Carl Wernicke: I'm Already Living In The Future
“If you could choose a time to live, would you rather go back 100 years, or forward 100 years?”
That’s the question a co-worker asked me recently. My initial response was, go back (although I’d choose the 1920s or ‘30s).
From today’s perspective, life back then seems simpler, more human scale. Most things were mechanical, not electronic. Someone with a little smarts, a little manual dexterity and a few basic tools could figure out how things worked and fix them. Even most electrical devices were more mechanical than electronic, and even if you didn’t know what was wrong, you could often repair it simply by tightening connections, cleaning contacts or just by taking it apart and putting it back together again.
But today’s devices? A quick story will tell you all you need to know. A friend of mine was a cracker jack auto mechanic. He worked on Indy race cars, stock cars and boat engines, and was magic with my cranky old MGB. But he told me that one day he was driving his mother-in-law’s Cadillac when it broke down. He popped the hood, and realized he didn’t have a clue what half the stuff he was staring at did, much less what he should do. So he closed the hood, called a tow truck and switched careers to building maintenance.
Now, I was tempted to choose 100 years in the future on the assumption that all of the things about technology that infuriate me will be overcome. Not only will the technology be far advanced, it should be simple to use, eliminating most of my complaints. Think of it as the difference between using an old, clunky manual transmission in the early days of automobiles versus today’s sophisticated automatics; all you have to do is shift the lever to the correct setting and it performs seamlessly, even if you have no clue how.
Of course, my worry was that my 100-year jump might land me in a future nightmare, with a radioactive landscape, bioengineered plagues, atonal music and a climate raging out of control, whipsawing us with increasingly intense hurricanes, ice storms, torrential rains, waves of tornadoes and, oh, wait, that describes today’s weather. But still, if today’s terrorism, militarism and religious and ethnic conflicts get worse, jumping ahead 100 years could result in a rude welcome.
Still, my worst fear about going back 100 years was that I read somewhere that novocaine hadn’t been invented yet, making dental care gruesomely painful. I have pretty good teeth, but still. But then I did some research, and it turns out that novocaine was in widespread use by the early 1900s. Bingo!
Anyway, I know this exposes me as old. I didn’t grow up with all this new technology, I had to adapt to it, and it still doesn’t come easily. I grew up with a rotary dial phone and a party line, the Model T of modern communications. I suspect kids who grew up with iPhones and iPads are a lot more comfortable with technology and probably would opt for the future.
As for me, the novocaine research pretty much sealed the deal, assuming I am comfortable with another fact: penicillin didn’t come into usage until the 1940s.