Not really sure what brought this about, but I’ve been a bit on the maudlin side lately, feeling old and left behind at times, wondering where the time went. It strikes me, sometimes, how much I’ve seen, how much has changed in the past thirty years. This time of year usually gets to me that way. Not so much for the memories of mom, but other memories that I – and everyone else in this area – have not been allowed to forget.
Just under three weeks from now will be an anniversary. April 3-4, 1974, the Super Outbreak that once held the record for confirmed tornadoes in a 24-hour period. It’s a tricky distinction, since it was that event that helped tornado detection and understanding improve dramatically. There could well have been many more than the 148 confirmed funnels; there’s no real way to know. Forty years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot of technology to help detect tornadoes. The warning systems in place weren’t the most reliable, and not a whole lot of people knew what to do when a tornado threatened. Even after, a few of the myths persisted, like opening all the windows in your house to keep it from imploding. If your house were really that air-tight, you wouldn’t be able to live in it, since there wouldn’t be enough circulation of fresh air. There’s nothing you’d be able to do to keep your home from being destroyed if a tornado – or straight-line winds – hits it, so just worry about getting to cover instead.
Forty years is a long time; a lot can happen. A lot can happen in just ten years for that matter. Portable computers have existed for decades (for a given definition of ‘portable‘), as has the internet. Working remotely has been a thing for quite some time. Connecting remotely, that’s a little different. It’s changed a bit. Working at McDonald’s in 2004, just ten years ago, could be done, but sending whatever work you’d just done into the office from there, not so much. I have two tablets, an Android and an iPad. Bit of luck, really, otherwise I’d have neither. Still, I have two thin computers capable of incredible feats of engineering. I can play games on them, I can send emails, I can keep up on my all-important Facebook posts, and I can do all that wirelessly from McDonald’s, on something that fits in my purse. Sometimes, while I’m trying to figure out what candy combination will help me win the board, or taking a picture of my friends while we’re all out and posting it to my page, it hits me that I’m holding something more powerful than the computers that sent men into space in the 60s. Something that had been imagined, almost fifty years ago, but didn’t exist. The technology needed – the potential for the technology needed – didn’t exist until the microprocessor was developed over 40 years ago. Technology moved forward, processors got smaller and more powerful, computers got more portable. Next thing you know, I’m holding something only dreamed of in 1987, when Star Trek: The Next Generation showed a tablet-like computer. It still can’t do everything my desktop can do, but it’s coming.
Twenty-five years ago, the World Wide Web was born. This past Wednesday, in fact, which was my initial inspiration for this post. Not the internet – that’s older than I am – but the world wide web, the thing that required the WWW before websites. Before that, while one could get online and wander around a bit, it wasn’t all that easy to navigate. Even after the advent and acceptance of the GUI (Graphical User Interface, first on Apple/Macintosh, then on IBM clones), the internet was a difficult place to be for Joe Average. Then along comes the World Wide Web. Suddenly, there were links and pictures, and consistent addresses for pages. Organization was still a bit of a challenge; you still had to know where you wanted to go. A few years later came the first search engines, intending to organize the internet and make it more useable. The first ones came about in 1993. I must admit, even though I was online in those early days, I can’t remember using some of the very first search engines. I do remember the early days of Yahoo, and how complicated it was to use – except at the time, it was a big deal, and it did make it easier to find what I was looking for. Unfortunately for my sleeping time, one of the things I found was MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions, ancestor to MMORPGs). Ate up a lot of time. A little too much time, if I’m honest. It wasn’t that unusual for me to sit down at my computer after work and not really move until it was time to get up for work. After one particular 48-hour marathon, I realized I needed to not do that anymore.
Still, being able to have conversations – real-time conversations – with people from all over the world was heady stuff.
Thirty years ago, the cell phone was still new and only for the wealthy. And it was huge. The definition of ‘portable’ was, again, relative. The DynaTac had come out the previous year (the $4,000 Brick), allowing people to make calls from outside of their cars. Granted, it took more than a day to recharge, but it was the thought that counted. Thirty-five years ago, I had microwave popcorn. It had to be frozen or refrigerated, I don’t remember which, but it was pretty neat. Now, I actually make my popcorn on the stove. Fewer chemicals, same length of time, and I can add what I want, in the amount I want. And forty years ago, I experienced an event that left me with nightmares well into my thirties.
Doors opened when you stepped on a mat when I was a kid. Then the sensors became little cameras that only required a person to walk by. There are even doors that only keep the elements out, and bugs with a gush of air. I saw a lot of those in Colorado, where the weather was a bit more cooperative and better suited for that. Music went from wax cylinders to vinyl disks to laser -cut disks and finally electrical impulses downloaded from a server somewhere. Movies that once required a projector now fit on a small disk that could have a movie on one or both sides, that fits in any computer with a DVD drive, in a format that does not easily degrade. I don’t have one (yet – I’ll have to give in eventually), but there are phones that make calls and search the internet, play games and update social media, and even tell you where you are. The first successful astronauts didn’t have anything so powerful.
I have a camera that takes pictures and puts them on a card the size of a postage stamp. Depending on the quality of the photo and the storage size of the card, I can store thousands of pictures on that one little card. I have a computer monitor that gives me a crisp, clear view of the photos I’ve taken, and a computer that allows me to manipulate those photos, with a program that allows me to put people into places they’ve never actually been. I can use my tablets to entertain myself while I’m out, especially since so many places have wifi these days, to play games to update my social media, to view webpages or to read a book I got from the library at 2 am. If I wanted to get something but didn’t feel like leaving the house, I could quite possibly order it from my desk. I can check my bank account and pay bills any time I want.
It’s interesting to me how quickly we take all that for granted.