Gettin’ Old

It seems the demise of print newspapers is alarming old loons.  The world is a-changing.

A 23 year old student was telling me today about how shocking it is to consider that her 19 year old sister has never known a world without the internet.  Mind you, I’m pretty sure my student doesn’t really recall the pre-internet times, either.

I then told her that I was born before man walked on the Moon.  This literally horrified her as her jaw fell agape.  Yes, it makes me feel old.  But I’m also rather proud to be of a generation that both pre-dates and created the digital, modern world.  I like to remind people that the Apollo spacecraft had less computing power than most peoples’ wristwatches.  Well, I used to say that, back when people wore wristwatches.  Now, I guess I have to say cell phones.

I also used to say that half the world has yet to make a phone call.  This was, of course, before the mobile phone revolution.  (Mind you, the stat is debatable.)  That’s right, kids: there was a time before you were able to make a phone call or send a message at your convenience.

I was also chatting with a friend’s 16 year old daughter this past week, explaining to her what life was like when I was 16.  It’s both depressing and inspiring to consider the ways in which technology has profoundly changed they ways in which we live, as quickly as a few decades.

When I was 16, it wasn’t unusual to have but one phone in each house.  Usually, that phone was in a central part of the house, so everyone could hear your business.  In most cities, only the caller could end the conversation; if you called someone and didn’t hang up, the other party couldn’t just hang up and end the call.  This was nightmarish for homes with teenagers, since teens thrive on their social contact.  If you have to talk to your friends, or call a girl, you have to wait until the phone was free… and then you had to time it so that the girl’s phone was also free!  Remember: no email, no texting, no cell phones; this was our only option!

In times of extreme need, we’d run across the street to use the pay phone.  But even those were often in use!  Oh… and there used to be pay phones on every corner!

One time, my future girlfriend was waiting for a call from me.  Meanwhile, I was building up the nerve to call her.  Of course, I had to wait for my home phone to be free before I could make the call.  But then, when I finally did, her line was always busy!  Turns out, her Dad was on the phone and she was begging him to get off, without telling him that “a boy might be calling.”  Predictably, he got off the phone for 30 minutes and told her, “Okay, I’m off.  Make your call.”  In retrospect, I sympathize with her frustration as she wanted to scream at him, “It doesn’t work like that!”

If you were really stressed out, you could call the Operator and ask for an “emergency breakthrough”.  She would interrrupt a call in progress and tell the parties that a third party wanted in.  Yes, most of us teens did this at least once.

Oh, and because the house had but a single line, you could never be sure your parents or siblings weren’t eavesdropping on your conversation.  (This became possible when they finally made additional phones available on the same line, sometime in the late 70s, I think.)  You always had to listen for that “click” that meant your parent had put the phone down before you started your private conversation.

Mind you, from a societal perspective, this might not have been a bad thing.  It ensured that a parent was usually aware when their teenager was receiving a call, and usually ensured that parents knew who their kids’ friends were.  These days, they rely on Facebook for that!

Additional phones became widely available (again on the same line, or number) sometime in the 1980s, as I recall.  That’s when they started installing “jacks” so you could plug your phone into the wall.  Before then, we had to wire the phones directly into the wall by screwing the right wires to the right poles.  As a kid, I used to play with the phone wiring a lot, trying to figure out which wires were responsible for what aspects of the signal.  I learned a lot about electronics and telecommunications that way.

The lack of email and cell phones meant that when you made plans to meet your friends, you had to abide by those plans!  There were no last minute changes, or texts/emails with, “I’m running late!”  You had to show up and trust that your plans held up.  This was the source of much confusion, miscommunication and frustration, especially when trying to coordinate group activities.

(Don’t get me started on the revolution of ATM machines!  Prior to their arrival, again sometime in the mid-1980s, you had to rely on whatever cash you happened to have on hand.  This meant planning your weekend expenditures well in advance, since banks were never open on Saturdays.  And, of course, no one had a credit card, and the debit card had yet to be invented!  In retrospect, this was a good system for saving money, or at least for avoiding extraneous expenditures..)

Answering machines became prevalent in the early 80s.  Electronic voicemail about a decade later.  Before this development, you had to wait by the phone if you were expecting important information.    In other words, the phone compelled geographic stagnancy!

Okay, I’m droning on.  Next, I’ll be complaining about them dang kids in my yard with their boogie-woogie music.