Looking forward, back as tech-change picks up speed

Technology has changed the world, and it has been since a caveman carved out the first wheel. That is not a bad thing, but it brings change with it. It is the change that can be scary.

Today things are changing so fast it’s hard to keep up.

I stumbled upon this realization a few months ago when I was visiting with my great uncle, who turned 89 on Christmas Eve. He told me he had recently seen his grandson, my cousin, who is studying abroad for a year in Scotland. He used Skype to video chat with him.

He said he didn’t understand how it worked, but he sat in front of a computer and was surprised he could somehow talk with his grandson thousands of miles away. My great uncle hasn’t been to Scotland since WWII.

As amazed as my great uncle was with video chatting, he told me about having a radio when he was five or six. It was the size of a small refrigerator, he said, had five knobs and took 20 minutes to warm up. The whole family would sit in front of it and listen. There were only three stations, but sometimes a Canadian station or two might come through at night if the weather was clear.

It’s amazing to think that in the span of one person’s life technology has moved forward so much. Guglielmo Marconi invented the wireless telegraph and the basic principles needed for radio in the 1890s, but the first voice wasn’t heard over the radio until about a hundred years ago. In the ‘20s, when my great uncle was a child, radios were just becoming something every family had in their home when my great uncle was a kid. Simply put, it was the cool, new thing.

The airplane was just coming into widespread commercial use and a primitive form of television was still in the works. Band-Aids and the first non-leaking ballpoint pens were perfected in the 1920s and ‘30s.

It was just 65 years ago that we realized our capacity for absolute destruction with the atomic bomb. The secret project to build the bomb also helped spawn nuclear power. Not long after that, rockets began traveling into the heavens, first with animals and then with a person. In the 1960s humans left Earth’s orbit for the first time in history, and in 1969 the world watched and listened as a man walked on the moon.

Then came things like commercially available cell phones, which I still have not decided are a blessing or a curse,and personal computers in the 1980s. The Internet started to take hold and became the cool new thing about 20 years ago. In 2001, Apple Inc. unveiled the iPod, touted as a device that could put a thousand songs in your pocket. Skype started in 2003. Facebook was invented in 2004. Today, a piece of technology the size of a pack of cigarettes can do more than people 85 years ago could have done with a computer the size of a warehouse, much less imagined.

The world was a much simpler place then. It has changed and whether that has been for better or worse is certainly a matter of opinion. But it still boggles the mind to imagine how much he world will have changed 85 years from now. Maybe my grandchildren will be amazed at how until I was four, we didn’t cable. They’ll think it’s funny that I would always get up early to ask my mom if it was Saturday and if cartoons were on. One morning, after we got cable, she told me everyday was Saturday morning cartoons now. My grandkids probably won’t even know what I’m talking about when I tell them the first TV show I ever saw on cable was "Rugrats."

I hope I live to see the day when Facebook is no longer the cool new thing and when all iPods are in museums. I also hope I live to see when the Macbook I’m typing on, impressive today and unimaginable 80 even 30 years ago, is the metaphorical equivalent of that refrigerator-sized radio. I look forward to looking back and seeing how things have changed. But there is more to it than nostalgia.

However, we must also pause and reflect.

Perhaps the time has come when we don’t need more technology. Do we really need a handheld computer that can hold a billion songs, every movie ever made and process a hundred trillion pieces of data a nanosecond? Technology is a good thing, but it must be watched. If we do not keep an eye on it, we may lose sight of what’s important. There is always a chance that technology becomes so overpowering for us, that we forget why we were doing what we were doing in the first place.

At the end of the day, a handshake is still a handshake and a promise is still a promise. Everything from friendships and feuds to work and play, all of it, transcends technology. It was here with us in the beginning and will persist as long as we do. We survived for the first 9,900 years of our existence with virtually none of the technologies we have come to know today.

Yes, technology is a good thing, but only to a point. Do yourself a favor. Unplug, disconnect, log out, sign off, power down and go live your life.