Icons and the elderly
My local subway station is currently installing the newest generation of ticket vending machines. The electronic gates that are compatible with paper tickets and various pre-paid cards and digital payment platforms were replaced with upgrades last year, and now the train company is working on the vending machines. When I came to Japan there were no automatic gates, or protective platform barriers. Instead, train station employees manned the exists and individually punched holes in commuter tickets as they passed through. And when they weren’t busy doing that they stood there twirling the hole-punchers in their hands like cowboy quick-draw shooters - looking like Dirty Harry or Doc Holliday. Also, when I arrived here ticket vending machines still accepted the old blue-hued 500-yen paper note, which had only recently been replaced with the 500-yen coin and was in the process of being phased out. So the newest electronic gates and ticket vending machines are the fifth or sixth - seventh? - generation of electronic machines that I have seen in Tokyo. Watching and commenting on them are one way to map the advance of digital technology in society.
The constant replacement of old machines with new provides some humor. Almost every day I see elderly passengers at the ticket machines - and bank ATMs and convenience store copy machines as well - in confusion pushing the screen with their fingers as if they think they are pushing buttons. I want to shout at them, “It’s not a button, it’s an icon!!! There are no moving parts!! It’s a computer! You don’t push it, you only touch it!” I worry their violence might damage the machines over time. Of course, we are most familiar with the technology, the books, the music and TV shows that we grew up with and the current crop of elderly grew up in a world of mechanical devices featuring moving parts and vacuum tubes, not digital ones featuring solid chips. That explains why they still push the ATM and vending machines screens as if they were still pushing moving buttons. It’s funny ... and a little pathetic.
The transition to new technology is fully achieved not by convincing people of its merits but only once the older generation familiar with older ways and means has died out. On our journey through life some totally ignore and avoid the new, preferring to live out their lives with their familiar things. That’s fine. Others, bless them, wholeheartedly embrace whatever comes along. Others, like my own mother, just dip their toes into the new technology. That’s how paradigm shifts occur, not all at once like a light turning on, but gradually as the old paradigm slowly expires. I frown on the practice of businesses and governments forcing ‘progress’ us though unilateral decisions to accept payment and applications, and to provide service only online. More and more we are penalized for using cash, penalized for seeking service from a live human, and denied service if our machines use a different operating system or program.
I enjoy watching those elderly push the touch-sensitive screens as if they were buttons. It’s a live experiment in learning curve.
Published in Tokyo Notice Board bi-weekly magazine, September 11-September 24, 2015 as “Icons and Elderly.”