Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Water? What Water?

“Wen I was yer age, we didn’t have running water. I hadta lug a couple a old gallon jugs up to the spring to get water for Mom to cook.”

We’ve all heard these old stories of how life was “in the old days.” I’ve even told a few, myself. Life was different, in some ways, sixty years ago—in ways the young people of today can’t even imagine.

Before cell phones? If you were away from home or work and needed to call somebody, you looked around for a phone booth. And they had to be home to answer. If your mom wanted you home for dinner, she stuck her head out the door and yelled your name. (If it was around that time, you’d better be close enough to hear her.) Before iPods? You could, if you wanted to be conspicuous, carry a battery-operated radio around, a box the size of a small suitcase, weighing five pounds or more. If you wanted to listen in private, your headphones would have made you even more conspicuous. (Yeah, I did it. I know.)

A couple of middle-aged friends of mine were marveling the other day how much daily life has changed in the past five or ten years, and wondering what it would look like in another five or ten years. They were talking about the ubiquity of cell phones and text messaging, features of life among the twenty-somethings that are taken totally for granted. About the only thing that is certain about the next decade is that there will be middle-aged people marveling at how much life has changed since 2007 and wondering what it would look like in 2027. I’m not even going to guess.

I’ve been intrigued by computers for thirty years, and I put up my own web site about ten years ago. But the phenomenon of blogs (short for weblogs) seems another country to me. I read nearly every day in my favorite print media about the influence of ordinary people on politics and business through these Internet outlets (and inlets), how broadcast and mass-printed media are losing not only consumers but their traditional authority in our culture.

Time magazine, in its January 1, 2007 issue, named “YOU” its person of the year. In his editorial, Richard Stengel explained that “the creators and consumers of user-generated content [of the World Wide Web] are transforming art and politics and commerce, that they are the engaged citizens of a new digital democracy.” (A newspaper columnist accused Time of “pandering” to its readers in order to boost sales.)

What strikes me is how unconscious we are of the environment we’re in. In 1965, Marshall McLuhan, a professor from Canada, reminded us that water is something that fish, of all people, know nothing about. (The joke was repeated in a slightly modified form by David Foster Wallace in a commencement address at Kenyon College a couple of years ago.)

McLuhan also pointed out, forty years ago, that we tend to see the world in a kind of mental rear-view mirror, that “reality” is just the context through which we interpret our experiences, and for most of us that context is the past. The young people, especially, absorb the current milieu without consciously relating it to the past because they don’t have much past. The current world just is; the apples are ripe and why not pick them and eat them?—just because I’m hungry. Notions of property and propriety have to be learned, force-fed by our elders who see the world in that rear-view mirror.

It’s the flip side of that coin that tells us that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. The Machine Age of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries revolutionized the world, and the results weren’t all pretty. The Information Age may not make a world that some of us would prefer. But I suspect that it will have its way with us, both those of us who are ready and those who keep glancing over our shoulders at the predictable past.

Water? What water?

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