What Will Be Your Technology “Waterloo”?

My son once asked me a while ago whether I’d ever see myself be left behind by technology. My response was, “No… because I’ll always be learning new things.” His question was a fair one. My grandmother used to need help to make a phone call — on one of those old rotary phones. Granted, there was only one telephone in our neighborhood and most people hardly made any phone calls. Grandma was uneducated and in her early 80s, so technology-the rotary phone-was confusing. But I’ve used grandma as an example to illustrate the point that sometimes technology could advance so rapidly that some people wouldn’t be able to ever catch up.

One may laugh at my grandma, but for most of her life, grandma was one of those ahead of her time: When she was young, her father, a merchant, was traveling back and forth between her village and wherever he was doing business in northeast China. He would bring back facial creams–something village women barely heard of. Grandma also traveled occasionally to Harbin (northeast China), so in her village, her family were viewed with awe. When she moved to Beijing, she quickly adapted to the city life. She figured out how to read the numbers and characters on money and food ration tickets and how to make herself look fashionable, with the limited resources she had.

But the rotary phone became a permanent roadblock for her. She knew the numbers. She knew how to turn the dial. But she never quite got over the confusion and nervousness to pick up the phone and make a call, even after our family got our own phone installed.

(For those who aren’t familiar with rotary phones, here’s an example from “The Museum of Obsolete Objects”. And here’s a video teaching people how to use the newly released rotary phone.)


Some will say, you can’t predict the future–How will you know what your permanent roadblock–my technology Waterloo–will be. I do try to dismiss such anxiety provoking queries: Oh yes, I have been learning and keeping up: I learned a bit Python, a bit Ruby; I learned how to use the git commands–not bad for someone whose career exclusively deals with reading and writing and languages. Plus, I am trying still to figure out Reddit–but did I tell you I think I more or less have understood Twitter?

Truth is: I know I have already met my “technology Waterloo” (“techloo”?). It’s called SnapChat. SnapChat is where I have drawn a line and taken my last stand. Of course I tried SnapChat–several years ago shortly after it caught on, my kids convinced me to try it. So I did, but gave up after a few minutes. The problem was simple: The image flashed on my phone screen so quickly that it disappeared before I could focus my eyes on the screen (those were the days when I didn’t have to use dedicated reading glasses.)


So the roadblock was real–using SnapChat was something that strained (if it wasn’t entirely beyond) my physical ability. In the split second when an image is displayed on the screen, people in their late teens and early 20s see the image, get the joke (or the point), and return a comment or two–while I am still focusing my eyes.

Sure SnapChat was built for young people–perhaps intentionally to exclude the 45+ crowd that have made their D-Day landing and invaded Facebook. But even if I could extend the display time long enough for my eyes to focus, will I be able to make use of–much less to enjoy–SnapChat? I am not sure I can get all the meaning a SnapChat image conveys. (HELLO English major! What happened to your ability to uncover and analyze overt and covert meaning in any text?)


If, unlike me, you have conquered SnapChat, have you met your technology “Waterloo” somewhere else? I am asking because, as an educator and a learner, I’d like to think it just might be possible to predict and identify the roadblocks to one’s learning – and apply an antidote, like how we use antibiotics on infections.

Some of the graphics are from OpenClipArt.org.