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Relevancy Costs

I’m sure all of us have witnessed a moment when, for example, an older person gets confused about a piece of technology. For example, it might be a parent or elderly relative who can’t use a cell phone or computer. A similar type of confusion/intimidation occurs when, for instance, a young person (e.g. the stereotypical high school jock) walks in to a school library.

The reasons for the confusion can be varied. For instance, perhaps the technology is relatively new and given the older person’s age, this is literally the first time in their life that they’ve had to use it before. Another circumstance is if the older person has used a similar device in the past, but the device has been upgraded now to include so many more features that it becomes too confusing. A modern cell phone, for example, that is also a camera, text messaging device, email device, GPS, and web-surfing device is a good example of this.

I imagine most of us dismiss such incidents as being harmless or annoying and move on. My take on an incident like that is, you guessed it, different.

In thinking about the example of an older person getting confused by a cell phone because it has too many functions, a couple of things jump out at me as being evident.

  1. The cell phone did not get the ability to text, take pictures, display driving directions, and check email overnight. In the same way, the old person’s confusion at how to use the cell phone likely did not arise all of a sudden either. It is more likely that the older person’s confusion started off small and manageable, but grew over time to become something intimidating and unwieldy. For instance, the initial small confusion might have come from the cell phone’s small size. Over time, the confusion grew as that small phone gained more and more features.
  2. While the reasons for the resulting large and unwieldy confusion are varied (e.g. never used the device before, intimidation at how the device has changed, etc), the source of the initial small confusion is much less varied. For instance, the older person in our example might have been able to use a small cell phone if they simply tried. Even if they couldn’t see well enough to read all the buttons or menus on the phone, they could have developed a compensatory scheme of some kind. For instance, to answer a call hit the squarish button on the upper left even if they couldn’t read what the button actually said. To check voicemail, hit the button in the middle of the top row of buttons. Hit the button on the far right of the top row to end a call.
  3. The reason why the older person (again, I’m using this as an example for illustration) didn’t make the effort to learn a compensatory scheme at the initial stage is this: they didn’t see the benefit of doing so. They were more used to the corded phone in their home or office and would much rather use that then learn how to use a small cell phone with tiny buttons they could feel, but not see. Because they never got over their initial reticence in dealing with cell phones and because cell phones continued to get more and more sophisticated, that initial reticence meant the older person fell further and further behind.

To paraphrase this, the older person didn’t see how the new technology was relevant to their lives so they didn’t bother to learn how to use it even though they could have learned then had they tried. By not bothering to learn, though, the older person was cut off from all the other benefits as that technology developed. In other words, by not taking the first manageable step, the older person couldn’t take the second or third or tenth step either. Now, those ten steps cover such a huge distance that it’s impossible to take them all at one time.

The moral of the story then is this: Even though a new thing might seem silly or useless in the present, make the effort to learn it anyway. Over time, the utility of that new thing might become apparent as more and more people use it and eventually, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. Learning how to use that new thing in the present is simply the cost you pay for staying relevant in the future.

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.