It’s been a while, Dad. Nigh on 30 years, I guess. I’m telling you, Dad, the way the world has changed in those three decades is something you’d have to see to believe. You still might not buy it, but oh, how I would enjoy trying to explain it all.
Remember those nights we sat up talking about computers, and what they could and couldn’t do? And how, even before I did any work there, I used to sneak into the basement at the University of Virginia just to try to grab a little time on those big mainframes? Remember the silly excuse for a computer my high school had, with 8K of memory and a 6502 processor chip?
Well, I now have a computer on my desk that has a million times the memory of that little computer. It’s got a full-color display that can reproduce pictures and video so clear you’d think you were looking through a window, and it outperforms those mainframes I used to feel so lucky to get access to.
Remember how we loaded programs into computers with punched cards and cassette tapes? And, later on, do you remember those 8-inch floppy disks that held, what, 180K or so of information? Well, a short time after you left us, something called a hard disk drive made its way into home and small office computing. Suddenly desktop computers had 10 or even 20 megabytes of storage readily accessible. It was a bonanza — there was more space on those drives than we could ever imagine using. And then they started to grow. The hard drive on my desk now has 50,000 times the storage as those early ones, and is one sixth the physical size. You can’t even hear it spinning at over 7,000 RPM in a quiet room.
The Internet, which you never heard of, has changed the world a lot, Dad. Not only does it connect most of the world’s computers into a massive network and allow almost instantaneous communication worldwide, but it’s also spawned whole new communities, new avenues of discourse and means of social interaction. I can chat and exchange information, pictures, and video with someone half a world away without even thinking about what I’m doing. That’s both the advantage and the danger.
A technology made possible by the Internet is the World Wide Web. It’s like a distributed, searchable treasure trove of information provided by millions and billions of people around the globe. It’s the world’s largest encyclopedia, the world’s biggest newsmagazine, and the world’s most plentiful source of apocryphal information, all rolled into one. When I was in high school, my set of encyclopedias and the library were my only real sources of information. Oh, if I were really desperate, I could go to the University library, or have a research librarian help me, but for the most part, it was slow going.
Now, if I have a need — or even a passing desire — to know who invented the field effect transistor, or what the density of 30-weight oil is in pounds per liter, or how many people have successfully gone over Niagara Falls in a “barrel,” I can have the information in seconds. It’s the best research tool ever made, and you don’t have to pay anyone a dime — except the people who give you your connection to the Internet.
You’d think this would have revolutionized education, wouldn’t you, Dad? Well, in a way, it has, but not in the way you’d hope. You’d think that with so much information and so many resources so readily available, kids would be held to a higher standard, wouldn’t you? They’re not. In fact, standards are lower than when I was in school. Grading scales are more forgiving, and instead of having to learn a subject thoroughly, kids just learn what they need to know to pass standardized tests. The government seems to like this. Teachers hate it but for the most part are powerless to change it. The end result is that our public school graduates are dumber than ever before, in an information-rich environment.
Everything’s digital now. Television is digital; there are no more analog TV stations in this country at all. Radio is slowly going in the same direction, although no one can agree on the best way to do it. At most stations, the audio console is digital, and so is the audio processing. And there are no more carts and very few CD players. Everything comes from a computer. Television’s the same way. You’d like HD television, Dad. The sharpness is absolutely amazing. TV stations have had to rebuild their news sets (and up their makeup skills for their anchors) because HD shows every detail.
My car, a Prius, has many times more processing power in its onboard computers than most computers of your day. It runs on unleaded gasoline because that’s the only kind we have now. It is partially electric in its propulsion (a hybrid) and has a type of battery (Nickel Metal Hydride) that didn’t exist in your day and has many times the energy density of lead-acid batteries. On my dashboard is a navigation system that derives its position information from satellites and has, on average, an accuracy of 60 feet (sometimes much less). It has maps of the entire continental US inside it, and it speaks directions as I drive. It sounds like something straight out of The Jetsons, which we used to watch together, but self-driving cars are just around the corner and are in fact already being tested.
Our manned space program is in the toilet. Our current president and his predecessor conspired to strangle it by cutting the budget. The Space Shuttle was a success, even though we lost a couple dozen of our bravest people during the program. Then the budget was eliminated. Now when we want to go into space, we have to hitch a ride with the Russians.
I’ve changed a lot, too, Dad. The growing up thing, that took a while, and I still don’t think I’m quite done doing it, but I feel a little closer to adulthood every day. Marriage? Well, once was enough for you, but I’ve failed twice. The third time seems to be the charm, though. You’d like her. She’s pretty, sensitive, loving, tough, and determined, and has a huge heart.
I don’t sing much anymore. I know that would make you kind of sad, but I just don’t find the opportunities, and I don’t think I’m nearly as good at it as I used to be despite what people tell me. I work around too many people who are real, professional vocalists, and that makes singing a bit intimidating. But over the years, I did manage to learn your favorite song. If you’re looking down as I suspect you are, you might have heard me sing it in the car where no one but the steering wheel is there to judge. I’m saving it for when I see you again.
I think you’d be baffled at the world I live in, Dad, but I think you’d like it. So many things that were nothing but improbable dreams the last time you walked the earth are now miracles of technology, real and perfected.
You’d be a bit baffled by me, too, but I think there might be a few things about me you’d be proud of.
Until that happy day when we meet again,