I Don’t Text; Don’t Ask Me: Last Stand for an Aging Technophobe

A long-time federal human resources specialist openly confronts his technophobia in a world of smart phones, texting and wireless networks.

It’s not that I resist change, exactly, but I will admit to
being particularly slow to adapt to new ways of doing things.

Technophobia imageEventually, I tend to relent, which is why I have desktop
and laptop computers, and a cell phone. But even in the latter case, while colleagues, friends and relatives keep talking about their “smartphones,” I have clung tenaciously to what it now seems only reasonable to characterize as a “dumbphone.” My cell phone doesn’t allow me to access the Internet, download movies or television shows, or microwave popcorn. A few years ago when I was involved in a car accident, it would have
been helpful to have my cell phone double as a camera and take photographs of the vehicles and the scene. Alas, it only knew how to be a phone.

I believe age is a factor in my technophobia; when I entered the Federal government, we were still making carbon copies of original correspondence, with the secretaries and other administrative assistants using IBM Selectric typewriters, if they were lucky. The next major step forward was having a centralized word processing unit, which occurred when I was with General Services Administration. The first time I ever had a personal computer on my desk was at the National Park Service, where my boss, division chief Alex Young, had a vision of the future importance of computers in a Human Resources (HR) office that was way ahead of his time.

I must admit that many people who are as old as I am or even older are very comfortable with the lightning-fast pace of advances in communications technology. I know folks my age who have to have the latest technological gadgets the minute they go on sale. Some current owners of Apple devices,
for example, will even spend the night outside a store to be among the first to have the newest iteration of an iPhone, iPod or iPad. I was just about to refer to such technophiles
as having gone over the edge, but then I remembered that when Krispy Kreme opened its first outlet in Denver, a huge number of people did the same thing – for a donut!

My friend Tom Swan, who retired to Petaluma, California, from his position as Director of Administration at Yellowstone National Park and is roughly 10 years my senior, has no trouble keeping abreast of the state-of-the-art in information technology (IT). He has a thorough understanding of IT hardware and software and can troubleshoot and fix most everything on his
system that can go wrong. I’d ask Tom for help with my current IT problems, but if he were to find out how screwed up I’ve gotten both my desktop and laptop computers – the latter keeps flashing a blue screen which says something like “I’m going to obliterate everything on your hard drive if you don’t shut me down RIGHT NOW!” – I’m afraid he’d start
smoking again.

I recently co-taught a Human Resources Management (HRM) for Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Practitioners class in Washington, D.C., with John Jones, my long-time friend and business partner.  Everyone in the class had a smartphone, and, as has become routine when we do training, the participants were checking their phones before and after the class, as well as during breaks and lunch – and sometimes even during our incredibly entertaining lectures, which was baffling to us.

They know how to use their mobile devices to perform such functions as checking in for airline flights and purchasing tickets on the rail lines or the metro; on this particular occasion, they also demonstrated the ability to obtain the latest updates from the Office of Personnel Management regarding possible early dismissals, since it snowed on a couple of the days. By way of contrast, I can only make and receive phone calls – if the phone feels like it, which it often does not – and while John’s cell phone is much advanced over mine, it is still no rocket scientist.

I now realize that the BlackBerry is not another rock group like the Cranberries, or, for those of my era, the Raspberries, an early 70s band which featured Eric Carmen’s soaring vocals. I’ve seen enough people use BlackBerry Smartphones to understand some of the things they can allow their owners to do – from emailing, texting and Instant messaging (IM) to browsing the Internet and accessing social networks, and from listening to music to taking pictures, viewing clips and capturing video. Another thing I have noticed they can do is make their owners available to others on a 24/7 basis, whether or not one finds that to be a desirable condition. A number of Federal agencies were quick to figure this out and to take advantage of it, i.e., by issuing government BlackBerrys to employees.

If my very limited understanding is correct, the other major players in the smartphone industry at the moment are the iPhone and the Droid, short for Android. The first time I can recall
hearing the latter terms was in the Star Wars movies, where they were applied to lovable R2D2 and ever-nervous humanoid C-3PO. And sure enough, when I Googled “droid,” I
learned that the term is licensed to Lucasfilm LTD, and that Motorola pays a fee to George Lucas to use it.

Another term I hear with increasing frequency is “Bluetooth.” At first, I was thinking it might have been the name of Keith Richards’ character in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”  But no, according to Wikipedia, Bluetooth is “a proprietary open wireless protocol for exchanging data over short distances from fixed and mobile devices.” Say what?

It made at least a little more sense to my technology-resistant brain to read that Bluetooth “provides entirely wireless connections for all kinds of communication devices, and that
wireless…communication between a mobile phone and a handsfree headset was one of the earliest applications to become popular.” That I kind of understand because I have seen
a multitude of people walking on the street with headsets hanging over one ear. At first I always seemed to be on the other side of the person’s head, leading me to believe that they were talking to themselves, or, embarrassingly, to me. I think I have finally taught myself to refrain from answering unless I am positive someone is actually speaking to me, not communicating with someone else via headset/earpiece.

The key word from the previous paragraph is “applications.” During most of my Federal career, that could only mean the SF-171, Application for Federal Employment. But in the brave new world of mobile technology, applications, or “apps,” are programs that can be downloaded onto smartphones from the Internet. I read that the iPhone alone has over 300,000 apps to choose from!

I quickly determined that I didn’t have enough time left, period, to run through the complete list of iPhone apps, with more being added all the time. So, I thought I’d look up
the most popular apps. The comparisons provided by www.techflash.com for the Seattle area included iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and all other smartphones showed a significant degree of consistency. For example, Facebook was the top choice of all but Android users, where it was listed second. Google Maps also appeared on all four lists, as did the Weather Channel, and Pandora, with the latter being described as an Internet radio website which provides personalized music (I admit I had to look that one up). Google Search, ESPN and YouTube were mentioned once on each list.

The same website then listed the categories of applications used most often over the past 30 days. That list was headed by games, followed by music, social networking, news/weather, maps/navigation search, video/movies, entertainment/food, sports, communication, banking/finance, shopping/retail, productivity, and travel/lifestyle. Productivity? -Seriously?

I also started paying more attention to the various commercials for the different smartphones and kept running across the terms 3G and 4G, which I didn’t know from Kenny G, except that I figured the phones probably wouldn’t cause my ears to bleed. With my almost perfect ignorance of all things IT, I assumed, wrongly, that the companies were referring to 3 and 4 gigabytes of memory. Wikipedia and other websites say that those terms stand for the third and fourth generations of such phones.

A study by ComScore estimated that in 2010 over 45.5 million people in the United States owned smartphones. Despite my deep-rooted fear of both change and machines of all kinds, I intend to join that rapidly growing throng shortly.  In fact, I’m going to try and learn as much about communications technology as my rapidly declining mind can wrap itself around – making myself a guinea pig, if you will, on behalf of others who are also reluctant to jump with both feet, or even dip a toe, into the world of high-technology, mobile communications, apps, social networking, etc.

I am also going to try and develop a website, or, more accurately, I am going to have to hire someone to create a website for me. I’m always a little bit embarrassed when FedSmith.com readers write and ask about my website, since I still don’t have one. I have tried to create a website on my own, and I briefly had hopes that Intuit could help me, since their advertising seemed to imply that it was so simple that any idiot could do it. Well, this idiot couldn’t.

As I start to wind down, I will provide two illustrations of why my chances of overcoming my technophobia are somewhere between slim and none.

I have recently started doing some teleworking from home. The Bureau of Land Management kindly provided me with an agency laptop and a docking station. (The latter always brings to mind Captain James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise giving the order, “Take her out, Mr. Sulu.”) The only problem was that I couldn’t get into the network from home and had similar problems when I returned to the office. I am by no means the only customer of IT guru Gary Coffey, but it must have seemed like it, since I had to call him again and again. I kept typing
in the wrong user name or password, or committing some other error each time I tried accessing the network. Gary worked me through each problem cheerfully and with remarkable patience; I couldn’t even hear his teeth grind, but he must have been wondering how quickly he could get his phone number changed.

I often run outdoors with my daughter on weekends, weather permitting. Kris was among the first wave of people to snap up the Beatles’ complete collection on iTunes, and she wondered
why a huge Beatles fan like me didn’t get an iPod and purchase the collection. I pointed out that I already owned all of the Beatles albums – yes, on vinyl – made while they were still together, and that while we run I prefer to listen to National Public Radio (NPR), talk radio, or rock and roll. She just rolled her eyes and shook her head sadly.

I would greatly appreciate any suggestions from FedSmith.com readers on any of the communications technology “stuff” that I am about to dive into without first making sure the swimming pool is full. That would include building a website; choosing a smartphone, and applications; and joining social networks.

I have learned that smartphones are often tied to specific providers, such as iPhone with AT&T, although Apple has very recently added Verizon; I am with T-Mobile and I think my contract says it is “for 10 years or until death, whichever comes first,” but I will look into the possibility of signing up with a different provider if that makes sense. Along similar lines, I would welcome any helpful hints as I venture, with more than a little trepidation, into social network sites Facebook and Twitter – I know that communications on the latter are
called Tweets, but wasn’t sure if a user was referred to as a Twit.

But, per the title of this article, I don’t intend to use my smart phone to text. I would never be able to figure out all the abbreviations, and when I see emails produced on smart phones, supposedly in plain English, it is often not a pretty sight. Besides, I think my fingers and thumbs are too big for those tiny keyboards; I could wind up with a repetitive motion
injury. And I could easily picture myself being one of those people who are so engrossed in their texting that they run into a post, or step in front of a moving car.

Wish me luck in my adventures in communications technology. I’m sure I’m going to need it. B4N

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.