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Looking back at 50

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule


Looking back at 50:
Can somebody please program my VCR?
 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1993, The Syracuse Newspapers

Growing old is hard. I can see that clearly now, looking at the century from the halfway mark.

My perspective changed on April 23. That was the day Bill and I were both born—not in the same year, but on the same day.

Bill is that guy Shakespeare. He'd be pretty old by now, but he's long since gone. I plan to be around a while, maybe for another 50 years.

When Bill was born 329 years ago, the world he came into had no planes or trains or TVs or computers, no modern technology at all.

If you wanted to go somewhere, you rode a horse or boarded a ship or climbed into a coach. Or maybe you walked, and when you did, you stepped carefully around the horse droppings.

If you wanted a little entertainment, you went to the local bawdy house and watched a play. Tossing tomatoes and rotten apples was part of the fun, any time you didn't like the action.

If you hankered for some music at home, you made it yourself. If you got sick, you prayed.

Life was simpler then, and it was a lot worse. If there is one thing we know for sure, it's that there were no good old days. We're living longer now, and we're healthier. We know a lot more about what's going on around us, even if sometimes we don't seem to care.

But that doesn't mean all our fancy advances have done us good. Sometimes they've done us wrong. This has bothered me for a long time, more each year. Every time I write about some new gadget or another new gizmo, the part of my mind that deals most with conscience runs up against the part that gets excited over a bigger television screen or a faster computer. Usually, the gee-whiz side wins out, but sometimes I sense a sadness that tells me another story.

What about that big TV screen? Can't you just sit closer? What's so special about that faster PC? What are you doing that's so important you can't wait another millionth of a second or two? And there's a more basic problem. Things are changing too fast for many of us. Someone needs to put on the brakes.

I used to have an ordinary telephone. It had a cord. It always worked. Now I've got something that fits in my shirt pocket. It doesn't have a cord. It has batteries.

Do you know what happens to batteries? Do you know what happens to your little cordless phone when the thing that happens to batteries happens when you're waiting for an important call?

I used to have an ordinary VCR. It had a record button and a play button, and a couple of other little things you pushed. When you wanted to tape a TV show, you waited until the show came on and pushed the red button.

Now I have a fancy VCR. It has 15 little buttons on the remote control, and other buttons on the VCR. They don't even match. If you want to record a TV show that comes on tomorrow at 9 p.m., you stay up late tonight reading the VCR manual so you can set the timer.

I used to have a slide rule. I even learned how to use it. No one under 30 knows what a slide rule is any more. It had only one moving part. It didn't have batteries. It didn't have a timer. It always worked.

Now I have four pocket calculators. One of them works, but I've forgotten which one. Gradually, without even thinking about it, I've been learning how to multiply complicated numbers all over again, in my head.

It's simpler, and it doesn't need batteries. My math doesn't always work—I was never good at numbers—but it has an advantage no calculator could ever offer. It's something old Bill would identify with if he ever came back on his birthday—on our birthday.

Happy birthday, Bill. And good luck with that VCR.


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