Technology: Ally or Anchor?
I stumbled upon an airing of Starman this weekend on one of the movie channels and sat down to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. I was shocked to realize this movie came out in 1984, during the middle of my sophomore year in college. It was an instant favorite and had many lines my friends and I repeated to each other for months afterward. Jeff Bridges was amazing and I had a serious crush on Karen Allen. (Kids, think Emma Stone, but not as prolific)
As I watched, with my bowl of microwave popcorn, I enjoyed the reminiscence, but was also struck by some things that were missing. Chief among these were cell phones and the Internet. These items are so ubiquitous today that it’s shocking to think of a time when they weren’t part of our everyday lives.
1984. That’s just over 30 years ago. The first cell phones (analog) were introduced in the US in 1983 and calling them “mobile” was a stretch of the word. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that the devices really became practical for the average consumer. The Internet didn’t become something used by anyone other than scientists and other academicians until the late eighties and early nineties. Boundless information has only been available to us at the touch of a few keystrokes, or the swipe of a screen, for a little over 20 years.
My two daughters, born in 1990 and 1995, have never known a world without cell phones and the Internet, just as my generation never knew a world without television. And my parents never knew a world without radio. What revolutionary piece of technology is in its infancy today that my grandchildren will grow up never knowing a world without?
Sometimes it’s hard to remember (or conceive for those my daughters’ age) a time when communication and information weren’t instantly available to us. My childhood would have been vastly different had I grown up today, as opposed to 30 years ago. The technology has become an integral part of our lives.
A few weeks ago, a storm blew through and knocked out power in my neighborhood for several hours.
I had no idea what to do with myself.
Eventually, I decided to be somewhat productive and use the time to make a trip to the store I’d been putting off (I’m certain grocery shopping exists as a form of torture in one of the mid-to-lower levels of Hell). I grabbed my shopping list and hopped in the car, soon after looking for a parking place in the asphalt behemoth outside my nearby Wally-world. After finding a spot, I strode to the store entrance, only to find a handful of people milling about with bewildered looks on their faces. I walked past them and almost ran into the automatic door that refused to open at my approach. It was only then I noticed the hastily written sign taped to the door: “Closed. No power.”
The bastion of all things retail had been shuttered by a lack of electricity.
The simple act of buying and selling could not be performed without computers and the Internet.
And, more importantly, I couldn’t restock my cupboard with cheese puffs.
This got me to thinking, after I got my breathing under control — no cheese puffs! — what would people do if the whole grid suddenly went down with no hope for speedy recovery? How would my daughters cope without texting, Instagram, and Snapchat?
Technology helps us in countless ways, makes our lives easier and richer, but we don’t often consider just how fragile the whole system is. Approximately 1,100 satellites orbit the Earth, governing everything from basic GPS to nearly all our communications, including television, cell phones, and the Internet. The basic structure of the power grid in the US uses elements that were first developed in the fifties and sixties and haven’t been significantly updated since that time. A catastrophic event, either in space, such as a giant solar flare, or widespread weather disaster, could render huge sections of the country without power or communications for days or even weeks, depending on the severity of the catalyst. Would we be able to manage life without these things we deem essential nowadays like our phones and computers? What about light and heat?
Of course, part of my preoccupation with these ideas is a kernel for a new story I’m working on, but I’m curious to hear what you think. Could you survive without your electronic devices for an extended period of time? What would you do? How would you live? Would you enjoy living “off the grid” or would it drive you crazy?
Give me your answers in the comment section below, and I’ll choose one to receive a paper copy of either A Measure of Disorder or Knot in Time (your choice) and you’ll also receive an e-copy of my new book (tentatively titled The Devil You Know) when it comes out later this year.