SHIFT: The more things change, the more they change us

Last week, I joined a coterie of costume-wearing Trekkers for a 1 a.m. opening night/morning IMAX viewing of Star Trek. While trying to accept the fresh-scrubbed versions of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov, seeing the old Spock triggered a wave of teary nostalgia. You see, this week is my birthday. I'm 54 — not as old as some, older than most in my profession and probably most of you, and old enough to have vivid memories of watching the series during its original 1966-69 run.

While my birthday is not a zero or a five, the timing (this column just happened to be due this week) and the wistfulness triggered by Star Trek got me to thinking about the technological changes I've covered over the course of the 25 years I've been a tech reporter. I reported the birth of the Walkman, CD, the camcorder, the cellphone, the personal computer, the breakup of Ma Bell and being able to buy your own telephone, the digital camera, the PDA, MPEG and digital compression, the Internet and the Web, satellite TV, handheld GPS, DVD, HDTV...and have met and/or interviewed many of the geniuses responsible for these landmarks.

This movie/birthday convergence also got me to thinking about how Spock Prime in the new film, but even more about the mortality-musing/birthday-celebrating Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, felt about reaching their respective stages of life: What have I learned?

People First, Then Things

What I've learned is, technology is not neutral. It radically creates or changes our behavior. Think about the world our great-grandparents lived in 100 years ago and the radical changes in their lifestyles the parade of early 20th century innovations wrought.

When your great-grandparents were your age in 1909, electricity was a rare and scary commodity, and powered little in the home except electric lights. Gas was still the primary form of lighting indoor and out, the horse — both iron and flesh — the primary mode of transportation, the telegraph the primary form of long-distance communication, and, with radio still more than a decade away, the piano and/or fiddle the primary form of home entertainment. It took weeks to travel from coast to coast. By the time your forbears actually became grandparents, the trip could be made by air in less than six hours.

Too abstract? What about your parents? When they were your age - when the original Star Trek was broadcast 43 years ago - a worldwide web sounded like something the Tholians would have been spinning.

  • "Digital" meant doing something with your fingers, like tapping a keyboard, which usually meant a piano or typewriter.

  • Vinyl records was the way most people listened to music, LPs at home and 45s on the go, if by "go" you meant on a picnic player at a friend's house.

  • "Big screen TV" meant a 19-inch black-and-white set, flat screen TV was something out of "Fahrenheit 451" and high-definition television meant a good picture on the half dozen broadcast channels you could receive.

  • Home theater was an oxymoron.

  • A portable phone was something Maxwell Smart had in his shoe.

  • Super 8 was an 8mm home movie projection system, not a motel chain.

  • And the only thing that was downloaded was a shipment of goose feather pillows.

Try to remember that the World Wide Web was only 15 years old. My wife recently raged that our home Wi-Fi connection was so slow it was taking 30 glacial seconds for a page to load. What was the use of reminding her how easy she had it compared to trying to get online using a phone, an acoustic coupler and a 300 baud modem 30 years ago? And for centuries before that, "mail" was something written with a pen on paper and hand delivered to your dwelling.

It Was the Best of Times

Understanding technology and the subsequent behavioral changes, I like to think I have a leg up on understanding our possible (hopefully not Orwellian) futures. It may seem today's tech world is nearing Star Trek levels (sans faster-than-light travel and teleportation), but it's more likely the tech-influenced behavior of our descendants 40 years hence will be as puzzling to us as today's high-tech is to our parents and grandparents — and, sometimes, me.

With this perspective, I've shuttered my prognosticating ego. Just understanding new technology doesn't mean I'll be able to suss out the societal changes they will produce. In other words, I ain't Hari Seldon, but at least I know what I don't know.

Wow! Oddly, I feel good about what I don't know. But as history has shown us, I do know there is a lot more cool stuff to come, and I hope I get to see it and how it affects how we live, hopefully for the better.

Suddenly, I realize how and why Kirk felt the way he did at the end of Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan when he told Bones, "I feel — young."

Happy birthday to me. I hope I live long and prosper.

(P.S. Random thought: What are they going to call the sequel to the new Star Trek movie? All the subsequent Roman numerals have been used.)