Thursday, November 11, 2010

Technology Marches On

I’m not in the market for a new ride right now, unless it’s the cool convertible I’m always dreaming about. But I was reading up on some of the new cars, anyway, and I was pretty impressed with all the stuff that’s now available--like hybrid gas/electric drive trains, voice-guided navigation systems, backup and blind spot cameras and thermal sensors, and--wait for it--a car that actually parallel parks itself. It’s all pretty heady stuff to a guy who considers a new, sproingier bungee cord to keep my driver’s side door shut as a pretty significant advance in automotive technology.
But it got me thinking.
"This is, perhaps, the most technologically advanced age ever," I thought.
Well, I don't really think about things in those kinds of terms, but you've got to admit there's a lot going on nowadays, between transportation and communications. But is this really the time when the most has happened?
Maybe not.
Take my paternal grandfather. The men on my dad's side of the family got married late in life as a rule, so the generations span an amazing amount of time. He, for example, was born in 1866, just a year after the end of the American Civil War.
That's right, my grandfather.
That's right, 1866.
The first civil rights act, the beginning of post-war reconstruction and Jesse James' first bank robbery were all in the news that year. And as proud as you might be of your Blackberry or iPod, imagine a lifetime (he died in 1917) that started in the days of mules and horses, wagons, the telegraph and steamboats, but saw an incredible array of ideas and inventions, including (but not limited to) the typewriter, barbed wire, bicycles, traffic lights, the telephone, transcontinental rail travel, the first practical gas and diesel engines, the automobile, motorcycle, airplane and helicopter, toilet paper, Coca-Cola, the dishwasher, the zipper, motion pictures, the vacuum cleaner, crayons, plastic, instant coffee and the Theory of Relativity.
My dad, who was born in 1904, was around for tea bags, corn flakes, sliced bread and the toaster, television and 3-D movies (3-D specs included), along with Scotch tape, the jet engine (and jet planes), antibiotics and polio vaccines, the atom bomb, the computer, the drive-in movie theatre, man-made satellites, the frisbee, the first parking meter, silly putty, the microchip, astroturf, the artificial heart, transworld air travel, the first video game, manned space flight and the first walk on the moon by men from earth.
It's hard to imagine what my grandfather thought the first time he saw a primitive airplane chugging across the sky. And I know my dad, who once took a more-than-thrilling ride in a biplane piloted by a barnstorming World War One air corps veteran, was glued to the tube when men first stepped foot on the moon. I suspect their sense of excitement was somewhat greater than what I feel when I googlesearch a few baseball stats. And I do know they managed to take many of the new inventions in stride, with my grandfather developing his own brand of bicycles in the 1890's and my dad owning his own Model-T Ford at the age of 12.
I did a little research on the past couple of decades or so, and saw a different picture. For one thing, there seemed to be fewer really meaningful inventions listed in the period. And most of them had to do with forms of communications, with items like personal computers, cell phones and an ever-growing bunch of smaller and smaller devices intended to turn keep us firmly connected to the rest of the world wherever we go. The aforementioned automotive ideas rated no more than a mention as clever ways to sell a few more cars.
While many historians say that 15th century printer Johann Gutenberg's invention of the movable type presses that made the inexpensive mass-printing of books possible as, perhaps, the most important invention ever, it was the creation of the internet, along with the tools that relate to it, that seems to define where the world and its inventors are heading today.
Don't get me wrong; I love the internet and many of the other communications choices we now have at our fingertips. I love the ability to say, "I wonder" and find an answer quickly and easily. I liked being able to find out many of the facts cited in this column without digging through a pile of history books. I like writing a quick, instant message to my kids, and I truly adore seeing what my grandchildren are doing right when they're doing it.
But I don't like what new age technology has done to some kinds of communications. The handheld "social networking" devices that are an essential part of so many personal wardrobes keep us in ever-constant touch, but also can have an adverse effect what we say and how we say it, as we post, tweet, show and share a barrage of things--ranging from the banal to the downright obscene--that we'd never dream of saying and showing in person. "Interactive" and "virtual" are buzzwords of the new technology, but fall way, way short when they replace real face-to-face communications and actual reality.
Old fashioned as it might seem, I sill like going places, seeing things in person and, sometimes, even figuring things out for myself. And I guess I think we all could survive a little less technology...and a little more human contact.
I would, however, like someone to teach my car how to park itself.

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