What my Grandad taught me about technology
22 Nov 2021
My Grandad was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
I’d struggle to do him justice in a full-length biography, let alone a few paragraphs. For one thing, you have to imagine all his words in a thick Salfordian accent (think Paul Scholes in a peak cap).
But maybe the easiest way to sum it up is that he loved to laugh at life – and would carefully pick his moment to bring you in on the joke.
What did my Grandad teach me about how to approach technology?
One story shows this pretty well
For context, you need to know that my Grandad had a deep-seated conviction that he was descended from a brother of Sir Isaac Newton.*
One day, Grandad was in the market for a new phone, and my Mum had won the questionable pleasure of taking him to Carphone Warehouse to find one.
Grandad inspected the phones at length, confidently batting away all attempts to help him.
He seemed to compare size, storage, camera resolution and data packages across six different models, looking over the top of his glasses and chuckling occasionally to himself.
It was only when the store had cleared and he could confidently hold the attention of several sales assistants that he beckoned them over.
To my Mum’s complete confusion, he then launched into the old familiar tale of his scientific ancestry – the links to the Newtons, the family resemblance, his love of gravity.
This apparently irrelevant diatribe went on for some time. Staff began shooting my Mum confused, and then pleading, looks, but no one could bring themselves to interrupt an 83-year-old man in mid-flight.
Until, eventually, he built up some speed for the landing: “So Sir Isaac Newton was my great great great great great Uncle. And that’s why I have to buy an Apple.”
I’ll leave you to imagine the silence.
- Smiling at change
This story was hilarious to us and traumatically embarrassing to my Mum. However, what it shows is how playfully Grandad saw new technologies.
He was born in 1937 and could remember the Second World War. In fact, he predated Alan Turing’s codebreaking work and the advances in computer science vital to technology today.
Given that he was 52 when the World Wide Web was invented, you could forgive him for being suspicious of the digital age. But he loved it.
He owned virtually every model of mobile, then smartphone – refusing to believe networks had stopped charging per character and relentlessly messaging in txt spk.
He followed how technology was changing the working world, and repeatedly asked me if I was one of the “digital gonads” he had heard so much about (let’s assume he meant nomad).
Sadly, my Grandad died just before the Covid-19 pandemic. But had he experienced it, I have no doubt he would have regularly Zoom-bombed family calls with a cat for a face.
My Grandad didn’t claim to understand every new technology. In fact, he took quite a lot of pleasure in having us explain things to him – or asking me the question terrifying to everyone in B2B comms, “What is it that you actually do then?”
But he was also incredibly appreciative of how life had been changed by technology over the years.
He told me all the time, “It’s marvellous, Em, what we can do today.”
2. Fear and frustration
We all have different relationships and comfort levels when it comes to new technologies. Like all change, it can inspire strong emotions.
A novelty can quickly become frightening if it threatens to devalue your skills, put you out of a job or just make you feel stupid.
It’s also very easy to run into friction when someone feels differently to you. Digital natives might find it funny when older people can’t pick something up intuitively. Business leaders may be frustrated when employees refuse to use digital tools that have cost millions.
Maybe in the technology sector, particularly as younger workers, we’re tempted to believe that we’re on the right side of the fence. We understand the change that’s happening – and it’s up to other people to keep up.
But with the pace of development, I will likely be as unfamiliar with new technologies as my Grandad very soon.
3. Empathy is everything
Burying your head in the sand – or feeling a technology just isn’t for you – is a very human response.
But your digital comfort zone can impact your employability, healthcare outcomes and access to social services, to name a few things. It’s an issue that we need to approach proactively as new changes come.
We also need more people to have the vocabulary to debate how new technology is used in society, and how it isn’t.
Technology writers and communicators have a really important role to play in helping people to understand change and feel like it is for them.
That means empathising with people’s feelings, rather than dismissing them. And understanding that one day, it will all be new to you too.
One Metaverse to go please
Maybe it seems flippant to smile about my Grandad’s escapades in Carphone Warehouse, or his attempts to chat to “Sirreh” in his broadest possible accent.
But actually, I think that approaching technology with a sense of humour is incredibly powerful. To embrace the new things that you like, and smile as you try to learn about the others.
We’re all going to have to live with a potentially alarming amount of change very soon.
I just hope that in the years ahead I can smile and ask, “Metaverse you say? What’s all that about?”
* We honestly don’t know why. Coincidentally, it’s true that Grandad’s brother, fondly known as “Snowball”, looks a lot like a Royal Society portrait of Newton, but personally, I don’t think that’s overwhelming evidence.