Features Jan-June 2003

Cyberspace Leaps into the Golden Age

Melrose Seniors Tell of Their Lives On-line Via Electronic Paper

Coco McCabe, Boston Globe Correspondent

(Boston Globe story, reprinted, with permission)

Irene Sidman has had her struggles -- and her victories -- in the brave new world of cyberspace.

After trying every possible combination of keys and mouse clicks to get herself ``on line'' with a borrowed laptop computer, she discovered the missing piece: the phone connection. She also came to know intimately some of the secrets of this portable link to the world.

And so, it was with a grin of satisfaction one recent afternoon that Sidman quietly showed her stuff. She got the laptop hooked up when no one else could.

For the group of senior citizens packed into a small room at the Milano Senior Center in Melrose that day it was another step toward their Internet independence. And among this group, a step for one inevitably becomes a step for all.

These are the Silver Stringers, a determined group in their 60s, 70s and 80s who, with the help of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory, have launched their own electronic newspaper called The Melrose Mirror.

This slowly evolving collection of their news articles, travelogues, and poetry has become more than just another site on the World Wide Web. It is a community of friends, some of whom are still banging out their stories on typewriters, leading one another onto the Internet in a search for their own creative voices.

For the News in the Future consortium at the Media Lab, which is sponsoring the project, it's a study of how community folks wade through technological frustrations and use computers and the Internet to fashion the news. And for seniors around the region, The Mirror reflects what's possible once they leap into cyberspace.

``Being a retired person was lovely,'' said Natalie Thomson, one of the Silver Stringers. ``But this was exciting. I can't tell you what I didn't know about the Internet and I can't tell you how glad I am I've gotten involved.''

The Media Lab has provided the group with a variety of equipment, including a scanner, a color printer, a camera for digital photography and two computers.

With all those electronic goodies lined up on a table behind them, the Silver Stringers got down to business one day last week, as they do every week for an hour and a half, to hash over some of the newest issues they've encountered in their publishing venture. What are the rules about copyrighting? Should they accept advertising? And how in the world do you do digital photography anyway?

``It's web site by committee. It's wild,'' said Roseanne Greene, laughing. She had planned to spend just a few months on the project when it was launched last summer. But now, she just can't tear herself away.

Nor can any of the other 20 or so seniors who signed up for this adventure.

``I just wish I was going to live another 50 years,'' said Virginia Hanley. For starters, she wants to catch up to her grand nephew who has gone off to college. She wrote him a letter the old-fashioned way, on paper, and he happily answered back. But he had just one question: Didn't she have e-mail?

She's waiting to win the lottery for that investment, she said. Meanwhile, Hanley's learning what she can with MIT's equipment. And she's got a few suggestions for improvements, starting with the mouse.

``I have a problem with the mouse because I have arthritis in my right hand and when I want to click I have to hold it with my left hand,'' Hanley said. How about a little electronic table, the size of a mouse pad for instance, that would control activity on the screen with the touch of a finger?

It's just the kind of feedback the Media Lab is hungry for. ``Sociology and education are aspects of what we do,'' said Jack Driscoll, former Boston Globe editor and now editor-in-residence at the Media Lab and adviser to the Silver Stringers. ``But we are also looking at possible technological tools that might facilitate a group of people who are seniors. We want to find out what they need to make what they do easier and richer.''

MIT graduate student Marko Turpeinen is among those in the lab working on software to smooth out bumps, including that double click of the mouse many functions on the computer require.

But one thing the Media Lab won't do is give orders. The Melrose Mirror has become the Silver Stringers' baby.

``We've been very deliberate about not directing them a lot,'' said Walter Bender, associate director of the lab. ``I think they're all excited about learning and being pushed and challenged and not spoon-fed.''

In fact, many of them seem to know exactly where they want to go: straight through the doors that have now been opened for them.

``I just discovered the Internet. What a blast,'' said Don Norris, a Silver Stringer and journalist. ``I never saw any value to going on line. I thought it would be a waste of money.'' But two weeks ago he got on line at home and now spends 10 hours a day at his computer.

For Jim Driscoll, the biggest thrill in wiring his home computer to the Internet was e-mail. Between his siblings and his children, he's now zapping off messages to about 20 people.

``It means avoiding writing letters,'' he said. ``You don't have to have paper, stamps. You don't have to go to the post office. And, the quick response.''

And now, with The Melrose Mirror taking shape, e-mail that all the Silver Stringers can appreciate is beginning to filter in.

There was the reader, a former Melrose resident, who came across the Mirror on the Web and was delighted to find his own reflection there. He wrote to let the Silver Stringers know they had made his day. There was mail from a reader in Alaska who has been working on a similar project and hoped somehow to hook up with the Silver Stringers.

The Mirror even struck a chord with someone in Ireland, who dashed off a piece of e-mail in excitement over the discovery. He had read a travelogue by Silver Stringer Dorothy O'Connor about the trip she took through the Northwest with fellow Stringer Russell Berg.

The couple now has an e-mail address and ever since the message from Ireland arrived, that medium has taken on a whole new allure. ``The first thing she says when she comes through the door is did we get any e-mail?'' Berg said.

With the enthusiasm of this group igniting the project, the Media Lab's Bender said he would like to see similar ventures launched elsewhere. In the works are plans to set up sites in Finland. And given all that the Melrose folks have been through, they ought to be able to answer plenty of the questions the new groups have, Bender said.

``I want them to hold each others' hands,'' he said.

After all, that's what cyberspace is really about. Connections. The kind the Silver Stringers have spent their lives making.

For those who want to check out what these Melrose senior citizens are up to, http://silverstringer.media.mit.edu/ is the address.


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