Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Howdy, howdy, howdy! Welcome to the first post of 2008, dear blends. I know it's traditional to look back on the year that was as we move into this most arbitrary of orbital demarcations, but just as the husband of Mdme. Stinkypaw said, I'm glad to see 2007 in my metaphorical rear view, and would just as soon let it fade into the mists of semi-memory. Instead, as I drove home from my all-too brief visit to the homeland, I found myself musing on the technological innovations that I have witnessed over the past 40+ years. I have, in the past, lamented the lack of futuristic conveniences such as flying cars or personal R2 units, but truth be told we are living in a world that is rife with the realizations of Science Fiction of yore. Don't think so? Just wander out into your living room some night when all are asleep and count the glowing LEDs. Anyway, on to the observations. Let's start with music. The year I was born was also the year that the cassette tape was introduced in the US. This allowed people to take music with them to some extent but the players were still large and not really that portable. Over the next 20 years or so record and tape players became smaller, but it wasn't until the Walkman took the country by storm in the late 70's that music music became really portable. I still remember taking my bicycle radio, a bulky, orange plastic thing that mounted on my handlebars, and trying to listen to it with the cheap earphone that had all the fidelity of a tin can 'telephone'. Since then we've replaced our tons of vinyl with pounds of cassettes, and then ounces of Cd's. Now we have MP3 players that weigh less than a pair of headphones, yet hold more music than half the Library of Congress.
Then there is the television. The first TV I recall was the size of a small sofa, and required a large clicking box on the top that turned the antenna on the roof. Terms like UHF and VHF, and channel numbers that matched what the dial said have been lost to the mists of time. Phrases like 'in living color' no longer have any meaning to people who cannot imagine why black and white television ever existed. The cathode ray tube has shrunk to a remarkably small size, and liquid crystal and plasma displays are set to consign the electron gun to the scrap heap of history. And the tinny, tiny speakers of TVs past are now replaced with stereo surround sound.
When I was 7 or 8 I remember playing with my grandfather's new calculator. It was the size of a waffle iron, with big red numbers, and cost over $100. My first calculator for school was so large and expensive that I kept it in a special plastic case to keep it safe. The C got a Commodore 64 computer. It was so cool, with its 10" floppy discs. It took nearly 20 minutes to load the mostly text based games that were its main function, although you could use it as a calculator. It spoke BASIC, and if you were 'in the know' you could program it to repeat a sequence of obscenities. Ah, youth. These days my watch has more memory, and high end PCs have more computing power than the entire Space Shuttle fleet. And the limits to speed and memory capacity is still far off.
Life is so much easier today than it was not so long ago thanks to science, but there is a danger to all this innovation. It used to be that if I couldn't get my car to start all I had to do was stick something into the butterfly valve of my carburetor, or squirt some flammable carcinogen into the air intake. Now it could be anything from a clogged injector to some bad code in the on-board computer. Televisions used to be repairable by swapping out a few tubes, but now it takes millions of dollars worth of test equipment used by highly trained technicians to diagnose problems. Power plants are now more automated than any TV starship, and just as complex. I fear that some of the predictions of Issac Asimov might just come true as our technologies become so complex that only an elite class of people understand them. We must assure that the technicians of today do not become the high priests of tomorrow. I fear that as technology makes life easier and easier, an understanding of that technology will become increasingly scarce. We must make a concerted effort to keep ourselves educated not just about what the next Big New Thing&#153 is, but why and how as well. Otherwise the predictions of Orwell and Huxley might just become reality.
Happy new year!

No comments: