Recently, I had my first Skype phone call. For those of you who don't know, Skype is one of many "Voice Over IP," or VoIP, services. These enable users to make phone calls using the Internet. An elaborate variety of phones for Skype and VoIP services are available, but in my case all I needed was my computer, a microphone and a webcam.
As I chatted with my business contact, who was seated in his library several states away, I marveled at the high sound quality and the clear picture – a picture that was better on his than on mine, if it matters, because he had a better-quality camera. We wrapped up our business concerning some freelance writing projects and I reached for the mouse.
Then it hit me. It's the future.
The same sensation came to me during a late-night drive on the busy four-lane highway carved across most of the breadth of New York State. Every car that passed me had glowing lights inside. I saw countless GPS devices, DVD players and kids playing video games ... all in the comfort of their cars at 75 miles per hour. As a child, I dreamed of being able to watch television or play video games during the four-hour drive across the state to visit my grandparents. Now, kids take those fantasies for granted. If they don't have a video-game system in their parents' cars, they've got one in their pockets – and that portable device with its full-color screen plays games more advanced than those I played on the primitive Atari and Nintendo consoles of my youth.
It's the future. Everything we ever dreamed about, everything we ever pictured in science fiction movies and television, has come to pass. Sure, we're still a ways away from the jet packs and rocket cars laughably predicted for the late '70s by magazines like Popular Mechanics, but we've got robots performing surgery. Our cars talk to us, know where we are and tell us where we need to go. Our phones have access to the Internet and thousands of other applications both useful and pointless, up to and including telling us what song we're listening to.
Now think about a typical episode of "Star Trek." Take out the matter teleportation and the spaceships, and what have you got left? A computer that can play almost any music ever recorded and answer almost every question ever asked of it. Communication devices that connect every member of the crew, often presented as small folding devices carried on the belt. Computers that run and control everything, from individual pieces of transportation to larger networks governing industrial processes if not entire cities. The ability to see anything, anywhere, within reason and range, and the ability to contact just about anyone, too, at any time.
Is that so different from the world we live in now? It isn't. It's identical.
If anything, the world we now occupy is, in some key ways, more advanced than "Star Trek" ever thought of being, if only because there are technological applications we now take for granted that people even 10 years ago, much less 20 or 30, could not have imagined. Social networking is a good example; Scotty never would have said, "The Twitter feed canna hold nae more than 140 characters, Captain!"
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving week, I kept track of no less than three separate households' Thanksgiving preparations, right down to when the pies were baking, by using Facebook. While the very social networks that help us stay close across distance can also divide us and alienate us – I guarantee there are family members "tweeting" and "texting" as they sit down to Thanksgiving dinner this year – I think the trend is positive. Despite the misgivings we might have about the inexorable integration of modern technology with modern life, the benefits generally outweigh the liabilities.
Yes, we must remain vigilant for the many ways technology can intrude in our lives. We must remain aware of the countless ways it can be used to infringe on our civil liberties. We must remain skeptical of government applications that use technology to facilitate overreaches of power and invasions of privacy. But technology, while neither good nor evil, is far more often used to help us than to harm us. The advancement of technology is the advancement of society. In our technologically advanced age, how can we be anything but thankful, despite the problems, the pitfalls and the complications that age visits on us?
This Thanksgiving, take the time truly to give thanks. Cherish your family. Be grateful for what you have. Take the time to wonder, truly, at the technological bounty you take for granted. There are devices, functions, applications all around you that affect you every single day. Overwhelmingly, that effect is a good one; with a few exceptions, technology makes your life better. Be glad. Be happy. Be awed.
There are issues, yes, and technology's use by your fellow citizens and by your government can and will cause you concern, alarm and outrage from time to time. But from the smartphone in your pocket to the GPS on your windshield to the portable computer docked at your workstation to the Internet-connected gaming system attached to your flat-screen television, consider the things you so rarely do anymore.
Be thankful, as should we all.