March of Technology

September 05, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

When I was a kid, I couldn't imagine how people once lived without television. After all, I probably spent three hours a day sitting in front of our single color set, watching Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet in the early afternoon, The Lone Ranger and The Flinstones in the late afternoon, and whatever my parents selected before bedtime.

For the "average" consumer (discounting businesses and schools), the VCR arrived in the early '80s. By 1985, when my father purchased our first VHS machine, I was one of only three people I knew to have such a device. (A year later, almost everyone I knew had one.) At the time, I viewed this as a marvelous invention. Not only could I watch TV programs I would otherwise have missed because I had something else to do, but I could "save" others for posterity. I instantly became a VCR junkie, recording almost everything - even the news. The other thing VCRs were good for was watching pre-recorded movies. I started down this road during the summer of 1987. Every night that summer, a friend and I rented at least three movies, which we devoured between 8 pm and 2 am. Most were recent action/adventure or horror films, but, after we had exhausted those, we started experimenting. I can recall watching Sparticus one morning around 3 am. Without that summer and that VCR, I probably never would have become a film critic.

At the same time, something else was happening - the bleeding of PCs into homes. During the mid-'80s, these were mainly IMB XTs and ATs (or "IBM clones" - remember that term?) - clunky machines with 10 MB hard drives and 6 kHz processor speeds. Outside of schools and the industry, there was nothing resmbling an Internet or e-mail. I had an account at the University of Pennsylvania as early as 1985 (and got about one e-mail per week), but didn't get one at home until 1992.

Home Internet access came along in the early-to-mid 1990s, and the number of dial-up services exploded. As modem speeds increased, personal access expanded. By the late 1990s, nearly everyone with a home computer had a modem and a dial-up account. There were hundreds of access providers. At one time, I subscribed to two. (Cybernex, upon which the original ReelViews existed, and Compuserve, which I used when away from home.)

Why write about modems and VCRs now? Because both are either dead or dying. There was a recent news story about the discontinuation of video tapes. Many major stores are removing them from the shelves - they no longer sell well and the space is needed for DVDs. I am in the process of throwing out my video tape collection. I have a VCR that I occasionally use (for the rare screener that is sent out as a tape and to record something when I'm too lazy to go downstairs and set the DVR), but I won't be buying another. In two or three years, it will probably be in a box in the attic. The VCR is old, obsolete. In only 20 years, fresh technology has turned stale.

In the case of the modem, it has been more like 15 years. A computer user with a modem in 1990 was a rarity. Modems peaked in the late 1990s, but have gradually been replaced by DSL and cable. Dial-ups are fast disappearing, as are those service providers that cater to them. We are migrating to the faster, more efficient technology of broadband. 56 kbps no longer does it, even for the least demanding users.

VCRs have been supplanted by DVD players and DVRs. 20 years from now, it's difficult to say what we'll be using. Non-high def DVDs will probably be obsolete by then. But will we be using high-def DVDs, watching movies from a massive local hard drive, or accessing a library of 10,000 remote titles with a single command? Computer access to a world-wide net (the successor of the Internet?) will become so seamless and second-nature that we won't be aware that we're connected (unless the connecction goes down). There will be a computer grid like today's power grid. Every house will be wired up and outages will result in temporary paralysis.

Science fiction writers enjoy speculating about how cities, cars, and planes will look in 50 years. My preference is to consider how my living room may appear. If technology continues to advance, imagine the possibilities...