The YouTube account Fine Brothers Productions offers a feature called "Kids React to Technology." The results are predictable, and predictably cute. But before you are tempted to dismiss them, consider what the kids in the video actually say when presented with a standard, tabletop rotary phone, of a type you used regularly during your childhood and possibly your teen years (and beyond) if you are over 40 years old.
"An old fashioned phone," several of them exclaim. "I like modern-day phones more." Perplexed by the rotary dial system, one child asks, "How does this even work?" None of them knew the term "rotary phone," and none of them knew the protocol for operating it. As for how they even knew it was a phone, a few had seen one previously. "Movies," explained one of the children. "Because I read history," said another. And none of the younger children knew the word "payphone," although some of them had seen payphones (and never had occasion to use one).
I write this as a man of 40-something who, when he left for college, did so with a state-of-the-art computer. It was a Packard Bell Legend 386SX with a whopping 124-megabyte hard drive. I installed the 2400-baud modem myself, and used that modem to connect to my University's VAX system. When I left for college, I had never before heard the term "email," and for a year I persisted in calling it "electronic mail" because that sounded less silly to me. While it was possible to send messages to students at other computers by typing in a lengthy text string as part of the subject, and even to get alerts when you and that other user were on your respective VAX systems simultaneously, there really was no "Internet" as we think of it today. (I would become aware of the Internet during the mid-1990s and would not have Internet access as an adult until a year or two later.)
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Not so long ago, I tried to explain to a 5-year-old – a child who can play the game Candy Crush Saga at practically an expert level, whereas I have never even attempted to play it – the concept of a house phone. At 5 years old and even younger, this child is entirely comfortable with smartphones, tablets and laptop computers. My niece, who is 11, already has her own smartphone. Tween and younger children are technologically capable and entirely competent, requiring very little assistance to operate equipment they see, touch and interact with every day. You can imagine, then, the hilarity of trying to explain to someone who is only 5 that what they think of as a "phone" – a wondrous device that can look up anything, anytime, anywhere, play video, engage in interactive games with spectacular graphics, play any music on demand and permit video chats between adults in different parts of the country or the world – was once an object the size of a toaster that was affixed to the wall of a kitchen.
Try explaining to such a child, who has grown up in a world of the future where every piece of technology is awesome, that phones once only permitted you to talk to another person, and then only if that person happened to be at home at the exact moment you tried to reach him. A child who has never known a world without Skype can't imagine why you'd need something as antiquated as an answering machine. Most kids today have never even seen one.
Operating a rotary phone is one of 10 things your children will never need to know how to do, according to TeachThought. They'll never know what the little 3.5-inch disk icon representing "save" actually represents. They'll never need to use a VCR or a cassette tape, nor will they have to "rewind" anything before returning it. They've never lived in a world where you could get lost (because they have access to GPS and online maps). They've never been able to place an anonymous phone call, and they don't have any use whatsoever for phone books. Most of them will never know the phone numbers of the people they call, either – a problem all smartphone users have.
George Dvorsky of io9.com highlights 22 obsolete technologies we all thought would be with us forever. Among them are things none of us will be sad to see go, like folding road maps and dial-up modems. Some of them are obvious transitions to more modern technologies, like the displacement of floppy disks with flash drives. The disappearance of actual film has probably given some photographers pause, while the disappearance of the landline is unfortunate given how useful a reliable, independently powered, geographically fixed phone line can be. Then there are the lifestyle choices: Wristwatches are disappearing, rapidly becoming an affectation, because more and more of us get the time from our smartphones. The typewriter, symbol of the writing and journalism professions, is now a quaint museum piece. And you can never find a payphone anymore because nobody really needs them.
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There is a point to underscoring this generation gap, one that lies beyond simple nostalgia or even old-codger head-scratching over "kids today" and their "newfangled technologies." The technologies that rule our society, that dominate our popular culture, and that pace our lives simply did not exist when today's adults were children. Given that, and given just how quickly technology moves, what will be the dominant technologies, the lifestyle-shaping communications and entertainment infrastructures, when today's children are 50 years old?
What is terrifying about our evolving, life-defining technology is that we cannot truly imagine, apart from wild speculation, where it will take us. Today, children have no idea how to use rotary phones. In what sort of world will we live when society's children have the same incredulous reaction to smartphones, tablets, or the Internet itself? The potential – for good and for ill – is limitless ... and that is what we all must live with.
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