You know, I’m always surprised when I talk to anyone about how things have changed in the last 20 to 30 years and get something like “sure, we have computers, but that doesn’t make a big difference. It’s not like the introduction of the automobile, or flight. Now if we had flying cars…” It happens every time we’re talking about how technology has changed life, and yet it still puzzles me, because it’s a form of willful blindness.
I yield to no one in my disappointment that there are no flying cars, honeymoons on the moon, or even the long-sleep, Heinlein style. Because yeah, that future would be shiny.
But in terms of the actual change, except perhaps for long sleep, I want to submit to you what is happening is as significant as the invention and widespread use of the automobile. It’s just less… visible.
On the other hand it touches more intimate forms of the human life. In a way it touches everything, permeates everything, changes the way we think, live, experience relationships, or even have fun.
Cars? Sure, they changed how fast people could get somewhere, and how much work it took to keep your means of transportation (even permanently cranky cars don’t need to be fed or have their stalls mucked out every day [makes note for biological car stories.]) More people have cars than ever could keep a horse and carriage. It made it possible for dating young people to get away from their families, and thus changed our dating and relationships (sociologists say. I think they’re full of flies. Same change happened at the same time in Portugal where no one had automobiles. I think it comes from other sources.) The fact that it made distances shorter (in time to get there) also changed the character of manufacturing, which could now serve a greater area. Also, by allowing young people to range a greater distance around, it made the concept of moving for work or just because you want to more plausible.
In fact, as the only person here (I think) raised in a pre-automobile frame of mind (yes, there were trains and buses, but trains have been around a long time) I’m probably the only person who realizes how much cars, highways and ubiquitous driving changed our perception of the possible.
Before people think of doing something, that thing must be so obvious in their minds as to be in the realm of possibility. All of us have things we know are perfectly possible, but which would never occur to us in every day life. Usually because of money. Say, Dan and I have some time off coming up (maybe in the end of the year), we can think “hey, we have a few days off, what will we do?”
Things occur to us that wouldn’t occur to my parents (who might think of driving or in the old days taking the bus to the beach all of 10 miles away. And the fact I didn’t grow up on the seaside, and only went there for a month a year, and it was a major endeavor tells you how different things were.) Like for instance we might think of going to our favorite hotel in downtown Denver and hitting all the museums. Or we might think of staying at home and hitting various interesting exhibits all around a 200 mile range.
That 200 mile range still, for my parents, requires major planning and is considered a great endeavor, not something you’ll do every day.
Because they didn’t grow up with cars.
On the other hand, it would never occur to Dan and I in those circumstances to go “Hey, we could fly to–” mostly because we haven’t had that kind of money most time in our marriage. Even if it were possible now (it isn’t, but we have great hopes in one or two days) it’s not in the range of things we think about, unless someone reminds us/tells us.
In the same way moving out of your area (say the nearest 10 miles) didn’t use to be a thing. People wouldn’t even think about it. Trust me, growing up we knew that them foreigners five miles away lived in unspeakable ways, and who wants to live near them.
Automobiles and jaunts of 50 miles or so, made it possible for people to think of living elsewhere, and to know that over the hill the people are probably not unspeakable barbarians.
Some of that change is for the better, some for the worse and some is just change. And even the better and worse is impossible to fully correlate until probably a century from now. Because humans live in a world of unintended consequences.
So, what has changed in the last 20 to 30 years? Sure, everyone has personal computers, but mostly we just use them as glorified typewriters and phones, right?
Ah, you sweet summer child.
Sure, mostly I use my computer as a glorified typewriter. In fact, if you look up “uses computer like glorified typewriter” I believe they have a picture of me.
But even I…
Look, I usually start my day by checking in with my assistant… who lives in another state, in another city.
Depending on what I’m doing that day, I might also check in with a couple of friends who either want me to do something for them or want to work on something together. One of those friends lives on the other side of the world, in Australia. During possibly the worst time in my career (well, mostly because it was the first really bad time. After a while it only hurts when you laugh) that friend was one of the people who kept me going/kept me sane. We’ve met three times in real life, but we are close friends.
That’s very personal and right there, and it has good and bad consequences. I have a large, distributed and frankly loud circle on line. It’s easy to forget that I mostly worked locked in my office and see no one.
On the one hand having friends is better than not and the internet allows Odds and people in weird professions to have a circle “of their peers” perhaps for the first time in human history. On the other hand, the monkey brain interprets not seeing people in the flesh as “we’re all alone. Our band cast us off, and we’re going to die.” So you’ll get very depressed and have NO idea it’s because you need to see people, interact with people, and let the monkey brain know everything is okay. I need to consciously keep track of it, or I start spiraling into despondency and don’t even know why.
Next up, it’s changed the way we learn and work.
No, really. This was just starting up when I was homeschooling younger son (for a year) and even then it was really useful to be able to buy him a Latin course and a Greek course. I took them along with him. I could never teach it.
Now I understand the options are infinite.
I realized how much this changes things, in the personal sphere, when I fixed my vacuum last year after looking the problem up on line, then watching a few youtube videos on fixing it.
From how to install wood floor to how to solve highly abstract problem, there’s a video that teaches it. Or various videos and wars over the best method.
Even in little things, like where to grab dinner, our old method of going through the yellow pages is vastly inferior to just hitting the net. When we moved here, we used to work till 8 pm unboxing things, and then we had to figure out where to eat that was still open. In a suburb, this is harder than it seems, and without the net, we’d probably have wandered around getting hungry and angry.
But it goes beyond that. I have a bunch of friends who work remotely. Which means the “gig economy” both good and bad is accessible to a wide range of people who before would need to contract and work in their employers building.
This is good and bad. The good part is that all sorts of people whose options would otherwise be limited: people who can’t drive for some reasons, mothers of small children, the disabled, etc. can now have jobs remotely.
The gig part is good and bad, though I’ll note there are also several traditional jobs now, where you work most of the time remotely. And “gig” doesn’t mean long down times provided you have a wide set of in-demand skills.
The real downside is that this opens our job market to the world.
Now, I understand in true third world countries most of the workers, even educated ones, won’t be as reliable, so not as desirable as Americans. To an extent. Because when you can pay someone in Elbownia $2 an hour and for the same skill you pay people in the US $50, how much better do Americans have to be to earn that? (The weird thing is they often are.)
But the ramifications from this will shake the world in the next century. How? I don’t know.
Property values will change. How? I don’t know. I know people that think cities will disappear. I don’t think so. in fact, the drive towards more remote working has come with growth of cities. Honestly, this doesn’t surprise me, because I’ve worked from home a long time. I can see if I worked in an office every day I would prefer a more remote location to live in. It would be more restful. But that monkey brain thing? Frankly where we live now, and my eyes being still too weird for me to drive, we live TOO remotely. I can’t be sure of seeing someone I’m not related to in about a mile (the neighbors don’t walk much.) We’ve lived in downtown areas most of our life, because I could go out the door, walk around the block and see enough people to appease that “must see human beings.” drive. Also, if you work at home all the time, your entertainment moves outside the home. You want to be able to go out to eat, or to a museum, or a park, or whatever you do. So…. will cities shrink or grow? I don’t know.
Will people move to more remote and cheaper cities, though? since they can telecommute to the big city and get the bigger salaries? Probably. Some of them.
What about countries? Would we, for instance, consider buying a farm in Portugal and working remotely, so that our money went much further?
Well, no. Mostly because I know Portugal. Looking over the blogs of American expatriates in Portugal, I went “duh”. Yes, it’s cheap, but you’ll have to work with a bunch of things that, like hiring dirt cheap labor in another country, might not be fully compensated for by the lower cost. In Portugal’s case (and I’m not picking on Portugal. It’s just the place I know really well) the things that usually drive expatriates screaming back home are: insularity — you can move to a village there, but you’ll never be fully accepted except as a curiosity — unpredictable services like electricity and water or disaster preparation/mitigation; medical care; ability to get products and things we’ve come to expect in the US.
Will all this stuff equalize in time? Will the cost of living in the developed countries come down, other countries come up, and will — in general — the world become more unified in lifestyle and abilities. Will it — say in my grandkids time — be trivial to say “We’ve been looking for houses, and we think instead of California, we’re buying a house in Sri Lanka?”
Possible. Maybe even probable. Though I don’t know that I buy it in that short a time.
But “the poor will always be with us” also applies to countries. There will always be a cheaper place to hire workers from. This means the workforce and get very weird, very insecure.
Is this good or bad? I think in the longer term good. Getting there, though, is going to be nothing short of horrendous.
And then there is my very specialized area, where I work and where I study and where I also amuse myself.
This morning Dan and I were talking about how the way we watch TV series, or read has changed drastically.
I like to look at these things every few months, because figuring all the details of how our experience has changed helps me figure out how to market.
One of the obvious things is the ability to “binge” be it in a tv series or a book series.
In fact, we’ve changed almost entirely to binge-watching. I was always a binge-reader, but now more people are, and that changes things too.
Binge watching: for the last two/three months, we’ve been watching Midsommer Murders. Not every night, because we often can’t take the night out. On the other hand on a lazy Friday or Saturday night, we might watch two or three episodes.
Why? why not pick a different series every day of the week? Because there’s comfort in a series, and it’s easier to go to a place you “know.”
How does that change things? Well, obviously we privilege long-running series. There are a lot of British mysteries, but most of them have one or two seasons. This doesn’t allow us to settle in for the long run.
It’s much the same with books. Every indie will tell you you need to bring the books out close together and you only start making real money after ten in a series.
Note that traditional still hasn’t realized this, and are continuing their old game of one or two books — or at most three — and you’re out. And they don’t understand why their bottom is falling out. They also haven’t realized that bringing books out more than six months (and that’s pushing it) apart is a killing blow unless you’re going to promote the writer to a fare-thee-well. Why? Because readers have a lot more options, and with the best will in the world, they’re not going to be aware when your next book comes out, or they’re going to be riding off on something else by then. Traditional simply isn’t made to cope with this, which is why they look much like the dinosaurs staring at the asteroid and unable to figure out what to do.
Which means I need to re-learn the way I used to be and write faster. Not as easy as it seems, after 20 years of being trained to one book a year.
As a reader, though, indie has changed my life even more. I almost don’t re-read, unless you’re really an extraordinary favorite. I have too many options for new books. And instead of having five or six authors I check obsessively to see if anything new is out, I usually search by name until I find, yeah, a series. Then plunge into that series for a week and move on. I might come back, but unless you hit really high on my personal tastes, I’m not going to personally look for you. Too many other options. I’m more likely to look at a suggestion and go “oh, I like that series. Let’s see the new one.”
There are other things. You know the trick many long-running authors got away with in trad, of writing essentially the same book? Yeah. It doesn’t work so well when I’m binge-reading. By book three I’m going “oh, good lord. I’m bored. Let’s find something else.”
The other thing — and I really need better and more detailed story bibles — is that glaring inconsistencies between books are more visible when binge reading.
In my field, things are in wild flux. The one time I was legitimately approached by a real movie company, it was on my facebook PM. Used to be you had to have agents for them to find you. Now? Meh, they’ll figure it out.
But I bet they’re in as much turmoil everywhere. I know some things like online shopping and ‘just in time’ supplies are changing everything down to every day retail.
What does it all mean? I don’t know. I know that the revolution of instant worldwide communication and of private access to the public sphere (you don’t need to work for a newspaper to be read by thousands of people) is not done with us.
It’s more invisible a change than the automobile, but it might very well be more pervasive and more fundamental.
I won’t see the end of its second, third and tenth order effects. My grandkids might not.
We’re also all jumpy, because this is a very large, very unpredictable, and in historic terms very fast change.
It’s like walking through wild terrain that changes constantly.
Keep your eyes open. Only by being aware of how things change can you find your way.