NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Outsmarted!

Back when our daughter Patti was a tiny pumpkin, Russ and I already recognized that raising children is one of life’s greatest joys. What we didn’t understand back then was the biggest bonus that would come along with it.

We now find ourselves related to someone who knows how to set up a smart TV.

If, as you age, you’re getting the feeling you’re not quite as bright as you used to be, I’m here to assure you that you’re wrong. It’s not you and me. It’s that the most foolproof devices have been evolving faster than the midcentury brains that seek to master them, and they’ve managed to seize the upper hand.

In other words, the digital gadgets are pushing our buttons.

Adult life has been preparing us for this moment ever since we bought our first microwave oven back in 1975. Compared to the well-tamed electric burners on the stove beneath it, that modern miracle was a space-age marvel of demonic misdirection. It asserted its power with the very first task I asked of it, warming a couple of doughnuts.

Now, this was not the Einstein style of microwave where you’d just push a button labeled “warm doughnut.” This was its primitive precursor with a big round red target marked “start.”

Within the couple of minutes that seemed a reasonable starting point, it had turned my doughnuts to charcoal briquets.

We eventually figured out a judicious way to harness the beast. The instructions that used to come with newly purchased appliances, in English, were moderately helpful.

But that was just the beginning. As our appetite for electronics deepened, life grew ever more challenging. Digital clocks with obscure unmarked buttons replaced the sturdy kind whose hands moved around its face. Sewing machines grew silicon brains that took much more than pressing a floor pedal to be persuaded to stitch. Washing machines grew so many dials and cycles that they virtually demanded to know what brands of clothing were in your laundry basket.

Our calm, reliable television first turned surly with the advent of the VCR — early proof the tube would someday slip beyond our control. Please stand by. Soon those “technical difficulties” stations always warned us about would be all our own.

Once, back when my father brought home the enormous Emerson that was the first TV on our block, it limited its options to on-or-off and the channel dial. Operating the latter was especially easy in North Dakota in the 1960s, with only two stations to choose from — and just one that came in clearly. We could watch Milton Berle and Danny Thomas only so long as my little brother could be compelled to stand beside the TV table holding one of its rabbit ears.

Now, though, with a VCR, we not only had the far-more-sophisticated one-eyed monster dominating our living room. We also had a mysterious second box, not only with poorly marked buttons that could only be read lying on one’s belly on the floor, but also a digital clock and timer. With that, the generation just ahead of

ours simply gave up. Our parents turned to us, the analog version of today’s young digital elite, to set the hour. (Damn you, Daylight Savings Time!) When a power glitch upset the clock, despairing childless couples were known to resort to hiding the flashing red 12:00:00 with electrical tape.

Those were the days! For an all-too-brief span of years, Russ and I knew what we were doing. We transitioned early to computers and, then, to digital photography. We had worked out a gender-based division of digital responsibilities: He handled all the parts that required a screwdriver and getting on your knees under the desk, while I took to the keyboard to show my stuff. Why, I could write little programs in Microsoft Basic! My nicely organized boxes of back-up floppy disks — 5¼ inches, naturally — were the pride of the home-office set. I was wielding Photoshop before it even had a number. Meanwhile, Russ built a hardware geek’s dream stash of cords and connections and obscure little doodads.

The years passed. I threw the floppy disks in the garbage along with their offspring — 3 and one-half-inch disks and Zip disks that could be read only with the plug-in drive that never worked quite right. We wrote zillions of CDs and DVDs. Russ forgot which devices his inventory of spare cords went with. We converted Beta to VHS, half-inch tape to cassettes and starting tossing data up into the cloud. Our TV cabled up then started talking to satellites. The car radio went XM, drawing signals down from the stars … surely the greatest invention ever for those driving long hours across the FM-airwave-scarce prairie.

But somewhere along the way, the ever-marching world of digital data got away from us. Secure within our fading sense of competence, we still kept sliding forward … until the smart TV.

Let’s back up just a bit. In trying to tease programming off the Web, we first spent two years hatching various plans that didn’t quite work in our house. Roku. Amazon Fire. Chromecast. None delivered the easy results we longed for, which — oddly enough — did not include an always-sketchy Wi-Fi signal in the sunroom and juggling three separate sets of controls.

Enter the new Smart TV. It came in a box that held all our dreams. YouTube on the big screen! Netflix! Leisurely life-sized Skyping! Not to mention video knitting lessons from Craftsy …

There was no way on God’s green earth that Russ and I could ever hope to get it working.

And that’s when we realized advanced parenthood’s greatest blessing. Thank heavens for little girls … who grow up on computers, know the ins and outs of smartphones and marry other digital natives who can set up these genius electronics while I’m still trying to breach the bubble pack the batteries came in.

In the shade of our generation’s comeuppance, I do find solace in some of the new facts of life. No matter how smart our Millennials feel today, they’ll someday find themselves right where we are standing.

In our family, the world’s foremost grandbaby, their 6-month-old daughter, is already pushing buttons on her Fisher-Price favorites, born confident that music or an infant light show will ensue. Someday, she’ll leave her own parents far behind in a cloud of digital dust. But in the meantime, she can’t quite figure out how to eat pureed sweet potatoes from a spoon.

2 thoughts on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Outsmarted!”

  • Larry Gauper November 17, 2016 at 9:06 pm

    Another insightful piece, Nancy, that traces exciting journeys, including mine, from analog to digital. I remember when II begged Harold Flint to have our agency acquire a photo-typesetter. And then I was able to wedge a Mac network into my communications department, during those early digital days when I was at Blue Cross. The magic of electronic layout entered my world. Somebody once said, “happiness is having the means of production at your fingertips.” I too threw away boxes of 3.5 inch floppies recently, including programs I ran on a Mac SE. My first digital camera, a Sony Mavica, that cost $900 at Best Buy, used one of those plastic encased floppies. The Mavica took1.4 megapixel photographs. I still have an 8 x 10 framed print of a photo taken with that camera. It still looks good. Great memories, Nancy. I’m at the age where an endless stream of moments from years gone by come back in vivid and detailed 3-D. But I have great difficulty remembering what my wife told me to do today. Why did I come into this room?

  • Jim Fuglie November 18, 2016 at 9:28 am

    Pureed sweet potatoes. Ugh. Who can blame her.


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