What is this “Online” You Speak Of?

First published September 12, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider.

I was in an airport yesterday, and I was eavesdropping. That’s what I do in airports. It’s much more entertaining than watching the monitors. In this particular case, I was listening to a conversation between a well-dressed elderly gentleman, probably in his late ’80s, and what appeared to be his son. They were waiting for pre-boarding. The son was making that awkward small talk — you know, the conversation you have when you don’t really know your parent well enough anymore to be able to talk about what they’re really interested in, but you still feel the need to fill the silence. In this case, the son was talking to his dad about a magazine: “I used to get a copy every time I flew to London,” he said. “But they don’t publish it anymore. It’s all done online.”

The father, who had the look and appearance of a retired university professor, looked at his son quizzically for a few minutes. It’s as if the son had suddenly switched from English to Swahili midstream in his conversation.

“What’s ‘online’?”

“Online — on the Internet. It’s published electronically. There’s no print version anymore?”

The father grappled with the impact of this statement, then shook his head slowly and sadly. “That’s very sad. I suppose the mail service’s days are numbered too.”

The son replied, “Oh yes, I’m sure. No one mails things anymore.”

“But what will I do? I still buy things from catalogs.” It was as if the entire weight of the last two-and-a-half decades had suddenly settled on the frail gentleman’s shoulders.

At first, I couldn’t believe that anyone still alive didn’t know what “online” was. Isn’t that pretty much equivalent to oxygen or gravity now? Hasn’t it reached the point of ubiquity at which we all just take it for granted, no longer needing to think about it?

But then, because in the big countdown of life, I’m also on the downhill slope, closer to the end than to the beginning, I started thinking about how wrenching technological change has become. If you don’t keep up, the world you know is swept away, to be replaced with a world where your mail carrier’s days are numbered, the catalogs you depend on are within a few years of disappearing, and everything seems to be headed for the mysterious destination known as “online.”

As luck would have it, my seat on the airplane was close enough to this gentleman’s that I was able to continue my eavesdropping (if you see me at an airport, I advise you to move well out of earshot). You might have thought, as I first did, that he was in danger of losing his marbles. I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. For over four hours, he carried on intelligent, informed conversations on multiple topics, made some amazing sketches in pencil, and generally showed every sign of being the man I hope to be when I’m approaching 90. This was not a man who had lost touch with reality; this was a man who is continually surprised (and, I would assume, somewhat frustrated) to find that reality seems to be a moving target.

We, the innovatively smug, may currently feel secure in our own technophilia, but our ability to keep up with the times may slip a little in the coming years. It’s human to feel secure with the world we grew up and functioned in. Our evolutionary environment was substantially more stable than the one we know today. As we step back from the hectic pace, don’t be surprised if we lose a little ground. Someday, when our children speak to us of the realities of their world, don’t be surprised if some of the terms they use sound a little foreign to our ears.

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