Recently, a wonderful elderly lady, whom I had known for 25 years, passed away in Australia at the age of 97. I last saw Mrs K, as I’ll call her, a few months ago and she was still fairly lucid with a long memory. We had a great chat about her early life (she was born in the year the Titanic sank). Often she would talk about major events and newsmakers of the 20th century, and I was always fascinated at hearing her memories. I was amused at how she recalled reading Wyatt Earp’s obituary in the newspaper in 1929, Al Capone’s arrest, the death of the last US Civil War veteran, and stories like that.
Most elderly people have so many wonderful stories to tell, if we take the time to sit down and listen to them. For me, Mrs K’s reminiscences were most entertaining and thought-provoking when she started talking about the technical achievements and inventions that changed the lives of everyone on the planet on a scale that we can’t even imagine today, and how people reacted to them when they first came out.
Electricity, the automobile, plumbing, plane travel, the telephone, television –- Mrs K was alive at the birth or commercialization of all these inventions. She joked about how her husband -- upon seeing a TV set for the first time -- wanted to take the box apart to see what was inside. Telephones were another device that excited everyone, she said. The idea of dialing (yes, dialing) a number and being able to speak to someone in another part of the world astonished people. When Mrs K received her first phone call, she thought someone must have been in the next room playing a trick on her.
It was one invention after another, each one revolutionizing our lifestyles. Even humble appliances such as the refrigerator and toilet made a big difference, not to mention running water coming out of tap inside the house. And what about air conditioners? Having endured another hot summer in Japan, I can’t help but give a silent nod of thanks to whoever invented it.
As I chatted with this dear lady, it occurred to me that nothing has really been invented in my generation that has had the same wondrous effect on all our lives. Or perhaps I have just become jaded and take technical advances for granted. I know, someone will say the Internet, but I don’t think that the Internet has had anywhere near the influence on our lives as earlier inventions did. I think of the Internet as a means of employment, a method of communication, research, entertainment and shopping, but it has not shaped or defined my life. In fact, many times over the past few years, I have gone several days without using the Internet. For my mother’s and grandmother’s generation, things like the Internet and computers are of little use -- if they use them at all.
Not counting medical technology, I can only think of one technical achievement in the past 20 years that has held me in the same sort of awe as Mrs K must have felt in her younger days -- and I am only speaking for myself here. That was in July 1997 when the Mars Pathfinder started sending pictures back from the surface of the Red Planet. I was glued to the TV. I couldn’t believe I was actually seeing images from another planet.
I miss that sense of wonder. I want to be awed again. Each week in Japan, I read about some new device -- iPads, iPhones, 3D TVs, digital cameras or whatever, but none of those impress me. I don't look at an iPad or smartphone and say to myself, "That's amazing. How does it work?" But I do continue to marvel at older inventions that we have long taken for granted. When I am sitting in a plane, I always wonder how it manages to take off. How does a camera take photos? How does a fax work? Even the telephone (landlines) still amazes me. Yeah, it is something to do with my voice being converted into electrical signals but I don’t understand it. If I did, it might lose its mystique.
When I am 97, I wonder if I’ll be able to tell young people about some device that was invented in the 2010s and how it changed our lives forever. What will it be?
The writer is the editor of Japan Today.© Japan Today