Since I’m not likely to get many readers on Memorial Day and this is a column I’ve been considering for quite some time, let’s temporarily skip the politics and engage in a little philosophical thinking instead.
To that very end, I used to tell my grandmother that her late 1800s to the 1970s lifespan had to be the most fascinating time to be alive, bar none. To go from horses and buggies to the Moon landing; to bear witness to two bloody World Wars; to go from the telegraph to radio to color television; to be there as medicine wiped out diseases like smallpox and polio in 70 short years was nothing short of remarkable.
But now that I’m firmly ensconced in my 60th year, I’m wondering if perhaps my Baby Boomer generation might trump my grandmother’s in the technological and medical advance department. Think about it for a second!
For me, the biggest advance with the most far flung consequences has got to be instant communication.
Harkening back to my youth, a long-distance ‘60s call was a real treat. You’d dutifully wait until 9 p.m. to call that California relative because the rates were far lower in the evening. Then, with a kitchen timer diligently set for ten minutes, we’d pass the single corded landline around so everyone got a chance to say hello.
Then it was goodbye until next year.
And those landlines were overly prone to busy signals, too. If the other party wasn’t home, the phone just rang until you finally gave up. No one even considered the possibility of voicemail, and an overseas call to Europe? Fuhgeddaboudit! My family didn’t have that kind of money!
Meanwhile, my father owned a beautiful Telefunken short wave radio that could pick up broadcasts from all over the world. We’d turn in on late at night when the reception was best and be summarily amazed by eavesdropping on BBC and German radio broadcasts.
Fast forward to 2019 and armed with a small device charging just to my left, I can text or call anyone anywhere with no concern for cost. I’m texting a friend who’s vacationing in Columbia right now. And through the magic of Facebook, I talk to my Edinburgh cousin almost every day. And I have a slew of good friends I’ve never met face-to-face.
Spontaneous communication has forever shifted this world in ways we still can’t completely fathom. Thought those Star Trek communicators proved to be somewhat prescient, I don’t think I ever considered the possibility of a smart phone.
Of course, those lightspeed links wouldn’t be possible without the computing power required to back them up.
In those mid-70s high school days, some of my Northwestern University friends and I would hide in the Leverone Center overnight to play computer games on the University of Illinois based PLATO system mentioned in the movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’
To say that eminently bulky plasma panel display CRT was “bare bones” would be the mildest of understatements. Continuous action? Nope! The orange monochrome screen would refresh itself every five seconds in what one might describe as a somewhat of a strobe light effect.
I finally purchased my first XT personal computer in 1985 for a just $2,500! It had a mere 640k of memory, used 5.25 inch floppy disks – no hard drive, and you had to know exactly what command to type in at the C:> prompt to get it to work. But it was exponentially more powerful than the PLATO system.
But that same device charging to my left – the one that boasts more computing power than the mainframes used to land the Apollo astronauts on the moon – puts that XT computer to shame, too.
With that singular device I can watch the Chicago Cubs anywhere, I can pinpoint my family’s locations, and I can listen to my entire 7,000 LP music collection without storing a single song. It’s a far cry from what we thought was the magic of an A.M. car radio
Then there were those Evanston Township High School term papers which inevitably meant a lengthy visit to the Evanston Public Library reference room, poring over microfiche and periodical indexes, assembling a series of notecards, and hoping that biography you so desperately needed wasn’t already checked out.
Now, borne of instant communication and the exponential explosion of microprocessor power, we have the Internet where every bit of information ever compiled by Homo Sapiens is available at your fingertips.
Granted, you have to sift through some rather shifty stuff, but it’s downright miraculous that, this morning, I could access the local weather radar before considering a three-mile run. When the skies looked ominous before that neighborhood baseball game, the best we could to in 1976 was call 976-1212.
Through the magic of the Internet, I can order a Bluetooth turntable from Target and have them ship it or simply walk in and pick it up. I know exactly what’s happening in the world almost as soon as it happens. And I quickly learned the best way to install a satellite radio antenna in my new previously owned Toyota Corolla.
To that eight-year-old, 1966 Jeff Ward, it’s nothing short of something out of science fiction. I could not be an effective independent journalist without the Net.
Let’s not forget modern medicine!
My mother would regale me with tales of how her asthma attacks would lay her up for days and there was nothing anyone could do about it. After his first heart attack in 1969, my father spent a month recovering in the hospital.
But in 2019, my wife just had cardiac ablation surgery at 10:30 in the morning, and she was home by 4:30 in the afternoon. She too a walk the next day and was back to teaching in three days.
My asthma was so bad in my 20s that I had to be hospitalized twice. But with today’s allergists and incredible pharmaceuticals, I’m running better and more consistently than I did in my 30s. (Thank you, amazing Advocate Dreyer allergist Dr. Amy Thomas!)
My hyperactive thyroid and inherited high blood pressure could’ve greatly shortened my life, but thanks to some rather inexpensive drugs, both are completely under control. And that’s the least of what modern medicine can do.
Especially when you consider that instantaneous communication, I know just how easy it can be to focus on the negative. But when I consider my brief 1958 to 2019 existence, it’s nothing short of miraculous. As I like to say in columns, “Who’d a thunk it?”
I wonder if my two sons will be as equally amazed in 2059?