The Last 50 Years and the 50 before it


The Last 50 Years and the 50 before it

I was reading Mark Steyn’s entry in the National Review On Line’s "Corner"and it brought to mind something appropriate, I think for this spot.

I have been musing about the past nearly six decades I can remember and of course I have been overwhelming myself with the changes that have been made You know, jet planes, walking on the moon, computers and the like.

Well, actually, the changes haven’t been that great — Sure TV is now in color and the screen’s a bit bigger, but when I was a kid there was a TV, and a telephone, and airplanes, and yep, frozen TV dinners. There was also drive ins where people actually brought the food out to you, and record players, and tape recorders, and you could actually steal music off the radio if you wanted. There were news programs on both Radio and TV, and newspapers, in fact a lot more of them than there are now, there were Republicans (Like Eisenhower, and Taft) and Democrats (like Truman and Kennedy.) There were nutters like McCarthy running around (I bet you can list a bunch of nutters running around today, too.)

I could get in to see a doctor on the same day I got sick. Oh yes, we had cars then, too — see much real difference between a 57 Chevy or a 2005 Taurus? I now which one I prefer. What about movies — The special effects are a bit better, but have you seen a story lately that tops "Casablanca", or "It Happened One Night, or even King Kong — I mean the original — many of the movies today are just repeats of originals that we loved more than five decades ago.

Now, look at the 50 or so years before that. Start just before the turn of the 20th century. That’s about when my Dad was beginning his life (really in 1906, but who’s counting that close.) There were no buildings much over 3 or 4 stories, because someone hadn’t invented the elevator yet. OK that was a bit earlier — but you get the point — Without the elevator, we would have no cities like NY or Chicago with skyscrapers. Airplanes — there was quite a difference, since the Wright Brothers actually first flew in 1903.  There was no powered flight before then. What about automobiles. My dad was 10 before he even saw his first airplane and as for that model T"…well. Movies? — they simply didn’t exist, really, until the 1920s. Or a bit before.

So what’s changed so much. We fly a bit (about twice as fast) faster, the phone works a bit better (well, does it really), the TV has more programs — but is that progress?  OK, health care does work miracles, but if you remember we had penicillin in 1948.You take away the microchip and frankly we have made little if any real progress in the past 60 or so years. What REAL inventions have made a substantial difference. Heck there was a guy named Babbage in 1792 who was building a machine that could calculate. It was simply bigger and slower than what computers do today.

As Steyn put it, if someone from 1900 went 50 years ahead he would have been blown away with cars, airplanes, television, radio, and the rest. However is someone jumped from 1950 to 2000. They would fit right in. No real surprises. Oh stuff might be a bit brighter, louder and faster, but beyond that, so what.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we live in an exciting time. But don’t take all this technology and get the "big head" about it.

I guess one wonders what the next big "break through" will be.  We haven’t cured the common cold yet. Supersonic jet liners are in mothballs, and my guess is that we will begin to rethink 500 seat airlines the first time one turns up missing. LA took out a great rapid transit system in 1950. Only to replace it in 2000 with one that doesn’t work nearly as well. The most expensive cars today were built in 1925.

Any ideas? Will it be replicators and transporters and warp drive of Star Trek? and if it is, what will that bring to our party? 

Looking back on the last 100 years, my take is that the only thing that has made any real difference is the Internet. But for a reason that you may find a bit different.

The ‘net allows people to do what I am doing right now. They can communicate with as few or as many people as they like. They can spread their ideas and their notions. They can argue and agree, they can for the first time, communicate quickly and easily. Ideas can’t be controlled by a few mogols like Hearst and McCormick and Ochs did with their media empires. Someone sitting in his pajamas in his living room can take down a Dan Rather or correct errors in the New York Times or Washington Post.

Now that’s real progress…


PS If you wonder what brought all this about, perhaps its the birthday that just past.  Number 60.

John Van Horn

John Van Horn

3 Responses

  1. The elevator was patented by Otis in 1861. The Flat Iron Building, NYC’s first skyscraper — 285 feet tall, was built in 1902; presumably elevators were in use before that. Just picking nits (along with you meant “know” but wrote “now”).

  2. Hi John: Can’t believe you are 60, well today that is still a young guy that may need a little help from Viagra. I am not far behind. My dad says you have to be tough to get old. We are at the point where we have to decide how tough we are.
    Just to make you feel better about the 1/2 century you are living in ready below. In our 1/2 of the century we have continued to move forward at an even faster pace than the ones before us. Ok they do get credit for creating the really big things that make all of our lives better. We on the other hand get to take credit for taking what they did and making them all into something that drives us all nuts. Cell phone so I can never get away on top of that the internet so I never have an excuse for not communicating. Airplanes that go everywhere every half hour at a low cost so there is never an excuse for not traveling somewhere just to sit in a stupid meeting about nothing important. I would be perfectly happy today with a 57 Chevy. One flight every other day or so in a set big enough to cross my legs. However, I do not miss party lines. My neighbor used to listen to my conversations with my girl friend and then tell my mom. I saw the picture of the small mercedes in one of the other blogs. For the sake of our grandsons, I sure hope that thing does not catch on. Pretty hard to get a girl stretched our in the back set of that thing.
    Unfortunately if you read below it looks like we are in for some more exciting changes.
     Before 1000AD the way people thought about things—a “Paradigm Shift” typically took thousands of years, Stone Age, Iron Age, Bronze Age…
     By 1000AD a paradigm shift was taking place about every 100 years.
     In the 1800’s there was more change than there had been in the previous 900 years.
     In the first fifth of the 20th century there had been more change than in all of the 1800’s (Airplane, Automobile, Electric Light).
     By the 20th century a major paradigm shift was occurring every decade (copy machine, fax machine, cell phone, internet).
     It is predicted that there will be 1000 times more technological change in the 21st century than there was in the 20th century.
    Now I know why life seems so frantic.

  3. Ah, yes, but just how different is the fax machine from the copy machine connected to mail, or the phone and cell phone, or the airplane and bus. The difference is simply speed.
    Show me a real paradigm shift.

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