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The Expansionist
Tuesday, September 06, 2011
 
Toast and Ice Cubes. I've been thinking today of vast technological change in my lifetime (I am 66 — and a half — years old). I love toast and ice cubes. Young people today will have no idea why anyone would feel that way, but old people will understand. When I was a small child, there was no such thing as an electric toaster, or if there was, it was not generally available at reasonable cost. To make toast, we either had to use a stovetop rack that sat on a lited burner, then turn the slices midway to toast the outer side; or put bread into the oven, and keep opening the door to see if it was done yet. Toast was a treat because it was hard to make and thus rare, because few people were willing to go to all the trouble to make toast as an everyday thing.
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In like fashion, ice cubes were something few people had in their home. When I was very young, there were ice trucks that went down the street of my town, Palisades Park (Bergen County, NJ), selling big blocks of ice to people to put in their literal "icebox". Icepicks were not weapons but necessary tools of life in the 1940s and early '50s, with which you could break up big blocks for various uses, or trim an oversized block to the dimensions of your own icebox's ice compartment.
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You couldn't readily make ice cubes in an icebox, because you'd really need deeper cold to freeze warm water. Even once we got electric refrigerators with freezer compartments, making ice cubes was less than convenient. We had metal trays of many compartments and a lever you would lift to break the ice into cubes. But you couldn't hold the metal tray without your fingers sticking to it, which was both potentially injurious and annoying, for requiring you to run that area of the tray under water to free your fingers. Nobody had yet even thought about plastic, compartmentalized trays you could twist to free the cubes.
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The changes that have transpired in my lifetime are astonishing, and people born in the past 20 years or so have no idea how much of what they take for granted is brand-new, a blink of the eye in historical terms. In Ye Olden Days, we didn't have any such thing as a word processor or computer printer to issue letter-perfect texts. Each time we wanted to create a written document, we had to type it new, in each draft and each copy except for carbon copies, which were messy — the carbon could rub off on your fingers and clothes — and hard to correct. Individual sheets of carbon paper were replaced in special uses by "carbon sets", multiple sheets of carbon paper and regular paper bound together in varying number (e.g., 4 sheets of regular paper + 3 sheets of carbon paper, or 5 and 4; more than about 4 carbons were unlikely to turn out readable, no matter how hard you hit a typewriter key on a manual typewriter, or how high you set the pressure on an electric typewriter).
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To make corrections, you had to put a metal shield between the original or carbon you were erasing at the moment, and the next sheet of carbon paper down, and erase each sheet individually to avoid a blotch on lower copies. Typing-speed tests weighted errors heavily because each error would take a long time to fix. You couldn't just backspace to delete the mistaken character and type the right one. And you couldn't wait to print until you had corrected all errors that you yourself find, or that a spelling and grammar checker might find, because there was no such thing as spellcheck, because there was no such thing as a personal computer or word-processing program, and thus no way to print a document only upon completion. Each character would print as it was pressed. You had no chance to catch the mistake before it appeared on paper, not just a video screen. You pressed a key. It printed. Tuf on you.
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There were no xerograffic copiers, only devices like mimeo and "ditto" copiers, each of which had its own difficult methods for correction of typos. With mimeo, you could get black text, or other colors with different color inks. With "ditto", you'd get odd, purple-text copies that came out of the machine with a strong chemical smell.
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Food preparation was an arduous, time-consuming process with no shortcuts. You actually had to put food into an oven or on a stovetop burner, then wait, helplessly, impatiently, for 12 minutes or an hour. You couldn't just punch in a minute or two on a microwave control panel and have food come out hot almost immediately.
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I'm still waiting for the flip side of the microwave, an instant cooler, even flash-freezer, by which you can chill food or beverages as quickly as a microwave can heat them.
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To make or receive a fone call, you had to be at a wired fone. You had to dial a number each and every time — no speed dial, no automatic fone book — on a rotary dial, and wait for each number to register and the dial to return to its resting position before you could dial the next digit. And you couldn't send or receive text messages, because there was no such thing as a text message. You actually had to speak to someone to get any information at all — right then, not deferred to some later time. There was no off position to the telefone ringer, which was an actual bell. To prevent the fone from ringing, you had to take it off the hook, then ignore a loud, aggravating electronic tone intended to alert a subscriber to the fone's not being in the cradle, ready to receive calls.
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There was no such thing as a remote control for anything. To change channels on the TV, you had to get up and walk over to the set. To change the color or anything else on the picture, you had to use a plastic or insulated screwdriver that you stuck into holes in the back of the TV and turned to make adjustments. If your set was too big to do that and look at the picture at the same time, you had to have a second person to tell you when things got better or worse.
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To communicate with someone other than by telefone, you had to meet them somewhere to speak face-to-face, or send them a letter or, if you could afford it and it were really urgent, a telegram. If they weren't home, you were out of luck. There was no voicemail to let them know you had tried to reach them in their absence. And you'd have no way of knowing if somebody you were waiting to hear from had even tried to get back to you if you weren't able to stay, stuck, by the fone.
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There was no such thing as TiVo or a VCR to time-shift for you. If you weren't in front of the TV when a program you wanted to see was on, you missed it. Period.
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There were no mobile devices of any kind until very recently. You couldn't get email, because there was no such thing. And even after email was invented, you couldn't access it from anywhere but your home computer, if you had one. Nor could you surf the Internet, at first because there was no such thing, and second, because you'd have to be home, sitting in front of a bulky desktop computer, to accéss the Internet once it had been developed.
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When you were talking to one person, you couldn't ignore them to chat with or text to other people. We had manners then, in part because we were free from distractions.
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We did not delude ourselves that we could do two, three, four, or even more things at the same time and do all of them fully as well as if we paid each our full attention, in sequence, not simultaneously. We got better work done, for paying real attention to each task in its time.
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These are only some of the changes of recent years or very recent decades that strike me as having fundamentally altered daily life for the bulk of the population in advanced countries. I don't even mention things like the disappearance of fearful epidemics like polio, diphtheria, and whooping cough; antibiotics; seatbelts and child seats; CAT scans and MRI's; and pollution controls that have cleared the air and water that we depend upon for a life free of pollution-caused illness.
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None of these things rose in isolation, from some unique genius. Almost everything new came from something old, and all inventors and innovators know that they stand on the shoulders of giants, without whose monumental contributions they could not themselves have done what they contributed.
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Alas, the great preponderance of young people have no idea how recently the things they take for granted came into existence. They find it easy to negotiate the new landscape, because it is the only landscape they have ever known. Whereas their parents and grandparents have to learn something new that takes the place of long-ingrained habits of mind, children have no ingrained habits of mind to unlearn. Many young snots mock their elders, without realizing nor appreciating in the slitest that those elders are the people who invented every damned thing they use.
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(The current U.S. military death toll in Iraq, according to the website "Iraq Coalition Casualties", is 4,474 — for Israel.)



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