Horseless Carriages in the 21st Century

I’m in a reminiscing mood at the minute. It could be new-mother-hormones, or it could be due to the fact that this year I’m officially old (in October I turn 30 – I shall be posting a gift list soon). Whatever it is, I got to musing on technology this afternoon.

I daresay every generation thinks this, but it seems to me that there have been not developments in technology during my adulthood, but explosions. Things are part of our everyday life that would have been unimaginable, to me at least, when I was finishing school. And no, I don’t just mean an oven or an iron. Computing, for example – I remember a big, cream computer when I was in my last year of primary school, with a black screen and big, black square floppy disks, and you had to type in instructions in a certain format. This was replaced by a PC which used diskettes; still called floppy disks for some obscure reason. I would never have thought of the capacity that our computers today have, even the most entry-level netbooks. Entertainment – I grew up with VHS, and CDs were just taking over from tapes when I was a teenager. Now they are antiques, and space-age-like silver discs store not only the programme or film but hours of extras, interactive features, trailers…it’s really quite bizarre when you take a step back.

Mobile phones have taken a huge step forward. Towards the end of my teens, slightly behind everyone else as usual, my parents got a family mobile phone which was a large black machine pretty much the size and weight of a regular household cordless phone. It was for emergencies only, I knew that there was something called SMS messaging but never used it (you had to pay by the character for Pete’s sake!), and the first time I tried to make a call I got extremely frustrated because I didn’t realise you had to use the dialling code. Things advanced a couple of years later in my first and only year at university, when my boyfriend (now husband) and I got a mobile each instead of a landline in our flat – little Ericsson ones, I think on BT Cellnet? They were still only used for calls, though, and we started to text a little. Now I have a lovely Sony Ericsson with a 5MP camera and my husband has an iPhone. IPhones! I admit, I was sceptical when my husband got his. How could a phone do all the stuff it claimed? It would be more like a little computer. Well, yes, it is like a little computer, and that was definitely my Luddite brain talking when I tried to convince him that the iPhone wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I’m now, needless to say, a convert. It’s one of the things that irritates me a little about a certain kind of iPad sceptic, to be honest. No, it’s not just a big iPhone. No, it’s not just a funny kind of laptop. It’s a new product, in the same way the iPhone was a new type of mobile phone, or even more so. Maybe in the same way a car isn’t just a horseless carriage. Yes, it’s difficult to get your head around, and you can try to place it into the categories we already know, but at the end of the day it’s a new invention, and well done to Apple for it. It takes a certain kind of arrogance to assume we’ve already invented everything there is to invent and therefore anything new must fit into a pre-existing category.

I think the thing that really got me started on this theme this afternoon, though, was thinking about the internet. I remember being in Sixth form and hearing about the internet. If we were lucky and the teacher had spare time in an IT lesson, we could access the internet, although it was a little secret anti-climax as although it was amazing to think of connecting with someone on the other side of the world, there wasn’t really much interesting to see. I remember getting my first email address, at university. I don’t think I got more than ten emails on it. But over the course of the ten years since then, the internet is not only a regular part of everyday life, it’s essential, and in ways that would have just seemed weird ten years ago. Yes, research and information are a huge part, and that was always on the cards – isn’t it why it was invented, after all? Maybe it’s taken off more than expected – self-edited sites like Wikipedia for example. And ‘ordinary’ information – things like cinema listings, directory enquiries. Council services. Online learning. These are all things for which you would turn to the internet without a second thought despite not even having access to the internet a decade ago. But I would not have dreamed of things like BBC iPlayer. Or sharing links via Twitter. When did it become intuitive to think “I missed that programme, but never mind, I’ll just catch it on iPlayer”? Cue shaky voice: In my young day…we would have set the timer on the video recorder. And that’s after we got one with a timer – before that you either checked if you had enough time to just set a tape away recording then painfully fast forward till you found the thing you were looking for. Or you missed the programme. What about “I want to know what people thought of [insert reality TV show of choice] – I’ll check on Twitter”. Because Twitter gives you the chance to search for concise opinions on specific subjects from people all over the world from almost any walk of life. But you aren’t even conscious of that thought process, because, well, it’s just Twitter. We all know what it does.

The internet has even created thousands of new careers. Web designers, hosting companies, programmers, new media gurus…and thousands of other jobs that I don’t even know exist. It’s now at the stage where people plan holidays based on their destination’s internet access, and practically go into meltdown at the prospect of the ‘net being down for any length of time. I’m not passing comment on this, I’m one of these people myself. I even Tweeted when I went into labour with my second child. But it’s strange, on reflection, that something that seemed almost futuristic when I left school a blink of an eye ago is such an integral part of life.

The internet, and things like the iPad, are the horseless carriages of my generation. I wonder what the horseless carriages of my children’s generation will be?