Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Price of Progress

Ever wonder how much easier we have it today compared to fifty years ago? Technology has truly revolutionized the way we live, not only from the standpoint of big changes like space travel and giant leaps in medicine, but in the everyday things that affect us all. Let's take a stroll around the house to see how much life has changed.

Making a cup of coffee used to require a percolator pot, ground coffee placed in a nest (we used to get our coffee ground fresh at the A&P) and water, all heated on a stove until the water flowed through the coffee in the nest enough times to give it some taste...probably a 15-20 minute process. We now have sitting on our kitchen counter a Keurig Coffee Maker that looks like a tiny juke box. You insert a coffee "pod" that comes in many varieties including decaffeinated, push the button, and a delicious cup of brewed coffee is ready to drink. For Christmas our kids gave us a slightly sleeker version of this wondrous machine for making espresso. I resisted buying this machine on the grounds (no pun intended) that it was an extravagant waste of money. You'd have to fight me now to get it back.

Not too many people remember the old record players (we called them "Victrolas") and the 78 RPM vinyl records they played, one at a time. Then came the bigger vinyl records that played at 33 1/3 RPM and could be stacked on a record changer to play several at once. Every living room had a stereo system or "hi-fi" the size of a Buick Roadmaster on which to play their records. Rapidly changing technology brought us 8-track tapes, then cassette tapes, then CDs. Now we listen to our downloaded music on an I-pod the size of a pack of cigarettes. I still have stacks of vinyl records, cassette tapes, and CDs that clutter up my house. Maybe I can donate them to the Amish.

While we're in the living room, take a look at that 52 inch plasma TV and appreciate the long journey television has made. In the fifties we had black and white TVs that got a few channels, and then only if you moved the antenna (or "aerial" as my father called it) until the picture appeared through the snowy static. You watched what was on when it was on. Then came color TV with remote controls, and in the seventies the VCR (celestial music here). Now you could tape a show and watch at your convenience. Finally came cable TV where there are now hundreds of channels with nothing worth watching instead of just a few. VCR/VHS tapes were replaced by DVDs and the ability to record from your cable box. This latter innovation is a great convenience; if we get nuked and can't leave the house for five years, I have enough old movies recorded to get me through.

Let's move on to the bathroom. This used to be a very functional place where maybe the only luxury was a copy of the Sears catalog to read while taking care of business. We never even had a tub, just a stall shower with such lousy water pressure that only gravity allowed it to work at all. Our bathroom was adjacent to a large, unheated pantry attached to the house, so nobody lingered in there for fear of hypothermia. Today, bathrooms are showplaces of marble tile and gleaming metal. Over sized tubs with Jacuzzis, mood lighting, electric tooth brushes and water pics, fluffy, pastel colored towels, and enough assorted bath soaps and lotions for a Sultan's harem. It's almost a shame to use the place for its intended purpose.

The bedroom has seen maybe the fewest changes, although most are now air-conditioned. You can also buy a "white noise" machine to simulate sounds to help you sleep. During the summer when it got hot, I used to turn my bed so that I could sleep with my head nearly out the window. If the phone rang, you ran down to the kitchen to answer it. Then came "Princess" extension phones in the color of your choice, followed by portable phones, answering machines, cell phones and now Apple makes an I-phone that I think can cook your breakfast if you have the patience to read the user manual. I don't.

The innovations go on and on. The microwave oven, laptop computer, video games, fast food, the snow-blower in the garage, the seat-warmer in your car....what will be next? I appreciate progress as much as the next guy, I'm just not sure it was all for the good. Too many kids are obese and socially awkward because of not enough active play time with other children. The pleasure of sitting down with a good book is known to fewer people, especially the young. The idea of neighborhoods where people knew and helped each other is disappearing. The most commonly prescribed drugs in the country are for depression. Maybe technology extracts a price that we shouldn't be so willing to pay.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

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