Veronica Kirin is the author of the new book “Stories of Elders: What the Greatest Generation Knows About Technology that You Don’t.” As the title suggests, Kirin interviewed people of the older generation all across the country about how technology has changed our lives.
Kirin drove nearly 12,000 miles across the United States to meet men and women born between 1915 and 1945—putting their stories into a book as well as an accompanying short documentary: “Stories of Elders Documentary: The Documentary,” edited by David Astudillo.
Kirin came to West Michigan to study at Grand Valley State University, and she has stayed here ever since. GR|MAG sat down with Kirin to discuss her new book and the upcoming release party on Sunday, Sept. 30.
GR|MAG: What is your book about, essentially?
VK: Effectively, I want us to understand how technology has been affecting our society. But, as an anthropologist and in general, I believe you can’t understand something unless you’ve lived without it. People who have lived without technology for what could be a lifetime is our elders.
GR|MAG: How did you find individuals to interview?
VK: Because I had been an entrepreneur for about five years at that point, I was really good at networking; it’s where my instinct went. Locally, I started asking friends and family, “Who do you know? Who can I talk to?” Let’s put some flyers up in some of the retirement communities. And then from there—I used to do disaster relief nationwide, so I have a pretty wide network across the country—I just got on the phone and literally have a memory of sitting on my porch with a notepad calling people, just scrolling through my address book and writing down names.
Who knows who, who knows somebody in the area…I also found some people through social media, especially through Reddit and through the Kickstarter campaign that I did in order to raise the funds to do the travel and research portion with the book.
GR|MAG: How did your background as an anthropologist prepare you in formulating the questions to ask and how to write the book?
VK: When I said, “Huh, something is happening in our culture, I’m curious about it,” my instinct was to go to people, rather than just to gather data or look at articles. We’re trained in ethnography. We’re trained to do the best we can to use the scientific method so that we get measurable results, even though humans aren’t exactly measurable.
So, I used a set of 15 standard questions across all the interviews so I was getting as much similar data as I could. … While I would let the elders tangent if they wanted to, sometimes one thing would lead to another and I was hearing something I wasn’t expecting to hear because it wasn’t in one of my questions, it did help keep it focused in general.
GR|MAG: And you interviewed people local to Grand Rapids, Michigan?
VK: Yeah, tons, 16 local elders in West Michigan. …The local elders are going to be at the release party and will be signing the books with me.
GR|MAG: Why is it important to keep your sources so close to the book process?
VK: We have a tendency to really neglect the stories of our elders. Ageism is alive and well in our culture. Which is very sad because you and I are eventually going to get to that age and I think we’ll want to be treated better than we’re treating our elders now.
So, there’s a little bit of a side mission in this work to simply elevate the voices and stories of our elders and to validate them, because even though they may seem ‘outdated’ or the stuff of storybooks, they’re still alive and well, they’re still touching our politics and culture and they deserve to be heard. …They spent time with me and entrusted me with their stories, and they deserve to be seen and acknowledged for that.
GR|MAG: What do you hope your book teaches the reader(s)?
VK: I certainly hope that they get curious about the elders in their own lives. There are some people within my own community—friends and colleagues—who, upon hearing that I was doing this work, kind of realized that they wished they had had these deep conversations with their elders before they passed. So, I’m hoping that those that read the book do get curious about the people that are in their lives and maybe will take a second look about the conversations they’re having.
I also hope that our readers really think about how they’re using technology in their lives. The book is really made up of these stories. I don’t tell anybody what to do in the book; I just hope people get curious. But I do hope that by reading the book, people start to become more intentional with their own technology.
GR|MAG: Why was it important to you to bridge this generation gap through the conversation of technology?
VK: There’s the famous quote that says, “If we ignore our history we are bound to relive it.” I think there’s a lot to learn from our elders. And in this particular moment in history…the youngest generations are growing up vastly different culturally than our elders but they’re still existing at the same time, which means that there’s really interesting conversations and intersections that can happen that won’t be able to happen very soon.
In general, hearing these stories, understanding what life was like before we came on the scene so that we don’t take everything for granted, is good. But now in particular, we have a very unique opportunity and I think it shouldn’t be passed up.
Kirin’s book is scheduled for release on Sunday, Sept. 30. It can be purchased in print, eBook or audiobook and can be pre-ordered. On that Sunday, there will be a book launch and release party from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at St. Cecilia’s Music Center, at 24 Ransom NE, along with the documentary screening, a Q&A, book signing and live music. Reserve your spot online.
*Photo courtesy of Veronica Kirin