The Living Room Frontier


Sputnik iPhone case by Zazzle. Click image for more info.

Let’s get this out of the way to begin with — I love the iPhone. Like, a lot. OK?

But …

It’s also what’s wrong with the world. As Paul Simon wrote, “You are the burden of my generation. I sure do love you, but let’s get that straight.”

Yesterday was October 4.

For a lot of people, myself included, it was the day Apple made the iPhone 4S announcement.

For some other people, myself included, it was the anniversary of the beginning of the Space Age, the date on which, in 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.

Fifty-four years apart, two technological high-water marks.

Two technological high-water marks showing just how much the world has changed.

Back then, the frontier was the future. The goal was to go — to make the world a smaller place by bringing it closer together. Innovation was rockets to reach for the stars, and cars that looked like rockets to travel the country and airplanes to do it faster. The greatest manifestation of man’s ability was a space program that would reach into the unknown. As Kennedy would say five years later, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

We live today in an age in which we instead organize and measure the best of our energies and skills around the iPhone and its like.

The goal today is still to make our worlds smaller, not by connecting it, but by disconnecting it. We want better telephones and better televisions and better networks so that I can experience the world without leaving the comfort of my home.

Today, our frontier is no longer the unknown, but the living room.

I love my iPhone.

But I regret not living in a world in which our goal is not to increase our comfort, but to say, as Kennedy did, “And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

Where is your frontier?

3 Responses

  1. I don’t know that this isn’t a bit of an oversimplification. The era of Sputnik was also the era whose signature technological innovation — the spread of television — was arguably leading people in a more cocooned, stay-at-home direction than modern telecommunications do.

    And, to continue to play devil’s advocate, the space program was an important “pushing out” for the species, but it was experienced by 99.99+% of the population very passively, not unlike a movie or TV show.

    If you think of the human race in terms of a family, which is more important, that the family go new places and have new experiences together, or that they spend more time talking to one another and sharing thoughts and feelings? Both seem pretty important to me.

    Undoubtably the kind of romance associated with space travel will probably never attach to the smartphone world, but I wonder if setting up a “today’s technological innovation isn’t as laudable as yesterday’s” comparison isn’t kind of creating a false dichotomy.

    I appreciate the thought behind this post, and, in fact, am almost always inclined to feel the same way about then-and-now. But I sometimes wonder if that’s not just me getting old and crochety.

  2. Good points.

    I don’t know. Giving it more thought, there’s a bigger issue that I failed utterly to capture, and that is the idea of “the future.” I think 50 years ago, “the future” was a more tangible thing, full of spaceships and flying cars and the like. I feel, and maybe it is just crotchetiness, like we don’t have the same sense of the future anymore.

    I could be wrong, but I bet if you asked someone back then and someone now how they thought life would be different in 20 years, the person back then would have a more concrete answer.

    Playing devil’s advocate to myself, however, maybe we stopped believing in the idea of the flying car because we never got flying cars. Or maybe we never got flying cars because we stopped believing in the idea of them.

  3. I think that you’ve hit it squarely on the head with your observation that the excitement associated with “the future” has waned (at least among folks our age…still can’t tell about the millenials). Part of that may be that more spotlights have been trained on the costs of our technological progress, which is not altogether inappropriate.

    Another thought that occurs to me is that the 20th century was largely about the belief that the force of human will could overcome any and all obstacles. This belief manifested itself in ways both sublime (the eradication of some diseases, the conquest of space) and horrendous (the infamous Nazi “will to power” and all its totalitarian cousins), but eventually gave way to a feeling among many that will alone was not enough. Was this because the negatives had piled up too high, or was it sheer exhaustion, or was it that many of our traditional beliefs and customs began to push back against the bright veneer of modernism? I’m not sure. Maybe these kinds of ebbs and flows in how we view the future are part of the human condition — I’ll cop to the fact that I’m not enough of a student of world history to say.

    Maybe we just came to take it all for granted. Maybe people born after Neil and Buzz just were never, in large numbers, going to feel as much awe as the people who had seen it go from science fiction to science fact. I wonder if the Americans of mid-17th century colonies really grasped how impressive the accomplishments of the Jamestown and Plymouth pioneers were? Maybe we’re predisposed to be blasé about things that we ought to look to with wonder.

    Maybe I need to cut back on the coffee.

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