Monday, July 27, 2009

The age of the Unimpressed

“When Alexander looked upon the breadth of his domain he wept, for there were no worlds left to conquer.” Any fan of Die Hard knows this line. Maybe one of you will know it from it’s author, Plutarch… (If that person is you, you need to get out more.) What made me think of this line was the celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking those first historic steps on the moon. I have admitted before to being kind of a ‘space geek’, so I really enjoyed all of the specials, and the interviews – it was especially cool because Endeavour is up at the International Space Station, and had a scheduled EVA on the 20th. So there were astronauts, outside of their ship, orbiting the Earth on the Anniversary itself. (What? I told you I was a geek!)

It was July 20th, 1969… Just a little over 8 years after President Kennedy made his speech in which he mentioned, “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Which was a scary gauntlet to throw down to the folks who actually had to do it. Virtually all of the technology to fulfill this little promise to the American people had yet to be invented. But, apparently Marilyn wanted a moon rock necklace, so… And granted, it did take close to half a million people, and around $22 billion, (that’s 60s money btw), but they did it. And with that, folks began to wonder… Are we done? What is our next great achievement?

All through our history, it seems there’s been something to strive for. Great achievements to better mankind, and keep America competitive and strong. Edison, Westinghouse, Bell, Morse, Eastman, Ford… and the list goes on. How about Wilbur and Orville Wright? A couple of bicycle repairmen who were stupid enough to think they could fly! Louis and Clark heading West to see what was out there. Of course, they eventually hit LA and immediately got hammered by the fashion police. “Beaver pelt in June? Puh-lease…” We climbed Everest, (without Gore-tex mind you). Made it to the North Pole. We had the industrial revolution. Yes, we actually made things, and were impressed by progress. The cotton gin, the printing press, and moving pictures wowed the people of their time. It seems very rare nowadays for folks to really be taken aback by great feats, or new technology. Is that the problem? Are we just unimpressed? We have people living in an orbiting space station, our iPods contain entire record collections, doctors can now do ‘micro’ surgery with actual robot arms, our GPS systems hold our hand and guide us to Aunt Millie’s house, our favorite vacation spot, nearest restaurant, or strip club… (I hear!)

I think about my son’s life, and the things he’s always known. There has always been digital music, DVDs, camcorders, video games, microwave ovens, personal computers, and cell phones. Maybe it does take more to impress someone who has been inundated with technology their entire life. Those of us who are a little more mature, and wiser… aw hell – older, remember having to mess with antennas, and the dreaded ‘outer’ dial to try to limit the snow on a UHF channel so we could watch the 3 Stooges. Then suddenly, there was crystal clear cable… magic! Pong, Commodore computers, bag phones – all of these great strides in technology really got our attention back in the day. How about safety? When we were kids, the only airbag we had was maybe a sibling sitting between you and the steel dashboard of your parents car… You know, the one with the seatbelts stuffed way down between the seats. How about medicine? We have over the counter remedies for ailments that killed people not so many years ago. They taste better too!

I do think that’s the case. We seem to be simply hard to impress. Throughout all of the Apollo hoopla, I heard over and over again, ‘why haven’t we done anything great since?’ I don’t think it’s a case of lack of great achievement on our part. I think great achievements happen at a rate that we are either accustomed to them, and therefore almost numb to them, or we just can’t keep up. Imagine the guy who just got an echocardiogram done so his doctor could see a live, 3D, multicolor view of his heart beating to check on a murmur he heard. This guy is now on the road, talking to a client in Japan on his Bluetooth, his GPS guides him to his next meeting, as his iPhone gives him up to the minute traffic updates, (Yes – there’s an app for that)… And, ironically, this is the guy who’d say, “Ya know, we can put a man on the moon, but we can’t stop the condensation on my iced coffee from dripping on my pants when I take a sip!”

‘and that’s the way it is…’
Walter Cronkite 1916-2009