How I learned to stop worrying and embrace being a middle-aged curmudgeon

Reading John Gruber’s thoughts on the potential future existence of an iPhone SE 4, which necessarily included a note on the lack of an ongoing slot in the iPhone lineup for my beloved 13 mini, got me once again thinking more generally about something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, as my 49th birthday approaches in 2023.

That thing I have been thinking is, this is not the future I signed up for. I’m beginning to understand why older people get set in their ways and cranky about change, in ways that probably could not have occurred to me until I had lived enough to experience a lot of things firsthand.

I remember lots of things, both good and bad. Most things, in general, improve and get better over time. But some things get worse — at least, worse by my subjective standards, because there are certain things I don’t want, like a phone that’s too big for me to use with one hand, or fit comfortably in my jeans pocket.

Possibly even more frustrating than things that get worse are things that just stop existing. Things I really liked that are now gone, especially if they are gone for reasons that I do not think are sound. That happens a lot for me with styles of music or genres of video games. I want new synthwave music* that I can get as excited about as when I first heard Tycho and Com Truise in 2012, for instance, or new Castlevania games that are as good as Aria of Sorrow.

True, sometimes those glories do return, and 2021 gave me a double whammy, in the form of Mitch Murder’s Then Again album and the all-time classic Metroid Dread. But more often than not, I just have to move on and give up on dreaming of a decent modern SimCity game, or a computer Scrabble that will ever be even a fraction as “smart” as the GameHouse version I loved back in 2006.

The world is change. I get that. It’s just hard to let go of things that I know are better than what has replaced them, and that makes me cling desperately to the old things I have that I’m still able to enjoy, whether that’s 40-year-old vinyl records on my turntable or 20-year-old GameBoy Advance ROMs in an emulator.

The true nature of the curmudgeon, I think, is not borne of pessimism. The curmudgeon is not purely a crank. It’s optimism, idealism. Belief in a world that could and should be better than the one we’re living in, because you remember something that’s gone. And beyond that, you remember the trajectory those past things suggested we were on. But somehow we never got where we were going.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not one of those MAGA types who longs for a return to their fictional, idealized version of what the 1950s were (at least, for white people). I’m inspired by the progress we are making towards a more equitable society for everyone — even as I see how far we still have to go. I’m longing for a future world that never was, but that I believed we could — and would — have by now.

Ironically, it was the sci-fi dystopias that were so popular in my childhood in the 1980s, that seemed to get many of the worst things about the 21st century right. The techno-fascism of corporations more powerful than governments, spying on our every action as a way to make more money. Aggregations of the intimate details of millions of people’s personal lives have become the most valuable commodity around. I didn’t believe this was the future we would have, but here we are.

I just want a small phone, some good music to listen to on it (ideally through wired headphones and a 1/8″ jack), and maybe a couple of games that are actually mentally stimulating instead of just “idle” ways to give up money or personal information in an endless stream of “microtransactions.”

Is that too much to ask?

* Of course, synthwave itself is an appeal to the future-should-be-better-than-it-is nostalgia of people (like me) who grew up in the 1980s.