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We're all George Jetson now | Chuck's World


Last updated 5/7/2020 at 9:59am

Three things blew my mind before the age of 8. They were dumb things, in retrospect, but let's give the kid a break and the old guy his due. I've been around long enough to see some things.

This was the mid-1960s, an era defined in large part by perspective, like the blind men trying to identify an elephant – it depends upon whether you had the tail or the trunk. From the vantage point of a small child, I was vaguely aware of the social and political changes happening around me, but I paid a lot of attention to the sparkly stuff.

The first was when I went to our neighborhood supermarket with my parents, and the glass doors suddenly became magical. They opened by themselves as we approached, something I'd never seen before, sliding back to reveal the future.

To a kid enchanted by "The Jetsons" and mesmerized by all the technological marvels apparently heading our way, this was thrilling. I'm sure I thrilled myself with many repeat trips through that door. I'm sure my parents made me stop doing that.

The second was when we went to a fast-food restaurant, and for the first time my dad went through a drive-through lane and gave our order to an inanimate clown (this would have been Jack In The Box, I think, and the clown was the attraction).

It was hardly new technology, but even at a young age I suspected this wasn't a novelty as much as the way things would be now.

And at some point I went with my mother to a department store, where they were proudly showing off their new closed-circuit television system.

If this sounds suspiciously like ordinary security system video, that's exactly what it was. But it was new, at least to me, and as I stared up at the camera and then at the screen, I was immediately hooked. I was on TV, just like "The Beverly Hillbillies." The future was going to be awesome.

Video technology never lost its appeal. In high school in the 1970s, I made friends with a local broadcast journalist, a reporter who shot and edited his own stories, and on a few occasions I got to watch. This man had ideas about making documentaries, and he ended up practicing on some of us in my high school drama department.

We made a short film, and I was allowed to be part of the entire process.

At the end, he handed me a videocassette of our little movie. I was grateful, but I made some snarky teenage comment about not having any way to ever watch it and he just smiled.

"In a few years," he said, "we'll all be using these."

He was right, too. The first commercial VCR was offered for sale in Japan later that year, and the American versions soon followed. I bought one in 1979, and then a video camera in 1984 when we were expecting our first child.

My daughter would become a member of the last generation to have no video footage of their parents as children, although after seeing hours of themselves as sleeping babies, they probably don't feel like they're missing anything. Like automatic doors and drive-thrus, video has become ordinary and expected, not only ubiquitous but eerily omnipresent. We're all on TV now, all the time and everywhere.

And now, of course, we're on Zoom.

This is the future we were promised, you know. From the late 1960s on, we were told that video calls were just around the corner. Our science fiction writers assumed it, and the phone company people tantalized us with mock-ups of the way we'd be.

By 1972, at the latest.

So they were a little off. Still, Skype and FaceTime came along just as my generation entered the grandparent stage, and we became early adopters. It's a lovely way to keep in touch, although it quickly became ordinary. I've watched my 6-year-old grandson, whose father travels a lot, become used to video calls from Daddy in Europe, a daily shrug of normalcy. Why would it be special? As far as he's concerned, it's just always been.

It's been a pleasure for me, then, to see how video technology has become so important to many of us during this pandemic. These virtual gatherings can be awkward and frustrating (before this is over, I think we'll all understand the word "latency," the lag we experience with varying connections), but it's been a bright spot in our social isolation.

And my hobby has become surprisingly useful. I've edited over 100 videos in the past couple of months, desperately trying to learn new skills and grateful for the gift of something to do.

I know it's an adjunct, not an answer. Video conferencing will never be as satisfying as human touch, but I'm grateful for the stopgap.

The awestruck kid is still in there, too. I join Zoom calls and can't stop smiling, mostly from seeing the faces of people I love, but there's some affection for the technology that allows this. I'd trade my webcam for a hug in a heartbeat, but in the meantime I'm enjoying playing Captain Video.

I even refrain from making suggestions, like putting your camera at eye level. I have seen the future, and if it looks a lot like the inside of your nose, well.

I'm still grateful. Your nose is fine.


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