About five years after I graduated from college, I found myself back in the same town, this time working for the local daily newspaper. I was assigned to do a profile of a beloved professor at the university and I decided to attend one of his lectures, to get a flavor of his style and to speak to some of his students.
The lecture room was familiar – pretty much exactly the same as when I had attended the school, with the same old wooden seats and chalk-dusted boards on the wall.
But as I was listening to the lecture, something kept tugging at the back of my mind. Something was different. It didn’t feel the same.
It took a few minutes for me to pick it out, but I finally isolated the thing that was just a little off – the steady, quiet clatter of fingers on keyboards. Virtually all of the students, about 30 of them, were pecking away on laptop computers.
I graduated from college in 1989 and at the time, the word “laptop” would have been as meaningless to us as the words “iPhone” or “Internet.” Computers existed, of course, but they were by and large big bulky things confined to labs and libraries. My first-year roommate had what we called a “computer” back in 1985, but it was really a tricked-out Atari 400, a primitive machine that required a spider-web of add-on components to do much of interest.
His machine was, as best I am aware, the only computer in the entire dorm complex.
Just a few years later, however, every student had a laptop at hand.
And the pace of change seems not to have slowed down. It occurred to me recently that the world I graduated into in 1989 has more in common with the world my father and grandfathers graduated into back in the early 1950s and 1930s than with the world we know today. It will be even more different when my own sons graduate from college in the 2020s.
I got through all of college with a manual typewriter that my great grandfather had used in his office in the 1920s and ‘30s. Our university book store even still sold the ribbons that fit that model. We used vinyl records at my college radio station. I got my news from the local and university newspapers and on a transistor radio I had used since middle school. All students took notes in class by hand in paper notebooks.
Very little of what I experienced in the late 1980s would have been strange to my father and grandfathers, or anybody born in the previous 80 or 100 years.
Less than 30 years later, I have a computer in my pocket. My articles and columns are produced on an inexpensive desktop that is more powerful than anything available even to exotic engineers in the 1980s. Music and news from all over the world arrive in torrents at my desk and at the touch of a button, I have access to centuries of knowledge and information. Cars drive themselves and machines can engage in coherent conversations with humans.
One of our faithful readers and I were reflecting on these changes the other day.
“My grandchildren have no idea where I came from,” he wrote in an email. “With all the information we have at our fingertips they know little about what came before they were born. And it seems they have no desire to know.”
He finds this change alarming.
“We have become a very ‘fractured’ society and that doesn’t bode well for us,” he said. “In some ways technology has brought us together but in many important ways it has isolated us.”
I mostly just find it disorienting. I see my own children navigating the new world smoothly – they seem to be fine young men, and the kinds of challenges and situations they are facing in high school aren’t all that much different than past generations (teenagers are, after all, still teenagers even if they are armed with amazing technology now).
But still, it is hard for me to even imagine what life will be like when my yet-to-be-born grandchildren are graduating from college. And it’s amazing to realize that my generation is the last one to have experienced pace of life of the 20th century.