Thursday, April 15, 2010

Technology Nostalgia

Lately FORWARD DAY BY DAY, an Anglican daily devotional guide, has been reprinting meditations selected from issues throughout its 75-year run. This past Sunday a meditation from 1936 began with: “After driving a motor car all day, you are tired partly because so many pictures, so many things, come before you in a very short time. In twelve hours you see miles and miles of countryside, cities, people, gas stations, other cars. Then at night you arrive home and you are at peace.” (What would this writer think if he or she could experience the pace of a typical day in our time?)

The point of the meditation is the need to rest and “refuel” (spiritually) at frequent intervals during life’s journey. What it brought to my mind, though, was the quaint image of a long trip in a “motor car”—a novel activity in that era when reliable cars, good highways, and convenient gas stations were still relatively new—as a daring, challenging experience. It also reminded me of a book I recently read about the history of the Burma Shave signs (remember those?—the last one was officially taken down in the early 1960s). When first invented, this mode of advertising was a daring new experiment. Now it’s material for reminiscence about the “olden days.”

The reading reminded me, too, of a poem by Kipling with the refrain, “Farewell, Romance!” The old ways and artifacts appear “romantic” in the sense of adventurous and exotic. The caveman complains that the displacement of flint spear heads by metal ones will mean the death of romance. Likewise, the replacement of crossbows by firearms. The stagecoach is romantic; the noisy, smoke-spewing train isn’t. Thoreau, too, associates trains with the soulless pace of modern life; “the railroad rides on us,” he says. Nowadays, though, trains feel quaint and romantic to us, a subject for folk songs. Whatever has faded into the past takes on a glow of nostalgia. Kipling’s poem ends, “He [Romance] taught his chosen bards to say, Our king was with us yesterday.”

We Boomers idealize old black-and-white TV programs. Our parents lamented the disappearance of radio dramas. The country song, “I Miss Back Then,” celebrating the alleged innocent simplicity of what sounds like the 1950s, lists a plethora of material and social phenomena the singer misses. (Many of which I happily do without. Baloney sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise? They nauseated me then, and I wouldn’t eat one now except as an alternative to starvation in the wilderness.) What cutting-edge technology of today will our grandchildren, when they reach retirement age, look back on as symbolic of a simpler, happier time? Will they walk around with miniature computer links in their ears, Bluetooth style, viewing data on a holographic upload that floats in front of their eyes, and sigh for the good old days of laptops, notepads, and iPods? Will they reminisce to their kids about gathering around the game console with friends? When e-books become ubiquitous, will old fogies regret the passing of paper books, magazines, and newspapers? Will they sigh over the replacement of paper Christmas and birthday cards by e-cards? (Some people think newspapers are going that way already. As for me, you’ll deprive me of my daily papers in the driveway, not to mention tangible mail in the mailbox, when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers.)

If you’re around my age, does it ever give you a bit of a chill to stop and think that, to our grandchildren, the 1960s are HISTORY? Even for our two youngest children, in their childhood the Vietnam conflict lay farther in the past for them than World War II (which was, to me, HISTORY—after all, it ended three years before I was born) did for me at that age.

I’ve definitely entered the geezin’ stage of life. Cars today are far safer (and mostly more fuel-economical) than the vehicles of my childhood and teens, but when was the last time you rode in one (other than a van or SUV) that could seat more than five people in roomy comfort? The available selection of TV programming may be better than ever, but they certainly don't make movies the way they used to, do they?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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