One of the advantages of being born on the back end of Generation X is that the technology boom of the 1980s and 1990s shaped a good part of my upbringing. I am among the last Americans whose early memories include black-and-white televisions, pay phones on every corner, pen pals, the Rand McNally road atlas, typewriters and 75-cent gasoline.
Much has been written about the amazing advances in produc-tivity that personal computing, the internet, cell phones and elec-tronic communication brought about during this period. It was really exciting to come of age in a time when new advances were being made on a near-daily basis. For those like me who have a curious streak and love to know how things work, it was second nature to continually learn how to utilize new technologies.
As I graduated college, I was an early adopter of technology. I had a digital camera that took photos without needing film or trips the drugstore for processing. I bought a small box from a company called Garmin that held thousands of pages of maps and even told me how to get where I was going! I had a cellular phone that made calls in all sorts of places (unless I went too far out of town). The university I attended assigned me something called an email address, which meant I could send messages without pen, paper, envelopes or stamps. I bought an electronic organizer, which replaced my address book. And before a trip, my best friend booked a hotel room without calling to make a reservation, instead seeing pictures on the internet and reserving our room without talking to another human being.
All of these new technologies revolutionized the way we lived and powered the economy to unparalleled levels of new prosperity. Then all of these separate items were combined into one device — the smartphone — and the technological revolution began all over again. Instead of buying physical products to do tasks, the smartphone (which really is a pocket computer that happens to be able to make phone calls) was the only item we needed.
One of my current fascinations is building a “smart home.” From an app on my phone or just speaking to a smart speaker in the corner, I can lock doors and turn lights on and off. I can control my heating and air conditioning from anywhere in the world. But more impactful are sensors throughout the house to monitor temperature and whether rooms are occupied and then adjust my thermostat without my input. I’ve saved quite a bit on my electric bill because of them.
It’s pretty cool technology. Next on my list are doorbells with cameras and lights that adjust color depending on the time of day. As of this writing, I have connected 43 different devices to my home network in just the past two months. But all of this technology comes with a question: What if we forget how to live without it?
A great example: We still have a landline at our house so our kids can dial 911 or call us if they need us (it is internet-based, though, not a physical phone line). A few weeks ago, I heard one of my boys arguing with my wife on the phone. I picked up the extension and scolded him for not treating his mom with more respect. After the phone call concluded, he walked into the room. Expecting him to be upset at my calling him to the carpet, his expression was one of wonder and fascination. He asked, “Dad, how were you able to talk to me and Mom?” I realized he’d never had the experience of more than one person talking on a phone call at the same time. It was a good reminder for me. As focused as I can be on what is new, sometimes what is old is pretty cool, too.