Five tech-culture anthropology answers from an “Old” to Millennials

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1940s Switchboard

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

TechnologyTell colleague and Millennial Devon Razey last week posted an interesting open query to the demographic cohort he calls “the olds,” which I infer to mean those of us who somehow survived into early middle-age without computers, the Internet, cellphones, texting, consumer level GPS, social media, and so forth.

Razey seems to be genuinely curious, and I’m always intrigued by this sort of trans-generational attempt at communication. I don’t object to the “Olds” categorization, and even find it kinda’ charming. Now well into my seventh decade, I can hardly pretend to be a “Young.” However, my kids are millennials, so I do have some close-quarters second-hand insight into the “other” camp, and as a Web-worker I’ve logged a lot of computer and Internet time over the past 20 years.

Razey says: “We’re not sure how you Olds survived the pre-digitzed world, but I’d like to extend a hearty thank you on behalf of all of us for inventing the technology that’s making living in the current economy a little more bearable. It’s only fair, I suppose, since you broke it in the first place.”

Touché. Collectively we Boomers have indeed been miserable stewards of economic matters, most of us (individuals or governments) refusing to live within our means, borrowing to the hilt, and thus leaving an intractable mess for the generations following in our wake. I would like to affirm that a few of us saw this coming and have been dismayed by the whole affair, but I should probably steer clear of the politics of it at this sitting.

Anyway, Devon Razey is perplexed as to how we survived phonelessness and information shortage, and has five specific questions to which he says he absolutely cannot fathom answers. So, here goes.

1. How did you know the names and artists of songs if you didn’t buy the CD?

Well, my day was well prior to the CD or even compact cassettes and 8-track tapes, but we read vinyl album covers, which had a lot of space, and sometimes there would be informational inserts as well. Lyrics? We listened to the music, and if the words couldn’t be deciphered, we just hummed along. DJs on mostly AM radio were also a fount of information about artists. We bought records we liked if we could afford to, and radio was free. Living in east coast Canada, we could pick up the big U.S. 50,000 watt stations after dark. They would fade in and out, but that was sort of part of the experience. There were also many fan magazines. I didn’t buy ’em, but my sister and her friends did, and information was shared word-of-mouth.

2. If you were meeting a friend in a public place, how did you find each other when you got there?

Usually we would recognize each other. It was highly unusual in the “old” days to have friends one hadn’t met face-to-face. Agreed directions for rendezvous time and place were more explicit. The procedure you describe sounds complicated.

We also spent a lot more time socializing and hanging out in cars than is typical today, which involved a different dynamic.

Sidebar; speaking of different dynamics, I was a pre-adolescent in the rotary dial telephone era, but when we moved to a rural community during my mid-teens, it was back to hand-cranked ring codes for others on your party line, and going through a switchboard operator to be connected to other lines. Since the operators were local and everybody knew everybody, this amounted to a sort of paleo social networking. You might call the operator to connect you with someone and be told that while they could ring, there was nobody home at that person’s house, and they were visiting so-and-so, and would you like to try there instead? As for privacy, there wasn’t much. On party lines, any of the parties could listen in on any conversation being conducted on that line. Long distance calls were absurdly expensive, kept brief, and generally reserved for conveying vital information, or contacting family and friends on special occasions.

3. How did you learn about something you were curious about?

We read books, and I actually did spend a substantial proportion of my formative years in libraries. But even if one camped at the library, there was really nothing approximating the near-instantaneous curiosity-fix one gets from Google, Bing, or Yahoo! (and to which I concede I am now addicted). The closest analog would probably be hard copy encyclopedias. Most school classrooms had one, and we had two at our home, and we used them.

An observation; I’m convinced that the quality and depth of what I learned from books 40-50 years ago were more profound than what knowledge I can derive from the drinking-from-a-fire-hose information onslaught one experiences online. I am grateful that I experienced learning and having the time to think about and process what I learned, and I’m glad computers came on the scene after I had developed book-based thought patterns for accessing and processing information. Seriously.

One thing that remains fairly constant is that the enquiring mind tends to find out a lot of stuff while looking up other stuff, whether in books or online.

4. How did you all spend your spare time before Netflix?

I still don’t have Netflix, or cable or satellite for that matter. Where I live we get one free TV channel off air via antenna, and that’s it. Can’t justify the cost of satellite TV for the limited amount of time I have available for TV and movie-watching, and I rarely download entertainment off the Internet. As for what we did with our spare time, some of us (you guessed it) read books, a pastime I hope to have more time for when I (semi)-retire.

Another aspect I alluded to in passing above was the amount of time spent—at least by males of the species—focused on cars. The degree of influence and importance car enthusiasm exerted on ’50s and ’60s culture, at least in circles I inhabited, is hard to exaggerate. I was (and still am) a consummate car-freak, but motorheads (or aspiring ones) were the rule rather than the exception. Few male conversations didn’t end up discussing cars. I got my first car at age 15, and took my driving test eight days after I turned 16. Through my teenaged years I spent a lot of time hanging out in garages when I wasn’t maintaining my own rides or helping friends with theirs. Time that “Youngs” today might spend playing video games, on Facebook, or texting, I spent learning how to rebuild engines and do bodywork. I think I got the better slice.

5. How did you handle getting lost on the road?

We learned to read road maps (the folding hard copy sort that used to be given away by service stations and government tourist bureaus). When on an extended road trip, I would study the appropriate map the night before setting off on the next day’s leg. Can’t remember ever getting seriously lost.  Indeed, an unscientific inference I’ve drawn is that people who use in-car navi get lost with greater frequency  than we ever did in the paper maps era.

For what it’s worth, I’ve owned some 60-70 cars, and not one yet has been equipped with on-board GPS. I don’t miss it. I do miss up-to-date paper road maps, but these days Google or iOS Maps have to do, alas.

In summary, it wasn’t a perfect world, but I don’t recall being bored much. We’ve gained a lot of access to information, communication, and entertainment, but seriously, who has the time? Does anyone sleep anymore? I know I don’t as much as I used to (and still should).

Given the opportunity to go back to a 1950s and ’60s level of technology, it would be a tough choice, and I can’t say I wouldn’t. But in general I wouldn’t trade having grown up in that era for growing up in this one. Technology is a mixed blessing. You Millennials missed out on a lot that I’m grateful to have experienced.

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  • Jean Pennie

    Amazingly, we could go to an outdoor concert with 20,000 and find our friends – even those we hadn’t planned to meet up with. And thankfully my husband learned the car thing too – it has saved all of our kids thousands of dollars over the years. I do love today’s tech though :)