Grandparents and TLCs: Technology, Loving, Connecting-Blech

stereotypical grandparentsAlthough half of all adults 65 or older are online regularly (see: Pew research)  stereotypes of older persons as luddites prevail. For example, The grandparents project asks:

 ‘Who knows better how to give TLC than grandparents? Tender Loving Care. We offer advice on another kind of TLC. Technology, Loving, Connecting…We live in an amazing age where technology is expanding rapidly all around us, making it hard to keep up with it all. Much of technology is not easy to learn. Many gadgets have surprising benefits and uses that are not obvious. What if someone could tell grandparents about the latest technology, show them how to use it to strengthen their relationship with their grandchildren, and teach them how to use it?

Although good-intentioned, intergenerational technology projects like these promote ‘digital immigrant’ narratives that stereotype both older and younger persons similar to Hallmark greeting cards: Grandparents need to be included in high-tech for their TLC: Technology, loving, connecting. Mark Prensky, who invented this concept of the aged digital immigrant said: ‘

Today’s older folk were “socialized” differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.’

The assumption is that if they ramp up their skills, they’ll get with the program.  But they can only contribute to their grandchildren’s emotional wealth (and, too perhaps to their own), but little else. In reality, the communication is complex and non-linear and learning is pervasive. What’s more, older persons fashion rules of reciprocity for co-presence and ‘do’ family reunification through ICTs (Sun, 2011).

grandfather-daughter communicating

grandfather-daughter communicating

These interactions are not simple. There is far more happening in them than initially meets the eye. Take my father, living in California and my daughter, living in England.  I spied their Skype interactions over a period of a year.  Here my daughter, Ciela, and I just finished a library book called Dear Greenpeace about a British girl named Emily who writes Greenpeace about saving whales, prompting her and I to do the same, upon which we received loads of stickers and posters that she shared w/ my father over Skype. But because she has placed the pictures below the camera and keeps saying how, ‘terrible’ it is that whales are caught in nets, my father who is oblivious to the backstory,  focuses instead on building her vocabulary—expanding on it by telling her that ‘terrible’ is an ‘amazing’ word. When he tells her that she is ‘beating the band’ (suggesting she is pioneering) she responds with banging the poster and making music to which he nods as they both swing into a rhythm and the conversation tracks new territory. This pilot pseudo-autoethnographic approach was important for illuminating the details of not just how transnational families communicate and connect through ICTs (lovingly)  but also learn from one another and innovate.

Although both participants (in this pic) are sitting and talking, it was a highly mobile interaction. Ciela, my daughter, gets up and down, playing with toys and showing them to him. She also moves to my camera,  glancing back at me as if to check my filming and performing ‘good’ granddaughter and daughter. My father leans forward to hear her better and at one point, not catching her quick British-accented comments, tells me, ‘I can’t hear what she’s saying’ as that morning he decided not to use his hearing aids. She often leaves the screen to run upstairs to collect stuffed animals to show him and then when it falls asleep hits the laptop to beam in his face again. Some of these animals she places too high or low from the camera because it’s not too clear to her that the green light on the computer is something that reflects her. Although she grew up all too familiar with the computer as an extension of her mother’s work and social life, the way she bangs it to make it come to life again lets me know she sees it as separate from either her or me as would someone like my father whose early life never depended on it but whose later life does. Meanings of words and phrases switch to different levels in layered interactions as they struggle to communicate with what could be considered a transparent medium, which is nothing of the kind.

They are engaged in mobile learning where participants switch from one interaction to the next in difficult terrain but not necessarily in logical sequence—interactions ‘pop up in unexpected locations’ (Engestrom, 2009) very different from the official scripts of learning in classrooms where there are fixed end-points. Learning happens like wildfire (Engstrom, 2009). Random conversations move like jazz. Mobile learning mixes people’s worlds (Laouris & Eteokleous, 2006, p. 3). In this case my father and daughter try to override the ergonomics of the computer hardware and software and share across time and space from a long way away. They invent interactions that are caring and spark more communication, some verbal and some not.

Thinking about this intergenerational cross-border mobile learning event made me consider the roles of children and grandparents learning through ICTs in unsentimental ways. Selma Wassermann has written a comprehensive book  describing high-tech communication for ‘connecting through cyberspace’  in The Long Distance Grandmother. In it, she gives grandparents realistic expectations about these interactions including discussing the choppy quality of the video at times as well as myriad digital literacy tips for getting ‘grandma wired.’ These grandmothers however are not depicted in deficient ways. Neither is my father communicating and learning with my daughter—both are interacting in ways that defy the stereotypes and move to new levels of understanding and intimacy.

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