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We read so many comments on the accelerating pace of technological change that it becomes background noise. I know I’ve pointed out before that we’ve conflated “technology” and “electronics” and that the former is vastly broader than the latter. What follows is both a reflection on the truth of rapid technological change in the twentieth century, and an example of how much more there is to that than laptops, smartphones, and infotainment.
My dad was, literally, born on a farm in the southern U.S. in 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression, and the year FDR won the presidency for the first time. He was white, so the racist pressure that prompted the Great Migration, one of the most important demographic shifts in U.S. history, did not directly affect him. The other pressures of Depression rural reality, though, did; it was, again literally, hard work to make a living, and that work started in childhood and ended with death. His world was so completely different from ours that one of our children—or adults, for that matter—plopped down into it would have no idea what to do or how to act. Sharing the English language wouldn’t help much with communication; their dialects, vocabularies, and standards of what was acceptable to say and what was not would be too different. This hypothetical scenario would be as much of an anthropological field study as any.
There was no plumbing. There was no electricity. Tools were powered either by the humans who owned them or the horses and mules they owned. Heating and cooking fuel was wood, and had to be chopped and hauled. They hauled up water from a well and brought it in in buckets. They bathed once a week, on Saturday night, before church the next morning, in a washtub. They made their own clothes, they raised their own food, they built their own barns and houses. To survive the winter, they smoked meat and canned vegetables. When it was hot—and the summers were hot—you were hot. When it was cold, there were hand-sewn quilts and the woodstove. They suffered and died from diseases no child today has even heard of.
They plowed the cotton fields with wood-and-iron plows hitched to mules or horses. They weeded with hoes—the worst work, they would say. They picked cotton by hand and put it in big sacks they carried. When it was time, they loaded their cotton into wagons and rode into town to the gin to sell it, for not much. When it was time, they slaughtered their hogs so they could eat through the winter. They went to a one-room schoolhouse. My dad’s oldest sister was the schoolteacher.
That was only ninety years ago. I don’t need to even summarize the changes in everyday life that he would experience over that span of time. I don’t need to explain to you how drastic the difference in my own experience was from his.
The war took his childhood world away. He would not miss it. Ultimately, what came with it, and after it, would give him and his siblings so many opportunities that their parents never had that, once he was grown, dad’s parents would seem like relics of another time, even to him, in a way that he would never seem to me.
People like him had to make giant leaps so that people like me could take small steps. There is just one generation between me and a life of hard labor and an eighth-grade education.
Leaps have limits. Dad was done making leaps by the time our society made “computers” everyday necessities for work and pleasure; he never took to them, and that was one reason he had to retire when he did. When he was younger, what was happening with society and technology pulled him along. When he was older, it shunted him aside.
He was always straight-up about how glad he was to get off the farm. He loved the creature comforts of modern life as much as anyone I’ve known. He could appreciate them in a way that almost no reasonably-affluent native-born Americans now can. But, later in life, he was more apt to reflect on what life was like back then, as one does; time and distance are conducive to that. You’d never know it just seeing him out and about, but he was, eventually, a relic from another time, as his parents had been. A relic is a resource; we need to learn from them what we can, while we can, about our past.
For Dad, 8 September 1932—25 June 2023