Hunting for safe conversation topics for the holidays? It’s been a weird year, but maybe too weird with too many controversies. The holidays are about tradition, remembering supposedly simpler times. Simpler or not, change is happening. Arguably change is accelerating. Maybe talking nostalgically about the way things were can feel safe, and also thought-provoking about how things may become. Keep it simple and physical instead of abstract. What do you remember about how computers and cameras, and cars have changed in the last few decades?
The conversation has to start with computers even though most people only relatively recently began using them.
2022 – Computers are so ubiquitous that I wouldn’t mention them except that they should be acknowledged. They’re everywhere. We laughed at the idea of a computer in a toaster, but there they are. Computers are so common that some don’t even think they’re using them. Phones have replaced computers, but really computers snuck into phones and took them over. Laptops still are common, but the one I am typing on is mostly useless without the internet. Desktops are rare. Mainframes never went away, but they’re faster and bigger taking on unimaginable problems. 2032? Quantum computing will be doing…what?
2012 – Laptops rule, usually as an adjunct to a desktop somewhere. Smartphones are pricy and popular. A waning status symbol. Official business is moving to web sites, which means your system might not be compatible with their systems, and where did that bill and check go?
2002 – Messaging becomes a thing. Use a phone to call someone? Sure. But trendy folks are using SMS, a pre-cursor to texting culture. Quickbooks begins taking over checkbooks and bookkeeping. Being able to use a computer is normal, but there are bonus points for people who can use the internet, and extra points for being able to build a web site.
1992 – Surfing the internet becomes a thing, but few know what that really means. Windows 3.1 is introduced, and who really invented the concept of windows on computer screens? Steve Jobs is no longer running Apple, at least for a while. I still have my Newton, which was a (large) pocket-sized handheld computer that was like a very early iPad. Viruses and Photoshop happen, though unconnected. IBM made a smartphone, but did anyone notice?
1982 – Punchcards happen, but magnetic tape is now the thing. PCs happen, too. New hardware and new software is introduced via classes. Floppies are floppy. IBM has company with many smaller companies like Microsoft and Apple; but what will people use them for? There are no laptops but there are luggables. Weight training for geeks. Mainframes range from room-sized machines to ‘micros’ that are only the size of refrigerators. You want a program? Write it.
1972 – ARPANET (eventually to be called the Internet and then spelled internet, no capitalization) begins. Video game consoles are brought home to take over the family tv. Say hello to Pong. Scientific pocket calculators begin to replace slide rules. ‘Home’ and ‘computer’ are words rarely seen together. Mainframes are really all there is.
Why compare cameras? Because they’ve changed the way we share the world. Images are harder to ignore than words are. They don’t need to be translated.
2022 – How many cameras do you own? You may not own a stand-alone camera. Cameras are in phones and computers. Cars have their own cameras so the car can see the road, sometimes in wavelengths of light that are invisible to humans. Even vacuum cleaners look around to avoid things, maybe even the cat. Professionals may use SLRs, but they can be too conspicuous in conflict zones, so even journalists switch to camera phones. People fly cameras for perspectives that were only available to pilots.
2012 – They’re growing, at least the capabilities of the digital cameras are. Image resolution (the number of pixels) increases to the point that enough people abandon film. Film isn’t as convenient, cheap, or easy to store. Kodak files for bankruptcy. Professionals still use them, but it becomes harder to get the film processed. Jon Stewart made fun of camera phones a few years earlier. Who’s laughing now?
2002 – Fotomat still exists. Drive up to the booth, give them your film, and wonder of wonders, a day later drive up to the booth and pick up your prints. Or, mail it in and wait longer. Polaroid will declare bankruptcy, and long remembered for instant prints. Digital cameras are relatively easy to find. Some have interesting form factors as designers try to discover market niches. Print at home, but be patient.
1992 – Cameras are Kodak or Nikon/Canon. That isn’t exclusive, but they are either small and plastic or heavy and metal. High-quality digital cameras are available, but almost as experiments.
1982 – Digital camera? Sure, but save the photos to a mini-cd.
1972 – Cameras make it to the moon. Instamatics fit into tourists’ pockets. Consumer SLRs bring in more amateur photographers.
Cars, cars, cars. Modern infrastructure and culture is built around cars. Personal freedom. Necessary for a job. Where to park it? How to pay for it? How many do you need?
2022 – We’re not just talking about autonomous cars, they’re out there driving around – or at least learning how to. Electric cars, and truck, and trains, and planes are getting around. Some are surprisingly popular, then an obvious choice. Some have technological hurdles based simply on the weight of the batteries. And can we generate enough electricity, find enough materials, recycle the batteries efficiently enough to satisfy the need and the demand? We’ll know within the next ten years.
2012 – Teslas up the game for all-electric. They quickly go from novelty to must-have, for those without range anxiety or price limits. Hybrid this. Hybrid that, as if the industry and the consumer base can’t commit, for those who aren’t Tesla-courageous.
2002 – Muscle-cars are measured in liters (as cubic-inches wades). Cars use gas. Countries that produce gas have power. Pardon the detour into geo-politics but this is about the time when we must have oil forever, and we freak out about interruptions in supply. Cars increasingly look alike because physics defines aerodynamics.
1992 – K-cars are still on the road as the industry struggles with fuel economy, profits, and what the customers want versus what they need and use. Pollution standards are imposed, reluctantly.
1982 – Fuel economy rules. The Arab Oil Embargo was recent. So is high inflation and an economy that is barely past stagnation. But we do love our power and have a hard time giving up size. Three-abreast in the front is natural, right?
1972 – Rules, rules, rules. Safety, safety, safety. The exuberance of the 50s and 60s are countered by the maturity of the drivers, or at least the industry, or at least the government. Eventually, fuel efficiency standards are introduced.
If you read all of this I am surprised, pleased, and impressed. If you read all of this and have been shouting out corrections, I am not surprised and yet pleased. This isn’t a scholarly study or a panel in a museum. This reflection on history was inspired by the end of yet another year. What will the year be like in ten years? Change seems to be accelerating, which can be a sign that we are in the early phases of a Digital Singularity, a time when change happens in an hour instead of days, weeks, months, years, decades.
This is also partly based on my recollections, which is why I stopped at 1972. In 1962 I was so young that I didn’t even have memories.
A decade from now, will computers approach or achieve consciousness?
A decade from now, will our eyes house cameras and record everything around us?
A decade from now, will autonomous cars mean we don’t own cars but rent them by the ride, effectively turning most trips into taxi rides?
These things will not happen in isolation. Politics, climate, technology, society are all shifting. I don’t know if it seems that way to you, but to me each of these ten years gaps represented more and quicker changes. Cars can now last 200,000 miles instead of only 80. Computers easily exceed almost everyone’s needs. Cameras aren’t using chemicals for film, but can we find what we record – and if not, why record it?
Prognostications are silly. They can also be fascinating. I wonder how many holiday conversations will focus on what can be rather grinding over what has been.