Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Are We Ageless?

Since the late 1800s, we've been able to characterize each time-period as an "age." It all started with the Age of Steam, followed by the Industrial Age. Well, technically it didn't "start" there, of course - we had the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Sail, the Age of Exploration, and - if you want to go back far enough - the Iron Age, the Bronze Age and the Stone Age. But most of those time periods covered huge swaths of time, from multiple generations to centuries. Beginning around the Age of Steam, things started to compress and speed up. Change came much more quickly, such that a person could see the differences between their youth and their old age.

That was fairly unique to human history - for most of the time man has walked the Earth, technologies have come slowly and have spread throughout humanity's civilizations in a laborious process of trade and conquest. Men and women lived and died using the same tools and techniques their parents and grandparents had used up until about the 1800s. And once the concept of factory-based manufacturing really took off, once steam and electricity were available to unburden men of the physical forces needed to shape and mold their products, things really started to fly.

So we had the Industrial Revolution, followed by the electrical and gas era of the 1910s through the early 1940s - the Age of Invention, if you will, when commerce and war drove incredible advances in science, technology, medication, transportation, aviation, and virtually every aspect of the average person's life was touched by it. And it all came together in what might have been the ultimate invention, in which man harnessed the power of the sun itself - the atomic bomb. Welcome, people of 1945, to the Atomic Age.

The Atomic Age was a cool and frightening time, especially for Americans. On the one had, the late 40s and 50s were a time of unparalleled growth and prosperity, with new gadgets available seemingly every day and with lots of disposable income to buy them with. The trade-off was the start of the Cold War and the neverending fear of nuclear annihilation that would last right up through the early 1980s.

The Atomic Age drove right on into the Space Age of the 1960s and 1970s. This may have been the first era where the "age" was recognized by all to the point where it was actually used in advertising. This was what got me thinking along these lines in the first place, but I'll come back to that. So we had the "Space Age" - the time when men floated in space and walked on the moon for the first time in human history (and the last, as it turns out. The ratings just weren't high enough to continue the reality show called "Men on the Moon" and it was canceled after just a few episodes in the 1970s). We had "space-age polymers" and "space-age materials" available for sale on television, and we all knew exactly what a great time we were living in. Unless you happened to get drafted and have to go to Viet Nam, of course. But I'm sure there were some space-age polymers in your rifle, so that's something.

The Space Age overlapped the Digital Age of the late 70s and the 80s, when computers began to make headway at the corporate and academic levels. You pretty much needed a Mainframe computer to get anything done, because the technology was too expensive and too tempermental for home use. I mean, sure you could build yourself an Apple computer from a kit out of plywood and soldered connections, but it didn't really do much. You could buy a TRS-80 from Radio Shack in the late 70s, but you had to fart around loading every program, individually, into memory from a cassette tape. It was slow and tedious and, well, it still didn't do much when you were done. But it was digital! And it heralded a new age still to come.

By the 1990s, computers were invading homes and businesses around the country, because they'd become small  and fast enough to be useful. Plus, the Internet had caught up, connecting those computers together and giving them something to do. That something mostly turned out to be a never-ending quest for pornography, but when people got satiated on that, it turns out they could also go shopping and play games and stuff. The Information Age had arrived!

And to my knowledge, that was the last named age. I'm not sure whether anybody's figured out yet whether it's still going on or whether it's ended. I was thinking about this the other day, as it occurred to me that you no longer hear advertisements predicated on our age, as you did with "space-age" materials back in the 70s and into the 80s. For the last few generations, we've taken great pride in our techological growth and our succession of ages, but now there seems to be a bit of ennui about it. I'm not sure if we've lost track, or if things are just progressing so quickly that we can no longer tell where one begins and the next ends. You might argue that the ages are easier to see looking back, but that didn't stop us during the Atomic Age, the Space Age, the Digital Age or the Information Age. We all knew we were in them as they were happening.

So what are the 2010s to be? I could buy that the Information Age is still ongoing, but it doesn't really feel like it. I feel like the bulk of that was the emergence of the Internet, home computers, laptops, PDAs, and smartphones. Those have all been done to death - they're just getting smaller, faster, and more capable. The iPad, for instance, is cool, but it's just a fancy smartphone with a big screen and the "phone" capability turned off.

So what's it to be? Is there some seminal event or product or technology that needs to be invented, that will define the next age of mankind? Has the next age already begun and we're just too close to see it? Or have we reached a point in our advancement where our technologies are so mundane and blend together so seamlessly that they're no longer worthy of note? Are we ageless?


  1. Thought-proving, Mike. I'm going to have to think about this one. The first thing that comes to mind is perhaps we are on the leading edge of a Genetics Age, but let me think about this, and perhaps we can have a discussion later.