Fifty-Five on the Information Highway

© 2020 Melissa Jackson Brister All Rights Reserved
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Mention the words…Internet or computers and many automatically assume that computers are the domain of the young. It is true that the younger generation first welcomed the craze. From personal computers, video cell phones, to MP3 players, the young enthusiastically incorporate the internet and technology into their lives. Computers and pricey graphing calculators are now mandatory in many schools. The trend is changing. In a survey conducted in late December 2004, reported, “Most of today’s growth is being driven by the older age groups. The fastest growth in Internet use is being driven by the older age groups, starting at fifty-five.”

Often this demographic is referred to as the Fifty Plus crowd, the Baby Boomers, and, of course, by the odious moniker, senior citizens. Youngsters and young adults from this decade have their roots in the Fabulous Fifties. The Fabulous Fifties followed the decade that saw the end of the World War II with the turbulent sixties decade still ahead. The U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census Population, reported the population at 151,684,000 with a life expectancy for women of 71.1 years and 65.6 years for men. For many their average annual salary of $2,992 included the purchase of an automobile with car sales at 6,665,800. Dads wore gray flannel suits; moms wore dresses belted at the waist and high heels; and grandma, a small white-haired woman, spent a good deal of time in her rocking chair.

Flying Saucers, Communists, and the PC
In the fifties, Joe McCarthy searched rabidly for communists and the phrase Under God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance; some Americans spent a portion of their leisure time watching the skies for flying saucers. The science fiction of authors Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov resonated as Americans read The Martian Chronicles and I, Robot. Space exploration was a reality soon to be realized. Teens danced to the music of Elvis, Bill Haley, and Buddy Holly while watching Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Meanwhile, the grownups listened to Perry Como, Nat King Cole, and Dinah Shore and watched You Are There and I Love Lucy on their black and white TVs. Drive-In Movies were popular outings for families and teenagers. Dressed in Davy Crockett coonskin hats, armed with silly putty and Hop-a long Cassidy guns, kids played with Hoola-Hoops and munched on Fizzies, Sugar Pops, Corn Dogs, and Bosco chocolate syrup. A government pamphlet entitled You Can
offered bomb shelter plans to the war-weary nation.

During this decade, the first Personal Automatic Computer (PAC) was introduced to academia and businesses. Designed by John Lentz of Watson Lab at Columbia University, the PAC was the IBM 610 Auto-Point Computer. The definition of a personal computer at that time was literal: one person operated the system using the keyboard. This personal computer consisted of the keyboard, a large cabinet, a magnetic drum, paper-tape readers and punches, the control panel, and control circuitry. The manufacturer produced One hundred and eighty units. Each unit rented for a mere $1150 a month or one could purchase a unit for $55,000.00.

James Moore, a retired physicist, who spent thirty-eight years working as a Naval Warfare Weapons Systems Analyst at Naval Coastal Systems still remembers the first computer he saw on the base. The large system required a great deal of space, yet its capabilities were no more sophisticated than one of today’s digital watches. “The computer was located in one wing of the third floor of the administration building where I worked. My guess is the area was about twenty by fifty feet. The room had a false floor containing lots of cabling. There were many cabinets housing the components. The room required a lot of air conditioning because of the tremendous heat generated by the filaments in the thousands of vacuum tubes. It was probably a Burroughs system with little more than 32K, but it would be dwarfed by a single PC today.”

A computer on every desk
In 1981, he and Betty, his wife, began using computers at home for their gift shop and photography studio. They tracked inventory and customer’s restoration orders. Like many others, he credits Bill Gates with putting a computer on everyone’s home. Computers influenced their lives in a variety of ways.

His hobby photography has also been changed by the techno revolution. Prior to the computer age, he spent long hours in his darkroom. A digital camera and photo editing software have replaced his enlargers and the developing and processing chemicals. The darkroom is now a wet bar. The long hours are now spent in daylight at his computer.

Betty enrolled for computer classes in Panama City at Gulf Coast Community College and Tom P. Haney Technical Center. For a brief time she and Jim shared his computer. It did not take long until she noticed that her husband always seemed to be on the computer when she was ready to use it. When he upgraded his system, she inherited Jim’s hand-me-down computer. Albeit quite used, Betty finally had her own computer. She uses Quicken software to manage their banking needs. She also uses her computer for prescriptions, personal correspondence, and research. Today the Moore household is still a two-computer abode; both computers are networked. However, these days, both Jim and Betty’s computers are new.

The computer bug bit Jim Moore hard and gave him a way to combine his interest in art and design with his interest in technology. After becoming fascinated by the Web and its potential, he devoted his free time to learning Web Design, database applications, programming, and Search Engine Optimization. He uses his computer and the Internet to conduct research, to handle their investments and to run and manage Bay Info-Tech, a small Web design business. He designed one of the first Genealogical Society Web sites for the Augusta Georgia Genealogical Society. Additionally, he conducted a study for them in which he assessed the need and benefits of a Web site for the organization. He recalls that they were concerned about the privacy issues at the time. “Many retired people use computers to aid their genealogy research and record keeping. Genealogy software systems not only have great database capability, but they can take the stored data and automatically format it into a family history document ready for publishing.” He predicted that in the near future records of interest to genealogists would be digitized and made readily available to genealogists. Much of this has been realized.

Reach out and touch someone with E-Mail
The Moores like so many computer users appreciate the ease and affordable communication that e-mail provides for keeping in touch with their family and friends abroad. From size to capacity to availability, computers, and the technology that drives them is growing. The tendency to perceive older Americans as techno phobic began to diminish as these users discovered the advantages and instant connection to family and friends. Joyce Philbeck in writing about the growing numbers of older users noted, “[a reason] that seemed to be extremely prevalent was to keep in touch with their grandchildren and to learn the same things their grandchildren were learning about computers and the Internet.”

More and more, computers and the Internet are regarded as essential tools that have been incorporated into daily activities of people. Most people whether they are computers users or not would probably agree that computers are here to stay. For Jim Moore, a particularly positive aspect of the Information Age and its technological leaps has been the many advances in medicine and technology. He thinks one day patients will be treated with medicines and regimes based on genetic research particular to their DNA. He also believes that computers have a positive effect particularly on older users. “Computers and the internet have given me something to do with my free time. After retirement, I lost contact and interaction with people. I think computers and the Internet will go a long way in helping the isolation so many older people experience. I also think that using computers help delay dementia a by challenging people to problem solve and to think.”

More older computer users are surfing their way to chat rooms and blogs. The inherent the anonymity of cyberspace seems to be facilitate a level of comfort while seeking advice and engaging in discussions. Discussions cover every imaginable topic including lifestyles, plumbing, computing, medical conditions, alternative or holistic approaches to healing and gardening. Spamming and privacy remain two of the top fear for most computer users. Still computers have lost the onerous association to Arthur C. Clark’s maniacal computer HAL, from the book and movie 2001. However, the viability of George Orwell’s “Big Brother” is a concern that merits monitoring. The popularity of the Internet has spawned vigilant watchdog sites dedicated to keeping “Big Brother” at bay.

World of Opportunities
The Internet and computers are expanding the definition of what it means to age. Jason Pippin, Founder of the newly formed Northwest Florida Macromedia User Group (NWFMMUG), invites interested persons to attend. The group holds laid-back and informal meeting monthly to discuss macromedia and other Web, Design, and computer subjects. Current members range in age from the twenties through seventies and every decade between.

Opportunities to learn and remain active are presented through many sites. Gulf Coast Community College (GCCC) invites senior citizens from Bay, Gulf, and Franklin counties to become involved in their Education Encore Program. The Education Encore Program Web site quotes a recent Harvard Medical School study stating that "just as exercising the body keeps one physically fit -- exercising the mind keeps one mentally fit.” Encore does precisely that for its participants. Described as a participant-driven, educational opportunity, it is open to adults age fifty years and older. Kevin Kimble, Coordinator of Education Encore Program, says the classes are full and he continues to see the interest in the programs increase. He encourages interested persons to explore the ‘World of Opportunities’ provided by participating in the program.

Computer classes are popular at the Gulf/Franklin Center. Bill Barker, a favorite computer instructor there teaches Computer Basics, Computer–Internet and Email and Computer – MS Word. Shirley Brown teaches the class, Fun With Digital and Film Cameras. A spring term (mid-January through February), and a fall term (the end of September through October) are offered every year at the Gulf/Franklin County campuses of GCCC. The fee is $60.00 for the six-week program at the Gulf/Franklin.
Those who take in the computer classes through the encore program receive special privileges which include: Free admission to all athletic events and there is no charge for many of the events at the Amelia G. Trapper Center For The Arts; use of the college library and the student bookstore; use New Wellness Center which includes the use of the hydrotherapy pool, the pool, and the weight and fitness room.

Subsequent generations will grow up with the constant hum of computers and the Internet. These generations will not know what it is like not to be a part of the technological landscape. This familiarity will immunize many to the wonder of the discoveries. They will expect the next technological marvel, rather than celebrate each new leap.
To come from a time when mainframes occupied entire floors to the advent of laptop computers gives one a different perspective. For each new traveler, those who are computer novices, there awaits an adventure. Once introduced to the possibilities and the expansiveness of the cyber world, there cannot help but be a heighten appreciation of the distance covered. The Internet and computers are tools that have and are changing society. In the silent shadow of these changes, some of the prejudices of ageism, sexism, and racism become less powerful.


Cool Web Sites cool to visit
Education Encore site

Kingwood College Library
Great site with detailed information on American Cultural History, the 20th and 19th century

From Mainframes To Personal Computers

General information and Links for Fifty Plus people

Computer Ergonomics
Cornell University Ergonomics Web Site

Web design

Northwest Florida Macromedia User Group

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