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November 17, 2006

All this Modern Technology

It was brought home to me lately just how unobtrusively new technologies sneak into our every day lives and how quickly we become dependent on them. First I've read the Monk's book 'Out of Time' where he describes how three young men from 1804 are suddenly transported into 2204 on board a spaceship full of all sorts of fancy electronic equipment and computers of course. It soon becomes evident that the people from the future have become so dependent on their computers that they are quite at a loss if those break down. Skills that were a matter of course in 1804 are lost by 2204. The interesting thing about the book is that the people from 2204 can learn as much from the three youngsters from the past as vice versa.

This reminded me that pocket calculators had not been invented when I went to school. When we wanted to solve a trigonometric equation we had to use a slide rule or a logarithmic table. But we knew what we were doing and we knew the definition of sine and cosine. A few years later when I was trying to earn a bit of money by helping young students with their homework and pocket calculators had been introduced in school I noticed that to the pupils 'sine' just meant they had to press certain buttons on their calculators in a certain sequence. They didn't think any longer about what they were doing. Which is quite a common pitfall with calculators and computers: people often feed it numbers, let it do a calculation and then believe the result without ever even cross checking the order of magnitude.

The second experience was the nervous breakdown of my father's computer shortly after his death. I don't think the two events were related as this computer had a breakdown regularly - my father would always push the machine to its limits. For various reasons it took me quite some time to get it reset and to restore its communication with the internet. In the meantime my sister and I suddenly realised how dependent we had become of the latter. How often do you look up information of some kind or other on the internet? Several times a day, don't you? At least I do. I wonder how we ever managed without computers before.

And now I am trying to teach my mother to use a computer herself. After using computers myself for more than 20 years I have forgotten what it is like to be a beginner who has never even used a mouse before. And to whom opening, saving and storing of files and data means nothing. Yet.

I've always thought what an interesting life my grandfather must have led. Born in 1887 he saw the first cars and aeroplanes. He bought his TV set to be able to watch the landing on the moon. And he gave me my very first radio when I was ten. He died in 1972. Life must have been a never ending series of wonders for him. He was always interested in everything new and managed very well. The trick is, I think, to keep an open mind and always find a way round becoming enslaved by technology. I mean, we could write letters again instead of emails, meet friends in person instead of chatting to them, go to a shop instead of buying via internet .... Says someone who feels lost without computer. Sigh....

BTW, my favourite cartoon about is one that our secretary at university had pinned to the door to her room. It shows two neolithic males, one holding up a burning match stick and the other saying: "I can't keep up with all this modern technology." Priceless!

Posted by Mausi at November 17, 2006 10:06 PM

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It was this very thought that inspired me to explore the idea in my book of non-technology versus technology. And our Grandfathers seem to have had remarkably similar interests and experiences!

Posted by: The Gray Monk at November 17, 2006 10:46 AM