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Luskin: Digital Immigrant

I’m named after a woman who emigrated from Russia with two sons, then gave birth to an American, but never became one herself. Every year Devorah Leah would register as a resident alien, because she never learned to speak or read English – a subject in which I’ve earned a PhD.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot recently as I stumble my way around the foreign territory of the digital landscape, with only a rudimentary knowledge of its language.

Thirty years ago, I bought into personal computing because word processing was such a big improvement over my electric typewriter, especially when it came to a dissertation with footnotes. I signed on early to email, too, because in 1994, when I opened my first email account, I had three children between the ages of three and six. Email allowed me to connect with friends for adult commiseration without even having to hunt for postage stamps.

These days, word processing and email are the least of what we use computers for. Indeed, the very nature of prose – what’s now referred to as “content” – has changed to suit the new technology. Paragraphs are shorter. Sentences, too. On-line content has more white space, and it’s meant to be read vertically, as a reader scrolls down on a screen the size of a palm. Even email, as my adult children tell me, is old school, so I’ve learned how to text. Like my grandmother, I’m an immigrant in a foreign land. There’s a part of me that would like to follow her example and opt out, but that’s not a reasonable choice for me.

I heat with wood, but the books I read in front of the fire are downloaded from the library. I raise my own food, but I cook it according to recipes I find online. And I work alone all day, but I connect with friends, family and colleagues through Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I stay in touch with friends who live far away and I have online friends I’ve never met. These social networks don’t just mitigate rural isolation; they also keep me informed about what’s happening in my small town. Ironically, global connectivity has improved access to truly local news.

It once seemed possible to ignore the internet, especially in Vermont, where high speed connections have been slow to reach rural outposts. But that’s changing, and the internet rules. Just this week, the Brattleboro Reformer unveiled its new design. The venerable columns of classic newsprint now look like a screen shot of news as presented online.

My grandmother couldn’t return to Russia, and I can’t return to a pre-electronic country. For better and worse, I now reside in the digital age.