In the eye of the hurricane of change

My son was entertained; my dog was not. He was focused intently on a book, unaware that it was also a computer. When he touched a page it would read it to him; when he touched word it would pronounce and define it. He did not realize it was teaching him to read. The dog looked blankly at the book, in that guard state half between sleep and ready to spring into action should a squirrel run through our living room.

As I approached, the dog looked hopefully at me, raising its ears and starting to wag its tail slightly. “A walk?” it seemed to say. I reached for the leash, and realized that this interaction has been shared by dogs and humans through the generations. My grandfather, born in 1889 would find this familiar. He might even recognize the book, although only because of the extraordinary technological change experienced by his generation.

He went to school in a one-room school house, six days a week. Younger kids were taught to read by the teacher and the older students as well. They had Sundays off, of course, but his strict teacher kept the children at their lessons. My grandfather had one field trip in his elementary school career – to the local village to see the horseless carriage.

The automobile represents two profound changes in our society. The first is the automobile itself. Later the world was paved and interstate highways were added and everything became more accessible. This greatly reduced the importance of a previous world-changing high-tech innovation: the train.

The school was lit by candlelight, and my grandfather did his studies also by candlelight. Eventually, electric lights moved from a luxury to a utility. After generations of light by fire, can you imagine the psychological impact of light separate from heat? Electricity worked its way into every corner of our life, for example reducing the size of motors from gigantic steam-powered machines to power tools to quartz watches. These shifts transformed industry, the household, and lifestyle.

My grandfather’s education probably included some instruction on how to write a good letter, as letters were the main communication mechanism. Now these have been displaced by the telegraph, telephone, and mobile wireless that carries voice and data. Entire new media, such as television have developed and transformed society in my grandfather’s lifetime. The TV has become a necessity — on a trip to rural Mexico, I was astonished to notice that many poor households would buy a TV before a refrigerator!

The history of refrigeration seems like a failure of imagination. Before mechanical refrigeration, things were kept cold by cutting ice out of ponds in the winter, and packing it underground in straw for storage and use during the hot summer. When mechanical refrigeration was first invented, it was used to store and transport ice that was chipped out of ponds. Then came the central ice plant, where ice was made more-or-less locally and distributed to the icebox in every home. Finally, the home refrigerator came along, which replaced an entire industry and transformed what we eat.

My children think nothing, indeed do not even notice, that some of their food has come from the Southern Hemisphere, traveling thousands of miles refrigerated to arrive almost fresh. This nearly unimaginable distance to my grandfather has now become routine. When he was young man, he went to New York harbor to see his sister off. She had married a Sicilian, and was headed by ship to start her new life. My grandfather fully expected to never see her again.

At that time, world travel was a huge ordeal and very expensive. A trip to Sicily to visit his sister would have been a multi-month extravagance, well beyond the means of an upper-middle-class high-school principal. Yet during his life, airplanes moved out of the research phase, became instruments of war, luxuries for the super rich and eventually a routine form of transportation. Later in life, he flew in a jet to visit her. It took about a day, the amount of time we expect it will take to get pretty much anywhere on Earth.

But the Moon takes longer. The phrase “when they put a man on the moon” meant to my grandfather more or less what “when hell freezes over” means to me. His phrase now connotes humankind’s astonishing ability to do the seemingly impossible. Late in his life, of course, he saw the moon landing on TV.

The computer, which used to be a profession – the guy with the slide rule, became a machine that, among other things, made the moon landings possible. My grandfather saw the development and rise of the computer, and died in 1974, around the time of the ATM machine, which he never seemed to get the hang of.

His long life was made possible by many medical innovations. The Spanish flu, killed more people in the US around WWI than that or any other way. It was caused by a virus, a biological entity unknown at the time. Now we routinely use viruses to transfer manipulated DNA into cells. These medical advances have had tremendous impact of ordinary people. My brother caught the bubonic plague a few years ago – the disease that destroyed much of Europe in the middle ages, and rather than having a death sentence, he was quickly diagnosed and given an antibiotic that cured him in a day or two.

My grandfather’s life, from 1889 to 1974, represents one season of technological and social change. The impossible was proven possible. Cultural assumptions about transportation, communication, health and lifestyle were challenged and overturned. People like my grandfather had to adjust, overcome their own biases and prejudices, and take their role in inventing the future.

Many of these adjustments, while unsettling or difficult like mental and social storms, were imaginable for my grandfather. The term “horseless carriage” provides some continuity back to the familiar and a context for change. But one of these inventions stood out from all the others as the most “mind blowing” (my term, not his), a sort of mental and social tornado.

Can you guess what it was?

I’ll give you a hint: it is nothing I’ve mentioned.

Go on, bring something to mind.

It was the victrola. The mind-blowing innovation was recorded sound. My grandfather was absolutely and utterly astonished to see a machine talking and singing. He said “it would have been easier to understand if my dog had talked.”

While my dog doesn’t literally talk, it definitely does communicate. So it is easy to see how my grandfather saw it as a small leap for a dog to talk. But he had no basis of experience for a machine talking.

What do you think will blow the minds of our generation?

Now my son takes recorded sound for granted, he expects books to read to him. Even though the book talks, my grandfather would undoubtedly recognize our domestic scene. The son reading, the dog wanting to go for a walk and the father not sure if he should interrupt the son to take the dog for a walk. Even in the hurricane of mental and social change was live in, there is still a calm central eye that is still and that the storm whirls around.

Some things do not change. For example, consider the sports car. It is a pinnacle of a technological society. It travels on smooth paved roads. Its high-performance engine requires the most carefully refined fuels. The engine itself is computer controlled, the car computer designed. The shape of the vehicle takes into account our best knowledge of aerodynamics. Even the paint is carefully engineered.

Yet what do people do with sports cars? Many young men buy them to impress women. My grandfather and many generations of grandfathers before him would recognize this unchanged center of human behavior and social interaction.

As we plan and invent our futures, these foundational elements are always there, providing landmarks to guide us and a vocabulary for understanding how to do the things we have always done. We all make our choices, whether consciously on unconsciously, based on the best information we have at the time and to the best our ability.

I make my choice. I call the dog, who instantly jumps up and comes running. My son turns off his book and closes it. “I want to hold the leash,” my son says, clipping on a leash made from some leash made of a synthetic material colored a gaudy pink never seen in nature. We think nothing of it as we head off to the park.