When I was finished teaching today, I stopped in the main computer lab to pick up some work one of my students had left in my folder there. One of the lab assistants started up a conversation about the information technology class most of us are teaching this semester but that he is not. He wanted to know if the students were responding more positively to the new curriculum than the old one. One thing led to another and eventually we ended up talking about how so much has changed in our lifetime with respect to technology. A (much) older gentleman who was on the far side of the room heard us and actually got up and came over to join our conversation. We talked of the early days of computers and computational machines such as the Enigma. We talked about teaching seniors to use the Internet and the older guy commented that many seniors have difficulty managing a mouse and that many have never typed: remember, secretaries used to do all of the typing, not the "professionals".
My students are mostly first semester freshmen. This means that most of them were born in 1990 - or just shortly before then. They know nothing of Enigma or punch cards or von Neumann machines. They were all taught to type in grade school.
Do you realize how much has changed in the land of technology in your lifetime? Think about it. Let's start with something really simple: coffee. These days, you can buy a machine that will not only grind your whole beans before staring the brewing process, it can do all of that on a timer and have it hot and steaming for you the moment you emerge from the shower in the morning.
- When I was really young, my mother's coffee pot was a stainless steel percolator setup that brewed coffee on the stovetop. You put in the filter and the grounds and the water and turned on the burner.
- The introduction of the automatic drip coffee maker was nothing short of a miracle: put in the grounds, add water, press the button, and -presto!- you had a perfect cup of coffee every time. Major technological advancement!
How about television?
- Back when I was a child, a television was not something you put on or in a piece of furniture: it was a piece of furniture.
- You didn't get hundreds channels: you got six, plus a PBS station if the weather was extremely cooperative that day.
- You received only six channels because those were the only ones broadcast for free from the local stations and you received the radio signal through the antenna on the roof of your house. In my teens, cable became popular but my parents didn't subscribe to it until I was in college.
- Back in the day, a stereo was a large piece of furniture, like a television. It stood on its own four legs and was made of wood. It played vinyl records at varying speeds: 33, 45, and 78rpm. Remember going to the record store to buy a 45 single? Remember how Side B was usually pretty lame but the record company still had to put something there?
- The seventies introduced us to the joys of the 8-track tape players, but they were big and clunky and gave way to cassette decks. Cassettes were nice because they were small enough to fit in your pocket.
- Number Guy and I bought ourselves our very first CD player as a Christmas present to each other the second year we were married. Very high tech.
This is all very interesting, of course, but let's move from entertainment to communications. My students have cell phones - many of them have had their own phones since they were in high school or even earlier. Each one of them has a cell phone and they like to send text messages and email using their phones. Funny - I always thought that a phone was a tool for audio communications. Of course, that's only natural since my childhood experiences of the telephone went something like this:
- A telephone was an appliance which you rented from The Phone Company. You dialed your call by turning a wheel with your finger. You also had to sit or stand close to the phone while you talked because it had a cord to connect you to the base unit. The standard phone cord was about three feet long but your parents usually coughed up the extra couple of dollars for the fifteen foot long model - which your mother eventually stretched to at least 25 feet. She had to keep an eye on you rugrats, didn't she? Who knew just how much trouble you could accomplish while your mother was on the phone in the kitchen, after all. This was also an era of strange parental sign language; since there was no mute button, your mother used various signs and signals to indicate to you that if you did not shut up immediately so that she could finish the phone call, major and severe consequences would follow call termination. Possibly your own.
- Back then, call waiting was what you did while you bugged your sister to get off the phone so that you could have a turn.
- Leaving a message was what you did when you told your friend's brother to please tell her that you called. You hoped that your friend actually got the message sometime before next Tuesday.
- Dialing 411 or the operator actually connected you to a real, live person immediately. You did not have to Press or say "one" for English. Menus were things that you read at restaurants and, no, they were not voice-driven - unless it was a very upscale, trendy restaurant where the executive chef changed the offerings each evening and the waiter told you about each entreé individually after he brought you your drinks. Why am I mentioning this? We were kids: we were never taken to such fine eating establishments. Moving right along...
- Each family had one telephone number. Your parents might have had an extension installed in their room, but there was only one telephone number at your house. If your parents were well-to-do, they might give you the gift of a "teen line" when you reached high school. We weren't and mine did not. I got my own phone number when I moved out.
And how about computers? As far as my own child is concerned, computers have always existed. The kids I am teaching at the college were born at the beginning of the PC boom and don't remember a time when there wasn't at least one computer in their home.
One of the requirements for the course I teach is that each student must have a USB flash drive. I found ads online today for 4GB flash drives for under twenty bucks. Speaking of being online today, I polled my students last week: every one o them has high-speed Internet access at home, most using cable modems.
- My little brother's first computer was a Commodore 64. He snuck in a modem because our mother didn't want him to have one: she was afraid that he would use it to make long distance phone calls to other computers and drive up the phone bill. When the 64 broke down a number of years later (I was in college), I got him a Commodore 128. Oooh, impressive!
- During my first two years of high school, my homeroom was in the "computer lab". There were about a dozen PET computers there. At the start of my junior year, the school decided to move us: they had invested in new computers and didn't want us to break them.
- The summer after I finished my freshman year, my brother and I played Ultima IV together on the computer every evening after work. We had to continually swap the game disks in and out of the drive bay. Did I remember to mention that these were 5¼" floppies? Took the whole summer to finish the game, too. All that time waiting for the game to respond to simple commands...
- Number Guy bought his first PC in 1989 or so. It was a 286 and it had a 100MB hard drive: one-tenth the storage of the flash drive I bought two years ago. This was state-of-the-art, people. Cost him an arm and a leg, too. About $3500. And, no, that did not include a printer.
- Back when we first got married, we used a modem to connect to the Internet. AOL charged us by the minute for access, so we were very careful to collect our email with the quick download option and read it off-line.
So, how has technology changed in your lifetime? What do you remember?