We had occasion recently to visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. It is a surprisingly fascinating place.
It traces the technology of computing from the earliest devices, like the abacus, which looks like a child’s toy but is in fact an astonishingly sophisticated math machine, through the slide rule, the Babbage engine, ENIAC and the Cray supercomputers, all the way to the technological marvels that we keep every day in our pockets and purses.
Since technology is such an integral part of our lives, it was also a personal trip down memory lane. The display cases included toys I coveted, machines I used for work, long-lost technology I used for playing music or games.
Much of this old stuff was somewhere between mystifying and incomprehensible to my tech-savvy children. I tried to explain “acoustic couplers” to my younger son, a gifted computer whiz. These were the devices used to allow early computers to transmit data over the telephone or connect to what would become the Internet. They featured two rubber cups where you’d set the receiver of your telephone so the computers could talk to one another in blasts of noise.
“Why don’t you just plug the computer into the phone,” my son asked.
Because the receiver was hardwired into the phone in those days.
“Then why don’t you just plug it into the wall?”
Because the phone cord was hardwired into the wall as well.
He blinked at me blankly for several seconds then turned away to another exhibit, unable to imagine a world where nothing was modular and telephone wires were hardwired right from your hand to the giant central switchboard.
While I was a little nostalgic seeing these old devices, I didn’t fall into the old “In my day things were better…” trap. While I love technology, I tend to take a utilitarian view of it – a machine is a tool to achieve an end, and if a new machine helps me achieve that end better, then I’m all in. Manual typewriters were cool, but there is no question that my modern computer is infinitely more useful. Vinyl records have their charms, but a digital database of song files living on a hard drive is much easier to deal with.
There was, however, one exception in the museum. In a display about the future, they had a prototype Google self-driving car. It is sleek and futuristic and looks somewhat like a miniature VW beetle. It has a single bench seat for two passengers. It has no steering wheel or control pedals. It is a true self-driving car, with virtually no human involvement except as cargo.
And I hate it.
I suspect I am in the minority in this, but I love to drive. The longer the distance the better. A road trip is soothing and relaxing, a chance to see the world, but also to navigate and explore.
The feel of the road through the steering column and control pedals is part of the adventure. The nervous tension of driving in traffic or on narrow, windy roads—and even the possibility of catastrophic error – are an integral part of the adventure. A car for me is more than just a tool to achieve the end of arriving somewhere – driving is at least partly an end in itself.
I am so devoted to this that I drive a Jeep that is as devoid of technology as possible for a vehicle manufactured any time in the last 10 years – manual locks, manual seatbelt, manual mirrors, seats that adjust using a metal lever and your legs. The “entertainment console” consists of a radio—and a clock.
I don’t want a self-driving car. At that point, I might as well take the train, or maybe just stay home.
I am sure that someday, perhaps with my yet-to-be-born grandchildren, we will tour some kind of car museum and see an old Jeep, or maybe a 1977 Honda Civic like the one in which I learned to drive.
And I will say, with absolute confidence, “In my day, things were better.”