Something a lot of people have been saying about crises like our current pandemic is that they bring into stark relief realities to which we might not have paid attention before. The massive disparity between rich and not rich in the United States that makes some people just fine working from home while others don’t have savings to pay their rent/mortgage now that they’ve lost their jobs, and still others have to go to work in unsafe conditions, even if they’re sick, because they can’t afford to be out of work; how health issues hit communities of color so much harder than the general population — because of disparities in housing, access to healthcare and information, underlying health conditions, and overrepresentation in “essential” service jobs, among other things; how small businesses, restaurants in particular, have been holding on by the thinnest of margins for a long time in cities like New York were the cost of living is high; these are all things that most of us know a lot more about now than we did before.
One additional thing this crisis in particular is making clear to me is the huge disparity in how middle-aged women deal with technology. Now that it’s what we all are using to communicate while we’re social distancing, it’s increasingly apparent to me that my cohort, the ladies of Generation X, are all over the map.
Does any of the following sound familiar?
No matter whether you’re using Zoom, Skype, FaceTime or Google Hangouts, video chats with your group of friends inevitably start off with people dropping in and out as they try to join, ending up in the wrong “room,” texting everyone to try and figure out what’s going on, having no sound because they’re on mute, having no picture because their camera’s off — or they deliberately have it off because they have bad internet or extremely bad hair, and that takes the first ten minutes of the call for everyone else to figure out. Then the rest of it you spend trying to hear (or pretending you can hear because sometimes in a group call that’s just easier) someone who’s too far away from their microphone, or trying not to look into a bright light, or at someone’s chest, or the ceiling, because of where their laptop camera has ended up.
Texting, even though we’ve all been doing it longer, often doesn’t go much better. Nobody seems to have internalized any sort of order or etiquette, so that you can be texting with one person and they immediately get back to you, because they are the kind of person who uses texting for its immediacy, but then you’ll be waiting for an answer from someone else for whom texting, email, and Facebook Messenger are basically all the same thing. I often find group threads popping up out of nowhere when we already have group threads that are perfectly fine — and that I’ve already put on do not disturb, because I use texts for work (or did, back when “work” was a thing for me) and so can’t be ignoring my alerts all the time (plus I’m really not good at ignoring notifications. If I see that little red number, I MUST CLEAR IT). And those threads will sometimes contain home phone numbers, emails, long-defunct emails or phone numbers, because whoever started them just typed in people’s names and took whatever their contacts came up with (which is technically a fault of the messaging app not being what it should and remembering what contact info you last used, but I’ll also blame us, because come on people).
And honestly, weren’t we all perfectly fine with email until our friends found themselves with tween-and-older children, the vector of badly-understood tech for all parents and, eventually, their childless friends? Snapchat in particular has screwed us all royally by spawning itself on platforms that Gen X finally did learn how to use, and making them far more annoying. Now I am often treated to Instagram and Facebook Story posts from friends: photos of things you can’t figure out why you’re looking at that linger until you’re just about to figure it out and then disappear, because people either haven’t realized they’re creating a Story by mistake when they’re trying to post to their feed, or they want to use the new thing without fully getting why they’re using the new thing. One Instagram friend just kept posting the same selfie to her Instagram stories, with no caption — and she’s definitely younger than me.
How did we get here?
I think it starts with the fact that being this generation puts us in the peculiar position of having grown up as computer technology was starting to advance. So we had access to (admittedly basic) computers as kids, but girls like me mainly just used them, if at all, to play interactive fiction games like Zork and Haunted House.
Or half learning to type with a typing game that made you shoot down spaceships, which I didn’t do long enough to get through numbers and punctuation (not surprisingly, this turned out to be a major limitation to my words per minute when I was applying for temp jobs). We didn’t foresee the all-powerful role computers were going to take on in our lives, that they were going to become necessary for everyone. And particularly for women, who were pushed away from that kind of thing growing up (after initially being the ones pushed toward computing, when it was considered a menial, low-paying profession like typing), it’s been hard to switch over as adults to learning not only something new, but something new that you’ve always been told you aren’t good at.
My own mediocre level of technical proficiency can ultimately can be traced back — as things in life often are — to privilege, luck and necessity. That computer my dad got for us when I was in high school was an Apple II clone called a Basis.
While I didn’t use it to learn to program, it still made me somewhat comfortable with at least playing games on it, so that, when I got to college, I was quick to jump on the first Macs in the computer center. Sophomore year, I got my own MacPlus, and even though I only used it as a tool for word-processing and designing fliers for dorm events on MacPaint, I recognized how it added to my skill set, allowing me to think and edit while writing in a way that actual writing (and even less my terrible typing) didn’t, and “draw” when I was not good at drawing. I did eventually take the very intro coding class CS 105A, because it was required for the Communications double-major that I maintained for a while so I could take film classes, but that was it, because I classified myself definitively as a “fuzzy.” That was the Stanford name for people who were in the arts and humanities, as opposed to “techies,” who were in the sciences or engineering (because back in them days we called computer science “CS” and not “tech”). I’d always been pretty good at everything in school up to that point, but when I got to college and finally had a choice about what to study, “techie” stuff wasn’t what I picked, and it’s hard to tell how much of that was what I actually liked or disliked and how much was the pressure to avoid science and math because they were “geeky.” This frustrates me to think about even now, because my mother was a feminist and a science teacher, and I was never a girly girl in any sense of the word — something I had to learn in college and my 20s was how to feel comfortable wearing, first, clothes that weren’t three sizes too big, and then skirts. Yet I felt acutely the stress of not wanting to stick out, and so the societal value of not being nerdy was driven into me. Role models for being a cool geek girl? Nonexistent in those days.
When I went to film school, I realized I was going to have to learn more tech, because, lo and behold, making films actually required pieces of equipment. Luckily, I had started off using Super 8 cameras to make films when I was a kid, then spent a lot of time doing still photography with my Canon SLR in my college years, and the 16mm Arris we were given at NYU were not that different. From there it was only one step further to learn sound equipment, because a Nagra was basically just a big tape recorder, and figuring out how to make microphones sound good seemed more intuitive than “techie.” And as with computers, if I had a good reason, I was willing to make friends with such infernal devices to get to whatever creative or fun thing I wanted to do. That didn’t make me less of a “fuzzy”; I still felt uncomfortable with all of it, deathly afraid that it would fail, or that I would fail by doing something wrong with it in a way that would cause everything to go to shit. But once the going to shit actually happened to me once or twice on student films and even on my first few professional gigs (exposing film by mistake, being unable to make wireless mics function due to interference, running out of sound tape during a take. That last one happened on a feature film with an actor who always played a mobster because he resembled one inside and out, who already hated me, probably because I was female, and now really hated me), I learned that everyone made those mistakes in order to learn how not to make them, as part of getting the systems you needed to know ingrained in your head so that they became rote. And, as someone who was naturally detail-oriented, I wasn’t really worse at that than anyone else. I just had to be a fuzzy who pushed myself to where I needed to go.
Probably the most important skills I learned transitioning from film school into my first years in the business, however, were how to read a manual, and how to trouble-shoot — and I’d say I have to thank for that the fact that I was single for nine years. The tools and devices I’d learned how to use up to that point I’d adopted as necessary enigmas that I’d learned carefully how not to break, thinking that if they did, you either had to find someone to help you who could fix them, or you were just fucked. But between the ages of 24 and 33, I often didn’t have anyone around to fix anything. I broke up with my live-in boyfriend in 1993 and moved in with a series of roommates (which in itself was an education in so many things), most of whom were also single women. A lot of what had to be done around the house that wasn’t serious enough to call the super for, from dealing with a clogged drain to changing lightbulbs and vacuum cleaner bags, to using new appliances, to screwing or nailing things into the wall to put up pictures or shelves, we often had to do ourselves. And if you had a set of instructions (nope, no tutorial videos back then) and the wherewithal to think calmly about how to fix the problem, I started to realize that you could actually do that. It also helped that I spent a little bit of time doing grip/electric work on set, first in film school and later, very briefly, on one independent film. That got me comfortable enough with hardware and tools that I put together a toolbox (I scoured flea markets for just the right one during my low-income creative decorating phase), and bought myself a Makita power drill. I just loved using that thing. I found it, and most of my work on set, even after I became mainly a boom operator who had no reason to use drills, empowering. I was doing things that I’d never thought I could be capable of, that required strength and coordination, learning some tech, and daily if not hourly or minute-ly problem-solving: how could I cover all of the dialogue in a scene with a boom mic so that it wouldn’t be in the frame or cause shadows and I wouldn’t trip over the dolly grip?; what was the best way to put a wireless mic on this particular person’s clothing so that you wouldn’t see it or hear it?; where were the bad sounds coming from and how could I make them less bad? I had to think on my feet nearly all of the time, and, eventually, I learned to do it both well and without panicking — well enough that people wanted to hire me. That was a major confidence booster. And, as a woman, of course I had to I learn to endlessly turn down men who wanted to “help” me, even if they didn’t know what they were doing any better than I did, so that I could do my job myself — which also taught me, oh yeah: they didn’t know what they were doing any better than I did, but that didn’t make them any less confident.
I finally started to get to know computer technology better when I made the transition to editing picture digitally. Using digital editing programs — the first one being Media 100, a Mac-based pre-cursor to Final Cut Pro — wasn’t difficult, especially now that I knew how to read a manual. Like most Apple software, they were actually very intuitive, and made an effort to incorporate the systems and terminology that editors already used, like cutting your footage into “clips” and “subclips”and storing it in “bins” (they didn’t want to just stick with “files” and “folders” for us dumb editors, since those terms were developed for dumb office workers). I also found digital editing to be such a revelation — so fast! So non-destructive! No scratches or searching for hours for one teeny tiny piece of acetate that you didn’t properly mark or managed to drop on the floor because you’re an idiot! OMG THE UNDO OPTION! (though, yes, that is an anachronism because we didn’t say OMG back then) — that I actually enjoyed learning and using it; like MacPaint and Word, it was so clearly going to make the creative work I wanted to do so much easier. What was stressful, though, was trouble-shooting with digital equipment that, if it failed, would have devastating consequences. Programs crashing, drives not mounting, digitization and imports and exports not digitizing, importing or exporting like they were supposed to, these were all sources of paralyzing dismay when they occurred. Luckily, though, at this point I did have a boyfriend, and he was also in the film business, and he had friends in the film business, so I had them to turn to for tech support. I would write down their instructions for how to make my settings for an export or how to use a disk utility to diagnose what was wrong, and save those sticky notes as if my life depended on them — which it often felt like it did. I learned to save and back up, and the number one rule of IT: have you tried turning it off and on again? Eventually, I also learned the number two rule of IT, or IT in 2020: Google it. Once again I have to give credit to a man for this; my husband works in tech and whenever I ask him for help with something, his first answer is, “What did you Google?” But even though every time he says it it pisses me off, it’s the right answer, because it’s not only made me even more self-reliant (which, if you’ve been following, is the key to nearly all of this), it’s also helped me realize that, while not every problem with a computer is solvable by a non-professional, a lot of it actually is. Because when I do Google the problem I’m having, it takes me to message boards of people dealing with the same problem and finally getting a solution from someone else who might be a tech whiz or might just know a little bit more than me, or might just have been lucky enough to stumble upon the answer first, and that reminds me, yet again, that I’m not worse at this than most people. In fact — I’m going to say it — in some ways I’m better. It also makes me see that technology is always changing, and so all you can do is change and learn with it — and that’s something I absolutely can do, to the extent that my middle-aged brain allows.
Probably the last thing that got me to this point with tech was having to be the one to teach it — which, right?: truly insane. These days there are so many digital sound recorders out there, more and more all the time at different levels and price points — ones for the home musician, ones for the semi-professional DIY filmmaker, ones for the professional sound person who is starting out, and ones for the people at the top of the business — it can be overwhelming. And it’s the same with cameras, when I have to teach documentary film: there are so many of them, and they have more and more capabilities, and buttons, and menus, and AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! (That is the sound of me being overwhelmed.) But there is nothing that makes you learn a new piece of equipment or technique better than having go through the manual to break it down and teach it to other people, step by step…which has the added bonus that you can go back and look at the steps you wrote down for those people when you forget them yourself! (Something else I’ve accepted about me: I don’t retain that shit if I’m not using whatever it is on a regular basis). But it makes you realize that even Millenials and Gen Z, who have grown up with computers and find using them super natural, can have these blocks when it comes to new technology they’ve never seen before — particularly women. Being able to relate to that and show them that even an old lady like me can learn this stuff I think has helped the young women I teach recognize and develop their own abilities.
Bottom line: I’m never going to be fabulous with technology. I’m too old for that, and I’m also Gen X cranky when it comes to certain new stuff that I just don’t get the point of. One of my friends who both has kids and works in tech suggested some new group video sharing app recently, and I just said, “Why? How’s it different from sharing videos via text?” That’s the wrong answer, and whiny, I know, but…whyyyyyyy? I haven’t really checked out TikTok yet, and will probably miss out because I don’t use SnapChat or WhatsApp (actually WhatsApp I might have to learn for traveling internationally, because so much of the rest of the world uses it for messaging. Ah, remember, that: travel?). But something else I know about myself is that I only am going to take to new technology when I feel compelled to use it, so again, it’s time for the self-acceptance. I’m also not going to apologize for the fact that I had a hissy fit when I bought a Movi Freefly stabilizer for my iPhone camera, and found out that it doesn’t have a manual. That’s just a failure that tutorial videos and an online help database do not make up for, no matter what snide Bryan, whose title is apparently “Chief MōVI Whisperer,” who had the nerve to ask me in his email, “Can you give me a brief background on your experience with three axis motorized systems, so I can have a better idea of the demographic that our content missed?” thinks. I’m in the I’ve Been Doing This Longer Than You’ve Been Alive So Have Some Fucking Respect demographic, Bryan! I taught myself your damn stabilizer anyway, no thanks to you. GET OFF MY LAWN, Bryan! And that’s what I’ll keep doing: learning what I need to learn at my own pace, with outbursts when necessary.