As I sat around on Sunday staring at a RedZone “quad-box” on my HDTV with my smartphone by my side and my laptop in my . . . uh . . . lap, I realized that even those of us who remember what the world was like before the Internet Era have fallen prey to it unaware of its implications. We’ve somehow managed to habituate these profound changes to our lives.
My psychology teacher used to use the following example to illustrate the phenomenon of habituation: If you’re sitting in a classroom on a hot day with the window air conditioning unit running, you don’t “hear” the low, constant hum of the AC unless something redirects your conscious mind to it (in this case, the teacher saying “air conditioning”). The constancy of the noise dulls your sensory response to it to the point that the noise is ignored. He also used a similar example about not consciously feeling your own underwear until someone says the word “underwear.” You get the point.
I think we’ve reached that level of desensitization with much of the technology that’s now melded to all aspects of our lives. That hit home in concrete terms when I remembered a personal story that hadn’t crossed my mind in many years. It was the equivalent of someone saying “air conditioning.”
These events happened in 1995 when I was near the end of my junior year of high school. Not the Dark Ages by any means, but before I had ever surfed the internet or sent my first e-mail. My cousin (who is more like an older brother to me) was playing Class AAA minor league baseball at the time. He threw a no-hitter. These were the steps in the flow of information that allowed our family to become aware of his feat.
1. My cousin threw his no-hitter the evening of June 13th.
2. I happened to pass by one of my football coaches the afternoon of June 14th during my lunch period. He was a big baseball fan, and he told me he thought he had heard on the radio earlier that day that my cousin had pitched a no-hitter the previous night.
3. I hurriedly walked to my chemistry teacher’s room and asked him if I could use the phone that was in the common area connecting the four classrooms in his part of that particular building of our campus-style school.
4. After getting permission to do so, I called my dad’s workplace (he was a teacher and administrator at a different school). The secretary said she would transfer the call to the phone in his building.
5. My dad picked up the phone a short time later. I think he was a bit panicked, since receiving a phone call during the day was so unusual. I then informed him about the no-hitter.
This entire process took something like ten minutes. Keep in mind that these conversations were happening almost a full day after my cousin pitched.
We attempted to call my cousin that night to confirm the story. We were unable to do so immediately because he didn’t answer the phone in the room of the hotel in which he was staying while on the road. We stopped after two attempts because we didn’t want to accrue additional long-distance phone charges (what are those?).
Ten minutes felt like nothing in 1995, but it seems unconscionable now. Tracking down that score would have taken all of seven seconds. Heck, my dad probably would have been listening to the game online as it happened. Just seeing the scores of out-of-town Major League games required us to watch Headline News long enough for the Red Sox to come up in the nonstop results rotation.
We take for granted the ease with which information is accessed now. What’s more, I think we’ve lost sight of how much things changed in the five years after 1995, and how much things changed again in the five years after that.
The old joke used to be that computers were advancing so quickly that they would be obsolete within six months of purchase. If you didn’t buy a top-of-the-line model, it might be obsolete before you got the machine out of the box.
We were talking about processing power then. But something happened in the last decade that changed the focus of technology. Possibly for the worse.
While it’s certainly true that raw measurables like processing power, RAM, and storage space continue to improve, the factors driving those improvements have changed radically thanks to the desire to access information instantly as well as the more self-centered value system that pushes the tech market.
In 1995, kids cared about computers being able to produce better speed and graphics on PC games (we used to play a quaint little charmer called Doom), and adults wanted stability and speed for applications that dealt with finances, word processing, art, or perhaps basic presentations.
Practicality ruled the day, and not because people then were inherently less self-centered. It’s just that the magnitude of the self-absorbed lifestyles we “enjoy” today simply wasn’t possible. Now, the desire that controls is that of generating information about ourselves as quickly, easily, and stylishly as possible (to wit: WordPress) while also disseminating that content as widely and publicly as we wish.
We were more discerning in the 90’s about what we wanted to photograph in a world without digital cameras. Furthermore, the knowledge that some fellow teenager would be developing these photos was a very effective deterrent against even considering the idea of taking “naughty” pictures. But, more than that, there was no point to the type of self-absorption common today. Without an online component, activities like collecting thousands of pictures of yourself on your computer would have been considered a symptom of mental illness rather than a commonplace practice—not to mention far more labor-intensive than what would be required in 2011.
I don’t know definitively how I feel about all this. I have figured out one thing, though: The lives of kids changed in a more fundamental way between 1996 and 2001 than they did between 1955 and 1995.
Even though I’ve come to use all of the relevant technologies today, I absolutely believe that the experience I had growing up was much closer to the experiences my parents had than it was to the experiences of those who were even a mere five years younger than I am.
Mine was the last generation to make it through high school without laptops being standard issue equipment for every student. The most sophisticated piece of hardware I owned was a TI-81.
Cell phones as we know them today didn’t exist. There were ghastly, semi-practical versions giant by modern standards, and there was something called a beeper. But, as far as we were concerned, these only existed for use by doctors or (and/or?) drug dealers.
The effect of limited communication methods is more profound than most people realize. I’m not even referring to the notion of parental supervision and the increasing difficulty of monitoring what children do online. We always had the ability to do things out of sight and earshot of our parents – it’s just that we had to do them face-to-face.
I’m talking about a different phenomenon. The only options available to people of my vintage for communicating with other kids were the telephone, face-to-face communication, or written letters or notes. I wonder: When’s the last time a student got in trouble for passing an actual, honest-to-God note?
There’s something that we’ve lost in exchange for instant, constant communication and information. Sure, I could lament the deterioration of spelling and grammar over the years, but imbeciles who couldn’t put two sentences together have always been around. It’s just that we’re so much more aware of them now because they all have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.
But we have lost something. If I were to try to put it in neat, simple terms, I think it’s that the Information Age has made narcissism almost as ubiquitous as the information for which it’s named.
I think I do a better job than most of not falling into that trap, yet I admit that I compulsively – perhaps reflexively – track many different aspects of my online “persona,” from the statistics on this site to my own Twitter feed to my Facebook accounts (that’s right – accounts, plural) to messageboard chatter at the other site for which I write.
It’s sometimes difficult for me to recall what life was like before all of this happened. I didn’t even own a cell phone until 2004. Now, the idea of not being able to be reached by phone at all times makes me almost uneasy. I regain some of my perspective when I remember stories like the one from ’95.
Two trade-offs for our shiny, modern world come to mind. First, we’ve forfeited some imagination. Creative people are just as creative as ever, but the average person rarely has to invent ways to fill time. A quick jaunt over to YouTube can become hours before you’ve blinked. Convenience has replaced a lot of the demanding necessity that spawned some of the more innovative (or devious) ideas I crafted in my younger days.
Secondly, and more importantly, we’ve lost patience. The concept of waiting for any information or service* – ever – is far more unpalatable than it was in the days when it might take 24 hours to track down a minor league baseball score. It wasn’t so long ago that placing an order for a mail-order item in a television commercial came with an explicit understanding that the purchaser needed to allow “four-to-six weeks” for delivery. Four-to-six weeks!
I guess it’s a better world now. Communication and informational advances allow for better emergency-preparedness, coordination of police and medical personnel, and sharing of vital health or crime data. But it also leads to things like the inability to concentrate on a face-to-face conversation with someone. Or planking.
Let’s call it a mixed bag. For now. But let’s also remember that life wasn’t so bad when we had to come up with ways to keep ourselves and our friends at school entertained – and when being “friends” with someone at school actually meant something more than a few keystrokes or mouse clicks to add that person to a list that was already in the four digits.