Monday, July 25, 2011

Old Technology and Conceits: Will they be Forgotten? Do they Matter?

     I stumbled across a Wired magazine article titled "100 Things Your Kids May Never Know About" and it got me to thinking.  First, I am solidly on the path to never having children – something that is likely best for all prospective people involved.  Second, I was convinced that the article would be heavy padded, or in someway fluffed up with bits that are so selectively applicable as to make one wonder if there should be any reason for them to be widely remembered by anyone.  Also, it being Wired, I felt pretty confident that it would be almost all tech related (though to look at the home page, I would have to conclude that the magazine has given itself over to film promotion).
     But, as recent times have been hastening the end of the modern bookstore as we know it – and there is an effort to replace the book itself – I have to admit that I have a good deal of dread about what the implications are on the things I assumed would always exist..  Actually, I have a little bit of faith that books will be with us so long as we can keep civilization together.  After all, the tablet is clearly inspired by the PADD from Star Trek and all of the Captains were shown reading honest to God books, so books as we know them should be fated to survive.  Then again, J.J. Abrams can destroy that, too.
     Still, one has to imagine that in order to get to 100, the list has to include some dubious choices.  And just why am I not letting these hypothetical children of mine know about some of them?  I know about laundry mangles, butter churns, washboards, ticker tape, teletype machines, gramophones, mimeograph machines (and of course the Ditto machine, but I it saw in use), the telegraph, kinescope, and a host of other now out-dated implements or technologies that have had no direct impact on my life.  Why am I raising my children in a perpetual now that denies what came before?  Sure, there are some things I wouldn't concentrate on.  'Hey, kids, back in my day – okay, my father's day, because I never handled them – spark plugs needed to be replaced with shocking frequency.  What's a spark plug?  Well, it was a part of the internal combustion engine.'  
     So I thought I would give some thoughts on a few of the selected items that made the list of 100.  
1. Inserting a VHS tape into a VCR to watch a movie or record something.  
     Seems to me that I am still using a VCR to record things on VHS tapes, but I take the point.  I can see that were I to have children in the near future, they may not remember the VCR.  On the other hand, most of my age group has already reproduced and I have to think that there are still more than a few VCR operators holding out against the DVR.  For what it is worth, I think VHS technology has run its course, but I would like to think that it isn't that forgettable.  Of course, Wired adds Betamax tapes as their own category (#10), which is somewhat ridiculous.  Why not include the introduction of the 6 hour VHS tape or Macrovision hampering video pirating?

3.  Playing music on an audio tape using a personal stereo. See what happens when you give a Walkman to today's teenager.
     Okay, I'm going to start off by blaming the parents for raising a child that is as ignorant of the not-so-distant past (see the article).  Then I'm going to wonder if the Walkman merits a different selection than audio cassette tapes.  And if cassette tapes are their own entry, then high speed dubbing (#7) would fall under the same header as well.  It appears to me that what the Walkman ushered in was not just portable music – the boom box or ghetto blaster (how odd is it that that term entered the American vernacular without much resistance?) allowed for cassette tapes to be played away from an outlet and the transistor radio made music portable – but the Walkman made it personal and self-contained.  That has endured to the modern mp3 player, though these days some people use their phones to recreate the sensation of being harassed with the over-loud music or poor quality that helped the boom box earn its other moniker.  What cassette tapes represented was ownership of the music in question, though not in as serious a manner than LPs or even (later) CDs.  For that matter, if my children didn't know what a Walkman was, how could they possibly appreciate Monty Python's "Christmas in Heaven"?

5 & 6.  'Old style televisions'
     Seriously?  Cathode ray tube televisions as unknown?  And I'm to believe that parents are going to let an opportunity pass to not remind their children that they had to change the channel by hand?  Really?  Okay, I was going to let these two pass – clearly this was padding – but I just had to include the picture because Sweetness is in it (and it shows side-by-side existence of the old dial televisions and remote control ones).

8.  8-track cartridges
     I have some fond memories of 8-tracks that are tied to my early relationship with my father, and the 8-track was pretty good for its day.  This is one of the things that will likely go forgotten, at least by those without an interest in the history of music formats.  Frankly, I don't know how much of its memory needs to be kept alive; it had a decent lifespan of commercial success (1965-82), but was effectively replaced by both the cassette tape and the Compact Disc.  It seems perfectly fit to be a foot note.  But because of my personal history with it, I could guarantee that my hypothetical children would know about it.

12.  Laserdisc
     Wired insults the LP by calling the laserdisc the "LP of DVD".  The laserdisc was and continues to be the height of useless technology. When I think laserdisc, I think of pompous assholes who would talk about how they were into anime because they went out and bought Akira (1988) on laserdisc.  The film is severely overrated, even given its era, and the format was always laughable.  It gave rise to the DVD, so I guess that is good, but I would be happy to keep my children from knowing that I associated with people who bought into the laserdisc fad.

14.  Shortwave Radio
     Uh, this still exists.  I don't know who partakes of it as a hobby, but if I want to expose these supposed someday children of mine to Frequency (2000) or Contact (1997), they had better know what a shortwave radio is.  On the other hand, I may be quite presumptuous that these children I'm imaging would be at all interested in either movie – it would have to be 2022 before either would be appropriate and that puts Contact at 25 years old...and in 2D.

18.  Wires (in regards to computers and videogaming)
     Yeah, probably.  I mean there will still need to be some physical connections in regards to both, but it already is unobtrusive and I would imagine the future will bring further reductions.  

21.  5-1/4 and 3.5 inch floppies, Zip Discs and countless other forms of data storage
     Well, I'm still sitting on a box of 3.5" discs so there is a chance I would have to explain them to my supposed children.  For that matter, I have some pretty fond memories of the floppy disk.  I remember having to bring them to school – 5-1/4" for the Apple IIEs at Palos West and old  TRS 80s at Palos South, 3.5" for the Macs at CSHS – and treating them like some scarce resource.  I remember having to buy 5-1/4" floppies to hold the programs I BASIC...for the Commodore 64 (so now you know, I have no credibility as a computer geek).  But the floppy disc had another great feature: you didn't mind simply giving one to somebody if you needed them to have the information on it.  I don't tend to view any of my portable drives as nearly that disposable.  Then again, I will be happy if my future (?) children don't have to constantly swap out discs in order to play a video game because of the limited memory capacity.

25.  Computer screens being just green (or orange) on black
     Okay, amen to this.  I don't know why this was ever inflicted on us, but it is a bit of history I don't mind forgetting.
33.  Having to delete something to make room on your hard drive
     I still have this problem.  Sure, I finally went out and got an external drive with some capacity, but electronic information is like traffic – it will fill up as much room as you allow it to.  

34.  Booting your computer off a floppy disc
     I guess a CD or DVD doesn't qualify as floppy, but I've also been plagued by the need to boot the computer from a disc in the not-too-distant past.  Would I like the cause of that to go away?  Hell yes!  But I have a feeling that computer viruses and malware are going to be known to these children I may be having someday.  Still, it seems like a good idea to be able to boot the computer from something other than the computer's own drives.

35.  Recording a song in a studio
     Huh?  It seems to me that there is still a pretty damn good use of studios.  Are we just assuming that I get my hypothetical children a MacBook Pro or Air or whatever model is reasonably up-to-date and let them 'produce' their own music?  This one baffles me.

39.  Doing bank business only when the bank is open
     I hope these children I haven't had would never have to experience scheduling a day around going to the bank.  I remember when I was working overnights and having to stay up an extra hour just so I could deposit my paycheck.  I also remember when you couldn't use a credit card at McDonald's.  Online banking is something that I've taken too much more easily than I ever could have imagined, and it has saved me from having to independently keep track of my checking between statements, waiting to see if my records match the monthly statements. 
     But what online banking really conquered was banking hours.  Seriously, we may view banks as a form of evil now – because many of them are – but they used to hold your money hostage and demand you come to them in a five hour window (often with an extended period for lunch when they were unavailable to help you) and essentially beg to let them give you your money.  Online banking may be impersonal, but it does let you keep track of and manage your own money without having to make some sort of pilgrimage to the brick and mortar institution.

57.  Typewriters
     The downside of the typewriter isn't that it doesn't allow for on the fly editing, but rather that it isn't exactly easy to service them nowadays.  There is something about the schreibmachine that is so pure; it exists to put down your words in a fashion that anyone can read.  Frankly, the typewriter is one of the greatest inventions of mankind.  It stands as an inanimate advocate for literacy and meaningful public correspondence.  I know that the versatility of the computer makes the dedicated typewriter (or even word processor – that's right, I had to work with a word processor in high school while my friends all made use of PCs) suboptimal, but I refuse to believe that it is something that will go forgotten.

61.  CB radios
     See, this is one of the technologies that I'm sure is still in use.  Is it what it was in the 1970s?  No, but I am somewhat grateful for that.  And it is somewhat refreshing that communicating between two cars on a road trip doesn't require equipping both with CBs and their wicked antennae.  Would my children not know about CBs?  Am I keeping them from my cousins who are professional OTR drivers?  Maybe there isn't much of a call for the CB in England, but I know it has some life left in it here in the States.

62.  Getting lost. With GPS coming to more and more phones, your location is only a click away
     Anyone who has ever traveled with me knows that all that it takes to get me lost is a subdivision with curving streets or being in a strange city where the street names don't match the ones in the directions from the internet.  I used GPS to help me with a little Escape from Evanston adventure on Independence Day, but as the GPS on my phone consistently oriented to the (unnamed) direction I was heading, so all it did was let me know where I was, not how to get where I needed to go.  People will get lost.  It would be inhuman not to.

63.  Rotary dial telephones
     I would hope that the next generation doesn't live in a world where the phone lines cannot handle touch tone phones (like landlines are going to endure, right?).  But the rotary telephone is iconic.  How can it be forgotten?  Buying – actually, leasing – your home phone(s) from the phone company?  That should be forgotten, or at least never happen again.  Yet we clearly accept this kind of set-up when it comes to mobile phones; perhaps because we have more choice and they are viewed as more disposable.  I've worked with adults who never had to use a rotary phone.  Chances are that their children won't be that familiar with or care to learn about the rotary phone.

66.  Payphones
     I remember – it seems so recently – when payphones were privatized.  The answer to that was, it seemed, calling cards.  How quaint that appears now.  But the idea of public use phones (even at a charge) is not one that I want to part with just yet.  And isn't it more satisfying to see people rushing from payphone to payphone [see Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)], or stuck in a Phone Booth (2003) than to see them use a series of burned cell phones.  I also seem to recall the video payphone being a staple of science fiction movies.  Are we really willing to let them not happen?  And what of the Playskool Payphone toy, is it too threatened to be forgotten? On the other hand, aren't payphones the dirtiest things in the history of civilization?

71.  Remembering someone's phone number
     See, I learned my lesson from my introduction to speed dial.  I don't mind not having to look up a phone number for casual acquaintances, but I've found it best to actually learn the numbers I need to dial on any level of frequency.  Could I convince children of that?  Would I have the patience?  I think they nailed this one correctly, but it is a little sad on being that reliant on technology to act as our memory.

81.  Han shoots first
     And this is why the VHS tape needs to endure.  Han shooting Greedo is one of the defining parts of that character.  He doesn't mind spilling a little blood (or just outright killing somebody) if it means that he can keep operating his ship on his terms.  It is what makes him so mercenary and his subsequent moral awakening meaningful.  The edit, where Han shoots because Greedo shot first, makes no sense.  Han is protecting his livelihood and probably his life.  He, in his own estimation, is perfectly within his rights to shoot the alien bastard.  And Mos Eisley is the kind of place where this doesn't raise any eyebrows.  So long as the shirts exist – and even Lucas has been seen wearing one – then the fact that Han shot first will live forever.  And I guess I can only link this to technology in the fact that it was the needless tinkering with an already finished movie (to make more money) that brought about the change. 

85.  "Don't know what a slide rule is for..." 
     I actually tried to get my high school physics teacher to get us acquainted with the slide rule.  It still works, and like DOS it requires the user to have a degree of knowledge of the processes involved rather than just entering in data and expecting an answer from a computer.  The slide rule is a tool for those who want to know what they are doing as much as getting the correct answer.  I say we bring it back.

87.  Swimming pools with diving boards
     This has to be an England thing.  Just has to be.  Leave it a nation surrounded by water and pronounced cliffs to do away with the idea of diving into the water.  I have to think diving board technology will survive.  Number 87, I deem thy fluff.

92.  Writing a check
     This happens with much less frequency, thankfully, but check writing still happens.  I have to imagine it will continue to happen.  Unless the government defaults, the economy collapses, and we become a Mad Max (1979) type society, trading in gas and throwing around razor sharp boomerangs.  Hard to write a check if all of your fingers have been sliced off.

95.  Cash
     Come on, now.  As long as people need to buy things that are illegal, we are going to need cash.  Then again, this may be another nod to government collapse, and our fingerless selves scrounging for gas and dog food.  That way, both we and our guard dogs can eat (this is ignoring the fact that apparently dog food is severely unhealthy for humans).  I don't think this is what Wired was implying, but it is considerably more fun to think of it in this light.

99.  A physical dictionary — either for spelling or definitions
      This assumes that I'm not the kind of guy who buys a dictionary every three years.  Or that I don't enjoy using a physical book and a computer at the same time.  I'm sure I'm in the minority here, but I would like to think that children will at least know about dictionaries being something other than a computer function.

100. When a ‘geek’ and a ‘nerd’ were one and the same
      See, this is where a dictionary comes in handy.  A geek is the guy who bites the head off of a live chicken or eats otherwise unpleasant things for the amusement of the carnival crowd.  A nerd is somebody played by otherwise athletic and attractive actors, but dressed to look funny and socially inept, and then achieves some sort of revenge over the jocks who are just sadistic bullies.  No? 
    Nerd – A foolish, inept, or unattractive person.
    Geek – A person regarded as foolish, inept, or clumsy.
So they never were the same thing?  A geek is someone who is regarded as foolish and inept, but a nerd is someone who is foolish and inept (and unattractive!).  And that is why my children, should I ever be so unfortunate as to have them, would have access to a physical copy of the dictionary.  More than one.

     I guess there are some things I would want to hold onto more than they need to be, or even more than they need to be remembered.  But if that is a serious Top 100 list, it only has a few entries that make me feel like I'm not fit for the future world.  And that includes a world where we are all living like The Road Warrior (1982), because my Ford Focus ain't making it long in any altercations with violent bikers wearing assless chaps.

1 comment:

  1. I've just been sorting out my VHS tape collection in the hope that I can get rid of those I have since bought on a DVD. I discovered that my tastes at the time I bought VHS are different from when I now buy DVDs. So I have two collections. The same is true of my vinyl records and my CDs. They both display different tastes. And although I have both digital and conventional cameras and have developed and print my own pictures in the past, it's just too much bother to bother with old paper photo technology.
    When I started work in a drawing office, I used pencils, tracing paper on a drawing board with t-square or pantograph rules. Now I use a computer and produce 3D virtual models and a program that checks me as I work. And both at the start and previously at school I use logarithm tables - pocket calculators were unheard of. I have a slide rule but could never understand how to use it.
    I recently bought a DVD for which the seller wanted payment by cheque. I don't remember the last time I wrote a cheque, and when I first opened a bank account, my statements were sent to me with all my cheques now crossed out after payment.
    Every cinema I went to in my teenage years had a full sized screen and the programme always had a 'B' film, so you got two films in one performance. Also you didn't have to pre-book, so you go in half way through the film, watch it to the end and then again when the next showing started. No one came and threw you out.
    It amazes me that the technology of today has already superceded technology that had not yet become commonplace when I first started work. If space research had developed at this speed we would already be able to have holidays on the moon at enclosed space resorts.