Sunday, November 20, 2016

History of Technology (at my house)

ET, my 15 year-old son, dashed into the room, clearly frantic about something, “Have you seen my phone? I’ve looked everywhere!”

“Did you try your “find my phone app” on your iPad?”

“It’s not working!” He was circling the room, checking behind and under the furniture, checked the refrigerator, and was leaning over the trash can, when he paused, turned to me and said, “Why doesn’t somebody make a phone that you can screw to the wall with a wire or something on it?!”

If I wasn’t so worried that his expensive phone was truly lost I would have cracked up. When I was a teenager we had a “party-line” phone hooked to the wall in the kitchen. It was the only phone the family owned. If it rang two long rings or two short rings, the call wasn’t for us—it was for someone else on the party-line. Our ring was one short, one long.

We had the first color TV in our neighborhood; there were only two channels, NBC & CBS (out of New Orleans). If I wanted to turn it on, change channels, or adjust the volume, I had to get out of my chair, cross the room to the TV set and twist one of the knobs on the front of the cabinet. Sometimes the signal would flutter and one of us would have to go outside and turn the post that held the antenna—until the signal cleared up. Both channels went off the air not long after midnight every night and would play the Star-Spangled Banner (through the single tiny speaker on the side of the cabinet) while the credits rolled across the screen. The whole thing was magical.

I had the coolest radio in town (my uncle the electronic genius gave it to me). It was a white plastic box, about a cubic foot in size, loaded with vacuum tubes that lit up the whole room when the contraption was warmed up. It picked up two bands, AM and Short-Wave. Late at night I could tune stations from all over the country thanks to atmospheric bounce. In the early 60’s I could pick up XERF, the Wolfman Jack show, out of Mexico. The short-wave band picked up ships on the Mississippi River (just fifty yards from our house) and I could listen to the bar-pilots as they navigated the treacherous, ever-shifting sandbars on their journey to New Orleans and beyond.

Music was much the same as today. I had an iPod, 32 gig, that . . . no I didn’t. I had my radio. Later, I got a record player (probably from the same uncle) and joined the Columbia Record Club. And, again, it was magical. The LP’s, 12 inch vinyl disks, had about a half-hour of music (on the two sides) and played in stereo (two channels, though I had only one speaker). I had to keep a supply of spare needles and a shoe brush (that’s another story) handy to keep the records in good shape. Music was actually pretty good in those days. We lived across a pasture from a night club where all the biggest names in soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues played on weekends. When the wind was right I could hear Irma and Rufus Thomas, Percy Sledge, Otis Redding, the Platters, even Louis Armstrong. I spent a lot of hours prone in the grass near the back of our property, just listening.

In the sixties John Cameron Swayze, sponsored by Timex, or Huntley/Brinkley, brought to us by Texaco (Trust the Man Who Wears the Star) gave us our news. For 15 minutes each weekday evening, we heard all the world & national news we needed. The local news was another 15 minutes, but we only watched the weather. My dad and I watched the Gillette Friday night fights, the single baseball “Game of the Week,” and our favorite westerns. I loved it. If I needed to DIY something, I’d ask Dad (or Mom) to help me—they could do anything. On Monday the “Times-Picayune” newspaper had all the sports results and all the news I needed about local politics, albeit a few days old, but I didn’t care.

Today, I’m sitting in front of a 55” Smart 3D TV, listening to 1200 watts of 5.1 channel sound, using a universal remote to scroll through 200+ channels of programming. I have my choice of channels with 24 hour news, sports, entertainment, politics, government, finance—just about anything you can imagine. Or, I can log-on to the internet and find things that you can’t imagine—all from the comfort of my over-stuffed leather chair. At my house everyone has iPads, iPods, and iPhones (thanks Steve); we have three laptops and two desktop computers (my son and I built his gaming computer from a bare-bones kit). All are connected to the “ratnet” home network and the internet via the latest AC 1200 Mbps wireless router. Our printers are Wi-Fi, so I can print from any device to any printer in the house. We have 11 TB of storage. I can Skype or Facetime our good friend in Bulgaria or my world-travelling brother in law, wherever he happens to be this evening—and see their smiling faces in HD. The differences in communication then and now are stark. But, do I need 24/7 finance news? Do I need to know the Kardashians? Can I not wait until Monday morning for the box scores? I have access to thousands of movies, but I’m lucky to find time to watch one a week. Advertisers and marketers, technology companies, ISP’s, all think I need more information, faster, but I’m not convinced, at least not from a personal perspective.

At work it’s a whole ‘nother world. My competitors have it, so I must have it. And, we stay on the cutting edge with our subsidiary technology company. We’ve always struggled with data security and that challenge grows increasingly worrisome with more information stored and exchanged electronically. And, how fast is fast enough, how much analysis do I really need? Do all presentations have to be animated?

I could go on, but my point is that all this tech stuff is fun, but I don’t see it as a necessity. I think we use more than we need just because it’s there. And, I think it dangerously clutters our lives, distracts us from truly meaningful human interaction—remember, I’m old so I’m entitled to be contrary.

ET found his phone, by the way.