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Commentary

Commentary: Are Older People Being Out Teched?
By Mitch Traphagen mitch@observernews.net
Feb 23, 2006 - 6:40:00 PM

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A good friend of mine, only a few years my senior, is beginning to feel out-teched in today's world. At 51 years of age he is in excellent health and physical condition — and hardly a candidate for being sent out to pasture.

But he does have a problem — he doesn't like the new regulations forcing him to pre-pay for gasoline purchases. He would rather pay for the things he buys with cash — he doesn't like having to stick a credit card into a gas pump. Now in fairness, he could continue to pay with cash — but it is more cumbersome to do so by having to make two trips to the cashier.

He ran into technology problems at a Ruskin gas station. He inserted his card and it didn't work. Finally a young cashier came out, grabbed his card, put it in the slot, punched in some numbers and gave it back to him. That experience didn't do much to endear him to electronic magic of the gas pump.

The rules requiring pre-paid gas purchases came into being shortly after gas prices began their steep rise. As the price shock kicked in, more people began to drive off without paying — and that tied up the resources of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office by having to repeatedly take reports from gas stations all over the area. But like my friend, the gas station industry isn't particularly fond of it, either. When people pre-pay at the pump, fewer people go into the store for sodas and snacks — thus lowering sales.

But for my friend, the problem remains — he doesn't want to stick his credit card into a machine — least of all a gas pump.

In today's world, that's just the tip of the iceberg. More and more, we are being asked to communicate with machines rather than humans. Checking in for a flight at the airport now means using a credit card to identify yourself to a machine that will spit out your boarding pass. In fact, when buying the ticket in the first place, you will pay a premium if you want to talk to a human. Airlines would prefer that you buy tickets on the Web.

And it's not just private business that is going electronic — government at all levels from local to federal are discovering that it is cheaper and easier to conduct business on the Web. Likewise, for many people, the ability to conduct business in the comfort of their home or office is a godsend — there are no lines to deal with and, in Florida, at least, the state has done a remarkable job of making the Web a useful resource for citizens. But today even the most basic of American rights — voting — is now electronic. There is no ballet - your vote is basically just a bunch of disturbed electrons.

That's not something that gives everyone warm, fuzzy feelings — particularly those who haven't grown up with this rapidly advancing technology.

As part of the research for my story on drivers using cell phones (in this issue), I hung out at several South County intersections to see for myself how many people were yakking and driving at the same time. In all the time I spent at those intersections, I did not see a single driver that I would estimate at over the age of 60 talking on a cell phone. I did, however, see a whole bunch of chatty drivers I would put in the 20 to 40 age group. As a side note, I don't think a single one of them noticed the guy standing out at the intersection with a giant lens pointed at them.

As that experience suggested, there does appear to be a technology divide in this country. I know firsthand that it is not entirely an age issue — a large percentage of the reader email I receive is from Sun City Center. No, it's not strictly an issue of ability - it seems to be an issue of choice.

The United States is the birthplace of the Internet and still leads the world in the number of Internet users. But despite that there are still millions of Americans who are unable or simply do not want to do business online. Similarly, there are, apparently, people who do not like to have to stick their credit card into less-than-friendly gas pumps. Incredibly enough, it seems that there are even people who enjoy being able to open a letter — a real paper letter — and read handwritten words rather than the typed, glowing print of an email.

But are these people being out-teched in our rush to automate for the sake of savings and convenience? Are these people at risk of being disenfranchised and alienated in society? Will they soon be forced to join the herd and make friends with the machines? Will handwritten letters soon fade into obscurity?

I would like to hear what you think. For those who choose (and/or remember how) to use a pen, write to me at 210 Woodland Estates Ave, S.W., Ruskin, FL, 33570. You may also share your thoughts by�.uh�.logging into the Observer News blog or by emailing me at mitch@observernews.net.



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