Cover Story

The Age of the Digital Dinosaur

Gray hair is no longer the only sign of getting old, there’s not having an iPhone or a Twitter account

Lauren Corning felt like a digital outsider when people at her 25th college reunion were tweeting the event. Her 14-year-old son Trevor often helps her with technology questions. Lauren Corning felt like a digital outsider when people at her 25th college reunion were tweeting the event. Her 14-year-old son Trevor often helps her with technology questions. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / June 30, 2011

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A t 47, Beth Jones still drives fast and swears way too much. The Brookline writer ice climbs and takes 40-mile bike rides, and her 6-year-old son’s teacher told her she looks 35. But recently, something truly made her feel youthful: “I set up my own website.’’

Alas, that was a rare victory in her war on aging, which, in 2011, means not just looking and acting young in the real world, where crows’ feet and bifocals threaten, but in cyberspace, too. In the not-so-distant past, gray hair and orthopedic shoes made you look old. Today, there are other giveaways: an AOL address, the inability to tweet — or even find Twitter on the web, ignorance of Tumblr, a fear of uploading and downloading, e-mailing instead of texting. Flip phones are the new middle-age paunch.

“Every day I feel I’m losing ground,’’ said Jones, as she uttered the common lament of the so-called digital immigrant (a person who grew up before computers and devices dominated the culture): “Technology is making me feel old.’’

A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans (64 percent) think new technology has made life easier. But, perhaps not surprisingly, the older the person, the less likely he or she feels that way. The survey found that while 74 percent of Millennials, and 69 percent of Gen-Xers hold that view, only 60 percent of Baby Boomers do, and for those born between 1925 and 1945, the number drops to 50 percent.

Reflecting on just how rapidly technology moves, best-selling science writer James Gleick said that when his book “Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything’’ was published in 1999, “it seemed as though things couldn’t possibly get any faster. Meanwhile, a lot of my book is already starting to seem quaint.’’

Back then, grandmothers didn’t e-mail, and Facebook, Twitter, and iPhones didn’t exist. Teens argued with their parents about watching too much TV, not whether they could text all night long. Politicians lost their jobs for real-life sex scandals, not virtual ones.

Now? It can be hard for a technologically challenged parent to chat with her own child.

“I feel like I want to take a class so we can have something to discuss,’’ said Georgie Haynes, 52, a medical secretary from Somerville. “When they use all that terminology, I get this blank look on my face.’’

Recently she went to Best Buy in the Fenway to buy a present for her 22-year-old son, who likes gaming, but she left confused. “I don’t understand anything,’’ she said. “I’m going to Bed Bath & Beyond. That I get.’’

Media-executive Robert Tercek, a former president of digital media for the Oprah Winfrey Network, points out, keeping current today involves more than just passively consuming the hot music, literature, TV shows, and movies.

“In the old days, it was easy,’’ said the Los Angeles-based Tercek. “TV you watched. Books you read, music you listened to it. But today it’s different. You don’t just watch or read or listen. You comment. You post. You share. You like. You forward. There are all these participatory modes.’’

And it’s not just what you read or hear or see, but on which device. Marc Prensky, the writer credited with coining the term “digital native,’’ calls the iPad “a digital facelift.’’

Like carrying the right handbag or driving a sporty car, it sends a message. “It’s part of entering the screen world,’’ he said. “That’s the age we live in. If you say, ‘I’m not going there,’ you are literally placing yourself outside the age.’’

Lauren Corning, 47, of Belmont, was recently confronted with her own digital limits when making plans to attend her 25th reunion at Cornell University. The reunion website invited returning alumni to follow the reunion on Twitter, visit a Facebook page, and upload itineraries to their smart phones. “Or something like that,’’ she said.

Corning, a vice president of distribution planning at Sovereign Bank, tried to make plans digitally, “but in the end, I looked for a human to touch base with.’’ She enjoyed herself at the event, but seeing how 25-year-olds make their plans gave her a jolt. “I’ve got to get on the stick.’’

Her 14-year-old son Trevor, grinning by her side, agreed. “When she goes on Facebook she’ll ask for help,’’ he said. He repeated one of her questions: “What does it mean when someone pokes you?’’

No sphere of life is exempt from technology’s judgmental reach, not even the seemingly old-world of farmers’ markets. “Just today I was unintentionally insulted,’’ said Leslie Wilcott-Henrie, 49, of Lexington, with a laugh. When she provided feedback on a blog the farmers’ market was launching, she was told it was trying to reach a different demographic.

“They told me it was geared toward younger people.’’

But what’s a person to do? As Sherry Turkle, the author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,’’ and an MIT professor, points out, acting too digitally young is also problematic. “But just as 50-year-olds shouldn’t really try to dress like 20-year-olds (although they do), should we all try to text like 20-year-olds[?]’’ she wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “In our culture, we all wear blue jeans. It has become universal. But ripped jeans at fifty? Perhaps one needs to leave certain styles to the young.’’

Among the challenges facing people of a certain age (or is it a certain e-mail address?) is keeping current with what counts as “with it.’’ No sooner do grannies get on Facebook, than that loses its cache, and it’s Twitter and its hashtags the kids care about.

Barbara Moran, 40, of Brookline, discovered this recently. “I was feeling old and then I started playing Angry Birds on my iPhone and now I feel much better,’’ she wrote in an e-mail.

Her joy was short lived. Not an hour later, she wrote again. “The sad thing is that if I am playing Angry Birds, that probably means that it’s something only old people do.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on twitter @beth_teitell