I thought I’d never see it again. But, when I pulled into my driveway last week, there it was. The new local phone book. The one with the white pages. I assumed that it was obsolete because so few people seem to have landlines any more. I have one, but everyone knows that I’m a dinosaur living in an age of genetically modified meat.
Moreover, I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have a mobile phone, iPhone, smart phone, or any other kind of phone that is not attached to an outlet via a wire. And that’s because I get confused enough as it is, trying to punch in the numbers on my push-button hand sets.
When history books are written in the future, scholars will probably find some sort of designation for these times that is as significant as our recognition of the Industrial Revolution. We call it a “revolution,” rather than a “transition,” because the Western world changed dramatically within a single life span. A person born in 1800, who lived to be 100 years old, died in a world that was remarkably different from the one in which he or she was a child. That era marked the change from agricultural societies to industrial societies.
Likewise, a child born after the turn of the millennium would have a very difficult time if he or she were subjected to the conditions that existed even as late as 1950. That means that the recent transformation of society has been a concentrated revolution. And, furthermore, that means that young people today don’t know about many of the things that are part of my past, like:
• Looking up someone’s number in the phone book. When I was young, we didn’t have to write a phone number on the palms of our hands or punch it into a hand-held device. If we didn’t remember the number, we could look it up in the phone book: last name, first name, address — in that order. Or…
• Talking to an operator from the telephone company. There was a time when one could dial “O,” and an actual person would come on the line to give you the information that you requested. Almost unbelievably, that person would then thank you for requesting the assistance, actually saying “Thank you,” rather than “No problem.” Or…
• Dialing a rotary phone. In order to get the operator on the line, one would remove a fixture that one spoke into and listened to from the base. Then one inserted his or her index finger into a hole in the dial on the base, designated “0,” and turned the dial counterclockwise until the finger met the stop. Or…
• Using a payphone. Not long ago, in major metropolitan areas, there was a phone booth on nearly every corner. One would enter the booth, close the doors, insert a dime, and then use the rotary dial to initiate the call. The phone booth was also important because it served as a changing room for Clark Kent when he made the transformation to Superman. I don’t know what Clark does these days. One cannot hide behind a Samsung Galaxy 7.
There has been continuing discussion about whether art reflects culture or culture reflects art. There is little doubt, however, that the media mirrors both the structure of society and the values of the people. That’s why there is such a gap between the media choices of our mature people and the current youth generation. Young folk today probably can’t relate to:
• Seeing billboards that advertise certain products. There was a time when the billboard featuring the Marlboro Man was practically an icon of society. That billboard vied with the one that displayed Joe Camel (Camel cigarettes). And, during the heyday of Big Tobacco, smoking was allowed in restaurants, movie theaters, physicians’ offices, and even on airplanes. Before the surgeon general’s report, cigarettes could be purchased for pocket change, as little as 23 cents per package of 20 cigarettes in the 1950s.
• Listening to a portable radio. I received a portable radio for my 13th birthday. It was one of the “marvels of science” that was manufactured before the use of transistors. Consequently, it used vacuum tubes, was bulky, and could easily overheat, like old television sets. Judy Samson and I waltzed to tunes playing on my radio during the last summer that I spent in Laurence Harbor, New Jersey. That was the end of an era. In the mid-1950’s, Zenith introduced an all-transistor radio which sold for about $80, roughly $790 in 2017 dollars.
• Changing TV stations, using a knob. At a time when the average adult male weighed 160 pounds (see “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” 1956), a would-be couch potato actually had to get up, walk across the room, and use a knob or dial to change channels on a television set. At the time, there were usually three stations from which to choose: ABC, CBS, and NBC. In metropolitan areas, there might have been one or two local channels available. Before the mid-1970s, the early remote control devices (most of which were not commercially viable before the mid-1960s) were limited to three functions: On/Off, Next Channel, and Previous Channel. Today, we simply tell a device what we’d like to view.
• Putting tin foil on rabbit ears. “Rabbit Ears” was a term that was given to the antenna that was used to receive television signals from one’s local channels. It was a largely ineffective alternative to mounting a larger device on one’s roof. Like the tuner knob, it required one to get up and physically manipulate the equipment until the desired program was both visible and audible.
Good HouseKeeping News lists a few other things that modern youth might not understand, including:
• Looking something up in an encyclopedia,
• Getting deliveries from a milkman,
• Seeing TV channels sign off at the end of the broadcast day,
• Telling time on an analog clock,
• Buying records at a record store, where one could listen before purchasing, and
• Using a typewriter.
These things that our young people simply don’t know were all part of an idealized past that is better remembered than experienced.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at email@example.com.