A shoveler’s guide to the digital galaxy

With the new millennium roiling in its awkward teenage years and the digital world, even in its infancy progressing at a dazzling pace, we are living in interesting times.

I like to tell dinner guests of a certain age that their place in human history is unique and will remain so to infinity. The more modest among them find it hard to accept that they are special. Others express puzzlement.

People born between 1945 and 1965 are the last generation to grow up without computers. For as long as human history is recorded, there will always be the time before computers and the time after computers.

The Last Ones will always hold their place.

It’s been snowing here in the desert, a foot in two days, and as most Canadians know, shovelling snow is a good time for reflection. The technique doesn’t change much whether you’re clearing a sidewalk or a long curving driveway. Push the snow shovel forward until the volume bogs you down, then throw as much as you can comfortably lift to one side or other. Repeat.

The world is changing so fast it seems quaint to reminisce about a time when teenagers were thrilled to get a tinny sounding transistor radio for Christmas that would almost fit in their shirt pocket.

If you had told a teen back in the fifties that in their golden years kids would be carrying their entire music collection in a device smaller than the new transistor; that it would double as a phone and could also take pictures and better video than Dad’s bulky movie camera; that you could ask it arcane sports questions and it would answer in real time; that it would provide detailed maps and directions almost anywhere in the world; well, he would likely have accused you of smoking wacky tobaccy.

Except there was no marijuana in Edmonton in the fifties and early sixties. Not in my circle. We started to hear rumours about such things about 1967. But if you wanted to partake of the herb you had to go to Van, man. Maybe down to the Retinal Circus.

Edmonton was still a small city, perhaps 150,000 people. The bread man delivered to your door and the milk man was a neighbourhood regular. You could pet his horse on the nose or just watch it drop a load on the street in front of your house.

My older brother’s summer job was clop-clopping through the streets of Edmonton in a horse drawn milk wagon, one of the last Edmonton milk men to pull on the reins before horses were phased out in the late sixties.

If my brother wanted to talk to his girlfriend on the family phone he had to stretch the cord into the bathroom and leave the door open a crack. He didn’t have a stereo in his room as a teenager. It wouldn’t fit between our beds and the closet.

My sisters shared the room next door. I think they might have had a shiny, new clock radio that my older sister got for Christmas. I can’t recall for sure though. Their room was off limits for the boys.

My dad was a working man who took on extra jobs so we could afford to buy a small house. They paid $3,000 and eventually sold it for 10. Mom was home every day making breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just like June Cleaver, the Beaver’s Mom, but without the fancy dresses.

There was no fast food. Mom made everything from scratch. We had a garden and she did a lot of canning. A lot of Moms did back then. She put the sealed glass jars filled with vegetables under the basement steps where it was dark and cool year-round. It cut the cost of food for a family of six, a smallish number back then. Many of my friends had six or eight brothers and sisters. Always someone to play with.

We got our first TV in that house, a small black and white with rabbit ears on top. It got three channels that shut off after the late night movie. We watched wrestling or hockey on Saturday night and Walt Disney after supper every Sunday. The Ed Sullivan show was the hottest thing on the tube. (TVs had tubes then. Lots of them.) Ed stood with his arms crossed and stiffly introduced his guests in a staccato voice. He was a newspaper man before TV.

We all watched together, with Mom and Dad in the most comfortable chairs and some of us lying on the floor. We decided what to watch by consensus and there wasn’t much arguing because the CBC shows were mostly lame. Tug Boat Annie. Father Knows Best. Mike Hammer. Only three channels and something for everyone.

Push snow until shovel bogs. Toss left or right. Repeat.

I started in journalism in the early eighties at a far-flung outpost of the then powerful Thomson Newspaper chain, The Kamloops Daily Sentinel. We typed stories on sheets of cheap pink paper using 30-year-old Remington typewriters with worn keys, cigarettes dangling from our lips, overflowing ashtrays perched precariously on stacks of paper beneath clouds of smoke.

Good times.

Reporters did most of our fact gathering by phone, scribbling in notepads with a free hand. If we needed to check out a document at City Hall we had to go there, and if we were lucky, somebody might photo copy it so we wouldn’t have to copy it by hand.

My first week on the job I screwed up on a court document and wrote a story accusing a prominent city lawyer and a sitting provincial judge of breach of trust. On the advice of Thomson’s Toronto lawyers, the paper printed an obsequious front page retraction above the masthead, hoping to mitigate any financial damage. The headline, in 72 point bold face usually reserved for the outbreak of war, read, simply: “Oops… we goofed.” It was rumoured to be the largest retraction printed to date in a Canadian daily newspaper.

After an investigation that involved higher ups in far away corporate headquarters, a copy editor was deemed most responsible and demoted. Having nowhere lower to go except out the door, I was left to slink around the courthouse in shame on future assignments.

I was working in Vancouver in time to get a media pass to Expo 86, where technological marvels of the world were on display. Newspapers were profitable in those days, with no hint of the gloom and doom that would settle on the industry as the Millennium came to an end.

The paper I worked for was expanding, replacing its typesetting machine with clunky computers connected by complex wiring taped to the rug by technicians with tool belts.

I was in my mid-thirties by then, and already technically challenged. To keep up, I bought a home computer for two month’s pay and for the next several weeks poured through how-to books trying to master the intricacies of DOS. That first computer weighed 25 pounds and had the power and memory of an I-pod Shuffle. It functioned as a typewriter with floppy disks for information transfer. A year or so after I bought it I couldn’t give it away as a boat anchor.

Keeping up with the latest technology, the company bought a Fax machine, which saved reporters a lot of shoe leather. No more trips to City Hall, only short walks to the Fax, which spewed out a small forest of press releases 24/7. What a great invention, except when you phoned a Fax number by mistake and got a loud gronking noise instead of hello.

The first cell phones were big and heavy. You needed a holster to cart one around. One day a slick political operative came to the office to do an interview. I was impressed when he pulled a small flat object from his shirt pocket and flipped it open to take a call. I wanted a flip phone but the company hadn’t caught up yet and I couldn’t afford one on my own.

Oh, the times they were certainly changing.

When I retired in 2009 the Fax was a historical curiosity. Photographers didn’t use film anymore and I didn’t have to size actual pictures for reproduction in print. All journalists carried cell phones and lap top computers that provided instant access to the world. Like the Eagles Song, ‘everything all the time.’

Push snow shovel. Lift and throw. Repeat.

The first year of Donald Trump’s Presidency is relegated to its place in history. The year when Reality TV crossed over to politics and brought us into a new universe of alternative facts.

A year when lies from the leader of the Free World became the norm and sexual assaulters were outed by the score.

A year of Breitbart and Fake News.

A year in which sleazy media opportunists like Sean Hannity and spineless Republican politicians denigrated American patriots like Robert Mueller, James Comey and the dedicated men and women who work at the FBI and in U.S. intelligence.

A worrying year for all nations who stand by the principle of truth and the rule of law.

A year of outstanding journalism from mainstays like CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

A year of substantive online reporting from new media like Politico and the Daily Beast.

A year of record-breaking mass murder in a divided country upon which the stability of the world hinges.

A year of ominous signs of climate change. The winds blew hard and the fires burned hot in 2017.

A year the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord.

The Last Ones are the only living connection to the pre-computer world. Even though our memories are distorted by the lens of nostalgia we alone know firsthand about life in simpler times. I cannot say whether the world is better or worse for the technological achievements I have seen in my life. I know it is faster, smaller, better informed, immensely more complicated and stressful in the extreme.

I can’t help wondering if the digital age will end well. for humanity.

Push snow shovel. Lift and throw. Repeat.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s