Walking across a college campus makes me feel like Methuselah. Sometimes I stop in the middle of campus, look around at the sea of exposed midriffs soaking up the Miami sun, and I wonder how things could have changed so quickly. How did I end up old already? I'm a student, but undergraduates eye me with distrust. I'm old enough to be a professor. And, in fact, as a graduate student, I am a teaching assistant, so I do teach some of them.
But to an 18-year old, there's something vaguely suspicious about somebody my age being in school. Shouldn't I be off being a professional, getting a real job? What exactly have I been doing in those intervening years since I got my Bachelors?
Just like multitudes of undergraduates, I complain about writing papers, grumble about long-winded professors, and fear oral reports. But I also say things that smack of their parents. I say things like “When I was….” As in, “when I was a kid, computer monitors were monochrome orange or green, not full color.” Or “when I was in college, there was one room full of computers called the Computer Lab, and it was populated exclusively by dorky math geeks.”
Eighteen-year-old students don't say these things. Perhaps every generation feels this kind of disconnectedness. Sometime in their 30s, they arrive at the myopic conclusion that their childhood was the last one with real innocence, and decide they are the transitional generation; the one where things started speeding up and kids started growing up faster and faster.
My generation feels important because we witnessed the profound impact of computers and microchip technology on society. Let me put it in context. I learned how to type on a typewriter, not a computer. My mother bribed me one summer that if I could get up to 50 words-per-minute on my father's fancy electric typewriter, I'd receive the obscene sum of $50. In high school, I borrowed my friend's typewriter for term papers, as it had the cutting-edge technology of correction tape.
I remember when answering machines first came out. Every time I called one childhood friend, I rehearsed in case I got her mother's machine, because it seemed so permanent, to be recorded. For years though, when I was a kid, if I called and no one was there to answer, or if no one felt like answering, that was it. No answering machines. No caller id. No *69 if you missed a call in the shower. Certainly, there were no cell phones. Try explaining that to an eighteen-year-old who is instant messaging their friend in another class (the modern equivalent of passing notes). They look at my cassette tapes the way I looked at 8-tracks, and they simply don't know what 8-tracks are. They suspect they may have disappeared shortly after we landed on the moon, some time around then.
I have my moments when I try to be hip. I have a laptop with a wireless card. I drag that bundle of technology over to campus, fire it up, and, on those occasions when it decides to work, I e-mail friends while sitting outside under a swaying palm tree. My university has a wireless cloud. Basically, within certain geographic confines, I can plug into a huge invisible network and download files that would take days on my dial-up modem at home.
The fact that I think the wireless network is magic is how I know I'm terminally uncool though. I still find wireless stuff totally mysterious, as if I'm somehow plugging into some universal force (“Use the force, Luke”—a line that freshmen only recognize if they got really into the awful Star Wars prequels and dug through the archives to the old stuff, where they find out what Harrison Ford looked like before he was dating Calista Flockhart).
So I'm old. Some technology just mystifies me. I've never played Nintendo - I just don't see the point, although I did like Ms. PacMan when it came out. My distrust of cell phones is well documented. I can never hear on them, as they seem too small and weightless to have an actual speaker. I end up talking into them the way my parents still record their answering machine messages, carefully enunciating every word, with that vague edge of annoyance and self-consciousness. I feel, like them, that the world has sped up, and I'm not entirely sure I approve. The world has tipped over some cusp into an alien place.
And then I think about my great grandparents' generation. They witnessed the proliferation of automobiles and highways. They saw the radical change in the landscape, and changes in how much of that landscape an individual could expect to see during a lifetime.
I can't wait to see these eighteen-year-olds in twenty years, and hear what they say when they say “I remember when” and “When I was in college.”
I'm betting though, that there will still be long-winded professors and complaints about doing pointless research papers. Some things are eternal.