. . . and then our tools shape us.
What’s in an age? It can refer to the length of time you, me, anyone has lived. It can be a particular stage in a life. Ten years ago my daughter was “college age”. When was I college age? I completed my MA as an adult (?) 15 years ago; so what age am I today? History has its own ages. Geologic time refers to the physical makeup and history of our planet. If you’re that curious, geologic time might take you back a billion years. Frankly, thinking about a billion years of history is too much for me (as in “here comes a headache”). Instead I’ve been thinking about technology as it relates to my personal ages.
It is sometimes difficult for us to recognize that our lifetime’s journey changes our perspective about “ages”. My life during the “post-war” years specifically refers to those decades immediately following World War II. There were plenty of other wars and battles between 1945 and 2018—Afghanistan, the Balkans, Egypt/Israel, Grenada, Iraq, Korea, Kosovo, Kuwait, Syria, Vietnam—but “post war” for me is that twenty years between 1945 and the mid-1960s. Technology (as in television, transistor radios, etc.) was clearly advancing, but most people then could not fathom how the decades to follow would transform life.
In 1979 I was working for A&M Records, Herb Alpert’s recording label (which he co-owned). That last year of the ‘70s decade was a difficult year for some parts of the music industry. A&M had some remarkable breakthroughs that year including albums by Supertramp and Herb Alpert both selling well enough to earn gold and platinum awards from the RIAA, the music industry’s keeper of the stats. There were others, to be sure, but I remember those two clearly for different reasons. Herb’s renaissance as a recording artist was jumpstarted by his hit single (and the accompanying album). "Rise" was the first bonafide hit digital recording of the digital age; likewise, Supertramp transformed their career, from the band everyone loved but still hadn’t sold a million of anything. Breakfast in America changed that. And both those records helped A&M Records weather the coming recession, when our government’s decision to raise interest rates and the Iranian government’s decision to restrict oil shipments helped screw up the economy.
The Sony Walkman portable cassette player signaled another sea change in technology. Also introduced in 1979, the Walkman assured us that music was going to be highly portable. No longer tethered to the turntable, you could now throw a dozen cassettes in a bag and listen anywhere, anytime. Miles Copeland, who then managed the band Police, stopped in to our Hollywood offices near Christmas 1979. He was returning from a trip to Japan and was showing us the Sony Walkman he just purchased in Tokyo. We were all impressed with his new ‘toy’. And in short order CDs were also going to revolutionize the record business. No more scratchy vinyl. Now we offered our favorite artists in these indestructible shiny discs. Of course they weren’t indestructible, but we embraced these digital “records”. Cassette tapes and vinyl records seemed doomed. Cassettes are gone, and yet vinyl records are still being manufactured, but in infinitely smaller numbers.
I remember my 1984 Audi 5000. I liked the car, but I remember it as much for its “history” as my first vehicle equipped with a cell phone, a large unit installed between the bucket seats. In less than a decade the cell phone had shrunk to a size small enough to fit easily into the palm of your hand. I had a Nokia (circa 1996) mobile that was so compact I lost it a year later on a shuttle bus somewhere between the Hertz counter and San Francisco Airport’s United Airlines terminal. In 2001 Steve Jobs delivered the first Apple iPod. Cassettes disappeared, and the days of traveling around with a bag of cassettes came to a merciful end.
In 2007 Jobs showed the world what a singular vision (along with $150 million in development money) could deliver with the introduction of the first iPhone. Few would disagree with the premise that the iPhone changed everyone’s thinking. Cell phones were mundane, smart phones were the future. And the iPhone was the technology to which every other smart phone was (and is still) compared to. It wasn’t just about the device. It was also about how you used your smart phone.
On a walk near Union Square in San Francisco a few years ago I realized that Bluetooth wireless technology leveled the playing field between the self-absrorbed and the unconcerned. Business people who walked down busy streets talking on their smartphones without holding the phone to their ears blended with random people who simply enjoyed walking down busy streets talking to themselves.
A half-century ago, Marshall McLuhan was widely quoted for titling a book (and telling the world that) The Medium Is The Message. According to his eldest son, Dr. Eric McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan’s publisher mistakenly titled the book The Medium Is The Massage. When the author heard about the typo, his response was “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!”. Television was the message, not the content. And television was also the massage.
Technology is a tool. And McLuhan knew that when he posited "We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us."Fast forward to 2018 and we don’t have to speculate on what McLuhan might say about the age of the smartphone. In his 1964 book Understanding Media, he wrote, “The medium [is the message because it is the medium] that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” Next time you’re walking down a busy street, pay attention. Perhaps you’ll agree that my Union Square observations seem much more rational. We're not all talking actually talking on our smartphones.