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Are Old People Just Dumb?
Did I just have a senior moment?

I used to think my friend Stan was an amazing photographer. His black and white work, developed and printed in his very careful style (he works at exact temperatures in the darkroom under very controlled conditions), produced really beautiful, full tonal work. He understood and used Ansel Adams and Fred Archer's Zone System. I never really understood that system. I guess I just didn't spend enough time experimenting.

I say "was" and "used to" in reference to Stan, because for some reason, he stopped producing superior fine art photographs. It's not that the cameras, film, chemicals and papers don't do what they did twenty, thirty and forty years ago. They still do. There isn't much new research or development going on in these things any more, but the industry did reach a very high technical level a number years back. The only new "thing" I've seen lately is Kodak's new metallic paper which I find magnificent. Kodak is about to stop producing film. (I think Fuji's colour films are superior anyway, and I always used Ilford papers and chemicals for my Black and White work.)

The photographic world has gone digital. So has the world of music. At first everyone poopooed digital technology in both these areas. It just wasn't very good. Hi-fidelity (analogue) sound systems produced great sound -- incredible sound -- from pieces of black vinyl. The low sampling rate of the early digital sound systems was greatly inferior to analog hi-fi quality. Some of the original digital camera "wrote" a couple of dozen "files" to a floppy disk [1.2 megabytes -- tiny by today's standard], so the resolution on each picture was pretty low (maybe a mega pixel). These things were more in the realm of toys -- expensive big kids' toys, but child's play nonetheless.

It didn't take long though. Vinyl, except as curiosity, is long ago dead. Many photographers, and their number is dropping continuously, claim that digital doesn't (can't possibly) give you the sharpness or color depth of film. Film is taking longer to die than black records. Home and commercial darkrooms (paper and chemicals) seem to have largely died already. People still using film generally have their photographs printed digitally at photolabs. Most of these labs now scan negatives and print them on photographic papers (and chemicals -- wet processing). This is all done "inside" one machine, without intervention. "Automated" photolabs are still alive, but for how much longer?

So why hasn't Stan gone digital? I think it's a combination of factors, the main one being related to his age. Stan is from the early end of the baby-boom generation, but I am noticing, that many of those from the first ten years of the baby boomers have problems adapting to "new" technology.

First, Stan is reluctant to buy a digital camera. He won't admit that he is scared of the technology. "They're not cheap", he says, but that's just an excuse. I tell him that working with digital is really the same as it was in the past -- you look though the SLR's viewfinder, you set your exposure, you compose, and finally you click -- gottcha!. Nothing's changed -- so what if the image is now on a CCD being written to a flash card rather than stored as a latent image on a piece of coated film. It's still an image. It will still produce a beautiful colour print! Stan eventually bought a point-and-shoot thing, not a cheap one (much cheaper than a Nikon SLR), but just it isn't the same. I too have a fancy point-and-shoot camera, a Canon 650; I carry it around a lot because it is a great deal lighter than my SLR. This morning I saw a large fly through a leaf in strong backlight (of morning sunshine, my favourite light source). Using the camera's screen as viewfinder, I failed to locate the fly (and it was big, but I guess I was too close on full zoom), so I elected to use the view finder instead. I shot a couple of frames this way, but the camera's parallax was so off that I missed the fly each time. And then the fly flew off -- my SLR would have given six frames in the same time.

Back to Stan. He's taken a couple nice photographs with his new contraption, but his perfectionism won't let him get a good enough image. He has use to all the features of his graphics program, but he doesn't understand them fully. He reads a lots of user groups, but that makes it worse for him in some ways, because "they do such nice things". Stan produces his images for screen output, putting them up on one of those "hey, look at my pictures" sites which have sprung up like mushrooms after the rain. Eventually, I convinced Stan to get a few photographs printed at a lab. He knows he has to buy a digital SLR. I think it's not that he can't afford it -- there's some kind of mental block here.

This mind, anti-technology, block exists in many areas. If I send an email to the Rabbi, he won't get it unless his secretary is in the office, because she has to print it out for him; he reads it on paper, scribbles a reply, which she in turn types into the mail program and sends me the Rabbi's reply. I think part of the problem is that his secretary is also in "that" age group, so she doesn't "force" him to read on the screen. I am sure she filters a lot of his junk mail, but still, this isn't a solution. I sometimes send the Rabbi a link to something I think he will find of interest. She prints out site for his perusal. Last week I told him I had sent him a link to some photographs which I knew he really wanted to see, and told him that he would have to sit in front of a screen to see them -- printing them out would kill the effect. He still hasn't looked at them. "I'm so busy." I believe he really means, "I'm so scared", though I do know he has a lot on his plate.

My mother and my mother-in-law, both in their eighties, have had computers with Internet connections for a few years now. And that is really great. They know how to use parts of a couple of applications (email, browser, Skype); they know only a small set of functions and rarely seem to learn anything new. I have to switch off my computer's sound at night, because my mother, who lives eight time zones away, has woken me in the middle of the night on a few occasions. She denies this, but Skype logs all calls, in and out. I assume she's calling the person above or below me on her contact list, or hitting "Enter" with the wrong window active. I've tried to get her to look at the log to see the entry for her nocturnal call to me, but I just haven't managed to explain it to her well enough for her to see it -- so she just denies the call -- if one of nephews is reading this, please go and show her how to read the log. But both of these ladies have a lot of fun and satisfaction with the independence and flexibility the computer gives them.

Second, (back to Stan), he has a mental block on the computer side of the equation as well. As I have written many times, developing a photograph, whether in a "real" darkroom or a digital one, is at least as important as the preliminary "click" work. Stan has a reasonably old laptop. The screen just doesn't show colours with any accuracy, and he uses cutdown versions of software. If you want to do this correctly, you need a good computer with an "excellent" screen. Again a cash outlay. Stan's wife wants her laundry, which he took over for a darkroom that he hasn't used in ten years, back -- I don't blame her, she wants to wear clean clothes again. If hardware is expensive (prices have really dropped) then at least software can be cheap. I'm really happy using the GIMP instead of the $800 a pop Adobe Photoshop (and then you have the privilege to pay again when a newer version is released in the future -- but we'll discuss open source software another day).

So why is it that "older" people (over 50?) have problems grasping technology. They're usually smart, they have experience, they understand lots of things well -- but when it comes to technology . . . .

I don't have an answer. Are they slow to learn new things, and technology is all "something new"? the most new thing? "an old dog can't learn new tricks?" But this does seems to be universal. Is my technical background (degrees in Computer Science and Industrial Engineering) my immunity? Am I immune forever? Did I forget to tell you something, or was that just another senior moment?

Any ideas? Any psychologists out there with an answer?
Let me hear from you.

14th July, 2008    

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