Technological changes in the world around me are so swift and complex that I feel out of touch, like a lost little girl. I’m an older woman who grew up without cell phones, the internet, kindles or computers. A tablet was another word for an aspirin. There was no such thing as Snapchat, Facebook, or Instagram. We simply talked to each other on the walk to school or during play time. For pictures, we posed with Kodak cameras then dutifully carried the 35mm film to a drug store for development that generally took a few days. Film back then came in black and white or color. Black and white was cheaper for those on a budget. Telephones were installed by the phone company, also known as Ma Bell. If you needed help placing a call, you dialed O and an operator (always a woman) assisted you. At moving time, you called the phone company to arrange for installation. Almost every kitchen had a wall phone with a long cord to talk while you cooked dinner. I remember slamming down the phone on annoying tele-marketers. Today’s youth will never know the joy of hanging up, with emphasis, on someone they don’t like or dropping the phone onto the floor.
Men and women like our parents toiled in factories building everything from automobiles to floor lamps. Now robots fill the factory floor, replacing the men and women who woke up early, packed a lunch and headed off for work day after day, month after month, year after year. Cars are more advanced too, replacing the old-fashioned map. Plug in your destination into a GPS system and a cold, heartless voice tells you how to get there.
Call a bank, store, utility company, or just about any business to ask a question and expect to hear a human? Fat chance that a human will pick up the phone any more. My call will most likely be answered by a computerized answering system asking me to visit their website. If I insist on waiting, I am asked to hit a series of prompts. If patient, I might get lucky and talk to someone who hopefully hasn’t disconnected me after waiting15 minutes. In my day, if I called Macy’s, an operator answered the phone and promptly transferred the call to my desired department.
Winter weather in New York City was often brutal and unforgiving. Snow storms were harsh, punishing the city with layers of snow. That made playing games outside and bike riding all but impossible. So, I retreated to the public library which was only a few blocks away. There, I lost myself in books and encyclopedias Yes, remember them? Giant thick hard-covered books with pictures and stories about various topics, countries, and people. I loved the public library. Our family was poor, unable to afford much travel. I learned how to travel the world by reading, browsing through the encyclopedia and by listening to a short-wave radio at home. My mind went to a zillion places.
The internet has transformed the simple act of shopping, but at the same time causing the demise of the traditional brick and mortar stores. As of this writing, retail giants like Macy’s, Sears, J.C. Penney’s, and even the chic Michael Kors are struggling. In addition to closing stores, more are planned to stave off bankruptcy. That’s shocking when you consider how retail has been a steady source of employment in this country for generations including mine. That’s where I got my first job at the tender age of 16 years old in the now defunct Alexander’s in New York City. The following year, I moved up to a better paying job in Macy’s for $2.10 an hour. Other than the mall puppy store, which thankfully are on the decline, I love going to the mall. On line shopping may be convenient and sometimes less expensive, but it cannot compete with an afternoon at the mall among friends. On-line shopping is impersonal and just not fun, at least in my view. If you go out with friends or relatives, it’s lively and entertaining. Take trying on clothes for example. Ask your friend or cousin a question like, “How does this look?” or “Should I get it in blue instead of green?” That personal interaction isn’t possible on-line. Plus, taking the children with you allows for an afternoon of family fun in the food court and the play center. Human interaction is priceless. It cannot be replicated with a computer.
The on-line giant Amazon may sell everything from computers to jigsaw puzzles and offer quick, speedy delivery but Amazon’s mammoth size quietly killed dozens of independent stores, especially book stores. I have a hard time digesting that. OK, on the one hand, e-books are now more affordable for thousands of people who may not otherwise be able to afford a new book. E-text books are a life saver for students on a budget. Why spend $200 on a textbook for one semester? Alternatively, Amazon’s foray into electronic publishing has shifted the way we buy books. Was Amazon responsible for the failure of the retailer Border’s Books and Music? Or was it because the younger generation just isn’t reading like we older folks did. Border’s failed because of changing tastes as well as the proliferation of e-books. The mighty Barnes and Noble has worries too. They shuttered stores and rarely opens a new one. Their road ahead is rough. Even the once thriving newspaper industry is in trouble. Most cities have only one daily newspaper if they have one at all. The mighty New York Times, considered the most prestigious paper in the world, battles declining readership and stiff internet competition. The younger generation doesn’t sit down with a cup of joe in the morning and flip through a newspaper like we older folks did. They scan the internet with their cell phones for on-line sources to get the latest headlines. I’ve been reading a daily newspaper since high school and I doubt at my age that I’ll change.
Technology has its benefits no doubt. It has revolutionized travel, education, health care, and insurance, among other industries. Even pet adoptions have benefitted from the internet. Thousands of dogs, cats, horses, etc. have found new homes because of the internet. But technological advances heaps new and unusual problems my generation didn’t face. As a child, I wasn’t glued to a cell phone, computer games, Snapchat, or television. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood of large families in small apartments. We all got on each other’s nerves so hanging around outside was my freedom. Children like me played games in the streets or the public parks, rode bikes, or read in the public library Admittedly we consumed much of the same junk food as today’s youth but there was no childhood obesity epidemic back then because we were so physically active. I cannot explain the rise of violence but there were no metal detectors in the schools back then. Only the police and military carried weapons. Are we more violent because we lost our ability to communicate? I don’t know.
Am I prepared for a future of driverless cars, more robots, and artificial intelligence? I’m not sure. The other day I heard a report on NPR about driverless airplanes. That’s one change I cannot imagine. I hope by then I’m long gone from this world. As it stands now, we can kill and maim enemies real and perceived in foreign countries by remote control right here at home by pushing a button and unleashing a firestorm of bombs. I never thought I’d live to see warfare by played like a computer game, but with far more lethal results that sometimes strike innocent lives. Computers will continue to advance and control our lives but a computer will never take the place of a human touch. A computer will never love you nor console you upon the death of a love one. A computer will never smile at you when you need comfort. A computer will never replace the warmth of a loving family. A computer will never replace the joy of walking a dog after work, playing with your children, or having coffee with your best friend. A computer is not human and never will be.