• Mary K. Armstrong

Fast Forward

It was late in the 1970s before I was convinced that computers were essential to my existence. Back then, I was a yoga teacher and my equipment was simple: temple bells to signal the end of class and a yoga mat to roll up and take to the next session.

But I was itching to get some further education and training. There was one stumbling block. Libraries and the academic world had changed since my undergraduate years. Now all the information I would need was found on computers.

Photo shows a computer from 1978

Think back. When did you have your first encounter with a computer? Mine was in 1978, the year I returned to university where the technical complexities that had taken over the academic world since my earlier graduation rose up to block my way. If I wanted to leave the School of Social Work with a degree, I had to master statistics and undertake a research project. The computer was a vital part of this challenge. I shook at the very thought.

To prepare myself, I purchased one of these scary machines and set it up on the dining room table. My eight-year-old son, already comfortable with these Star Wars machines, now stationed himself at my elbow. “Mom, do you think it’s going to bite you?” he asked. I didn’t know what it was I found so threatening. I just knew it was terrifying.

Fast Forward to 2020, a time when the pandemic demands a whole new way of conducting our human need for companionship. I spend hours every day on my computer. My friends and neighbours do too. Sometimes I’m writing this column, but mostly I’m satisfying my need for human connection. Companionship on the computer? Who would have thought so many of us would one day seek social connection through computers?

For many of us, our religious organizations manage to reach out to us even though we’re sitting isolated, computers in front of us, in our own homes. My Kingston Unitarian Fellowship provides a full service every Sunday and small group Zoom gatherings throughout the week. Other spiritual communities do the same. Surprisingly, at the end of a session, I feel as if I’ve actually been with those people.

Want to join a book club? Play bridge online? How about Scrabble? We’re warned that many of us will be emerging from the pandemic with a drinking problem: you can even find AA groups online. I would never have imagined that all this human companionship would be available to me via computer.

It’s a far cry from 1978 when, as a graduate student, I had to start using the university’s main computer. This giant machine was housed in a separate building where we got stopped by a chest-high counter. A man behind the counter accepted our humble Fortran cards (the record of our research) and disappeared into the room behind, returning with a folded stack of perforated sheets for us to carry away. I never was really sure what to do with all this paper. Fortunately, my research group was divided into tasks, and I didn’t need to understand the whole process.

We’ve come a long way, and computer power has become available even to those of us who are not technically minded. Life is richer and friendlier if we can learn to use even a part of it. For us seniors, loneliness is a crushing fact. Phones and computers can greatly reduce our sense of being cut off from those we care for.

Photo shows two computers from 2020. Apple's Mac desktop computer and a MacBook Air laptop


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