Archive for July 15th, 2009

When I was growing up, I was amazed that my parents could recall World War II and the abdication of Edward VIII. Similarly, the thought that Queen Victoria was on the throne when my grandfather was born, or that his life spanned the development of the first airlines to transcontinental flight made him seem a living fossil. I’ve only recently considered that I’m well on my way to becoming a living repository of the past myself.

Not every change I’ve seen seems major. For all the fuss at the time, the change from black and white television to color was only a refinement, not a radical shift in technology or culture. Acting or production didn’t change because of color TV – only the number of old black and white units in the landfills.

By contrast, the introduction of the personal phone was more radical. It greatly reduced the number of public phones in any given area, and left those remaining in obscure corners, where they were left in mounds of litter and could be easily vandalized. More importantly, it encouraged people to stay connected wherever they went, not just via phone, but via the Internet as well. It created a culture where someone walking down the street alone and talking loudly of their personal affairs was not assumed to be insane, but a normal consumer.

Another major change has been the shift in attitudes about smoking. When I reached legal age, non-smokers like me took for granted that if you went to a night club or a pub, you would have have to peel smoke-sodden clothes off as soon as you reached home and put them in a separate wash. If you really had problems with secondhand smoke, you didn’t go out. But now, the norm has shifted, and smoker are the ones who have to go to special efforts to indulge their vices.

Similarly, while alcohol remains an important part of socializing, it is no longer an inevitable one. Time was, if you wanted to talk business, you went to a pub or a lounge. Now, you go to a coffee shop instead. From one perspective, that’s one drug exchanged for another, but it means that one folkway has become overgrown while another has become two-lane highway.

But the largest changes I’ve witnessed so far are the rise of the personal computer and the Internet. The personal computer revolutionized writing, removing the makeshift conventions of the typewriter with higher standards of typography. Accounting ceased to be the manual entry of lists or the painful efforts to use a typewriter as the spreadsheet came into its own. And when digital cameras came along, the personal computer meant the end of the dark room and an era in which photos were cheap and plentiful.

As for the Internet – let’s just say I wish that I was thirty years younger or it had come along thirty years earlier. For somebody like me, who has spent a good part of his life researching, the Internet is like being let loose in some science fiction equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. If I half-remember a fact, I can get the details in a minute. If I need to talk to someone, I have several ways of contacting them immediately. If I want to research a topic that I know little about, then I can do so in an afternoon rather than days, and without leaving the house – and that’s even with sifting through dubious and outdated material.

That’s why I have little sympathy with people like Ray Bradbury, who a few weeks ago denounced the Internet as a waste of time: for anybody who reads or writes for a living, the Internet is so immensely convenient that I took to it as if it were made to my personal specifications. Parts of it may be bad or mad, or plain silly, but the Internet saves me hours of time every day. Bradbury doesn’t know what he’s missing.

When I was young, I used to worry that, when I reached my current age, I would become conservative and hopelessly set against all changes. Apparently, though, my fears were needless. I’m far from approving of all the changes I’ve seen (I especially deplore the shift from the culture of liberal optimism of my teen years to the conservative pessimism and stoicism of today), but I’m fascinated by all of them. Not only that, but I can’t wait to see what comes next.


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