It saddens me to think that I am old enough at 35 and have seen enough changes in the world to remember when things “used to be different.” A simpler time that allowed for more social interaction and mental effort. A time when you had to appreciate good things when they came around because they came in limited quantities. I can remember a time when there was such a thing as Saturday morning cartoons. It was an event that had me dragging a blanket and pillow to the living room at six in the morning to start a six hour marathon that would kick off with a very low budget science show called KidBits and end with a solid hour and a half of Smurfs. If you weren’t an only child, it had the potential to cause major sibling arguments over which cartoon to watch at any given time. All three of the major networks committed to the same type of programming giving us kids what seemed like an endless supply of choices. It also provided some nice bonding moments, too, as eventually it became a traditional time for my Dad and I to sit in our underwear eating Doritos. It was a day you looked forward to as a kid. Sure we had after school cartoons but those were like appetizers to the Saturday morning main entrée. Thanks to the oversaturation of cable networks, you’re lucky if you can find a small handful of cartoons on the major networks. Most have gone back to showing the news even! What am I going to do when I want to sit around in my underwear eating Doritos with my kids?
I can remember a time where you actually had to remember people’s phone numbers in order to call them. Now all you need is a name and in some cases a picture to make a phone call because it’s all stored in our cell phones. In fact, I’m pretty sure that when most people lose or break their phones, they cut their losses and just make new friends. It’s not that we’re incapable of memorizing phone numbers. One of the security questions for my online banking asks me about the phone number I remember the most from my childhood. Even though I haven’t dialed that number in over twenty years, I still remember it. I can still remember the ten digit account number to my childhood bank account but I have no clue as to what my mom’s cell phone number is because in the hundreds of times I’ve called her, I’ve never once had to look at it. Sometimes I wonder how we lived in a world without cell phones. Today, I turn my car around if I forget it at home yet somehow we managed to settle for landlines twenty years ago. I do remember having a portable “bag phone” which was like carrying around something the size of my laptop in and out of my car. I suppose they were designed for businessmen since it was like plugging your office phone into your cigarette lighter. Everyone in the family would take turns with it because we only had one and it was designated for emergency use only because it was such a pain in the ass to use. Eventually we upgraded to our “tumor phone” which was our first wireless phone so nicknamed due to the early concerns (and possibly still ongoing for all I know) about getting brain tumors from these things. Maybe they do cause tumors because I can’t remember the gap between the family sharing that phone to the era of our lives where we all have one and are trading them in for new ones every two years. If that’s the case, I hope I have my doctor’s number stored in my phone because I sure as hell don’t know that one either.
I can remember when there was a need for a library and you actually had to use a card catalogue to find the book someone else already checked out. It was where you had to go to do research for school papers hoping that the book you just spent twenty minutes finding actually has a shred of useful information. It was where you “checked out” one of maybe 100 available movies because video rental stores were independent and few and far between. (Hey it cost a lot of money, I imagine, to stock every movie in both VHS and Beta.) It was even a place you could check out a puppet for a week. I still remember my favorite was this giant monkey with Velcro arms and legs that wrapped around you. That’s right! Little kids walking around with library puppets. Don’t knock it because I bet you can’t even think of where to go if you needed a puppet right now.
The library was the place where one learned the art of being quiet and that being an adult meant knowing how to work a microfiche machine (which for a kid who was too familiar with a Speak N’ Spell’s dialect, I thought had something to do with small fish). And with Catholic schools’ decline in employment of once feared nuns, the library was one of the last places where a kid could go and be guaranteed to be yelled at by a bitter old woman. Nowadays, the library is simply a place for kids to go if they need a computer to play with for a half hour. When I had a student tell me he couldn’t go to the library to work on a paper because he was grounded, I was convinced that clearly kids don’t know what a library is for anymore or else he would have come up with a much better lie.
The oddest part about the old library system was the rules on late fees. It was an inefficient system of debt collection only to be outdone by bartering with chickens. If your book was overdue, you eventually had to start paying a daily fee. It wasn’t anything that was going to break the bank but it did add up if you completely forgot about it. They never tracked you down or reminded you that you had a late book. After all, they didn’t have email so why would they spend money sending you a letter to remind you that you owe them a quarter? The library would simply wait until you tried to check out a book again and tell you in front of everyone else in line that you are a delinquent and owe the library fifteen dollars for the book “America’s Top 100 Children Shows” which you checked out eight months ago. At that moment, the metaphoric tumbleweed would roll across the worn out library carpet and the high noon showdown began. The librarian was upset because you never returned her book. You were upset because you consider it extortion to have to pay more than full price for the book AND return it. At that point you had one of four options:
1. Pay the fee, return the book, and leave with a defeated feeling
2. Tell the librarian (who seems to have taken it personally) to go to hell, keep the book, and leave, never to return, confident she will never find you since the pre-electronic age meant a lot of grunt work to get a measly fifteen bucks
3. Return the book and come back a week later with enough time on your hands to argue with a different librarian that you paid your fee and that she should be more careful with her DOS bookkeeping skills right before you check out the same book because you never did finish reading it
4. Just fill out a new library card application with your pet’s name and start over as a fugitive with an alias. There were no background checks back then.
The bonus to option four was that you no longer had to check out books with a ten year old library card displaying your signature from when you were 6 years old causing the librarian to wonder if there is a correlation between your horrible childlike penmanship and your apparent need to check out a giant monkey puppet. Hey! I said it was a cool puppet!
There are always going to be book carnivores out there that will use the library to go through books faster than they could ever afford to buy them but how long can public libraries continue? In a world (and economy) where public programs and services rely on constant donation and funding, will there be a day where the internet will officially kill them all? Libraries are really going to have to step up their game and come up with innovative reasons to lure people in. In fact, they can’t even rely on the movie rental portion of their income seeing as many video stores are closing thanks to the growing demand for mail order movie companies, and, once again….the internet. Even the internet itself can’t save them seeing as everywhere from coffee shops to fish markets are providing free WiFi (a.k.a. wireless internet, not a cutesy name for your wiffle ball….although maybe pickup games of wiffle ball could draw people in!) We are quickly becoming a society that makes the world come to us rather than the other way around. Although extremely efficient, this way of life leaves us void of one important element….human contact. Even after technology allowed us to take phones everywhere, we decided to start sending text messages instead of talking to one another. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching technology make advances. I’m usually the first in line to try it out, but there is something to be said about needing someone else’s help once in awhile other than tech support.
The only option is to have the two worlds meet….perhaps forcefully. People want something new to play with so give them just that. From now on, each library visitor should be given a GPS system that will help them track down their book. It’s still an inefficient form of research but at least it’ll be more entertaining. From now on, 24 hour cable networks will no longer be able to air the same show more than once a day unless aired in a different language with an interactive translation guide. And one will only be allowed to watch any given highly addictive reality TV marathon if he has posted a five page blog of what he has done with his life that week. From now on, the internet will be blocked after one hour until the user can upload ten pictures of himself doing various activities outside with an optional bonus half hour if the pictures include other people.
I’m sure that there will be many of you out there who will look at my great ideas as horrible limitations and controls on our freedoms. And yes there is always the chance Big Brother will root itself into watching our every move as we slowly become giant batteries plugged into the matrix, or allow terminators to take over and incinerate us all. But who are we kidding if we think we’re not already heading there by letting technology make us lazy and antisocial. If I’m going down, I’m going down reenacting old A-Team episodes in Spanish with a tan….eating Doritos in my underwear with my kid.