20 years of technology

Sometimes I explain to my son how technology works. Then I think back 20 years, and realise how much it has changed.

  • A lightbulb, was simple: it was a string of wire getting heated from the electicity passing through, and not burning, due to being enclosed in vacuum. Now it is sligthly more complex.
  • You looked things up in books: encyclopedias, dictionaries, phone-books, … the internet was still uncommon.
  • We used mechanical typewriters, – which we could just look at to see how worked.
  • When taking apart electric devices, you could see the individual components and how they were wired together.
  • There were almost no mobile phones, – you agreed on where you met, and wrote notes to each other. There were phone booths, and pay phones around.
  • I knew the general principle of how a radio worked. It was a relatively analog process of converting the radio signal to sound. Now it is all digital, and requires significant knowledge of signal processing, data compression, and error correcting codes.
  • TVs and computer displays were Cathode Ray Tubes, with an electron gun shooting through vacuum, and lighting up a flouroscent surface.
  • Letter writing was much much more common. – People did not have email or social media in general.
  • A camera used film, and developing pictures was a chemical process.
  • You could only pay with cash most places
  • It was possible to buy tickets in the train etc.
  • The world was much more analog, and most technology was mostly understandable.

The world is different now, – we mostly live in a world of inexplainable technological magic – even as an expert in computer science, I only have the general idea of how a computer, a phone, or any of the other digital devices in our modern world works. And I know: my son will nover be able to take a part a non-ancient radio, and see the path how the signal is going from the antenna, all the way to the loudspeaker. (The loudspeaker is fortunately still explainable). I still remember the time when I took apart a digital calculator, and all the wires ended up in a black blob containing the microprocessor, and I had no idea of what was going on in there. So where it was possible to understand technology a couple of decades ago, it has become mostly a mystic black box. A magical instrument that we are comfortable with using, but which is difficult to explain or know what is going on and never into the details. And the transition from a mostly analog to mostly digital world has happened over the last two decades. Quite amazing to think about.