Friday, July 29, 2005

Taking Tech for Granted

I got some lunch downtown a little while ago, enjoying the sultry weather our town is so well known for during the summertime (if you call just-this-side of triple-digits, so humid you could steam Chinese dumplings without a pot sultry). I'd decided to try out a new coffee-house, now ensconsed in an infamous former gay bar/dance club and take my chances that no one from my office was driving by, seeing me walk in and forgetting that it has new, less-controversial owners these days. The food was pretty good; white bean soup with what I presumed was Cuban bread slices liberally doused in garlic and mashed flat as a piece of paper and toasted. I watched the flat-screen LCD TV on the wall after having paid for things with my debit card.

On the walk back I must have passed five different ATMs within a block and a half of each other (with at least two or three more down the side streets). I remembered when the old bank I used to work in, sold many times over and folded into some multi-state monstrosity by now, installed its first ATM years ago. It had a single-line screen to read instructions with and would certainly look like the financial equivalent of a Model T now, but it sure was cool when it first came out. It made me think about how quickly we become accustomed to advances in techology, to the point that we forget what life was like without them.

When I was a freshman in college, there was a "computer room" one could go to in the University Union to take advantage of some of the newest big-iron technology (i.e., a mainframe computer with dumb terminals and punch-card programs). I'd seen the latest and greatest in video games earlier that year (PONG) and looked forward to trying out some of the games that were for public use. Lunar Lander and Cannon were my favorites; pure command line enjoyment. I did get to try Star Trek one time; they'd cautioned that it was probably a one-time only exercise because the program was such a memory hog. It was fun, but I got hammered pretty good in the first few minutes by the Klingons and, when I tried to reboot, it crashed. Now my kids complain when our by-now archaic 900 mhz clunker takes a while (seconds) to load something up. Speed kills, as the fighter pilots say, and speed in computers becomes addictive; you can't go back to old, slow PCs. You've always gotta have the fastest one out there, even if you don't need it.

Take the Internet for example. I first saw the Internet on a dial-up connection we had in our office sometime in 1993, I think, maybe early 1994. I got to see the coffee pot that students at Oxford had set up one of the early webcams on so they could see if any coffee was made before going down the hallway to get some. One of our former employees, now an appellate judge somewhere, looked up a porn site (ah, for the good old days of innocence! Now he'd be taken out and shot). Our computer guru, a friend for a while by this point, who'd helped to get our office on the nearly cutting edge of technology since the mid-Eighties, looked at me and said, "What good is the Internet, anyway?". Now we've gotten rid of our dial-up connection at home and gotten a broadband hookup (more expensive, naturally); I had to use dial-up on my recent vacation and had forgotten how slowly (relatively speaking) graphics and text load up. I had to remind myself that our first modem in the old days transmitted at speeds that allowed you to literally see one letter at a time popping up on the screen. A short memo took HOURS to view.

My youngest daughter likes to refer to "old" technology as "ghetto". She called my wife's first cellphone the "ghetto" phone because the screen was hard to read, it barely got reception in most places and it was a real handful to hold. I didn't have the heart to tell her about our first real cellphone, purchased in response to our old Gran Prix cutting out on the interstate one day with my wife and the two girls while I was in Court. A kind fellow in a Mercedes stopped and let her call our office with HIS cellphone and waited around until I showed up to take them on to our in-laws and call for a wrecker from their place (since I didn't a cellphone either). Our first one had to plug into the cigarette lighter and was about half the size of a briefcase. It worked, don't laugh. The youngest now has her OWN cellphone, a slider with a huge color screen and a digital camera built into it.

ATM machines, which started this off, was an amazing advance for us on vacations when they first came out. We'd gone to Nashville one summer for a vacation, with our then two year old eldest in tow. We were getting a little light in the cash department after visiting the Grand Ole Opry and, upon leaving the town, headed towards the nearest ATM that would work with my debit card from my credit union--it was in Smyrna, where Toyota had a truck plant (and where my father was stationed for a while upon his return from Italy, working on B-24s and B-17s at the training base there). Now my card works just about everywhere in the U.S.A. and probably in various countries around the globe (assuming I can ever get to any of them). In Chicago a couple of summers ago, I was amazed to see a Citibank ATM with all sorts of graphics and easy to understand instructions, better than anything I've seen in our little backwater yet (still, you have to wonder why they put braille instructions on ATM machines in drive-throughs!).

I grew up in a house with no air-conditioning, where the height of technology was the rotary dial telephone, connected to old Ma Bell. We did have a console TV/record player/radio (made by Curtis Mathes and "darn well worth it", according to the ads) and I eventually got a reel-to-reel tape recorder (with Add-A-Track technology) to record some of my piano playing. I got a clock radio sometime in my high school years (with numbers that flipped down with the counting minutes and hours) that I used to listen to "Radio Free Tampa" from USF along with the classical music they played at nights. Those were simpler times, I suppose, and you learned to get along without technology when disasters happened, because you really didn't have any technology to depend on for the most part. We didn't worry about the cable going out and depriving us of MTV since cable was for the rich and we got our programming through the air and captured by our antenna (and who could have possibly imagined MTV in the 1960's?).

I don't have any idea what my girls would do without the modern conveniences we have. Florida would be a ghost town if all air conditioning disappeared tomorrow. All the snow birds and Yankees would wilt and go home. The whiners would move back to more temperate climes and Disney World and Busch Gardens would probably be reclaimed by nature and the remaining humans would move slower and be more at peace with themselves, not constantly in contact with stress-inducing catastrophes and family disasters and problems through the Internet and over cellphones. Maybe that's not such a bad idea after all?

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