Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

How the world has changed in my lifetime already

Posted by shannonclark on August 10, 2008

I was born during the last months of Richard Nixon’s administration, as a child I assumed that the world would end in my lifetime (at least humanity) probably due to an all out nuclear war between the USA and the USSR.

In high school I learned typing alternating between manual typewriters and computers (Apple II’s) and in a year long programming course actually learned Fortran including all the features leftover from the days of punchcards.

Telegrams had mostly gone away by my childhood but people still had a mix of rotary and the newer touchtone phones, long distance calls were expensive and a somewhat big deal, pagers were only for doctors (and drug dealers) and cell phones not even a term – it was “car phones” and those too were rare. Music still came on records or cassette tapes.

Before high school I remember the big deal that tape added to early personal computers (the ones before that had had nearly no way to save your work, you typed in your code each time). I learned programming theory via flowcharts on large format printouts from the courses my mom taught at the local community college. In high school the programming class was taught on a much upgraded PDP-11 which though we had terminals all throughout the school was not connected to any other network but did double at the high school library card catalog, stored on the then huge 400 MB large platters hard drives. I recall as well the transition from large floppies to small floppies to CD-ROMs. Buying a 100MB hard drive for our home was a huge investment.

Now I throw away anything smaller than 2GB when I get memory sticks free at conferences and I fully expect that my next laptop purchase may have close to 1TB of storage built-in.

As I grew up elected officials were primarily white, usually Protestant, men. To a degree that is still true here in the USA, but my home state of Illinois has elected to African American Senators in my lifetime (and I was honored to have been able to vote for both of them) and it is very like (and I certainly hope it will be the case) that Barack Obama will be elected the President of the United States later this year. And a growing number of women hold major elected offices around the country, even without the ERA ammendment (remember that?) women have made major gains during my lifetime. As the child of two generations of very successful and high achieving, college educated women I am very pleased that my generation and those after it will face a far more open world – indeed in my lifetime women have beome the majority of students in graduate school in many fields (and I think overall).

In high school I took history courses on Asia and on Russia, both were courses that had at times been relatively controversial in the school, the teacher told us stories of how he had obtained English language materials, materials which in some cases were explicitly propaganda materials from what were then seen as our enemies. As a child I recall both the scares of WWIII and of a great emphasis on WWII, I spoke with vetarens WWII and recall their stories.

While my family did not have a TV for most of my childhood I do recall when people still had, some at least, black and white TVs, when all television was over the air and cable only slowly grew popular. For a brief moment in my childhood newpapers still printed radio broadcast schedules and I grew up listening to radio dramas both broadcast over the air and on cassatte tapes which I collected. I also had a very strange clock radio (both now and even then) which would pick up the audio tracks only of TV broadcasts, so I grew up listening to Rocky & Bullwinkle as I woke up each morning, the many different characters bluring in my just waking up mind.

When I first started buying books for myself, sometime in elementary school, new paperbacks were still just a few dollars and many used bookstores would sell them for less than a dollar. Now a new mass market paperback (which as a child was pretty much all there was in paperback form) costs $7 at the low end and often far more.

And I’m probably of the last generation to remember buying gas for less than $1/gallon when I first got my license, though to be fair prices often hovered just above $1 for the most part.

Though we never visted him, my Uncle Jimmy lived in Berlin when it was still a divided city and we heard stories of his artist’s lifestyle there and I remember when the wall fell and the USSR started to breakdown and crumble, one of many major events as it would turn out in my lifetime already. As a child having grown up under the spector of the Vietnam War I somehow always assumed that the next war we would enter as a country would be the big one, WW III and would likely mean the end of everything. Instead in my lifetime we have been in three fairly major but also relatively limited in scope wars and a number of other conflicts and engagements (First Iraq War, Haiti, Panama, Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Second Iraq War not to mention ongoing skirmishes in Colombia and President Reagan’s Contra stuff and I’m probably missing some smaller skirmishes as well). We have been a busy and all to militeristic nation even as the world has changed radically in my lifetime.

India, China, and the Soviet Bloc were all quite isolated countries as I was a child, Now the USSR is no more (the current war between Russia and Georgia which is occurring as I write this not withstanding) and though China is still “Communist” it is the third largest economy in the world and India is not far behind it. And Europe which was somewhat neglected when I was a child is a booming and strong economy with a strengthening Euro and with massive changes resulting from greater mobility and open borders internally to the EU. South Africa which was the focus of great preassure throughout my childhood also abandoned Aparthied and opened up in a far more peaceful process than most people assumed would happen. As I write this only North Korea is almost entirely isolated from the world economy, Cuba and Iran are for the most part isolated from engaging with the USA by our laws but do participate to a lesser degree with the rest of the world (and Iran in particular plays a major economic role).

Dozens of countries have emerged (or more accurately in many cases) reemerged in my lifetime and have started to make their way in a more complex global economy than the simplistic picture which was depicted in school when I was a child – the “first world/third world” split is no longer so clear or so relevant. Though the US hasn’t entirely caught up with these changes when you engage with media from outside of the US the amazing change in the globe can start to be glimpsed.

In college I was among the first people to have a computer in my dormroom connected via an ethernet connection to the Internet – i.e. an always on connection. I was on the Internet when it was still a non-commercial space, a place mostly restricted to universities where not every student had an email address or a way to connect to the Internet. I was amazed one day when I was awoken by my computer beeping at me as a result of a chat request from a student in Singapore and from my dormroom I ran an online game with 1000’s of users from three continents. An early precurser to the types of games and online interactions now seen inside of Second Life.

I started online before graphical browsers, reaching my first “webpages” via Gopher and I resisted using Netscape in favor of the faster if non-graphical Lynx browser for many years. I remember using both Yahoo and Google when they were still university research projects. In short in my adult lifetime I have witness the many evolutions of the “web” from complex and obscure academic playground to the worldwide, mass institution it is today.

I found my early jobs and apartments (and much more) via using paper classified ads in the daily newspaper and in the weekly alternative press. Something which in the past 15 years has almost entirely disappeared in much of the US and which the rise of online sites such as Craigslist and countless specialty sites (for dating for job search, for home buying and more) not to mention Ebay have changed forever. Buying a computer used to involve buying the large, multiple inch thick Computer Shopper and comparing the best packages and deals, it was a complex and difficult process. Today it remains a vastly more complex and obscure process than it should be (perhaps Apple computer excepted) but now you do that process online not via searching a paper magazine.

Speaking of print as a child I turned in hand written assignments for quite a long time. It was only into high school that computer printed papers become relatively standard and were usually printed on computer paper which would then involve seperating each page. Then laser printers became affordable and fairly common so I printed a great deal. But more recently I am far from being alone in having managed to go back to a nearly paperless lifestyle – my printer stopped working two years ago and I have yet to replace it, with the rise of always on connectivity I just keep documents online instead of printing them out and my various computer screens are now so high resolution that I read most things on the screen directly.

In summary in my still fairly short lifetime the world has changed considerably. Much of what seemed fixed, seemed certain, from the cold war to “long distance calls are expensive” has gone almost entirely away. It is both exhilerating and a bit scary at times to think about how much more the world will change in the next 30+ years, how what seems certain today will be rendered silly or foolish in the future.

I am not a Futurist but I end with a few areas I think bear a lot of thinking about.

  1. How does the use of technology keep changing when all the technical bits become nearly free and nearly endless? i.e. already storage is so vast and cheap that it is rarely wise to scrimp, computational power is likewise vast and abbundant, and while bandwith remains a bit of a bottleneck it too is rapidly beoming faster and ever more readily (and all pervasively) availalble – I read that in Japan they are starting to  test wireless cell data services exponetially faster than even 3G,
  2. When the world is really all connected and living and working with each other it is vital that US shake off old stereotypes and very very broken assumptions. For example in the US it is still common to depict blond haired, blue eyed, overly buxom, fair skinned women as the physical ideal of beauty even as on a global scale by far the vast majority of the world have both a very different vision of beauty and a much wider range of physical features. The population of the planet has, I think, nearly doubled in my lifetime and the full impact of those numbers hasn’t really echoed here in the US yet. China is now over 4 times as populous as the United States and India is not far behind.
  3. Design will continue to be ever more vital and important. By this I mean that one of the amazing impacts I’ve witnessed already in my lifetime is the growing importance and pervasiveness of design in all aspects of life, as the production of physical goods becomes easier and also less constrained what differentiates goods and services is the design. As well as more of the world has a chance and opportunity to interact and to work for and with each other and as well to learn from and be influenced by each other the pace of innovation is accelerating with impacts seen even in some of man’s oldest and most basic of tasks and technologies (innovate means of moving water or of heating a cooking while burning simple and basic fuels for just two examples).

In short I have already lived in interesting times and I think we haven’t seen anything yet.

What has changed in your lifetime? What assumptions about the world did you grow up with which you might want to revist and rethink? I predict as you start to think about it you will find that it is more than you originally guessed, this list is by far not complete and I’m only in my mid-30’s.

2 Responses to “How the world has changed in my lifetime already”

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  2. […] public links >> flowcharts How the world has changed in my lifetime already Saved by heidilow on Mon 29-9-2008 Commission Blueprint Review – Real Income System Or Scam? […]

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