Back to the future

By Chuck Sigars | Sep 25, 2013

My father-in-law, who passed away last year at the age of 89, was a credit to his generation.

Growing up in the Great Depression, tempered by a war that took him to Africa and Europe, he’d been the beneficiary of a life education that placed a high emphasis on security, and it showed.

When he returned home following World War II, he got the job he would retire from. He married a nice woman and raised a family in the Eisenhower Fifties, and he paid cash for everything, usually as little as possible.

Even after the rest of the world had moved on to swiping plastic at registers, my father-in-law always seemed to have several hundred dollars in his wallet, just in case he passed a good sale on bananas.

I have no idea if he liked bananas. What possible difference could it make? It was a good deal. He would eat them.

A generation and a half later, my experience would be different. I grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s, with plenty of political turmoil but an air of optimism that was hard to ignore.

Things were less than perfect, but science and technology would save us.

I grew up in an era in which the future was a real thing, easily imagined in “Star Trek” and even “The Jetsons.” Tomorrow was only a day away. Our cars would fly.

I wasn’t disappointed, either. Aside from the flying cars, which frankly never looked all that safe anyway, the future arrived on circuit boards and videotape, coinciding with adulthood.

The summer I turned 20, in 1978, I got a job that involved working on a computer network. George Jetson may have been in the next cubicle.

Technology has been my constant companion, then, an accident of birth. Mine would be the last generation of an analog world, and the first of the digital one.

I used rotary phones and typewriters but impatiently, knowing alternatives were coming, and they did.

They never stopped, either. My first 20 years saw gradual change, mostly involving color television and faster ways to eat. Contrast that with my son’s life; born in 1990, it’s fair to say that his technological life has changed drastically every five years.

It’s not that I remember rotary phones and he doesn’t; he barely remembers phones, or at least the things we called phones when he was born.

He laughs now to remember ringing when the caller was unknown, when an answering machine was important, when the line would get busy because somebody was using America Online via dial-up 2400-baud modems.

And the future would be accessible to me as we both moved on parallel tracks: It got faster and shinier and cheaper, and I had a bank account.

I became an early adopter of everything, it seemed, aware of my inner child who waited impatiently for communicators and replicators, and so wasn’t surprised at cellphones and 3D printers.

I was more gadget crazy than some others. I was the first one of my cohort to own a VCR, a digital camera, a mobile phone.

Since my son’s birth, I’ve lost count of the computers I’ve bought and eventually discarded, usually upgrading to a new experience.

But age and necessity have all slowed me down. I’d no more buy the fastest/newest computer than I’d buy a Tesla, for mostly the same reasons (money and need).

I’m content with my world of the future now, grateful for streaming movies and broadband Internet, content with inexpensive computers that suffice, glad that we can finally video chat with family but doing it rarely, not interested in games or 80-inch television screens or, honestly, the Tesla all that much.

My favorite appliance may actually be my electric lawnmower, something I never saw coming, and something that may tell you more about my imagination than I’m comfortable sharing.

I do feel comfortable, though, and practical. Which probably does not explain why I stood in line the other day for a new iPhone. It’s a little embarrassing.

Before you start imagining scenes from Manhattan Apple stores on the nightly news, queues forming a minute after midnight, let me say that the whole process took me about an hour. There were four people ahead of me, and this was mid-morning.

I also wasn’t craving the latest thing and needing it on the first day. Delayed gratification isn’t foreign to me, and while I like the iPhone a lot, I already had one in my pocket, several generations old and perfectly fine.

But I was getting ready to leave town, and this new iteration from Cupertino had a selling point, a fingerprint reader that reportedly actually worked.

Carrying a phone with plenty of personal information, just ripe for identity theft or at least mischief, is a sobering responsibility when I head for the airport (I lost my keys once on a plane. True story). Adding a layer of security for the road felt prudent.

Also, it’s pretty shiny.

So I’ll trade feeling a little sheepish for some security, and feel free to poke fun. I felt a little foolish myself, standing in line on the very first day, something I’ve never done before.

But I’m going to Texas, new phone in my pocket, ready to call and text the news of a grandchild, whenever that happens.

I’m heading for the future, in other words, finally understanding exactly what that means, after all these years.

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