We hear stories about how the world changed during our grandparents’ lifetimes. My grandparents were born soon after the American Wright brothers invented their heavier-than-air airplane. By the time they retired two world wars had been fought, humans had been to the moon and back, safely, by rocket ship, we had the atom bomb, television began changing everyone’s domestic habits measurably, rock ‘n roll was invented, and Canada’s population had more than doubled. I am not old - certainly not a grandfather - and yet I can already describe to young people today how life has changed just during my short lifetime.
When I took my first airplane flight with my parents and brothers - we went to Barbados when I was a kindergartener, and I still remember it - flying on an airplane was still seen as a special, rare, exotic and privileged event. So we wore our Sunday best on the plane: little suits with little neckties. (I still have my childhood necktie. Mother used our neckties to decorate hand-made teddy bear dolls for each of my brothers and me.) It wasn’t just my family. Everyone was better dressed in those days, unlike the sandals, jeans and T-shirts that often cover people these days. Or, in some cases that I read about in the newspaper, the near-nudity of overly-revealing fashions. Passengers were even allowed to smoke! Oh, the horror!
There were no videos or DVDs when I was growing up, and no cable TV. In fact, I still remember our old black-and-white television. After that, we got our first remote-control TV. What a trip. Although videotape had existed for some time its consumer application and distribution in the form of small, portable cameras and home video machines - VHS and Beta - were introduced commercially when I was in high school. (My family went with the Beta machine, because it had better picture quality. But, of course, VHS succeeded. Why? Primarily because it could hold more - like a full feature-length movie.) At the same time, the “ghetto blasters” and their smaller companions, the “baby blasters” were the popular portable entertainment for teenagers. The Walkman was introduced around the end of high school. Of course there were no CDs. I remember when CDs were commercially introduced in 1984-85 because I was working as a university DJ at Queen’s University’s CFRC radio station at the time.
My father recorded a lot of our childhood on 8mm film. Later, as a Christmas gift to the family, my mother had her cache of 8mm film reels transferred to a single VHS video cassette and gave a copy to each of her sons as a keepsake. I still have my copy. But the technology has changed so much recently that I can no longer play it. I need to have it transferred to a digital format disc, or better yet an external hard drive (a memory stick). I remember the old 32 mm filmstrips used in elementary school, played on those heavy, cast-iron projectors that got really hot. The student chosen to operate the projector and advance the filmstrip frame-by-frame was the lucky one indeed.
When teachers distributed their copies the first thing many of us did was lick the corners to get a Zing! out of the acetate residue.
There were no personal computers, fax machines and E-mail. No Internet. Come to think of it, when I came to Tokyoin 1989 there wasn’t any Internet, either. The Internet as we currently know it has only existed for a little over ten years. When I was a child we had to find information by looking for it the old fashioned way, in books. So, one of the best things my parents ever bought for the family was a set of World Book Encyclopedias. I don’t know why Dad bought that particular set rather than say, a set of the highly reputable Encyclopedia Britannica. Maybe a World Book salesman just happened to walk into his office one day, but no matter. My brothers and I researched the hell out of those things. To this day I have a high regard for encyclopedias. And, of course, I am a devout bibliophile. I revere the durability of paper, not to mention its smell, appearance and texture.
ATM machines were introduced when I was in high school - quaint, atavistic versions of the machines in use today. Debit cards came much later, of course, but my experience growing up completely lacked automated banking, debit cards, pre-paid cards, or “smart” cards of any kind. In those days your driver’s license was a piece of paper. So was your health card.
There were no cell phones. If I wanted to call a girl in high school I had to - gasp! - telephone her home and risk speaking to the parents! Oh, no! Today it’s much easier for teenagers who can telephone or E-mail each other directly. We didn’t even have cordless telephones. Back then if I wanted to use the telephone I had to sit in a chair in the kitchen, or else sit/lie on my parents’ bed using their phone, talking to girls like this,
“You hang up first.”
“No, you hang up.”
“No, you hang up.”
“Are you still there? You hang up.”
“No, you hang up.”
“Let’s hang up together. Ready?”
And so on, like that.
Color photocopiers? Forget it. We had photocopies, sure, but only in black-and-white, and the technology required a special acetate paper. When teachers distributed their copies the first thing many of us did was lick the corners to get a Zing! from the acetate residue. Throughout my childhood school teachers relied on alcohol-based ditto machines - which were outlawed for health reasons by the time I attended Teachers’ College in the late-1980s. Even so, many schools kept a ditto machine in a closet somewhere as a back-up. I fondly remember their sky-blue lines. And the smell.
Remember making carbon copies of your type-written pages? Remember the typewriter? The greatest single Christmas gift given to me by my parents was a Brother electric typewriter at the start of university in 1981. Desktop computers were just coming in, but they were an expensive extravagance. The typewriter was indispensable. (Incidentally, it was a Brother machine, which is a Japanese company.) That was still true when I finished undergraduate school in 1985, but by the time I finished graduate school in 1988 the presence and effect of desk top computers were measurable. Today they are indispensable. (It is interesting how the concept of indispensability evolves. For students in Sudan, for example, a mere pencil is the single indispensable item, never mind a computer.)
The first video games for your television screen appeared in the mid-1970s - Pong, by Atari, that exciting table tennis game that went “Beeeep, beeeep, beeeep, beeeep.” Or, the even more exciting, faster version, “Beep-beep-beep-beep!”
These things are fun to think about. I look forward to seeing how everyday life will change in the next ten, twenty years, fairly certain that I will complain about much of it as I get dragged along by the times. The Golden Age is a vain fantasy. I might imagine living in another time and place in the past, but the reality is that I wouldn’t prefer living any other time than the present. I’d probably be dead already. To Golden Age fetishists I have only one word to say. Dentist! I don’t mind living perpetually on a potential precipice, on the Eve of Destruction because, truth be told, human beings have never lived anywhere but on the eve of our own destruction. That’s our natural environment. It’s the challenge that we rise against. It’s what we live for. We thrive on the threat of destruction.