Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Electrical Tsunami

The Cretaceous Period in media technology began in 1961 with the introduction of the IBM Selectric typewriter, simply the best of its species. When it reached its maturity as the all-around wonderful Selectric II, it ruled the world for a while before the cataclysm of the Computer Age swept it away. Awesome creature in its day, but its day was over forever.
Some things will endure (horseshoe crabs, crabgrass, crocodiles), some will slowly evolve and adapt, and some disappear over the cliff they didn't see. In 1973, as I was enjoying my last months in the Pentagon, we began testing the IBM 2740 "dumb" terminal, connected to a hulking mainframe computer. We had already adapted from typewriters to "word processing" with the installation of IBM MTST machines, and wondered if this was an add-on or a possibly coming replacement. Like a real tsunami, change was coming in a big way but we hardly suspected it.
Heck, a few years previously, I'd been tearing the news off the clattering AP teletype at WFMV-FM, just like in 1940s movies. Fred Flintstone was about to be pulled, dazed and confused, from the Stone to the Electronic Age.
Likewise, I had no idea that little pillbox-size modem I plugged into our first home computer was a hint of something much more spellbinding than the black-and-white text message boards it led one to. A roller coaster ride is fun and challenging; the anticipation, fast changes and surprises are a thrill. But 40 years of roller coaster rides, one right after another? At some point you start to feel woozy, and wonder if your personal bandwidth is being exceeded.
I'm excited, without the seasickness, by technological advances which solve problems instead of those which are just pretty much about entertainment. And a lot of what's coming at us week after week is just that wickedly effective planned obsolesence washing in on waves of hype.
But we're mostly conformists at heart, and don't want to miss out and become irrelevant, so we open wide and swallow, mindlessly, like baby birds.
While advertising and peer pressure flag us ever forward along on this NASCAR oval of life, sometimes you have to dive for the pits and clear your head. I stopped at CDs and DVDs after getting fooled by the cassette fad, and getting stuck with hundreds of them I can't use anymore. Never did fall for the 8-track (clearly a poor technology) or CB crazes, or plastic Crocs shoes, but that doesn't show any particular presience, evidenced by the stack of dead VCRs in the basement. At least I held on to about half the LP records and my now very old audio equipment. There's a fine line between fuddy-duddy and P. Diddy, and I don't want to be either one.
I can fix a standard electric or gas stove, but our new one has an electronic command center like the bridge of Starship Enterprise. I can't even get much out of the instruction manual. It does do amazing things, but it makes you feel pretty thick. I have a "dumb" phone but it's outsmarted me from day one...
If the electricity goes out for a very long time, there are a host of old skills we should, but don't, have to survive. 3-D surround sound entertainment will seem, all of a sudden, pretty irrelevant. Looking up what you want or need to know on the internet is now so fast and easy it's almost as much a part of our nervous system as breathing. It's been quite a trip, but everything ends (except crabgrass).
The roller coaster comes to a hard stop. You're disoriented; reality has changed in a second. It may be, and it's a scary thought, that there's no school like Old School. Hope you still have a pencil sharpener and index cards.

1 comment:

  1. Time changes all things, but only if you want it. I too had a Selectric which printed the letters I thought. That round ball of type moving at the speed of sound to produce on paper rough letters printed from an ink ribbon.
    Today, I bought a cassette player to plug into the 2011 environment to remind me of a time when time was. And the vinyl still spins.