Posts Tagged ‘Technological change’


August 12, 2013

We have Netflix and cable and pay-per-view and more remotes than I know what to do with, but for me, inside, there will always be three TV channels.

CBS, NBC and ABC. Since I grew up in New York City, that translates to channels 2, 4 and 7, which had all the good programs. Then there were 5 and 9, which showed black-and-white reruns, 11 which showed Yankee games, and 13, the educational station, which we never watched. (I was born just a couple of years too early for Sesame Street, and my parents were not Masterpiece Theatre types.)

No matter how many remotes we have, I will go to my grave feeling that “normal” is three TV stations. I suspect many other boomers feel the same way.

Which brings me to the topic of change.

We live at a time when change is, quite possibly, happening faster and more unrelentingly than ever before in human history. Big changes like industries evaporating and little changes like moving from the iPod 4 to the iPod 5.  I thought of this again yesterday when, reading the Sunday paper, I came across a photo of Marc Andreesen.

Andreesen was one of the inventors of Netscape. When I was covering tech in the 1990s, he was the just-minted wunderkind, the graduate student with a mess of floppy hair who represented everything new and cutting-edge.

And now he looks like this:


Middle aged! (Like the rest of us.)

I have a hard time with change. I live near the geographic epicenter of technological change, and I try not to be a dinosaur, but I have a hard time with it. We are an innovative, tool-making, world-changing species but  there is also a big part of us that is designed not to expect change.

Think about how we learn to understand the world as babies – a stable, unchanging world. Would it be possible to learn about it any other way?

Parent: Ball. Say, ‘ball.’ Here. (Rolls ball to baby.) 

Baby: Baa. (Holds ball. Pushes ball back.) 

Parent: Yes, it’s a ball! Here’s the ball. (Rolls ball back to baby.)

What would happen if every time that ball came to baby, it had a different name? “No, not ball, gorphin! No, not gorphin, schminger!” What if every time baby pushed the ball, it did something else? First it rolled, but then it floated, and then it exploded? How would we learn to function in the world? How would our primitive ancestors have survived if everytime they plucked the same purple berry it was different – one time tasty, one time sour, one time poisonous?

Some of us – if we are lucky – have stable childhoods. That was my case. No divorces, war zones, plagues, bankruptcies, deaths. My family lived in the same apartment from the time I was two until I was grown; I went to just two schools; we celebrated holidays the same way each year. Even climbing the ladder of school, the continuities outweighed the changes – different teachers and subjects every September, but the same structure to the day, many of the same classmates, the same rules for what was prized or punished.

A lot of human history was pretty unchanging too. Millennia of nomadic societies. The middle ages. If you lived in medieval Europe, you probably spent your life entirely in one village. Your parents were shepherds, so you were a shepherd.  “Change” amounted to the rare arrival of a stranger in town; a new overlord demanding more tithes; a good harvest season or a bad harvest season.

In my life these days, the most unchanging thing may be my cat.  He changed a lot in the first six months of kittenhood, but now our life with him is completely unchanging. We feed and cuddle him; he finds funny places and positions to sleep; sometimes he brings us dead mice. That’s it. And that will be it, more or less, for the rest of his life. Technology is constantly changing, consumer products are changing, industries are dying and empires are dissolving, but the cat remains the same.

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

Parenthood is not like pet ownership.

Many of us go into parenthood thinking it will be stable. We think,  “Okay, my wild youth is over, now I’m settling down and having kids.” And sometimes — especially in those first few months with an infant, or during the 11th inning of a Little League game — it does seem as timeless and tedious as the Middle Ages.

But kids grow. As soon as you’ve reached equilibrium with one stage – “okay, I know how to handle a toddler” – they have moved on to an entirely different stage. You find yourself trying to take a ten-year-old to the zoo. Just six months ago they loved going to the zoo with you! And now they would rather be buried up to their necks in a hole with molasses and red army ants than look at elephants, or for that matter look at anything, with you.

This summer we’ve had Daughter home with us for three months after her freshman year of college. It’s been delightful. She is happy to be home, happy with her adult life, happy to be with us. She volunteered to cook dinner once a week. She even asks to play games with us in the evening!

And this won’t last. In two weeks, she goes back to school. We’ll have her home for winter break, but after that… summer study abroad. Internships and jobs in New York. It’s unclear when she will be at home for such an extended period again.

Those changes — kids growing up, adults growing old — aren’t unique to our era. But all the other modern changes added on top make things feel overwhelming sometimes.

How much of my desire for stability – my refusal, deep inside, to accept that there are more than three TV stations – is a quirk of my own upbringing? How much is hard-wired into us all as human beings?

And how much might be generational? Will generations like my daughter’s — raised with technology turning itself inside-out every year or two — have any less of a gut yearning for constancy?

Picture yourself on a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies –

Oops, not that kind of boat. Picture yourself on a boat, yes, but more like punting on the Cam, just floating lazily down a quiet summer river. You’ve got an old-fashioned Polaroid camera. You’re taking photos of the shoreline, trying to preserve the views you love the most.

But it takes time for you to click, and for the camera to whirr and process and slowly spit out an image.

By then you’re long past the scene in the photo.

It’s gone.

Technology marches on, and we skip along with the parade

November 7, 2010

Like many of us, I use technology so much that I barely notice it. I sit at my computer for hours each day noodling around with novel revisions, blog entries, freelance articles, and it all seems quite unremarkable.

Then every so often something makes me remember how new this all is.

Recently it was holiday photos. Snapfish had a 30 percent discount if you ordered holiday cards by Oct. 31st, so I corralled Sam, Becca and the cat for the annual picture.

When Becca was a baby, I still had to take rolls of film into the photo store to be developed. I’d wait several days to get the pictures back, choose the best one, and return to the photo store to order the cards.

Now we use our digital camera and see the results immediately. This year Becca even photoshopped our favorite picture to remove wrinkles, blemishes, shadows and gray hair! (An unexpected benefit to having an artsy teen – we will look younger every year, a la The Holiday Card of Dorian Gray.) I uploaded the photo, clicked through a bunch of card options to find one without any crosses, mangers, trees, ornaments or red-and-green… and that was that.

It’s only been 12 or 15 years, but the old process of slogging back and forth to the photo store seems like ancient history.

That started me thinking about other technological changes in my lifetime.

If you were chronicling your life for archeologists from the year 3000, what would you remember about new technologies? Do you recall a specific time, place, circumstance when they appeared in your life?

For instance:

ATMs. I started college in 1976, just about the time that ATMs were introduced. I remember going to the BayBank branch in Harvard Square to open my first-ever checking account, and getting a plastic card that I could use to get money. Wow! My parents never got money with a card. It felt very cutting edge.

COMPUTERS. I used electric typewriters all through college; computers were still huge boxes off in the science building. After I graduated in 1980, I worked for a while as a clerical temp where I was thrilled to be able to use IBM Selectrics. The height of luxury, I thought, would be to have a Selectric at home for personal use.

I think I first ran into word processing machines when I was temping; I vaguely remember being awed by a machine at one company that had a screen that showed REAL WRITING with ACTUAL FONTS rather than bunches of little electronic dots. (My first glimpse of a graphical user interface?)

The first time I used a desktop computer for writing was when I was living in Jerusalem in 1984-5 and writing a novel. My Israeli friend Ivonne, a graduate student, had a very early pre-Macintosh Apple. I would hand-write pages at my apartment, and then go over to her house to type them onto a floppy disk. When I returned to the U.S. for journalism school in 1985, I bought a PC (“Leading Edge” brand with its own proprietary word processing program!) and paid to have the files transferred from Apple to PC format.

During my first reporting internship at the Waterbury Republican in 1986, we filed stories from the field on Radio Shack TRS-80 computers – warhorses that would have probably survived a drop from the Empire State Building. They had displays that showed about two lines of type – the equivalent of a Tweet! – and rubber cups that you attached to a pay phone in order to transmit your text. I suspect any boomer-age newspaper reporter reading this blog remembers them.

EMAIL. When we were starting to organize the Julia Morgan School for Girls in 1996, email was still relatively new. We had long, earnest discussions about whether it was equitable to send messages to parents by email – would we be excluding families without the means to buy a computer? Today those discussions seem quaint. The school hasn’t sent out a paper newsletter for years; everyone reads it on the web site.

Those were just the first personal takes on tech history that popped into my head. It’s interesting how we date historical events — whether technological change, moon landings, or political events — by remembering where we were and what we were doing at that moment.

How about you — any moments in your life that are linked to the arrival of a new technology?

Some things, of course, remain the same despite any and all technological changes. When I was little, my parents took Instamatic holiday photos of the three of us kids and the cat. The cat invariably was half out of the picture, squirming and clawing to get back under the bed where life was sane and normal.


If you look at our 2010 holiday photo at the top of this blog post, Bowie doesn’t seem much happier.

I guess you could photoshop some kind of Zen-relaxation-expression onto a cat. Or you could photoshop in the entire cat.

I can envision the PETA-friendly disclaimer: “No real cats were annoyed or even slightly inconvenienced in the making of this greeting card.”

But somehow the holiday photo experience just wouldn’t feel the same.