Posted by: Michelle UluOla | March 5, 2010

Time-Traveled

Ponder: one hundred years! Centenarians alive today have witnessed the most amazing advances ever made in human technology. Their parents never would have believed what was in store for their children, let alone been able to imagine it. The rate of technological development is constantly doubling, so it’s impossible for anyone to predict what marvels a child born today will experience.

Being less than forty years shy of the century mark, I’ve lived through decades that spawned a whirlwind of innovations that completely changed the world I was born into. I also rode a time machine back into an era lost to most people, thanks to a special gift from my maternal grandparents who lived in a small town in northern Minnesota, twenty-five miles from the western tip of Lake Superior where winters get brutal. They raised their four children in a tiny, two-story, two-bedroom home warmed by a potbelly stove across from a sleeper sofa in the living room. A large cast-iron cook stove and its wood box dominated the kitchen. They never had running water, so caught rain in a huge barrel connected to their roof’s downspout, used a two-holer outhouse and didn’t have electricity until after World War II. My mother did her homework by kerosene lantern. Grandpa never owned a car, but they did have a player piano, and eventually, a radio and a black, candlestick-type, dial telephone.

Every summer while I was growing up, my father drove our family northwest from the Milwaukee area for a weeklong visit into an alternate reality. For cereal toppings or Grandma’s luscious pies, we picked wild raspberries and blueberries on the back hill of their two acres. Grandpa tended a huge vegetable garden edged with dainty pansies and towering sunflowers. My aunt used to bring over 10-gallon milk cans filled with water for drinking and cooking, but bath water still came from the cistern and was warmed in the stove’s reservoir. We quickly learned how to conserve water! Between 1949 and 1967, automobiles and highways vastly improved, decreasing our winding, 500-mile trip through small towns to just over 400 expressway miles. Travel time shrank from almost twelve to fewer than seven hours…but at the forfeit of seeing a lot less beautiful, rural scenery to dream over along the way.

My grandparents would feel as much like strangers in the world I’m living in now, as I did in theirs back then. Their daughter, my 87-year-old mother, straddles both and has voiced her challenges with bridging them, so jarring and wide-ranging are the changes since she was a child. I understand how she feels. Born just before the start of the second half of the 20th century, I’ve experienced the post-World War II, technological jump-start from putt-putt-putting along to warp-speed and into hyper-drive.

When I was ten, I learned to hunt and peck on my dad’s antique, manual Royal typewriter. By senior year of high school, IBM Selectrics were all the rage in my typing class. We used carbon paper or mimeograph machines to make copies, but not long after, NCR paper (No Carbon Required) and Xerox photocopiers burst onto the scene. Proficiency with Dictaphone dictation took the place of Gregg Shorthand on secretaries’ resumes. I’m guessing that many items in the last four sentences are unrecognizable by today’s youth. Most of them, along with anyone outside of a business office, don’t know that the “cc” on their e-mail composition screens stands for the now antiquated, “carbon copy.” Under the signature line, formal business letters used the abbreviation “cc,” followed by a list of the names of people who received carbon copies of the letter. And “bcc” stands for “blind carbon copy,” meaning none of the recipients knows who else received a copy. Word processing? A secretary’s dream-come-true.

Computers, printers, scanners, fax machines, cable and DSL, digital cameras, cordless and cell phones, hand-held calculators, Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines, CT-scans, artificial hearts, contact lenses and an endless list of other inventions. Moon landings, the Hubble telescope, satellites, GPS and Mars rovers:  Star Trek science fiction turned into fact. None of those things existed in my grandparents’ lifetime.

Oh my…it’s impossible to remember and list all the technological advances I’ve seen, especially in the field of entertainment. From a diminutive Lone Ranger riding a miniature Silver across our first, black and white TV with its 9-inch-oval-screen to in-home movies on a 60-inch, widescreen, high-definition projection TV with surround-sound (not that I own one of those or have a room big enough to house it!). Drive-in movie theaters disappeared off the landscape of my teen years and morphed into IMAX. Crystal and tube radios replaced by transistor ones, the Sony Walkman, satellite radio, MP3 players and iPods. Vinyl records from 78 to 45 to 33 rpm, copied onto reel-to-reel tape recorders compacted down into mini cassettes with that weird stutter-step of 8-track tapes in-between. Videotape, floppy disks, diskettes, CDs, DVDs, Blue Ray and whatever XYZ is about to make the earlier format obsolete. Room-sized computers reduced to fit into the palm of my hand. Astonishing! But, the only recorder of information that doesn’t require constant upgrading of equipment to access it is still…a book.

Compared to 50 years ago, what do I consider is the “invention” that’s made the biggest difference in life now? No contest: the Internet. Not a day goes by when I’m not amazed by how it allows me to access information and link up with other people. It’s synonymous with “wonderment.” I also consider our connections to the World Wide Web, use of e-mailing and social networking sites, to be grand metaphors reflecting our Oneness, our “as above, so below.”

However, on-line presence is so easy and taken for granted, that we are often oblivious to or unmindful of how our activities ripple out, how the energy and power of our words can affect us, the planet and all the other crew members on Spaceship Earth. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security, for despite all the anti-whatevers we load onto our computers, there really is no such thing as complete privacy. We need to think before we post things on Internet sites, as that’s not unlike scribbling on a public restroom wall. I recall my mother’s wise counsel to stop and think before I spoke, especially when angry, and to be particularly careful about what I wrote, because once the words were communicated, I could never take them back. That advice is more relevant than ever when the words, photos and videos we post can now orbit the world endlessly, sometimes, as a great source of risk or embarrassment. It’s important to protect our family, friends, others and ourselves from the possible unintended consequences of our on-line actions.

Just like the Grand Wizard behind the curtain of Oz, there is much more going on behind the scenes of computer hardware, operating systems, software and websites. The virtual world of the Internet has its viruses, worms, Trojan horses, dark alleys and unsavory characters just like the outer one that houses our computers. Parents and grandparents admonish their children and grandchildren not to talk to strangers. But then the adults practice the old, “do as I say, not as I do” by revealing personal information to unseen entities when they start clicking their mouse to fill out questionnaires. Or, they unthinkingly hit “forward,” exposing everyone in their address book to e-mails that are often hoaxes, carriers of spam bots or filled with fear-mongering and angry lies without first checking their veracity. Worse yet, they don’t use “bcc,” so share the addresses of everyone they know with the entire world.

There are many jokes and movies about the “absent-minded professor,” and there’s a large kernel of truth in them. When a person is so passionately focused on one job or idea, the rest of their life often suffers from lack of full engagement. So, that begs some questions. Have the technological wizards been so focused on inventing and tweaking that they’re oblivious to the reverberations of their full-speed-ahead-damn-the-torpedoes approach to make everything faster and more powerful? Have they not noticed that while they were in their bliss creating new applications, other people were blissfully using their creations to feed their greed and take advantage of uneducated consumers? Are we really paying attention to what we are doing as we romp through the high-tech world? Or to visit another storyline, have we all seduced ourselves into following the Mad Hatter down the hole into Wonderland, only to find it’s just another grand illusion?

Before too long, my generation will follow the previous ones, going off to explore the great beyond. There won’t be anyone left to tell the stories of time traveled and remind the new generations of how very far we’ve come in such a short time…or what was lost along the way. Who will question the prudence of the path our scientific know-how is taking us down when there’s no one left who remembers how it used to be before history was re-written by those with their private agendas and state-of-the-art sleight-of-mouse?

We merged onto the High Tech Future Road without the advantage of first having a safe-driving course or manual. Now it seems we may have skidded through an intersection. You know how that happens; we’ve all done it. We’re driving along, lost in thought, and we don’t see the red light in time…so in an instant, we have to decide if we should jam on the breaks or gun it. If we’re really lucky, we make it across in one piece, check our rearview mirror and let out a big sigh of relief that there isn’t a cop behind us. Obviously we’re not going to back up and stop where we were supposed to, but we know we can’t beat the odds forever. As our heart rate resumes a normal rhythm, we promise ourselves to stay focused when we’re driving, so there’s no “next time” when we might not be so lucky.

Perhaps it might be time to look into our collective rearview mirror at the crossroads we’ve sped through? To evaluate the places where sciences, electronics and automation have benefited humanity, but also, where they haven’t? Don’t get me wrong, I love my modern-day toys and conveniences, but I believe that like so many past inventions, they can be used for ill or good. Of course, that depends on the schemes or mindset of the people using them. It’s always wise to check the roadmap every so often, just to make sure one is still on the right course. As an experienced time traveler, I’m just waving a yellow caution flag in hopes everyone will cross the finish line, celebrating with the checkered flag of a successful journey on the Technology Turnpike. © UluOla 2010

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