Formative Experiences and Technology

If you’re a psychotherapist or a fiction writer, you often devote a great deal of time to understanding an individual’s past experiences in order to better understand how they’re reacting now. This approach might be perceived as clinical, Freudian, or otherwise, but it still makes sense that your past is prologue for what comes next.

A life in the “distant” past

It’s with this in mind that I’d like you to consider a character from the past–long enough ago that mobile technology and the internet came into being well after they were born but not so long ago that telephones hadn’t become commonplace. The speed of news in this person’s youth was such that information “via satellite” was often rare or recorded. They came to know personal computers, of course, but they had limited memory capacity, clunky graphics or none (green text on a black screen), and once connections to other computers were common, those connections were slow, measured in the kilobytes per second, at best. Looking up information in a book or other paper item in a reference was often faster than a computer. Computers, for this person growing up when they did, were slow, unreliable, subject to “crashing” frequently, hard to program or interact with, and often lacked a lot of “authoritative” information.

Reaching other people personally by handwritten letter was not that unusually and was often seen as more intimate than telephone. And while reaching someone by phone was undoubtedly quicker, not everyone had a answering machine or was home all the time to pick up. Caller ID did not exist, so it was a toss-up answering the phone as to whether there would be a friend, family member, or stranger on the other end. “Crank calling” was a regular and mostly untraceable or unpunishable occurrence.

This individual had all of their communication products, from the phone to the fax (or earlier than that, the teletype or telex), in fixed positions, meaning that between points of contact, they were not inundated by immediate information or imminent contact unless the person trying to reach them managed to catch them face to face. The biggest downside to these fixed communication products was that if we were not within reach of one, we might miss an emergency, however defined.

There were not nearly as many electronic communication channels for this individual, and the bulk of news and culture they received appeared in print, in person, or via one of three or four network news broadcasts.

You might think I’m talking about Baby Boomers. But anyone having these experiences in living memory were likely born between 1961 and 1981–in other words, Generation X.

How this person might interact with technology

In some ways, this generation resembles their parents, the Boomers and Silent Generation, in that they had similar formative technology experiences: fixed points of contact, limited to no mobile technology, and a dubious relationship with computers–liking them as they got better and added more features, but often relying on more permanent media in the event of a crash or other catastrophe.

Still, Generation X also saw the appearance of the very first video games: Pong and Breakout. And the games, if primarily two-dimensional through much of the remainder of the century, improved in appearance and capability greatly. They were exposed to personal desktop computers from an early age and became used to the idea of computers as a household appliance, if a very expensive one. Starting from such a primitive state, it is possible to amaze an Xer with some new capability (change-of-magnitude improvements in size or speed) because they knew how slow and clunky the old stuff was.

GenX might be the last generation to write personal checks. Some of them (ahem, including your fearless writer here) still use paper statements as their Data of Record when it comes to their financial status. They grew up with checkbooks and savings passbooks, where everything was written down for the record. They might have even been lectured by Greatest Generation grandparents about “keeping your records” should a bank ever shut down or have a discrepancy. They can and do perform math on paper or in their heads. In a similar wise, they are more likely to buy DVDs, CDs, cassette tapes (if they can find them), or vinyl albums because the ownership of the music is embodied in a physical object, which is the musical or video equivalent of a more permanent of “the paper of record.”

This is, of course, a bit of a generalization, as GenXers like Elon Musk have been revolutionizing payment methods through PayPal and Boomers like Steve Jobs have shifted CD, cassette, and album sales to “the cloud,” so that many or most transactions are occurring without a paper trail. I’ve been teased for my continued use of personal checks, but I also have had creditors and customers who do not accept electronic payments, so the paper is good to have. And in the event of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack, paper will still be there–of course if we had an EMP attack, we’d be worried about a few more things than our bank balance and our music collection, but I digress.

The other things that GenX grew up with include economic and social uncertainty, the last decade or two of the Cold War, and an expectation that computer-based technology would continue getting better and more capable. So there’s a faith in technology there, if not necessarily a belief in social progress resulting from said technology. We use technology to solve practical problems. We freed communication, gaming, and information technologies from fixed positions after watching too much Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. And some of us–not all of us, but I’m thinking my readers can guess whom–occasionally long for those long stretches of time between communication points of contact where no one could reach us. After all, how many “emergencies” do we really have?

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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