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How Far We’ve Come, and How Fast!

Sometimes, instead of ranting at all the things we want to change, it’s nice to take a deep breath and remember how far we’ve come. We’ve just passed Canadian Thanksgiving, and the US Thanksgiving is coming up in a few weeks. This seems like as good a time as any.

Sometimes, instead of ranting at all the things we want to change, it’s
nice to take a deep breath and remember how far we’ve come. We’ve just
passed Canadian Thanksgiving, and the US Thanksgiving is coming up in a
few weeks. This seems like as good a time as any.

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I always start my day looking at the queries from reporters looking for story sources on <a href=”http://www.helpareporter.com/”>HARO (Help A Reporter Out)</a>. This morning, in addition to the three that I answered, I spotted this intrigung one:

<blockquote>Looking for people who use household robots for chores, communication,
security or entertainment. Parents if youve purchased toy robots for
your kids to play with, Id love to hear from you, too. Am wondering if
you’ve ever had any security/privacy concerns with regard to your robots
(especially ones that can be controlled over short distances using remote
control or via the Internet) and/or if youve ever noticed any odd
robot behavior. No experts needed, just looking for people who own some
kind of robot and are interested in participating in a fun Tech story. </blockquote>

I was struck by how far we’ve come, so fast, in my lifetime. In my childhood and teens in the 1960s and 70s, robots were very much a part of my life…in the science fiction I read, in movies, and on TV. But nobody I knew actually had a robot in their house.

It’s hard enough for my kids to believe that I grew up in a world without so much of what they took for granted.

Never mind the Internet; the only computer in my life was the mainframe in my mom’s office at a university, that filled three large rooms, had to be specially air conditioned, was talked to through punch cards, and probably had less computing power than my $5 solar calculator.

Cell phones? Our tethered landline phones were black and had rotary dials, and most families only had one phone for the whole house. When I went to college, we had one phone for a dormitory floor with 20 people, although by then they were beige. My family did have a private number but I know people who grew up with shared party lines. We did have the first answering machine I ever saw. My dad paid $400 for it in 1961 (a huge fortune at the time), because he was self-employed and also holding down a full-time job. It actually lifted the phone off the hook and played the recorded message into the receiver.

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We had a black-and-white television with maybe a 15-inch screen. It picked up only channels 2-13. For most of the country, that meant between one and three stations. Living in New York City, we actually had seven–what luxury! Oh yes, and if you missed a program, it was gone. No TiVo, no DVD, no VCR.

It was a big treat to go into a fancy office in the summer, because they had air conditioning, and most of the rest of us didn’t.

So much of the technology that enriches our lives didn’t exist yet or was reserved for an elite few. I could go on for pages listing the innovations that have reached every corner of our lives. And of course, go just a few decades earlier than my childhood and you’re in a world with no cars, telephones, or electric lights. I’ve met plenty of people who grew up in that time, though most of them are gone now.

Other changes were in the social sphere, and ultimately far more important. Most jobs weren’t open to women, and in many parts of the country, weren’t open to minorities either. Disabled people were shunted aside and kept out of sight, and there was very little infrastructure for them. Forget about the Americans with Disabilities Act; most sidewalks didn’t even have curb cuts on the corners. There was no mass consciousness at all about environmental issues; it was considered the right of any industrialist to pollute, to leave toxic dumps, and so forth. Organic food was hard to come by, and so was decent coffee.

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