Almost everything happened before anyone had a smartphone
By Dave Rhea
Months before my father died (a little over 6 years ago), I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to sit down with him and conduct a video interview. My pitch to him for the idea was, “I want my children’s children to know who you are.” Reluctantly, he agreed. Over the course of the next two mornings, we sat at the dining room table at our old family house in Tennessee and walked chronologically through his life story.
One particularly memorable exchange was about his work as an IBM contractor, back in the mid-60s, on the Apollo lunar mission in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He explained that his job was to help route electronic cables underneath the floor in an interstitial area that necessitated air conditioning because of the heat the cables generated. He explained the gargantuan size of the computers – they literally had rooms to themselves.
Now, as our nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moon landing associated with Apollo 11, it is easy to marvel at the technology that allowed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to step through the hatch and, for the first time in human history, walk upon the surface of our nearest celestial body. However, my mind keeps returning to that conversation with my father.
One thing he said really made me think and put things into perspective regarding how much I rely on my smartphone. I remember chuckling as he described the Apollo computer system. “You could probably do all that with this thing,” I offered, as I held up my iPhone. He rarely allowed me to go on for long with such a sense of smugness.
“You say that,” he retorted, “but the fact is, almost everything happened before anyone had a smartphone.”
It’s hard to believe that the iPhone – arguably the gold standard in smartphone technology – made its debut in 2007, right around the time the now-ubiquitous micro-blogging service Twitter started gaining in popularity. Right afterward, in 2008, Facebook was introduced to the masses. All of these technological advances, which are now such a large part of how we navigate both our geographical space and our various relationships, emerged very recently. Indeed, my father was correct (again!) – when we think about the arrow of time travelling throughout the span of human history, almost everything happened prior to the smartphone.
In 1927, Charles Lindbergh never had the luxury of dropping a pin in Google Maps to assist him when he made the first solo, non-stop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in The Spirit of St. Louis. Nobody was arguing on Facebook about the efficacy of multilateral diplomacy when the United Nations was established in 1945, in the wake of World War II. President Lyndon Johnson never tweeted about signing the Civil Rights Act in the summer of 1964. When Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969, indeed, they had computers larger than refrigerators that necessitated air-conditioned subfloors for the cabling, but they were successful, despite the lack of iPhones!
I can still hear my dad’s voice ringing in my ears: “It seems funny now – to you – but back then, it was the absolute height of technology.”
As I sit here and type out this article on a computer that’s probably small enough to slide underneath the front door at my dad’s old house in Tennessee, I meditate on his words of wisdom, and I try (for probably the 1000th time) to commit to being more present in the lives of those around me and less reliant on this strange newcomer, the smartphone.