L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

03 February 2008 Blog Home : February 2008 : Permalink

Yoof of Today

Charlie Stross, an author that I'd read a lot more of if his books were available electronically, has an excellent blog and he recently wondered (and asked his readers to assist) what it is like as a teenager growing up in the 'nought'ies. In particular what do you take for granted that your parents and other older people don't and what things do not miss because you never knew they existed, that sort of thing.

It is a fascinating list.

There is an interesting related question which is how much has changed in our lifetimes, something that Kim at Mildly Diverting, writes about in the context of her grandfather (1896-1986).

There may be a related trick here. One of my grandmothers was born about a little over a decade before Kim's grandfather and she died in 1976. I don't think she added much to what she knew at the begining - though she did tell me about seeing Queen Victoria during her diamond jubilee - and I guess she would recall some of the early 20th century wars and revolutions that led up to the 'Great War' that the young boy would not be so aware of. But by dying a decade earlier she completely missed the arrival of the home computer to name but one major invention that affects us all today. Also Mrs Thatcher, the falklands, the miners, the space shuttle and no doubt some other interesting political / foreign events that I can't think of right now.

Moving back to my lifetime. My first computer (not the first I used, that was a ZX81, but the first I bought - ok with parental help but it was mostly because I asked all those who were likely to give me a present for my birthday and christmas to give cash, combined with pocket money I saved up) was a 48k ZX Spectrum. It cost a bit over £100 I think. 25+ years later the eee costs around £200 (probably less than £100 in 1983 pounds). It has 512MB of memory, a battery, a screen, a built in 4GB drive and so on. Even if it isn't perfect it can load games in seconds (the spectrum used a casette player and typically loaded a 40kb game in 5 minutes or so) and the game will be 3D with 24 bit graphics (32 bit?). The spectrum's games were 4 bit colour (with considerable limitations). The spectrum screen (on an external TV) was 256x192 resolution. The eee does 800X480 on its internal screen and at least 1280x768 on an external one. And so on. Trains and telegraphs in the 19th century made vast improvements but trains, for example, did not go multiple orders of magnitude faster in 25 years. The first trains went about 10mph. It took until 1904 to get one going at 100mph and another 60 years to get to trains that ran regularly at over 100 mph (Japan's shinkansen introduced in 1964). If computer development were at that speed we'd be at a 64k spectrum with 32 colours today.

When we get to the early 20th century development moves faster. Consider a 1914 plane vs a 1939 plane, the latter goes maybe 5 times faster, twice as high and so on. But again in computer terms we're looking at the difference between a ZX Spectrum and a 128Kb Amstrad - or between an IBM PC and the AT delivered about 4 years later.

I don't think anyone from a previous era of the world has seen such radical improvements. In global capability that is, clearly any stone-age tribesman contacted by a modern culture saw similarly radical improvements in his personal world.

If my father dies at the same age as his mother (i.e. over 90) he will have missed the initial development of the aeroplane and the motor car, and possibly things like widespread electrification of the country, that his mother experienced. But he will have seen far far more changes because he will have survived about 40 more years of the late 20th early 21st century. Indeed, since he has written published books on at least 2 generations of computer (a 128k Amstrad and a win98 laptop), as well as a PhD thesis that he typed in the early 1980s, he has witnessed the changes at close hand.

Then we get to me. I have actually typewritten a letter, but the one I used for most real corespondance as a teenager was an early electronic one that I hooked up to my Spectrum and used as a printer. A child born in 1990 will have no idea about typewriters, electronic or manual.