Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Where We Are, Where We Were and Where We Will Be

My wife's grandmother is going to turn 90-years-old sometime next month*. She still lives in Manhattan, (though that is going to change soon), in Little Italy (which is now China Town since most of the Italians fled the city decades ago) roughly two blocks from where she was born. She's an amazing woman who has seen a lot and most importantly, remembers most of it. If I'm as lucid at 60 as she is now, I'll consider myself lucky.

* I am a rotten grandson-in-law because I don't know the exact date, I think that it might be February 2, but I'm not willing to bet my paycheck on it. All I know is that it's not February 29.

This isn't an entry about her necessarily, this is more about what she has seen technology-wise in the last 90 years. One can argue that anyone over 85-years-old has probably seen the greatest technology boom in recorded history. Everything that was invented during the last century was pretty much has been improved upon exponentially and that which was invented before 1920 was improved upon too.

-- The telephone went from being a large box bolted to a wall in your kitchen, where you have to ask a person to connect you to another person to something a bit more portable that you can keep on an end table while losing the person-to-person interface. Then it became a device where you don't need the wire connecting the headset to the body, it was portable. Then it became a device that you can keep in your pocket—and you can watch movies or television shows on them.

-- The automobile went from a means of transportation that was only afforded by the rich to something that most people now own two of.

-- Air travel progressed so much that you can fly from New York to San Francisco in less than five hours and it's the preferred travel option of the masses.*

* Put yourself in the shoes of someone who lived in the early part of the 20th Century, the act of flying was completely impossible. There was no way a person could do it, or if they could (like the Wright Brothers) they couldn't sustain themselves enough where it would be a practical mode of transportation. Now people fly all over the place, you probably know someone who goes on enough business trips that he or she is in a plane more than they are in their car.

-- Movies have certainly gone up in price (as has most other things) but now you don't have to walk to the corner to see a film. You can actually have the US Postal Service bring the latest hits to you. And soon you won't even need the mailman. A person can plug a wire into an outlet and get the latest flick instantly.

-- First it was radio then it was television, but the bottom line is being at home no longer meant being cut off from the outside world. With a flip of the dial you could hear a ball game as it occurs or listen to the latest songs buring up the chart. While some people argue that this compartmentalized people, I think that it brought them together, a shared spirit of the American zeitgeist was formed. “Did you hear the new Frank Sinatra record? I did too, it's a gas.”*

And TV blew the game wide open as it tackles the senses and forms opinions. From the early black and white sets to color to today's high-definition sets, watching an event on television is truly like being there. And in some cases, its better.

* Did people back in the 40s say “It's a gas”? I have no idea, I thought it sounded kind of cool and retro.

-- Computers weren't even thought of when she was younger, but here it is less than 100 years later and people have shrunk something that was the size of a SoHo loft and put it in their pockets. And the tiny machines are more powerful than their Brobdingnagian predecessors too. Right now, I can think of at least five different ways of instantly contacting someone with my iPhone (call, text, email, connect through a social media portal or through instant messaging). You're connected to millions of people every day, sharing ideas and thoughts.

-- And perhaps the most inspiring and truly revolutionary technological feat of the past 90 years is that man went to the moon. For thousands upon thousands of years, man has always wondered what it would be like to step foot on the lunar surface. Scores of poems and stories have been written about the moon, but one day back in 1969 we did.

People in my generation take it for granted because for our entire life we have lived with the knowledge that a few years before we were born there was a guy hitting a golf ball on the moon. It didn't really seem like a big deal, but it is. It's a huge deal. The only two things that I can think of that will match this is if an alien landed in Washington DC and made contact with our President or cancer was somehow cured.

Other than that, we're chasing that lead dog in terms of a generation-defining moment.

And there are more things that haven't even listed (improvements in boat or train travel, how a person gets their music, the relative ease of shopping, advances in medicine) that have been completely transformed during the last 90 years. I can't even imagine the technological advances that mankind is going to made in the next 55 years (when I'm 90) or the next 88 years (when my daughter is 90).

The one thing about the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” that always struck me is the reaction old Brooks after the parole board deemed him reformed and released after he had been in prison for (I think) 50 years. In the history books, the years 1910 (when he went in) and 1960 (when he was released) will probably be grouped in the same era. But that's incorrect, the only thing that those years share are the first two numbers and the last.

I'm not talking about the scene where he realizes that he's been institutionalized and figures out that he'll never make it on the outside. I'm talking about the scene where he walks down the street and almost gets plugged by the car. One of the lines that best underscores the difference is when he says that he saw an automobile once when he was a boy. It was implied that back in 1910, a car was something like a blue moon or Haley's Comet, something not seen too often. But when he was released cars were as commonplace as pebbles or mosquitos.

The time when people were amazed by the car passed and that is what will happen with us too. It's a slow and seems to happen by osmosis, but it will occur. I can only hope that when I'm older and reflect back on mankind's achievements made during my life, I look with the original wonder and awe.

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