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Math Geek Mom: Earlier Versions

Evolution of technology.


June 2, 2016

The market for electronic goods is the classic example of “decreasing costs” in Economics. This is because in this market the production of only one item, such as the first computers that were the size of a room and cost millions, gave way to the production of many more of what became a much less expensive items, such as the computers that many people hold in their cell phones and use every day. I thought of this recently when I stumbled upon two videos that highlighted the extent to which every day technology has changed in only my recent lifetime.

The first example was a Dateline episode in which children were shown objects that many of them had never seen before, and asked what they thought these objects were used for. An old typewriter, a dial phone with an attached headphone, a tape recorder and a vinyl record for a record player were among the objects that unsuspecting children were asked to identify. I found myself laughing, as at least one of these objects can still be found in my house, as I still have a handful of vinyl records, along with a record player to play them on.

Amused at this show, I quickly found a similar video on YouTube that introduces children to a computer from the late 1970s. Again, I think I still have such a computer sitting in a closet in my family room. There is something about the fact that my dissertation is stored on it that keeps me from throwing it away. I will, however, do that, someday.

The video shows a late 1970s or perhaps early 1980s computer to a group of children, and asked them what it is. Even identifying it takes a few moments, but eventually one of the children, a little older than the rest, figures out that it is an “old computer.” It then prompts them to try to do the things with it that they are used to doing with a computer. “Turn it on” a voice instructs them, and they have difficulty finding the switch to do so, as it is hidden in the back of the computer. I must admit, I had similar difficulty the first time I sat down to a computer, leading one of the more advanced graduate students in the room to remark that I had just given her a new appreciation for just how much she had learned in her years there.

Playing a game on the computer does not impress them either, as the game they find is a screen of green dots. It is clear that it will take a lot of imagination to recognize these figures on the screen as something that makes sense as a game. Indeed, there is nothing about this computer that seems at all familiar to these children, raised with modern technology from infancy. I remember once, as a young teen, trying to type my name into just such a computer, and having it come back with the words “syntax error.” Like my high school teacher who was the first to call me an “intellectual iconoclast,” I took that response as words to be proud of.

On the occasion of her last birthday, my daughter changed the background on our family computer to a picture of her from when she was very young. In it, she was sitting in her high chair eating cake, which makes me suspect that it taken on her one year birthday. I smiled at the picture when I logged on the next morning, recalling the tiny, ringlet pigtails and the chocolate cake that mostly did not all make it into her mouth. As I think of the old computers and other objects in the videos I found, I realize that those earlier versions of technology have about as little in common with the machine I am writing this on as does the baby in the high chair with the teenager who now shares my home.

Which brings me to the question, in what major ways has technology changed in your own lifetime?



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