Several weeks ago, I published a Turn the Page book review of How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. If you haven’t read the book you should; and if that’s too much trouble at least check out the PBS series by the same name and also hosted by Mr. Johnson. As the titles suggests, he explores the ideas and inventions most responsible for shaping modern society. I’m not talking about the automobile, the television or the Internet, but instead their precursors. Without comparatively basic innovations like the glass lens, refrigeration, accurate time keeping and clean water, most of what you now see around you would not have been and could not have been possible. I read the book and watched the television series and I’ve been pondering both ever since. The roots of some of the most remarkable technologies can be traced back to extremely humble beginnings. It’s incredible when you think about how far we’ve come and damn well scary to consider where we might be going next.
I was born in 1969, the week man walked on the moon for the first time. I’m wondering now if that was the moment the absolutely incredible became routine. We’re less than two generations removed from that monumental, world changing event and, assuming you have the resources, you can now buy a ticket into space aboard a commercial rocket. You can also carry an entire music store or bookstore around in your pocket, take a picture of yourself and, a split second later, share it with someone on the other side of the globe, and print an actual, eatable pizza. This is the world my kids are growing up in and it doesn’t seem to faze them in the slightest. Is that a testament to the speed and power of innovation or a sign that we’ve crossed some sort of Tree of Knowledge or Pandora’s Box type threshold? Remember that feeling of utter astonishment the first time you used a dial-up modem to send an email? Now think about how irritated you got the last time you typed michaelsova.com into your browser and the page didn’t fully load in the first two seconds.
Comedian Louis CK was on Conan O’Brien’s show a few years back and gave a now famous rant about technology and how, in today’s world, “everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.” You’ve probably seen it at least once before. Even so, it’s worth watching again because it’s so poignant. Anyone with a computer, a tablet or a smart phone has the world at their fingertips. How soon we take that for granted.
So where am I going with all of this? I don’t honestly know. I was absolutely mesmerized the first time I saw Pac-Man. That, at the time, was ground breaking video game technology and it wasn’t that long ago by the way. I was equally blown away the first time I encountered a VCR, a cell phone, and an iPod. You can now play video games, listen to music, make phone calls, watch high definition movies and do a whole lot more simply by interacting with your wrist watch. That little gadget has more processing power than all the computers aboard Apollo 11. That is beyond amazing. It’s also rather ridiculous but that’s a conversation for another time.
When I graduated from high school, I don’t think there were more than a couple dozen computers in the entire building and my computer geek buddy was the only one I knew who actually owned one. My daughter, who’s now in 7th grade, has had a smart board in her classroom every year since kindergarten. Anyone older than me might not even know what a smart board is. Basically, it’s a black board, overhead projector, computer and every other bit of educational equipment you’ve ever seen all rolled into one. Remember chalk? You might still find some in the arts & crafts section at Wal-Mart but probably not in the school room. Don’t get me wrong. Advancements like that are not only amazing but hugely beneficial. It’s just a little sad that so many modern day marvels have so quickly become commonplace. You know what amazes my kids now? Rotary telephones, typewriters and record players. I’m absolutely serious. Motion sensing video games, however, not impressed at all. So maybe, if I want to see true wonder in their eyes, I should introduce them to my old Pet Rock.
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