Friday, March 31, 2006
The Breathtaking Pace Of Technology
Based on a post at Varifrank, I got to wondering -- in how many ways is the word of 2006 not only different, but unrecognizably different, from previous times?
Let's start a list, the sort that would make teenage jaws drop:
- I sent my first e-mail when I was fifteen.
This was before public Internet access; I used a now-defunct service called MCI Mail. Since hardly anyone could receive e-mail then, MCI Mail would, for a fee, print out your e-mail for you and put it in an envelope! I was in my twenties, at university, before I first had access to the Internet -- and it was mostly text-only then. I couldn't believe that the system would let me write to college students all over the world for free; I kept expecting a whopping big bill to arrive in the mail. Paper mail, that is.
- I owned my first VCR when I was twenty.
Before that: you want to record a television show, and watch it more than once? Tough. You want to watch a movie at your own convenience? Go buy a movie theater.
- I was in my mid-twenties before I had cable television, or a television with a remote.
Yup: only three channels. When I lived in the United States, there was ABC, CBS, NBC, and UHF, which didn't really count; as a boy in Israel, there was Israel's TV station, Jordan's station, and maybe Egypt if you were lucky. Israel didn't even broadcast in color until I was eleven. And if you want to change the channel, you bloody well got up out of your chair and walked to the TV. Amazingly, we didn't see this as a hardship.
- I was in my twenties before I first saw or heard compact discs.
Before then, recorded music came on audio cassettes or big black records. You could copy them, but we spoke of "multi-generation" copies -- each copy would sound a little worse, until you could barely hear the music over the hiss. Digital media doesn't do that, of course -- I can copy a CD a hundred times, and each one sounds exactly like the original.
- I was nineteen before I first saw an affordable laser printer.
Before then, we used affordable dot-matrix printers (which produced blocky letters that were obviously made of big fat dots), which sounded like they were shredding the paper; or expensive and ultra-slow daisy-wheel printers (which were basically glorified typewriters, producing clean-printed text in a very specific font at a very specific size); they sounded like machine guns, and needed to be kept on a separate table so that they wouldn't shake the computer to pieces.
Personal computers in those days cost thousands of dollars, had (at most!) 640K of memory and 80MB hard disks (which we sometimes called "Winchesters", after the IBM code-name for the project that invented them). Networking was in its infancy; you got data from one computer to another on big square black 5 1/4" floppy disks, a term that was all too literal then. Each floppy held about 180K per side; you could flip them over and use the other side too, if you knew how, although the disk manufacturers discouraged you from doing that. A single CD-ROM today can hold as much as eighteen hundred of those double-sided floppies.
- I was thirty-three when I bought my first cell phone.
Before then: how did you stay in touch? With phones that had thick curly cords on them, that's how... and they generally had rotary-dials, not push-buttons. If you wanted to pace while you talked, you got a phone with a long cord; I got pretty good at splicing my own phone cords to save money. If you weren't at home or at work, you went looking for a public telephone, and hoped you had enough pocket change to feed it. Long-distance calls were expensive; you avoided calling out of state unless you had to, or you waited for special occasions.
- I was in my mid-thirties before I used Google for the first time.
Before then: remember libraries, folks, and card catalogues? Remember the Dewey Decimal System? Remember when you couldn't ask a random question and have an answer within moments?
Just think about the many, many things that people today take for granted, that were utterly unthinkable twenty-five years ago. I can take photographs and e-mail them instantly around the planet, using a device I carry in my pocket. I can carry a small library's worth of books and music around with me wherever I go. I don't bother to ask people for directions most of the time, although I have a lousy sense of direction; I type an address into MapQuest.com, and get everything I need, for free.
I'll continue adding to the list as I think of more items!