August 15, 1997


The causes which most disturbed or accelerated the normal progress of society in antiquity were the appearance of great men; in modern times they have been the appearance of great inventions.

W.E.H. Lecky, 1869

If you were born several centuries ago and you lived for three generations, at the end of that time the world that you lived in would not have changed very much. The way that you got from place to place was the same, the way you acquired your food was the same, clothing was made in the same way and houses were built in the same way that your great grandfather built them. In short, the passage of 75 years didn't make much difference in the world. Not so now. It seems as if changes have occurred in this century with amazing speed.

There was a marvelous TV series called "The Day the World Changed." It was produced in England by a reporter named Burke. If they re-broadcast it, don't miss it. Its central thesis was that there were certain inventions and discoveries that initiated profound changes in the way that the world functions. It dramatized those events than initiated great changes.

My children would complain: "Didn't your parents let you watch as much television as you wanted?" They were shocked to hear that when I was a child there was no such thing as television. When I was a child, radio was just beginning. Commercial air travel didn't exist and the jet engine hadn't been invented.

As an illustration of how fast things can change nowadays, Johnny Carson (he once had a late night interview and comedy show) had a skit that followed on the heels of a report that a Japanese soldier had been found on a remote Pacific island, and he didn't know that World War II was over. Carson had a fictitious American soldier who had also been lost on a remote island since the end of WWII. The dialogue went something like this:

Carson: Now that we have talked about your experience, is there anything you would like to ask me?

Soldier: Yea, what happened to that congressman of mine...what was his name...oh yes, Nixon?

Carson:(whispers something in his ear)

Soldier: Aw come on....president? You're kidding me. He'll become president the day a man walks on the Moon.

None of these profound changes happened all of a sudden. The railroads, the automobile, airplanes, radio, television, computers and others developed over a period of time. Yet, the time scale of those developments was lightning fast compared to the time scale of the past.

When I was in high school, the wrist watch was just becoming popular. Now, I look at my watch and it tells me the time, day of the week and day of the month. The mechanism is less than half the size of the watch, and it operates for years on a battery that is about a quarter of an inch by an eighth of an inch.

I am typing this on a laptop computer that has been obsolete for years. The operating system (CPM) has been obsolete for what seems like a very long time. If a major part of this machine breaks, there are no longer any replacement parts, so I will have to throw it away.

I still haven't found a place where I can throw away an old radio or computer to have it recycled. It will go in some land fill. Our society hasn't kept up with the rapid pace of development. Our technological advances are running far ahead of our ability to deal with a technological device when it becomes obsolete. That is to be expected; the car was around for a long time before highways, and airplanes were around for a long time before airports. Wrecking yards came still later, and recycling centers are just about brand new.

To me the speed is breathtaking, but to youngsters who have grown up during this technological revolution, it probably seems like the normal way that things have always happened, and will continue to happen. I suppose that 60 years from now, they will be telling their kids how primitive things were in "the good olde days."

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