Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Today I'm Fifty
Social media was not necessary for a small portion of the world to be introduced to Augie Ray in near real time. Nor was social media required for awkward comments to strain friendships. A family friend told my parents, "It's a shame he won't see his first birthday," a reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis into which I was born. I'm happy to report I survived to my first birthday--and 49 more since then.
It will sound like an "old" thing to say, but I am constantly amazed at how much change I've witnessed during my lifetime. For the first decades of my life, the gold standard of interpersonal communication was the landline telephone--and my family (like many others) didn't even have its own dedicated line. One could pick up the phone and interupt a phone conversation between two strangers, and that would mean you'd need to wait your turn, not just from others within your own household but also the people with whom you shared the party line. One phone; one-half of a communication channel shared by the entire family.
My home (and virtually all homes) had a single TV that received five channels on a good day (assuming one could arrange the antenna properly.) When I was born, nationally televised news consisted of a daily fifteen-minute black-and-white program. Network news wouldn't expand to a thirty-minute format until around my first birthday, and I was over ten before every show was broadcast in color. (Yes, I'm that old.)
My high school had an advanced programmable calculator--it weighed thirty pounds and had to be rolled around on a cart. High school was also when I was introduced to programming, thanks to a dumb terminal that stored programs on punched paper tape. In college I learned COBOL on enormous machines roughly the size of small pianos that produced each line of code on a punched card. The PC age dawned shortly before I graduated when the first "micro computer" lab with IBM-compatible PCs opened at my school, and shortly thereafter I owned my first computer, an Atari 1040ST. (The 1040ST was the first PC shipped with 1 MB of RAM, and people thought I was absolutely crazy to waste the extra money for an entire megabyte of memory.)
Music has changed a lot, also. As a child, portable music came in the form of a little plastic suitcase record player on which I endlessly played my parent's album, "Meet the Beatles!" When I got to college, some folks were just beginning to walk around plugged into Walkman portable cassette players, but I opted to go to the school library for my tunes. There, you could peruse a card catalog of LPs, ask at a window that one be played and then go to a carrel desk to hear your selection on headphones. There was no skipping, pause or reverse, but it was the first time I had a sense of the wonder of accessing unlimited content in real time.
Around my 25th birthday, I discovered Bulletin Board Systems via a 2400 baud modem connected to a 40-foot cord that snaked through two rooms to the only phone jack in my home. The interface was kludgy but the sense of connecting to data and people in real time was heady stuff. Around age thirty, I joined Prodigy and soon became a community moderator on the Disney Fans Bulletin Board, an honor that included free access, thus avoiding the $200 monthly bills I was collecting. In 1994, Prodigy opened access to the Internet, and I quickly began experimenting with my own crude web sites. Three short years later I was abandoning my job managing a customer service division for a full-time career in the Web--my friends all thought I was crazy.
It is easy to look back and see all that has changed, but it is also easy to overlook what has not: Basic human emotions, needs and relationships. What drove the advance of all this technology wasn't a desire to make money or to be powerful--it was the pure human desire to be more connected more closely with more people and information.
There used to be nothing worse than calling someone's home and hearing the phone ring unanswered; years later, it was the annoyance of calling and having to leave a message that wouldn't be heard for hours or days. Today, we text, tweet, call, Skype, email, upload, share, communicate and connect anywhere and everywhere at any time. Some bemoan the lack of quiet, private time, but from where I'm sitting, this is a small price for the miracle of having the world constantly at your fingertips.
There is a lot of our new digital, wireless and social world with which we still struggle, and the pace of change will continue to challenge. But for every problem and concern there seems many times more opportunities, benefits and joys. Today, as I think back to the party-line, rotary-phone, black-and-white, analog world of fifty years ago, I feel lucky for the many innovations I've experienced. I can only speculate at the wonders that await me on my 100th birthday.