The first time I saw somebody walking down the street talking on a cellphone, I thought he was mentally ill. I was in New York City in the late ’90s, and people there were a little ahead of the curve, on slick handheld cellphones and Bluetooths. He was shaking his head from side to side, waving his hands and stomping while he spoke, as if he were talking to an invisible person right in front of him. The more I looked around that day, the more I realized that lots of other people were doing the same thing. Yelling, walking with their heads down, having emotional reactions to the air around them right on the street — it was like watching actors on a stage.
It wasn’t until a few months later, when people at my church showed me that they had portable phones they could carry around outside of their homes, that I realized how far things had come from my trusty landline phone.
Little did I know that it was just the beginning of a tsunami of new technology and change. It’s been hard to wrap my head around. It took me until this year to learn how to use the internet and get my first smartphone, both at the age of 68. It may sound strange to you that I’ve gone this long without internet access, but I’m not alone — studies show that 13 percent of Americans don’t use the internet.
Now that I’ve spent some time online, I love how it makes so many things, like paying my bills, more convenient. But mostly, I’m struck by how simple it is to check out of my own life and temporarily hop into another person’s consciousness. I get why my kids and grandkids can’t seem to get off their smartphones or computers. Sometimes I’m a little scared that soon I’ll be just like everyone else, walking zigzag down the street and talking into thin air.
Why I avoided the internet for so long
Why did it take me so long to get online? The issue isn't that I didn't have easy access to an internet connection. I live in Washington, DC, a big city with plenty of service providers and free wifi at the local Starbucks. Nor is it that I'm too old — yes, I'm a senior citizen, but I had plenty of opportunities in my younger years to get online.
It's more complicated than any one reason. The truth is I just never thought the internet was for me. I never needed to learn it on the job working security in a correctional facility and at various DC government buildings. We were on our feet all day and far from computers, and cellphones were banned while on the clock.
Once I retired 10 years ago, I had no interest in going online. It just seemed like something that was meant for young folks, people like my kids and grandkids, all of whom I saw glued to those little screens more and more. Most of my friends and family around my age do not use the internet either. My nieces and nephews bought my 82-year-old sister a computer a couple years back — to this day, she’s still too scared to learn how to get online, only using it to play Solitaire.
Many people who don’t use the internet are elderly, like me: 41 percent of the people who fit this profile are over the age of 65. I think these older people feel settled in their ways, as if they’re not sure they really want a totally new experience after everywhere they’ve been in their lives, everything they’ve seen. I get where they’re coming from.
I also won’t lie — some of it was fear. The whole concept seemed scary to me, that you could just push a bunch of buttons and a picture or text from somewhere far away would suddenly be in front of you. What’s happening on the other end of that button you push?
From what I could tell, the internet made people into children all over again. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand how the world worked, so I listened to the adults around me and did what they told me to do with blind faith. Now people are pouring that same trust into the internet. Even though most people don’t understand how it works, they trust that if they push this button and do this, their electricity bill will be paid, or they’ll know the right schedule for the movies playing at the Chinatown movie theater.
It’s a childlike faith that I see in my kids and grandkids. They trust that Google will know what to do when they are sick with a fever, or that the GPS will correctly route them home.
Still, I felt like I was being left behind. It seemed like everywhere I looked, on billboards, in magazines, recorded in the phone messages of different offices I was calling, people were telling me to go to some address called “WWW” for more information. I wanted to understand it, and to see if it would make my life better. I was very lucky the day two months ago that a man handing out pamphlets invited me to a computer class taught by volunteers. I signed up for a six-week beginner course and was on my way.
Learning was hard at first
Learning how to use the internet was pretty frustrating at first. When my teacher would write out step-by-step directions on how to copy and paste or conduct a Google search, it felt like I was reading a foreign language. Nothing seemed to work the way it was supposed to. Other people in my class felt the same frustration — we started with 18 students, most of them 40 and older, but by the end of the six-week course, only seven remained.
Slowly, I got the hang of it. We went through all the basics: how to use a search engine, how to set up an email account, how to download something, how to compose an email. The first time I successfully found that little paperclip button and attached a picture to an email, I was beyond thrilled. That feeling of instant gratification was so satisfying.
I come from a different generation, the waiting generation, where life is like baking a cake: You have to get the butter, flour, and sugar all mixed together, then wait for it to transform after an hour in the oven. But with the internet, it’s a totally different kind of feeling. Everything happens so fast.
I’m worried about how much of my time it will take up
Overall, learning how to use the internet has been a joyous experience for me. It’s made my everyday life much easier. Before, when I needed to pay a bill, update my cable package, or do some kind of errand, I used to have to make a call. Of course, that call would turn into a redirected call, or I’d be told to try another number. An hour of holding later, I’d be explaining myself all over again to some new stranger on the other end of the phone. If I had a question, I’d march down to the office building, where I’d spend time riding elevators and walking down long hallways trying to track down the information desk. But now that I have internet, I can do it all instantly, right on the computer. Type in a question, and there’s the answer plus a link showing you how to do it all online. Boom, boom, boom.
More importantly, it has opened new worlds to me from one tiny screen. I use the internet to talk with friends and family members who live in different places. The first time I logged on to Facebook on my own, I saw a video that my son who lives in New Jersey had posted of my 8-month-old great-granddaughter. It was the first time I had ever seen her. I burst into tears. I typed out a small message to give her a kiss for me. My son posted a video of her and my older granddaughter waving and sending kisses at the camera, saying, “Hi, Grandma!” It was a beautiful thing.
I also use the internet to look at pictures of fall foliage from every state I’ve never been to. I watched a video of a bypass surgery on an obese person. I traveled all the way to a Chinese food market through the computer, learning about new ingredients and recipes. I feel so lucky to be experiencing this, to have lived through this information revolution.
But I’m also starting to see how easy it is to spend all of your time consuming the content of other people’s lives through these devices. It was something I observed my kids and grandkids doing from afar, when I’d see them scrolling through pictures of their friends on their phones, but it wasn’t until I got online myself that I realized how addictive it could be. I’ve always been active — I spent many years in retirement without a phone or computer, occupying myself by reading books, going on long walks, and arranging flowers. Now hours will pass spent online, reading and watching about the world around me. Sometimes I’m worried that while I peruse the lives of others, I’m missing out on my own.
I’m worried about my kids too. A couple of years ago we were celebrating Father’s Day together, and my granddaughter gave a card to her father, my son. On it, she had drawn pictures of him on the couch, at the door, and on the computer, all while holding a phone. It sparked a big conversation in my family. My son even it took it to our church, telling our congregation that we need to start looking up from our phones and talking to our kids more.
That’s why I’m taking conscious steps not to get too glued to my phone. I try to leave it at home whenever I can. I still go on walks without it, and I try to talk with people that I meet while I’m out, conversing in real life, out in the real world. I tell my grandkids to look up every now and then, to not let this internet turn them into passive children.
—as told to Karen Turner
Marvia Applewhite lives in Washington, DC. She has three sons, six grandsons, seven granddaughters, and nine great-grandchildren. She's always used her hands to create and design flower arrangements, and now she also uses them to push buttons and go amazing places through the internet. Marvia learned how to use computers at Byte Back, a nonprofit that provides computer and career training to underserved DC residents. She hopes this article will encourage others her age to get educated and embrace and challenge the new world system instead of just settling.