“Speak to me, Alexa”

It’s a struggle to make friends with new technology.

March 20, 2023 | | Over the Next Hill

Let’s talk about technology. Are we seniors comfortable with the ways communicating has transformed since we were kids? Have we been able to stay in sync with our circle of friends and family while sorting through new and ever-evolving devices and the unique language of technology? Or have we been hopelessly left behind?

A friend recently emailed invitations to a luncheon she was planning. Time went by and only one person had responded. Come on … we’re retired, and not that busy. It eventually occurred to her that only a few of her invitees use email. Of those few, one had a new email address and had dropped her old account, and one is a technophobe who never uses email, preferring to communicate via her ancient landline. The others rely primarily on texts.

It was so simple at one time. You picked up the phone, which was anchored by a cord and therefore always in the same place, dialled the number and waited for an answer. When someone picked up, the conversation was two-way – just you and the person you called. Not anymore. In my experience, phone calls have become public events. Most people carry their mobile phones in a pocket or purse, and as often as not, they talk on speaker.

This means that, in addition to the person called, others in on the conversation often include their spouse, kids and pets – or the rest of their bridge club or golf foursome on the third green, as well as strangers sitting in a doctor’s waiting room or passing on the street. Plus, along with the iffy reception of a cell phone (“I’m losing you … you’re breaking up!”), there’s the dexterity problem of trying to hit the correct buttons on the minuscule on-screen keyboard. The tiniest tremor causes a miss-hit. Delete, retype, oops, retype again.

On the other hand, driving into the city would be much more complicated without my cell’s map app, providing me with easy verbal door-to-door directions. Yes, evolution teaches us that adapting is the key to survival and that flux is the nature of life, but does the plugged-in world enhance our lives as seniors?

For a while now I’ve been dithering over whether to buy a smart speaker. Would having one make my day brighter, or at least easier? Yes, I’d be able to ask Alexa about the weather even before my feet hit the floor in the morning. I would no longer need to search for both my glasses and my phone to make a call (“Alexa, call the drugstore”). And with a mere voice command, “she” could instantly handle lowering the music volume when the doorbell rings. That all sounds good.

But one of the things holding me back has been whether I’d be able to figure out how to set it up. Perhaps this is when I’d seek help from a 10-year-old.

In the meantime, I was recently asked to install a messaging app before leaving on a group trip. I had always sidestepped the messaging world, but suddenly tackling it became unavoidable. The app is called Telegram (550 million users monthly, compared to Facebook Messenger at 1.38 billion, WhatsApp, which is also owned by Meta, Facebook’s parent company, at 2.24 billion and iMessage at an estimated 1.3 billion).

The tour operators chose Telegram primarily because it has a reputation for being a relatively secure app (messages can be programmed to self-destruct!), and because at the end of the trip it could be deleted completely, leaving no residual trail. No harm, no foul.

The app lets you message other Telegram users, create group conversations, call contacts, make video calls and send files and stickers. (What the heck is a “sticker”?) We were also told that, unlike Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc., Telegram protects our data from being tracked by third parties (i.e., marketers and advertisers). Well, okay, if I must!

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  • It took less than two minutes to download the app and answer a few questions. And voila! I had a messenger app ready for my trip. Far from home and immersed in a different culture, Telegram’s friendly ping was useful when plans changed or a new bistro was discovered, and for the comforting knowledge that my group was close by. But now that I’m home, it’s just another app, and I’m already dealing with too many of those.

    I admit I’m often frustrated with rapidly changing technology, and dealing with it can definitely poke a hole in my good humour. Even so, although I’m far from the front of the pack, my success with the new app helped me feel as if I’m still in the race – at least until the next upgrade.

    About the Author More by Gail Grant

    Gail Grant is a freelance writer who lives in Palgrave.

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