There was a time when I was the family "tech guy." Assembling sounds systems and debugging computers was my household contribution. These days, however, I'm not sure I could pick an HDMI cable out of a box of snakes.
When did I get so old?
For years, parents have relied on their younger, more digitally savvy children to solve their tech woes. Mom and dad buy the game system, Junior hooks it up-usually with a thinly veiled contempt for the electronic idiocy of their elders. ("It's so simple! How can you not do this?") It was a good system. A curious youngster who works for free dinner and laundry is the best tech support one can have.
My parents were first-wave Baby Boomers, so they could be forgiven for not figuring out DVDs and SIM cards right away. When you've never had to replace the needle on a turntable, burning rewritable CDs comes a little more naturally to you. But now I'm the one who has never had an HDTV. 802.11n, b and g? I'm supposed to play video located on my computer's external hard drive on my TV ... using my XBox? I'm in my 30s and I'm not sure I'm qualified to buy my next telephone. How did this happen?
It wasn't that long ago that I considered myself to be pretty tech savvy. I've never written programming code or built a robot or anything, but when it came to computers and the internet I was usually on top of things. I have replaced my own hard drives and RAM and ordered computers from customized specs. (Never built one myself, but how hard can it be?) I could create HTML pages from scratch and can still format pictures and cut simple videos. I even know how to edit Flash files. (Maybe the occasional .fla, at least) I know how CSS styles work and can usually spot errors in the code if I had too. PHP? I sort of get how WordPress works. Java? No clue. Ajax? Gimme a break! There's an HTML 5 now?
As time slowly marched on, technology has marched much faster than I can keep up. Computers are now hand held and video games are now platforms and I'm running out of the little wires with the red, white and yellow plugs almost as fast as I'm running out of boxes I can still plug them into. Unfortunately, I don't yet have kids who can do these things for me. You shouldn't have to start a family in order to have surround sound in your living room.
So what's aging, out-of-touch technophile to do? Well, there is one advantage that I do have over my parents and that's the internet. I'm smart enough to know what I don't know and where I can find what I need. It takes a lot longer and separating the useful information from the nonsense is much trickier, but at least I know the knowledge is out there. Eventually, I will figure out if the Evo is worth the money my phone company is asking for or if that netbook has the power to do what I need it do and someday, I swear, I will learn how to make copies of DVDs. My iTunes library might never be organized, but at least I know how to get a podcast on my various machines and listen to it. I also know what Newegg.com is, so that's a head start.
When searching for answers, I found that there is one thing you can count on. You will never find the solution from the company that sold you your problem. Owner's manuals are practically non-existent these days. Electronics store employees? Mostly hired goons that aren't even allowed to work the cash registers. Phone support? Online support? Forget about it. Would you let a mechanic fix your car over the phone? When doctors don't make house calls-and your "insurance" (the warranty) runs out-you must become your own physician. You are relying on the kindness of strangers, but thankfully, most people are nicer than companies.
Where can I go to snare this information? Not to sound like too much of a company man, but pretty much all PC/Windows issue are solved by (or at least begin with) a Lifehacker search. Gizmodo tells me what's out there-when I can figure out what the specs mean; thank you, Wikipedia-and Lifehacker tells me how to make it work. Beyond that, it's Google and the thousands and thousands of message boards and forums and random blogs (techie or not) that, if I phrase my question in just the right way, might point me toward someone who has the same problem I did. (There's enough lost people out there, that someone usually has.) If I'm really lucky they've also found the solution and written some sort of freeware that will implement it. It might be a post from 2007 or it might be a bug report for Windows XP, but buried in that swamp is the nugget of code that saves my day.
You must go online to seek out other nerds-slightly smarter than yourself, but not so smart they talk over your head-and pray that one of them deigns to answer your question. And they will. Solving each others' problems is what geeks do, even if they occasionally mock your ignorance while doing it. Not unlike the precocious child who helped you hook up your internet connection in the first place. And you don't even have to feed them dinner.
Illustration: Wendy MacNaughton