x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A secret weapon helps me understand the new gadgets

Many functions can be performed on this phone merely by hovering your finger over the keypad, and in some cases by eye contact alone. For those of us still trying to locate the on/off switch, this is the ultimate in bad news.

For most people of middle age, the ringing of your home phone in the night heralds bad news, rather than romance. So when I was jolted from my sleep one recent night, I was already bracing myself as I reached for the receiver.

So I was taken aback when a male voice asked brightly "Good morning Mr Simkins, how are we today?"

The responses that occurred to me I will not repeat. What I said, finally, was "who is this?"

"My name's Jeremy", the voice gushed "and I'm calling to ask if you've been injured in an accident at work. If so, the firm I represent may well be able to pursue a claim for compensation for you."

"Jeremy," I replied through gritted teeth, "it's 4.30am."

The news wrong-footed him. "I'm so sorry," he mumbled. "I think there's a glitch in our system. I don't know how your number came up on my screen, as we're only supposed to be calling people in Australia at this time of day. I do apologise. It's all automated you see."

Those words - "it's all automated" - surely sum up the misery of daily existence for those of us in their middle years. Increasingly, it seems, humans are being managed by technology, rather than the other way round. This is rarely a problem for our kids, who've grown up with this and know nothing else. It's their poor lumbering parents who are being left behind.

Once, not long ago, if you wanted to make a phone call you just dialled the number. Television programmes were available by switching on the set. For music you simply put a CD on the turntable.

No longer. Nowadays everything is downloaded, streamed and buffered. Our lounge table here in London has no fewer than five separate remote controls with which to operate the devices crowding the corners of the room. My home phone still looks much like it did 10 years ago, but nobody calls me on it nowadays (except Jeremy). We now have mobiles for that sort of thing.

The phone sits in its corner, giving (largely) mute testimony to a bygone age, as quaint and out-of-date as pine furniture or ceramic ducks.

How difficult it is for the older generation to keep up with all this innovation was illustrated this week when I attended a workshop for people wishing to get to grips with the current must-have accessory, the iPad. (Yes, I, have succumbed).

It was a doleful business, as I knew it would be. Each of the 15 individuals was well over 50. We sat glumly round the demonstration table in our anoraks and sensible shoes, while the young girl conducting the lesson chirruped away as if she were a children's entertainer addressing a roomful of demented pensioners.

We stared glumly at our new playthings like chimpanzees scrutinising a venomous-looking insect. Long before the end of the hour, most of us had given up trying to follow her. All we were thinking about was a nice cup of tea.

And things are about to get a whole lot worse for us. Samsung, the giant Korean electronics firm and Apple's biggest rival in hand-held computers, just unveiled its new smartphone. As thin as an old-fashioned cigarette case, and weighing little more than a cigarette, the Galaxy S4 can do just about everything except put the kids to bed. It includes all sorts of gizmos and tricks to make life easier - if you have a degree in computer science.

Many functions can be performed on this phone merely by hovering your finger over the keypad, and in some cases by eye contact alone. For those of us still trying to locate the on/off switch, this is the ultimate in bad news.

Not only has the traditional instruction manual (trusted friend of generations of mums and dads) long been consigned to the dustbin of history, now we aren't even supposed to press the buttons.

Quite how the battle between Samsung and Apple for commercial dominance will end up is anyone's guess, but with such enormous global profits at stake, the quest for greater technological innovation is likely to become still more frenzied in the years to come.

Never mind. I, at least, came away from my iPad workshop much better-informed than when I arrived, courtesy of a fabulous little device I took along with me, one that recorded everything the demonstrator said, all in perfectly readable format and with handy diagrams attached to it for reference when I got back home.

It's called a pad and pen …


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London