Best of Times
“We’ve never seen anything like this before.” That’s the likely response from most people if you question them about the new technologies, devices and services that have become widely available in the last decade or two. It’s extraordinary. It’s hard to minimize how our lives have changed as a result. A very partial listing confirms this. Cell phones have been a game changer. It was once pure fantasy to believe you could talk to people wherever you or they happened to be – even across the globe. Computers and the internet have made a world of information immediately accessible and have transformed how we shop for goods or services, maintain networks of friends and followers and even search for compatible mates. Rapid and efficient transportation networks speed purchases to our door and make available fresh foods from around the world. Credit card (and soon perhaps bit coins) are replacing cash. “Distant learning” becomes ever more common. Solar energy continues to expand its reach. Drones and robots already employed extensively surely will assume ever greater importance in the coming years. Three D printing, virtual reality, lasers, nanotechnology and biotechnology have already demonstrated their value. And autonomous cars, we are told, are just around the corner. Even this brief account surely makes the case that we are in the midst of astonishing changes that are rapidly altering the way we live. It is impossible, therefore, to believe that anything like this has even happened before, that such a remarkably fruitful era of innovation characterized any comparable period in the past.
Yet a case can be made that there was such a time. The period around the turn of the 20th Century just might qualify. Consider what emerged in that era. Start with the automobile, which began hitting the roads in that first decade. Imagine the impact it had at a time when most local transportation was still dependent upon horse power. For the first time in history individuals could travel by themselves at unprecedented speed to distant destinations. Even more startling and unprecedented was the fact that humans learned to fly. For centuries they’d dreamed about it, experimented with achieving flight. Then the Wright Brothers and others demonstrated that it could be done. Could there be a more remarkable achievement? Back on earth there were other dramatic innovations. Consider the telephone. Voice transmission over greater and greater distances first became commonplace. Social interaction and commerce advanced in ways never before possible. The transmission of electric current spread across city after city along with the incandescent bulb. Homes could now be fully lit, streets illuminated, and a once dim, shadowy world now yielding to the light. Light transmitted through a projector also made possible the advent of motion pictures. Moving images captivated audiences in this period, the start of what would become the most popular form of entertainment the world had ever seen. Personal images made a great leap forward when Kodak began selling the “Brownie” camera for one dollar in 1900. By that time the phonograph, originally invented by Thomas Edison, could be found in many a home.
Did airplanes, automobiles, electric lighting, movies, etc. have as great an effect on peoples’ lives as the current wave of inventions? It makes for a lively discussion. The answer is not all that obvious.