Thursday, December 01, 2005

Necessary Conditions

Weekend Assignment #88: Talk about something people have today that you wished you had when you were a kid. Note this doesn't have to be a piece of technology -- it can be anything that's around now that wasn't around when you were a kid. Clearly, this assignment favors the older folks in the audience, but even the younger AOL Journalers can look around and find something that they wish they had back when they could try to convince their parents to buy it for them.

Extra Credit: Rocket car to the moon or robot butler: Which do you want more?

Fair warning: I'm about to take this subject way too seriously.

Almost nothing in this picture existed in 1970, the year I turned 13 years old.
Even Diet Sunkist would not have existed in the post-cyclamates era of saccharine-based diet soda. The only thing here that would have been around back then is the 3 ring binder - without the clear pocket in front or the novel manuscript inside. St. Michael's & All Angels Church probably did print bulletins back then, but on mimeo, or maybe ditto master. If you're under 30, ask your parents what a ditto was.

One thing I've learned from science historian James Burke, and from personal observation, is that technology doesn't happen in a vacuum.
For any particular new technology to be developed, tested, and put on the market, certain conditions must be met first. The iPod could not exist without the microchip, which probably could not have been invented unless its precursor, the transistor, came into existence, which in turn wouldn't have happened without the vacuum tube. The mp3 audio format almost certainly developed because of the Web, and as an outgrowth of other digital audio (read: CDs). The laptop I use to transfer audio from my CDs to my iPod would not exist without microchips, digital audio, the modem, and probably the Web itself. That in turn requires fiber optics and telecommunications satellites. Without the Web, many of what we now consider a modern computer's core functions wouldn't be possible. It's all synergy, different inventions feeding each other, and creating the need for more innovations.

So if you did give a computer to Karen Funk, age 13, of Manlius, NY, and it wasn't shipped in from the future, and it wasn't the size of a house, then that would mean that the necessary conditions for creating the home computer already had been met by 1970. Even if it was only a Commodore 64, it would be about 15 years earlier than in our version of reality. A Presario laptop would require 35 years of innovation being accelerated and backloaded into the 1960s and earlier.

If young Karen Funk did have a laptop, she would be living in a very different 1970, one that looks a lot like our 2005. It would mean that ARPANET or whatever it was called had already given way to Usenet, and Usenet to the Web. Karen would be able to look stuff up online, just as she does now in 2005. And she would probably look online for ways to shortcut through assigned reading for school, just as young readers of Karen B's online L'Engle bibliography do today.

Do I wish for all this? No, probably not. I appreciate what we have now, all right, precisely because it wasn't always available to me. I don't regret afternoons spent at Manlius Public Library instead, or afternoons spent with Joel and a decidedly non-digital camera, or heating a Hungry Man dinner on a foil tray in a GE oven made in 1961.

On the other hand, I wouldn't have minded having these in 1970:

They could have made something very much like this, back when the film Yellow Submarine was a recent release, and it wouldn't have required much by way of collateral innovations. No microchips required.

Unless, of course, little plastic John, Paul, George and Ringo talked and sang without their owner pulling a string. That would have been cool.

Extra Credit: Well, if you had just said "flying cars" for the first choice, I'd be tempted; but I don't actually have much interest in going to the moon. Give me a Jetsons car, or a Doc Brown DeLorean. You can keep your rocket car to the moon. That level of technology would probably mean a permanent settlement on the moon, maybe even a resort hotel and gourmet restaurants. But they'd have no atmosphere to speak of.

On the other hand, I am in severe need of someone or something to clean up after me. "Marvin, can you pick up that piece of paper?" That's what I'd say to him. And after that he could vacuum my office, reorganize my files, and put my laundry away.


Here's a sad sight: my indigo iMac, demoted from second computer to junk stored on the floor of my office. I put it there tonight, to make room for the stuff you see in the first photo up above. If I'm ever going to finish editing Heirs of Mâvarin, I need to be able to fit my laptop and my printout (covered with notes!) on the same desk at the same time. Poor old Mac. It has better graphics software than the laptop, but I'm afraid the crummy AOL interface for Mac makes it pretty useless otherwise. I haven't turned it on in months.

It's still here, though. I didn't even disconnect it from the modem. Maybe I'll use it again someday.



Carly said...

Yes, the laptop is our friend. :)

Always, Me :)

julie said...

And Marvin will say to you, "Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and here I am, folding laundry." At least he doesn't have an attachment like Kryten (or so I hope) for the vacuum cleaner!

After he's whinged about doing your place, Marvin can come do mine.

Monponsett said...

It's this kind of fantasy that you wake up from to find the USA as a desolate wasteland, in a George McFly manner.