Time marches on, but memories linger

March 1, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 1, 2016

When I was a child, someone gave me a set of books by John D. Fitzgerald, the first of which was titled The Great Brain. Each volume was an episodic novel about kids in a small Utah town around the start of the 20th century. The title character, whose given name was Tom Fitzgerald, was an incredibly shrewd youngster who was great at solving mysteries and resolving problems. In one story, he outed a card shark by discovering that the suspiciously lucky stranger was using a deck that had been manufactured with subtle irregularities in the patterns on the backs of certain cards.

I only remember bits and pieces of the books, which I loved but have not laid hands or eyes upon for probably the better part of three decades. There was one story that I recall only for its opening scene. The tale, which was perhaps the last chapter in its book, started with the Fitzgerald patriarch causing a hubbub by having a W.C. — a water closet, now better known as a flush toilet — installed in the house. The other townspeople, shocked and appalled by this newfangled contraption, smirked to each other and snarked that the Fitzgerald home would shortly be awash in foul odors. Most of the Fitzgerald clan felt exactly the same way, sharing the dismay and puzzlement of their neighbors; the only exceptions, I think, were Mrs. Fitzgerald, who had long ago resigned herself to riding out her husband’s passing fancies with a certain tolerance, and possibly the Great Brain himself.

To the modern reader — The Great Brain was published in 1967 — this uproar is, of course, comical: I was trained on flush toilets from a young age, as (presumably) were my parents before me. I know what an outhouse is, of course, but the concept is still somewhat foreign to me. It’s hard, not to mention unpleasant, to imagine what cities were like before the advent of running water and modern sanitation.

This scene came to mind the other day as I was thinking about the progression of technology in my lifetime. And that topic came to mind because last week, when I was walking around Durham, I saw a man carrying two boxes.

Each box was about the size and shape of a large but not disproportionately thick hardcover novel. The tops, or at least the upward-facing surfaces, of the boxes were white; the sides were bright red and seemed to have text on them. The man was holding these two boxes, which were identical as far as I could tell, in just one hand, suggesting to me that they did not weigh very much.

As soon as I glimpsed these boxes, I thought, Apple software. They suggested to me the kinds of boxes that Apple Computer uses to sell the company’s own programs.

Or, I should say, the kinds of boxes that Apple used to use to sell its own programs. The corporation — which shortened its name to Apple nine years ago — still sells software, but by and large, the company distributes it online through its App Store.

Physical software distribution has been rendered more or less obsolete by the Internet, which is capable of transmitting feature movies on demand. In 2013, in fact, Apple removed optical disc drives — you know, devices that can play CDs and DVDs (skip to the 1:59 mark in this video) — as a built-in feature on all but one of its computer models.

Actually, it’s flirting with falsehood to say that Apple sells software. It does, yes, but many of its most frequently used applications are either free of charge or bundled at no extra cost with the company’s hardware. To the best of my knowledge, every new iteration of iOS, which powers the iPhone and iPad, has always been available for the low low price of nothing.

Beginning in 2013, the company has been releasing upgrades of Mac OS X, the software that powers Apple’s computers, at no charge. (Is the date coincidental? Perhaps, perhaps not…) Early editions of OS X had cost $129; the 2009 release, Snow Leopard, was priced at $29, and the 2010 version, Mountain Lion, cost $19.

Being able to buy Apple programs in boxes at stores. Paying for operating system upgrades. Backing up computer data on removable media that required an additional piece of hardware for data access. Having to find a public pay phone in order to make a call. My memories of these now all-but-obsolete phenomena are things that mark me as an Old Person.

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