Technology--there's no denying that it's for me!
I’m in awe of my new cell phone.
My thirteen-year-old daughter isn’t.
My iBook is two years old, but it still astounds me that I can be three our four rooms away from the Internet hub in the house and wirelessly download the preview for the new Superman movie in under a minute.
It still blown away that just a few hours ago I copied tonight’s episode of the Sopranos for a friend of my wife on our digital video recorder, and then burned the episode onto a DVD for her.
Again, none of this fazes my daughter, and this bothers me. Personal computers, video games, satellite television, digital watches and cordless phones all existed before she was born. She never knew a world without all this technology and she takes it for granted.
I grew up the son of a television repairman. When he was young my dad worked on a ice truck, and then a meat packing house. He only made it through seventh or eighth grade, but he wasn’t a stupid man, and when the chance presented itself in the late 50s for him to learn radio and television repair, he jumped on it and took to it easily. Back before solid state electronics there were only a few things that could go wrong with your television or radio. The electric cord became frayed or cut, the antenna got snapped off, or one of the tubes inside went bad.
Before the advent of the transistor radios, the older models were all AM and only had three or four of the little vacuum tubes inside. It was pretty easy to try switching out the most common tubes and you were back in business. The televisions were a little bit more complicated, but for the most part it was checking tubes and connections. More serious problems involved a bad picture tube, or a voltage regulator or some such affair.
My dad worked during the day at a radio and t.v. repair shop, and at night he did freelance repair. I used to go along with him on some of his calls. My job was primarily to sit in front of the television while he poked and prodded in the back. I held a mirror so he could see the image on the screen for reference. I also got to carry his toolboxes to and from the car.
The way it worked at the shop where my dad worked was that someone would bring in their radio or television (if it was a portable) to be repaired or to get an estimate. My dad and other employees at the shop would also bring in big floor model sets from customer’s homes if they couldn’t fix them there. Anyway, what would happen a lot of the time was that my dad would open up a television and call the owner to say that it was going to cost two hundred bucks to fix. The person on the phone would either tell him to go ahead and fix it or to keep it, because there was no way they were going to spend that much money on a hunk of junk. This meant that out behind the shop a massive stockpile of useless radios, tape recorders, record players and televisions would build up. Which was good for me.
When I was old enough to pick up and hold a screwdriver, I was opening up everything electronic in the house. Radios, telephones and record players. I must have had a knack for electronics because I managed to get most of them back together again in working condition.
Every summer my dad’s boss would have a big garbage dumpster delivered behind his store and hire me to come in and strip down the abandoned equipment for usable parts. This meant opening up the televisions, yanking out the tubes and speakers, and pulling the big fat yolk off the neck of the picture tube. This was valuable because it was loaded with copper wire. Later, after all the hard work was done I would go through all the little vacuum tubes that I’d yanked to see which were still functioning and could be saved. One of my favorite things about stripping down the televisions was pulling out all the big picture tubes. I would hoist them up as high as possible and drop them like bombs into the metal dumpster. Each one sounded like a bomb going off.
Some of the smaller electronic devices like radios and reel-to-reel tape recorders I’d take home with me to see if I could fiddle with them and get them working. I don’t think I ever succeeded, but I had a hell a lot of fun trying.
It was a good time, but then things got complicated. The printed circuit board come along and changed home electronics forever. Tiny transistors and resistors took the place of vacuum tubes. Radios and televisions became cheaper to buy, more expensive to repair, so easier to replace. If something breaks, don’t waste time and money getting is fixed, simply buy a new one.
My dad retired from the radio and television repair business just as the skills he’d learned over the years became useless. When we got our first VCR in the early eighties he couldn’t even figure out how to hook it up.
I have a real problem with technology being accepted as a given and taken for granted. When I was a kid and there was a moon shot, that’s all that was on television for that day. Coverage would start four or five hours before the launch, and continue on for three our four hours after liftoff. Today, when a U.S. shuttle goes up you’d miss the news about it if you blinked.
Maybe I’d turning into a cranky old man, but I watch my daughter chatting online with her friends, then download some new songs and put them on her MP3 player or on her phone. I try to point out what a miracle all this is and her eyes glaze over.
My new cell phone probably has more computing power in it than there was in the command module of those early space shots, but I use it to take pictures of my cats doing funny things around the house. It can access the Internet and the knowledge of thousands of years of civilization is in the palm of my hand, but I use it to download a song for my ringtone (Boots Randolph’s Yakety Sax a.k.a. The Benny Hill theme song, no less). So maybe I’m no better than this clueless new generation who will soon be running things.
Still, I really am in awe of my new cell phone. I can’t wait for someone to call me.