Revolutionary technologies can have revolutionary effects on one’s lifestyle. I’m at an age where I’ve seen the impact first hand through several generations, but the biggest change has been from being a passive observer of technology to an active participant.
But most any Baby Boomer can likely report similar experiences.
It all started for me with radio. Even though TV debuted before I was born, my parents didn’t buy a set then. Maybe they cost too much, or maybe they didn’t believe in that new-fangled “tube,” After all, the size of the screens on the early sets was really small. I used to visit my uncle, Abe, and watch a few of my favorite shows on a 10-inch screen. Imagine looking at something with a display similar in size to a 10.5-inch iPad Pro from across the room to get a sense of how it felt. My parents eventually bought a 21-inch set.
But radio! Ah radio, the theater of the mind. In those days, I’d listen to such radio dramas as The Lone Ranger, Superman and — The Shadow. The images of elaborate sets and action scenes were products of your imagination. In an actual radio studio, it was a bunch of actors reading scripts, with someone creating the sound effects of horses galloping, people walking, cars moving, doors opening and closing, and rocket ships launching into space. Indeed, the sound men in those days normally used or adapted common objects to provide such sound effects.
Your imagination filled in the gaps. So it didn’t matter that the person who played Marshall Matt Dillon on the radio version of Gunsmoke, William Conrad, was a short, stout man. To millions of listeners, he was tall, thin and imposing. Today’s image of Marshall Dillon is the late James Arness, star of the TV version, who stood 6’7″.
Your active participation was sharply reduced with television. All right, it was black and white at first, and the budgets for TV dramas was threadbare. Westerns were inexpensive to produce, but sci-fi shows used amateurish and obvious special effects. It was all about cardboard sets, and clumsily-built tiny models were used for spaceships. It was worse than low-budget movie serials.
TV was mostly passive, and that situation hasn’t really changed all that much. The closest thing to participating in technology was typing a letter or making a telephone call.
Whatever you think of Apple, the company has specialized in making advanced technology warm and fuzzy for the masses. In an era where using a personal computer required something akin to rudimentary programming skills, because you used text-based interfaces, a Mac was about pointing and clicking objects that were metaphors for real world things, such as folders and disks.
For years, going online meant fiddling with an awkward text-based interface until AOL arrived. America Online was originally designed to be a consumer companion to AppleLinks, an online service originally meant for Apple dealers and employees. But AppleLink Personal Edition was a no go, so it became AOL.
Just as Macs were regarded as toys, not meant for serious computing, AOL was regarded as the kindergarten of the Internet. For years, you couldn’t even send email outside the service, and there were no web browsers or access to other web services. That arrived in the mid-1990s in a very awkward fashion.
But it also meant that the Internet thus became a focal point for personal computing. Even when you weren’t doing real work, there was email, web surfing, online games. You became immersed in the technology, but you still needed a personal computer, notebook or desktop, which made it difficult to just carry something around with you and do your thing.
That changed with digital assistants and cell phones. But those early feature phones, using standard keypads, were obviously awkward appliances for messaging. Young people learned to manipulate their thumbs to enter text, rather flexibly in fact, but older folk didn’t find it so easy. The BlackBerry offered a full keyboard experience, but the keys were obviously extremely small and, again, awkward to use.
In 2007, the iPhone demonstrated there was a better way, the Apple way, at least until other companies decided to get in on the act. As recent interviews with members of the original iPhone development team reported, Apple worked hard to make a touch-based keyboard as easy to master as possible. So when you tapped a key, a large image of that character popped up. Versions of predictive text allowed the device to guess what you were going to type. And if you went about your business at a steady pace, your typing speed was actually fairly quick. Well, at least for shorter text passages.
With access to a genuine browser and, beginning with the iPhone 3G in 2008, a rich selection of apps from the App Store, it was easy to become fully involved in the technology. Lots of other companies got in on the act. You might sit at your desktop staring down at your smartphone. I take mine to the bedroom, where I keep tabs of my email, the news of the day or just to look up something about the show I’m watching on the TV. As you know, it’s also common to stare down at one of these gadgets in a restaurant, while walking in the street, and even while being driven about in a motor vehicle.
But, I hope, definitely not while you’re driving.
Having a fully-functioning personal computer in your pocket means you’re always connected. Unless you’re out of your carrier’s coverage area, you are constantly immersed in data.
Now imagine, again, how it was before there was a smartphone, before people had a connected appliance with the power of a supercomputer in their pockets. Imagine when the only way to stay in touch in your car was to speak to a passenger. Forget about car phones. Imagine when you took a vacation and could be free of outside influences. No notebooks, no smartphones, and nobody forced you to watch the TV set.
Do you miss the good old days, or are you young enough never to have enjoyed such freedoms?