This fact came crashing into my consciousness on the afternoon of August 14th when most of the eastern United States suffered a massive blackout. I was among about fifty million people that were without electricity and, therefore, devoid of the usual aspects of life we take for granted: computers, home theater, music and lights. With little more to do, I thought about just how dependent we have become on these little gadgets that surround us. Like so many others I work from home; so without a computer I had a forced day off. My hobby is home theater, but the large screen television was dark and the speakers that are placed around the room so carefully were silent. I was even unable to tell time without the numbers on the VCR and cable boxes.
We have become a culture of people that are almost completely dependant on technology. We have almost been transformed into a “Borg” like mixture of human and machines. The technologies that started out as aides to our existence have become vital to our everyday lives. Fortunately, here in New York City, an almost party like atmosphere was created. Stores gave away the food that was spoiling, bars distributed the warming beer and people took to the streets to enjoy the darkness. Having lived through the blackouts of 1965 and 1977, I have to say that the city took this one in stride. But still there was a feeling that something was missing. Those glowing screens were out.
The dependency on technology is a two edge sword. As a person that is house bound for physical reasons it is easier than ever. I can work, shop and chat with friends all from the comfort of my seat. I see the down side more in the younger members of our society. When I do go out, I notice that every teenager has a cell phone and it appears to have been surgically attached to them. They never seem to be concerned with the battery. Mine dies after a couple of hours, but their plutonium powered cells seem to last forever without a charge. When did even our children become so important that they must be in constant verbal contact twenty four hours a day? Between cell phones, pagers, PDAs and text messaging we each have telecommunications systems that rival world leaders. We have become walking Com centers. Now a phone not only has to transmit our voices, but we need pictures and games as well. There is a growing trend to consolidate the units that make our mid sections look like Batman’s utility belt. Several PDAs now feature a built in cell phones and come with computing power that puts most of my early PCs to shame. What was science fiction just a few years ago is about to become every day life for us.
Technology is rapidly becoming smaller and faster. My first hard drive was a massive (then) 10 Megs, almost too heavy to lift and cost about $10,000. Now we have gigabyte drives for MP3 players that are about the size of a postage stamp. The laptops we have now are just as powerful as most desktops. Many younger users who grew up with this technology may not realize just how amazing these new improvements are. Nowadays one is able to take a laptop out of its box, make a few connections and, wham, have access to the world. It used to take hours, sometimes days to make the simplest connections. In fact, there was a time, long ago, when we had to build the boards we needed. As a technology addict I’m the first to admit that this is better than before but, I miss something about putting my own computer together and coding my own programs in assembler.
No one seems to be happy with going someplace to do their computing. Now we have to have it all available as we move around. As devices become lighter and more powerful we no longer have to wait until we arrive at our destination. We can do almost anything while on the road. You can easily surf the web while waiting for a train. This desire to be able to do anything anywhere has driven the wireless technology to the heights we now enjoy. Instead of having to be tethered by long cables we now send our data through the air. Soon, the days of pulling up the floors to run cables will be gone as the distances transversed by these wonders increase. It appears that what we want drives what we need. Wireless communication started with wanting to be free of telephone cords, but now it has extended to massive networks all beaming signals at each other. Dick Tracy’s incredible two way wrist radio is now available at your local Radio Shack.
Another area that has helped to make technology addicts out of so many of us is the merger of computing and home entertainment. During the recent blackout I had only about two hours of battery power left on my laptop, and I decided to use about thirty minutes for a DVD. In the unbroken darkness I needed to see moving images on a screen. The upside to this merger of our computers and televisions is far better resolution than we ever could have imagined. Thanks to the need for smaller and more accurate computer monitors we have television sets that provide more than double the resolution we grew up with. These new plasma screens, progressive scan sets and high definition screens give us a view that is nothing less than stunning. I used to have my doubts about merging home theater and computers; but after about 27 hours in the dark, I can now better appreciate the benefits that this consolidation has brought. I still don’t like the idea of booting up a computer to view a movie in my living room, but the increases in the technology perhaps is worth the price.
So while technology is ever increasing and always making our lives easier we grow more addicted to it. My daughter looks at my old slide rule with amazement. The fact that daddy used to multiple by rubbing two sticks together seems primitive to someone born in this silicon age. There is nothing like a massive blackout to remind us of just how much of an impact technology has had on our lives. How much of our day is consumed with wires, chips and interfaces. We work and play with technology now, but it is still nice to curl up with a good old fashion book and remember a simpler time.