It was the middle of my family’s big October cookout/pumpkin-carving extravaganza. Some time after dark, between half-burnt hot dogs and whole-burnt marshmallows, my seven-year-old nephew Owen lost something on the ground and shouted “DOES ANYBODY HAVE A FLASHLIGHT APP?”
We laughed, and so did he after we explained it to him, but it got me thinking how much technology has changed the world in the last decade or so. World-changing is nothing new. I’ve only used an outhouse once that wasn’t at a campsite. Years before I was born, baking your own bread transformed from a daily chore to a fun afternoon adventure. But watching the world change, realizing that social norms and expectations have changed dramatically within your own adulthood is somehow different.
Consider, for example, current trends in televisions and related technology. To Owen’s generation, sleek is the norm. The TV picture is framed like a masterpiece in a museum, and you always operate your TV or DVD player with one of seven remote controls lined up next to Dad’s recliner or one universal remote to control every gadget in pointing distance. But it wasn’t always so. There was a time not that long ago when electronics were required to have buttons on the front. People (by which I mean me) used to choose not to buy a TV, DVD player, or VCR if there wasn’t a bank of buttons and switches to use in case you lost the remote in the couch cushions. I went to the store to make sure, and I’ll be darned if most televisions and Blu-ray players don’t have their buttons hidden on the back. My Roku takes it one step further and doesn’t even offer hidden buttons. There’s not even a power switch. Changing the channel by walking up to the TV is fast becoming a completely foreign concept.
And what about telephones? They’ve seen a seismic shift. To Owen and his generation, phones don’t have cords. You never leave home without your telephone, so checking an answering machine will never be the first thing he does when he gets home. Come to think of it, I don’t know any non-retired people who still have a landline telephone. All of my siblings, and I’m pretty sure all of my friends, have long since switched to mobile-only. Consequently, long distance telephone bills are quickly disappearing from America. And if few American kids under 10 have ever gotten tangled up in their Mom’s telephone cord, even fewer have heard of making collect calls. Remember 1-800-COLLECT? Then you’re a dinosaur like me.
In case you forgot how stupidly expensive that service was, I checked its current rates. To call payphone-to-mobile, 1-800-COLLECT charges $9.99 for 10 minutes, and remember, that’s the cheap alternative. The service is still around, though it’s a shadow of its former self. Gone are the halcyon days of the Alyssa Milano’s super cool Eva Savelot commercials.
But it’s not only the flashy changes. Let’s talk about the way people get information. For Owen, it’s a simple matter of asking a question on one of several search engines and getting a reliable answer, usually in under a minute. It wasn’t always so.
Last summer, I was looking through an old 1970s church cookbook at my parents’ home in Ohio when I came across a recipe that calls for onions, cucumbers, and . . . mangoes? According to my mother, who was surprised I didn’t know this, “mango” means “green pepper” around here. Why? She didn’t know, and until the last few years there was no reasonable way for people to find the answer to smaller, insignificant mysteries like that. I suppose she could have driven to the nearest city’s library and hoped to find the answer, though I doubt the card catalog would have been too much help. Maybe my mother could have searched out a linguistics expert, but who does that for this sort of thing? And how much would she expect to spend for their research? Logistics and expense lead the culture to allow for little unknowns like this.
But today, there’s no excuse for not solving little mysteries like this one. In a major cultural shift, for Owen’s generation, not looking for the answer is considered a moral fault, a sign of laziness. And so, following a 30-second internet search, I found out why “mango” means “green pepper.” It’s actually a fascinating story, and it provides another illustration of my point. The old method of gaining knowledge, especially in relatively isolated communities, was simple word of mouth. In this case, it took 300 years of communal miscommunication and generational misunderstanding for the word “mango” to morph from a noun (the fruit) to a different noun (a pickled dish) to a verb (to pickle) to another noun (green pepper) entirely unrelated to the first.
The world has shifted. TVs don’t have buttons, telephones don’t have cords, no one makes collect calls, and there’s no excuse for not at least trying to solve the mysteries around you. And when you need to find your way through a dark parking lot, you reach for your cell phone.
By the way, only one of us had an actual flashlight around the bonfire that night. Every one of us had a flashlight app. Owen used mine, because I’m Uncle Matt and I know how to turn it on the fastest.