Monday, September 13, 2010

Obsolete skills

Because of my birthday I’ve been thinking a lot about growing old and the changes to society that I have seen in my lifetime. I’ve realized that I have already had a number of skills that I have acquired become completely useless due to changes in technology. A simple example is understanding how to roll down a car window. When was the last time you saw a manual car window? Here are a few of the big ones that I thought of over the weekend.

Being able to read the financial pages of the newspaper: When I was around ten I started getting interested in how the stock market worked. My dad to his infinite credit took this as an opportunity to teach me about finance. I may have not been able to throw a spiral but he taught me how to read stock quotes in the newspaper. What were a mystical list of acronyms and numbers became clear to me and a few trips to the Board of Trade made me understand how markets worked. For years this is how I kept track of the market, checking quotes in the morning paper. Now I can’t even recall the last time I looked at that info if the papers even print it. You can just go on Yahoo and pull up the quote in real time. Imagine having to wait until the next morning to see how your stock did.

Use a card catalog: I was a master at using the card catalog and the Dewey Decimal System for finding material in the library. If a book on a subject existed I could find it in that mass of cards and then quickly scour the stacks for it. I doubt libraries even have the physical card catalogs anymore, except as a relic of a bygone era. Everything is done through computer databases and while it is quicker and more efficient it loses some of the obscure glory of having to go on a treasure hunt just to find a book.

Ability to program a config.sys or autoexec.bat file: A few weeks ago was the fifteenth anniversary of the launch of Windows 95. I remember how big of a deal it was mainly because it freed us from the world of DOS. However, that meant that all of the DOS commands that I had learned over the years had become useless knowledge most of all the ability to create DOS boot disks in order to play video games. Basically prior to Windows 95 it was nearly impossible to run any good game in Windows and you had to set up these boot disks to put your computer in a special state just to run the game and god help you in trying to set up the soundblaster configuration. Windows 95 turned out to be a mixed blessing. Using a computer became much easier but I lost that innate knowledge of how it worked because I no longer had to spend hours figuring out every aspect of the operating system in order to get NHL 93 to boot up.

Communicate for months via letters: I’ve mentioned before that the first girl I ever fell for happened to live in Minnesota, which was a slight issue given that I lived in Chicago. Given that this was before the days of cheap long distance phone calls at least part of our relationship had to be managed through hand written letters. No one today writes an actual letter. Long distance is essentially free, emails are instantaneous and I assume that everyone’s handwriting is now atrocious. But when I was in high school I would sit down, put on a U2 cassette, pour my heart out on a piece of paper and then walk down to the mailbox to send it on its way. It’s kind of sad that I am going to go down as the last person who actually did that. Takes all the fun out of courtly love if you can just have a Skype video call.

Make a mixtape: Not a burned CD, not a playlist, but a proper mixtape. Meaning a cassette tape. The work involved in such a task, beyond just picking songs, was just unimaginable. First, you had to get the timing right so that you maximized the amount of music on each side without cutting off a song halfway through. Then you had to sit there and CD by CD (or even tape by tape or record by record) carefully set up the recording leaving just enough blank space for a smooth transition. Then you had to write out the songs in the little cassette booklet so that the intended party would know just what they had on their hands. It was backbreaking labor. Now it takes about three seconds on iTunes. Apple takes the fun out of everything.

Best of 120 Minutes (9/13/1993): I may have posted it before but who cares; it is Bob Mould in his Sugar era. Plus, Bob Mould went to Macalester College in Minnesota, which also happened to be where the girl from Minnesota went to school. Pretty fitting connection if I must say so.

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