Monday, May 10, 2010

I Was Born in the Stone Age

I've written before about how I don't notice just how much technology's advanced during my lifetime until I notice how often I have to explain things to my kids by starting, "Well, a long time ago you used to have to...." One thing that interests me is the stuff we hold onto because we're used to the way old technology did stuff, like calling it "rolling down" a car window, or calling it "dialing" a telephone number. My family hasn't had a rotary phone since I was six. Cell phone cameras make a shutter noise even though there's no shutter involved, and I've read an article before about how electric cars might be equipped with speakers that play "car noises" because otherwise they would be unsafe to pedestrians, who've come to rely on the noise of the internal combustion engine to tell when a car is near.

I am reading a book called Getting What You Came For, which was written in 1996. I am amazed by how unproductive life used to be back then. All throughout the book the author includes advice like, "Your local librarian can help you find a reference guide that will tell you the names of the professors at a particular department." Now you can find that yourself in 30 seconds. That's "bad" news for the librarian and the reference guide's publisher (not really bad because they were obviously wasting their time and can now do something more productive), but that's great news for us, who used to have to spend at least an hour getting information that takes less than a minute.

Another thing that used to waste so much time is the mail. The book gives the addresses for companies that sell products. I'm supposed to send them a letter asking for a catalog, wait for the catalog to come to me, make my selection and mail it back in with a check, wait for the check to clear, then wait for the product to come to me. I can't believe we lived like this! (Full disclosure: I was a legal adult by 1996, and ordered a lot of stuff through the mail over my lifetime, but this process still baffles me.) Now we find the website, order the product, and pay for it, all within five minutes, not weeks. Again, this is "bad" news for mail carriers and mailroom clerks, but unbelievably good news for everyone else.

I predict that the reason airline fees are going up is that airlines are the next newspapers. Just like no one reads a newspaper anymore, soon no one will fly anymore. Airlines have to get more and more money from fewer fliers (or at least relatively fewer flier dollars, taking into account population growth and income growth). Business travel used to be the cash cow of the industry, but technological progress is making face-to-face meeting less necessary. All that will be left is leisure travel, and to some extent that might be phased out, too. I don't feel such a pressing need to fly my wife and kids out to California to see her parents now that she Skypes them a couple times a week. This is "bad" news for airlines, but great news for the rest of us.

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