I was walking down York Street on a rainy Saturday night in October when a tall, strapping lad shuffled up and ducked under my umbrella.
“Box,” I replied.
“Oh, that’s great, me too,” he said.
We exchanged names and hometowns, as any two Yalies are wont to do, before he inquired about my class year.
“I’m a senior,” I told him.
“Oh man! You’re old!” he balked. Then he paused for a moment. “I’m a freshman. I thought a second about lying about that.”
“Mhm,” I generously contributed to the collapsing conversation. But in my head I was questioning: Am I really that old? The four years between us didn’t seem like that much. But on the other hand, had he ever known the joys of one’s father recording Charlie Rose over one’s own recording of Zoom! (by kids, for kids) over one’s mom’s recording of Wimbledon, all on the same triple-labeled VHS tape? In 2007, when the iPhone came out, I had my driver’s license and he was only 12.
Luckily, we’d reached our destination and the boy safely disappeared, leaving me contemplating how I’d rather date myself with reference to a VHS than date him.
The adults of our generation — we who grew in intelligence and maturity at about the same rate as did smartphones and the Internet — are in a unique position. We know that the Microsoft Word “save” icon is a floppy disc, because believe it or not, we’ve all seen one. We were privy to a world without Facebook and Skype, but we can no longer imagine one without them. This sets us distinctly apart from the adults of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, who transitioned in and out of adolescence toting mixtapes and stereos, and from those of our baby cousins’, nieces’ and nephews’ generations, whose first breaths were captured on iPhones and who couldn’t differentiate a floppy disc from an Ikea tea coaster even if you gave them a 1996 desktop PC as a hint.
It’s easy to lose track of what the world was like before we fully passed puberty. I was born in 1991, which means that a cell phone cost $1000 when I was five, MySpace and Skype came into being when I was 12, and Facebook sprouted at Harvard when I was 13. I remember in eighth grade when my friend got a pink Razr v3, the sleekest, sexiest phone of all time, and how she would toss her hair back while flipping it open. YouTube was born when I was 14, Twitter when I was 15 and Instagram right around high school graduation. In other words, in our most impressionable, gullible, clueless years, my peers and I teetered right on the edge between connectivity and disconnect, plugging in and being unplugged, noses-to-screens and eyes-to-skies.
But those of the generations below us have entered the world already connected — their photos insta-ed, texted, tagged and blogged before they can even gurgle “lol.” Facebook and iPhones are as much a part of their early educational environments as are belly buttons and fingernails. They don’t know a world without technology, and it seems our special responsibility to show them it exists, because we were once, ourselves, its inhabitants.
Because we still straddle these two worlds, every family gathering provides a small yet powerful opportunity to prove to the young’uns that we can get through an hour of Lego’s without fondling our phones and to prove to the oldies that we can sit through dinner — and dessert — without checking a text or refreshing our inbox. We also have the opportunity to prove it to ourselves. Unless we are expecting a call from Ban Ki-moon, Christine Lagarde or the steamy British guy who played the latest Superman — okay no, not even Henry Cavill — there’s no reason we need to sit on our phones like nesting hens during Thanksgiving dinner.
A Pew Research Center article calls the iPhone the Swiss Army knife of communication. Like the beloved knife, it is a pocket-sized gadget loaded with almost all of the tools you could possibly need. Both objects make me feel safer, more empowered and secure. To the kids on laptops, smartphones and tablets, we need to emphasize that technology is exactly that — a tool — which, like a Swiss Army knife, can cause damage if handled carelessly. Cyberbulling can cut down classmates, and naive use of the Internet can endanger the safety and identity of clueless youngsters.
So when we go home to spend time with our families, let’s think of all of the smartphones and laptops in the house as Swiss Army knives. This will help us to teach children to use their own gadgets with care and skill, and remind ourselves that they are not essential for every daytime activity.
Oh and lastly, no iKnives on the dinner table. We place down our phones as if they were sentinels to our silverware. But our silverware will survive dinner, and so will we.
Tao Tao Holmes is a senior in Branford College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.