One of the most common things I hear about the decline of paper, CDs, DVDs, and other tangible media, and the corresponding rise of internet marketing, the death of big box stores and the transformation of cable TV into just a pipeline, and the corresponding rise of amazon.com and Netflix, is that “it’ll never go all the way, because of all the grandmas who will never use the internet.” First, keep in mind that the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is old people – my age and up. Second, to put it bluntly, old people tend to die. And finally, don’t underestimate the capacity of people of any age to adapt.
In 1847, when the the first postage stamps were issued in the US, most people didn’t have mailboxes at their front doors, grandmas included. Did that stop the progress of the mail service? Nope – grandmas went to the docks and picked up their mail on the pier, or sons and daughters went. Later, grandma stood by the side of the road for the pony express. If she wanted word from distant family, that is. Grandma adapted – she participated in the global conversation, or she didn’t. But the conversation didn’t stop.
When telephone service starting spreading in the US in 1877, just 30 years later, lots of people didn’t have telephones, and people widely poo pooed the new technology, saying “what about my grandmother who is too old to adopt the new system?” At first, grandma began going to the neighbor’s house to use the phone, or the post office or the local store – after all, with party lines, you were all sharing the same conversation anyway. Grandma adapted. Eventually, sons installed phones in the houses of parents, or they got them by themselves, but progress didn’t stop.
Sure, we all know someone who still says “I’ll never use the internet”. That’s fine – it’s like saying, “I’ll never have a mailbox or a telephone.” There were people who saw telephones, knew about telephones, and lived their remaining years without ever admitting one into their house. What they didn’t do was limit the preponderance of phones every possible place they might visit, or in every place of human community they might interact.
Sure, in the most remote part of the Appalachians, you might have had to drive a ways to the nearest phone, but you didn’t avoid the interaction with people who were doing just that, and bringing back the results of conversations, unless you were a complete hermit. So in that sense, yes, even your grandma who “will never” use e-mail, will indeed use e-mail. Has anyone spoken to her recently from the outside world? Where is this place where not even mention of things that were learned or discovered or solved or purchased on the internet exist? Has she ever gotten a gift that was purchased on the internet?
Grandma, frankly, is a myth. There is no grandma. Grandma is like the chivalrous gentleman of the middle ages or the perfect housewife of the 1950s (June Cleaver) – she has never existed, and never will exist. People adapt. We could list more examples – people who said they’d never visit a doctor, people who said they’d never get vaccinated, people who said they’d never ride in a car (yep, that’s what they said, when those “newfangled contraptions and gizmos” became popular – they said they’d never ride in a car. That’s OK, the ice stopped coming by horse drawn carriage, and cars became a fact all around them. If they died never having ridden in a car, long after that, it didn’t stop what was coming.
I know lots of people who take an indignant stand on never riding public transportation (“I won’t be controlled. I wouldn’t ride it if it was free, and gas costed a hundred dollars a gallon.”) Sorry, but cars with automated braking are already hitting in 2011 – rudimentary, of course – and it will remain rudimentary for perhaps a long while but, eventually, it’ll be more like riding the subway and less like driving a Model T. “I’ll never have an electric car!” people say. Yes, you will. “I don’t need to use the internet for business.” Sure – that’ll change. All I want to ask you is, when was the last time you bought a VHS tape? Things may seem to happen slowly, but they’re quite quick.
Just one more example: “Grandma will never get cable TV”. Good – cable is dead, anyway. But she won’t have TV either – not unless she’s going to go digital, at least. By the time we say we won’t use technology, either everyone we depend upon and interact with is using it for dependencies and interaction, or else it has been upgraded to something better that we will use. No, Virginia, there *is* no grandma. Grandma is a myth fabricated to make us feel safe in a world of constantly accelerating innovation. The wolf will never come to grandma’s house, we like to think. We might be surprised, though, to one day go over the hills and through the woods, and find a grinning grandma asking why we didn’t just text her.