Tuesday, June 30, 2009

In the Eyes of the Beholder: Technological Change

My grandmother, who emigrated from a suburb of Berlin to the United States in the 1880’s, used to call the television set a radio. Of course, we children found this hysterically funny and used to fool her by hiding behind our monstrous television with the sound off and pretend that we were the actors on TV.

When she died in the 1950’s, she had probably witnessed more rapid and more radical change in technology than I may ever witness. During her life, she saw transportation move from horse to car, the birth of film and the acceptance of photography as everyday phenomena, the eradication of many diseases, and the mechanization of mundane household drudgeries, among so many other technological changes that I can barely list them. She also saw destruction on a massive scale and holocaust—all realities I grew up with that she had never known, but now bore witness too.

Advances in technology—with the exception of computerization, digitalization, and the internet—for me have often been a two-edge sword. Technological advances in food production and the growth of commercial farming have brought forth bountiful harvests, but at great cost to the environment and to food itself. Car transportation, once a symbol of freedom, now chokes us in pollution and ties into an outdated fossil fuel economy. The list goes on.

So, it was with great enthusiasm that I read 13-year old Scott Campbell’s article in the BBC news magazine comparing the original Sony Walkman to the iPod, “Giving up My iPod for a Walkman.”

His amusement is terrific:
“It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape. That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.”

Most of his comments—and I believe this is true for much of the technological changes we are seeing now—are about how clunky and mechanical the Walkman was. The size is huge, the buttons too large, the tapes unwieldy and subject to jamming. Miniaturization and digitization are the two most relevant changes. He had little trouble once he figured out the “ancient” technology and managed to adapt a shuffle function onto it (his father warned him that overusing rewind could eventually damage the tape leaving him music-less the rest of the day). Miniaturization is really a matter of degree, not the radical change that exchanging a horse for a car represents.

His mind-blowing conclusion:
Personally, I'm relieved I live in the digital age, with bigger choice, more functions and smaller devices. I'm relieved that the majority of technological advancement happened before I was born, as I can't imagine having to use such basic equipment every day.

I wonder what he would think of the boom box.
(Photo from the BBC News Magazine)

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