand securely locked to one of these devices.  I am a reluctant texter, I have to say, as I share many older people’s dislike of the crude abbreviations used.  At least letters and emails use The Queen’s English and I shall fight to the death my right to use it.

My only experience of offices these days is the local bank, travel agent, solicitor or estate agent.  Local 9-5 professionals hide behind a computer screen, a faceless link on the website, their desk devoid of trappings such as ours in the nineties.  There is little use for paper clips and staplers when attachments are sent electronically and signed digitally.  Even someone who likes ‘dealing with people’ finds themselves glued to computer screens, their hand locked to a mouse or ears hooked to a headphone in a call centre where  ‘Sales’ does not equate with face-to-face contact.

In our personal lives, shopping behaviour today is more likely to involve a click of the mouse than a trip to town, reading can be done on a screen via the new iPad and writing, as I am doing now, is more likely to be done on a laptop than with pen and paper.

And as for retirement in 2015, people are more likely to announce this on Facebook or Twitter and congratulations to pop up in comments. How different to mine nineteen years ago.

But we can keep some customs alive if we put our minds to it. Sending a card has more meaning than some typed letters on a screen.

Let’s hope we never do the postman out of delivering a bag of Happy Retirement cards.

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