How Things Used to Work

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.


*The exception seems to be food preparation, where there’s still a general understanding that accelerating the cooking process simply isn’t possible under many circumstances.
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24 Responses to How Things Used to Work

  1. Pingback: Something I Don’t Miss | The Axis of Ego

  2. Pingback: Best of 2011 | The Axis of Ego

  3. Mike Austin says:

    Actual transcript from my recent customer service email exchange regarding from someone I know named Michael Culpepper regarding a Wall Street Journal subscription:

    Customer (Michael Culpepper)10/03/2011 04:29 PM
    I recently placed the order referenced below. While it states that magazines may appear in up to 12 weeks, it does not mention when we may access any online publication. How may I receive my WSJ password?

    Sent from my iPad

    Customer Service 10/11/11 02:30 PM
    Thank you for contacting QSP Customer Service. In response to your inquiry, digital subscriptions are also sent from the publishers and you should get an email directly from them within 12-14 weeks. Should you have any additional questions or require further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.

    Customer (Michael Culpepper)10/12/2011 05:29 PM
    Thank you for the response. I didn’t realize that I was time-warped back to
    the year 1972, where newspaper subscriptions took 12 to 14 weeks to
    process. Your response now makes perfect sense.

  4. Great post! I love the line that the information age has made narcissism ubiquitous. If I go to YouTube and type “Stairway to Heaven,” why do I get some 8 year old with a kiddie guitar pretending he’s Jimmy Page? Some things should be kept private.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      Bingo. I definitely had that bit in the back of my head as I wrote some of this. It’s amazing that I went the first 26 years of my life without a cell phone, but now realizing I’ve left the house without it will cause me to TURN MY CAR AROUND to go back for it.

  5. Chad says:

    As a fellow high schooler of the mid-90s, I marvel about how impersonal video games have become in the very same generation that they’ve connected us worldwide. There was a time when enjoying the latest Madden on Sega Genesis together required us to actually go to our friends’ dwellings or to join us at ours. So long to that. Now you just give some online handle that exposes either a) your sports team preference or b) your complete sexual insecurity and play away. It seems wildly tragic, even if the same amount of time is being wasted avoiding the sun or talking to girls.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      That’s a good point. I vividly recall getting fifteen friends – FIFTEEN – over to my house after school one day for the express purpose of realizing the dream of setting up a 16-team Coach K College Basketball tournament. Yes, it was elaborate and took some planning, but I’ll never say that being in a room with fifteen friends for an afternoon of fun was a bad idea.

      • Chad says:

        We did the same thing. To our parents’ credit, they at least rationalized that we weren’t doing socially unacceptable things like casual arsony or mutilating small animals. So to them it could have been worse.

  6. So Tom, I take it you don’t remember an age without cable TV, with no computers at home (only at school in a special lab where you learned “BASIC”) and the best two ways to get the Red Sox scores were: 1) Stay up ’til 1120pm for the local sports report on TV, or 2) try to get WBZ Radio out of Boston. 🙂

    • Tom Garrett says:

      We didn’t have cable when I was very young. I can *almost* not remember a time without cable. I didn’t have a real computer at home until I was in high school. Even then, all I used it for was typing papers and playing games, most of which I can’t even remember now.

  7. joe says:

    I graduated hs in 1995 and had a cell phone. Also had a beeper that gave sports updates and could send the equivelant of today’s text messages. Plus at that point if you had a computer prodigy, and AOL would have been sufficient to look stuff up or send email.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      So, you’re saying you were a drug dealer?

      Mileage may vary. Where I lived, a couple of people I knew had AOL, and I had known of the existence of Compuserve since at least 1992. However, no one really used this stuff, and absolutely no one I knew had a cell phone or a pager/beeper. The experience of 95% of my peer group was that the first time we used e-mail or surfed the internet was when we got to college in 1996.

      • joe says:

        Ha no not a drug dealer. Just a city kid. We all had them as a matter of fact.
        I can remember being in 8th grade 1990 and printing stuff off prodigy’s encyclopedia then passing them in as reports I had written.

        • Tom Garrett says:

          I think the experience for people like my friends and me (in an area like central Virginia) was probably different from those in major cities like Boston or New York. I’m sure the infrastructure (and corresponding cultural changes) were happening two or three years earlier.

          Like I said in the article, a LOT changed in just the five years from 95-96 to 2000. In fact, and on a personal level, a lot of changes happened even more quickly: I had never surfed the internet or sent an e-mail in May of 1996. E-mail was a daily activity by September of that same year.

          • joe says:

            Agree on the fact that it was different in different parts of the country. I really did enjoy the article. Wasn’t trying to critisize.

  8. Keith P. says:

    I, of course, believe that the technological innovation that has most altered the lives of today’s young people–making their childhoods vastly different from my own–is caller I.D.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      I thought about mentioning that one. It was certainly a different era for kids before that innovation.

      I’m suddenly hungry for pizza.

      Just kidding – I’m *always* hungry for pizza. I really have a problem.

      • Karen Hayes says:

        Wow, to think that at one time when I needed to call for help I had to hope a pay phone might be somewhere in the vicinity. Technology (in my opinion) has had a huge impact on the ability of young people to communicate. If they can’t text or E-mail they don’t want to speak to anyone. I know this because my own children prefer I text them when sending some sort of communication.

        Children today are advanced with computers, cell phones, tv’s etc. What they can’t do is pick up a crayon and color a picture. They don’t know how to cut with scissors because their parents put them in front of a computer to play games.

        I know, I know,you all are probably laughing at my old grandma analogies. Kids need to use their hands, they need to play in the fresh air and they need to have conversations with real people.
        Their parents need to put down their Blackberries and their I-phones and listen to them.
        Trust me, I know. Karen

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