Monday, June 23, 2014

How Fast Things Are Changing

Warning: Bullshit musing ahead.

25 years ago today, so the internet tells me, I was waiting in line outside a theater with my friends Ed and Mike for many, many hours in the hot sun. We were going to see Batman, the Tim Burton version, with Michael Keaton (who, as an aside, was the best Bruce Wayne ever, though his Bats wasn't the bestest). In reading up on this thing, the 25 year anniversary of one of the many rebirths of superhero movies, I just looked at an article in a long since vanished and even then rather obscure magazine called Slaughterhouse which featured this line:

"The babyboomer generation is the first one that is raising its kids on film, TV, games and things that the baby boomers themselves grew up with."

I read that, and I thought, that's not very true. My mother was a boomer (well, not really, she was about six months early for that, but close enough), and I was a Gen X child (reasonably soundly in the midst of that sliding classification), and she never had (nor did her peers) "games" in any sense. My brother and I did, though: we had an Atari 2600 very early in that cycle, and my brother was The Best at Missile Command. The thing of it is, we had an entire world that my mother never really entered, and that she wasn't culturally suited to enter (not that boomers never gamed; some did, I'm sure, but it wasn't their birthright.)

What I'm really thinking about is that quote just in relation to how the world is unfolding now. My brother (the same one who totally owned Missile Command) has a daughter now (who is adorable and four months old.) He was raised in a world of gaming, infused with it from a very young age, and it is familiar to him. The internet, well, he wasn't raised in it (it didn't exist when he was that young) but he's certainly lived in it for much of his life. But his daughter, my niece, will grow up in a world that barely resembles my brother's, while still being the exact same place. In ten years, when she's getting her first phone or phone-like-device, she'll already be so intimately entwined with whatever the web is by that distant year that she will be a native of it in a way that my brother, for all that much of his job life has involved computers and the like, never will be. And though there will be some similarity of experience, some analogies and metaphors that will convey meaning from him to her, the on the ground day to day living of it will be vastly removed, the one from the other.

Ten centuries ago, had we lived then and not died of the plague or famine or endemic warfare or whatnot, her life would have been almost the same as his. Perhaps the chunk of territory we lived in might have gone from being French to German, or something, but that wouldn't have actually changed much. Possibly a new sort of pike would have been introduced, and folks would say it was too long and no one could use it, but the formation of pikemen would still work just the same. Maybe the little coastal town we could imaginably all live in would get some sort of charter from the monarch, and get a few rights, and wouldn't that be grand, but it wouldn't actually change much. Our grandparents and our grandchildren would most likely recognize our way of life without any real difficulty, possibly out to three or four or even five generations (though certainly not further than that for most situations. Even the Middle Ages saw change.)

But in twenty years, my grandmother, if she were to magically become a contemporary of my by then college aged niece, would have no idea what was happening. Grandma Jean would have been that age in 1944, a time when there weren't regular intercontinental flights, when the first atomic bomb hadn't been set off, when massive wars were still happening (literally, of course, but also when it was possible to think that would always be the case, once a generation, much like clockwork.) The first computers were just being thought about, worked on, worked up, and they were huge monsters. There was plenitude in the world, and all was growth and expansion and possibility. In twenty years (2034, if you're fumbling with the timelines like this was the Back to the Future trilogy explained in six paragraphs), I can't even conceive of what the world will be like. Broken, maybe: less abundance, possibly in a fatal sort of way. But the technologies, that's what I can't grasp. Twenty years ago there was only a primitive internet (forgive me, early adapters, I know you'll say it was amazing, but it wasn't. It was shite.) Gaming was a savage thing with far too many pixels. We were still using VCRs because there weren't DVDs, and we were still all making mixtapes. Cell phones? Well, they were a thing, sort of; Mulder and Scully carried them around in the X-Files, and they were biggish, clunky and ugly. They were also just phones, a thing they barely are at all now. So what will come in twenty years? I cannot begin to guess (which is why I generally don't write science fiction: I'm very bad at imagining how the trends will go.) But it will be so groundbreakingly different that, while my brother (and me, et al), will struggle to comprehend it, and will in some measure keep up a little bit (I mean, my mom is on Facebook, right?), we'll just be skimming the very surface of a very deep world.

Jean would be completely lost. Maybe, as a magically time warped twenty year old with a bouncy brain still fully adaptable in nature, she'd make great strides. But entire fields of innovation would have to be revealed to her, and then explained. There are great huge industries, powerhouses in the world economic engines, that didn't even have analogs in 1944.

So I think back 25 years, to being a teenager standing in line outside a theater that doesn't exist anymore, in the brilliant sun, just after finishing up my senior year of high school. How there were hundreds of us on those sidewalks, in the ticket holders line; we'd all shown up early to buy our tickets in person, because you couldn't get them any other way. And we knew almost nothing about the movie, because there weren't really spoilery pre-screenings, just the trailers we'd seen before other movies, just the couple reviews from the local paper and maybe a magazine we'd read. I remember one guy had to check in with his parents while we waited, because we were out there a very long time; he had to go to a payphone to do that, and put in a dime, and dial them up (probably on a push button display, but I can't say exactly). And although lining up hours early was a relatively new phenomenon, one that came with summer blockbusters in the mid-seventies, our parents and grandparents and so on had all lined up for things they wanted, and there wasn't a thing inherently strange about us doing it.

In seventeen years, right after she's out of high school, maybe my niece will do the same thing; maybe movies will still be made and released essentially like they are now, at least some of them. Maybe she'll be there, with her friends, sending off something the rough equivalent to a text to her parents, my brother and sister-in-law, just to tell them where she is, how it's going in the line. Probably some sort of video chat, quick and instant? Or will that be in just a few years that we make that standard? Oh, fuck, I don't know, and I can't know, and the thing is, it's not just the not knowing, it's the fact you can't even guess. The future has always been mysterious, but it used to be like a shape seen through the fog; you'd at least have some idea what was coming, even if you couldn't tell the exact details. Now there's not just that fog: the sun has set, and we're all stumbling forward in darkness, groping for the next thing, hoping against hope that it will be something wonderful. But even once we have it in our hands, will we recognize the shape of it?

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