all of the selves we Have ever been
When I was in third grade
we had a special program at school one day.
It was about telephones. Not all students had phones in their homes. This class intended to introduce children to the rotary telephone. We practiced placing calls, answering calls, and basic telephone etiquette. In addition to the proper words to say in greeting, we had to have some lessons on polite use of a party line. Back then not everyone had a private telephone line. Some had shared service. A person might pick up the phone to dial and find that there were other folks already talking on the line. Of course, the courteous thing to do was hang up. There were other more interesting options such as joining in the conversation or silently gathering intel on fellow citizens, hence the special lesson. No mother wanted some eight-year-old smarty-pants eavesdropping and dishing dirt on the neighbors.
This telephone education curriculum was put together by Bell Telephone, THE telephone company. Each student was provided with a thin booklet explaining the history of the telephone and discussing potential advances. The information in the booklet described a future in which callers would be able to see each other while talking on the phone. A sketch was provided of a large desktop phone with a small square screen. That seemed far-fetched, like having a television in your phone! Even a few years later, we found it silly when the bumbling spy, Agent Maxwell Smart, made calls from his wrist…the old wrist phone trick…on the show Get Smart. It was unimaginable that a wrist phone would be in our future or that one day we would carry a palm-sized phone in our pockets that would do computing, face time, GPS, games, and movie streaming.
There have been other unimaginable events that have actually occurred in my lifetime.
I remember overhearing the conversations of adults after Dr. Christian Barnard completed the first heart transplant in South Africa in 1967. Unimaginable! And was it ethical? Would this really be allowed to go on? People feared that they would be struck over the head and dragged off to some dark alley where black market organ traders would rip out the hearts of the unsuspecting and leave them for dead. No one could have imagined a time such as now when 3500 hearts would be transplanted in a single year or that other organs would be harvested to save lives. And all of this is done in hospitals with sterile surgical technique. Many of us know or live with someone who has had an organ transplant. People are casually asked at the BMV about their desire to donate. No black market, just long lines. And no longer inconceivable or scandalous.
In 1969 I watched on a black and white television screen as the first man walked on the moon. Eleven others have done it since then in living color. As I write this, private entrepreneurs are preparing for tourist travel in space. Our children will go to school with other children whose parents and grandparents have walked on the moon, and in the future, our kids may travel in space on spring break. People are already signing up. No longer unbelievable.
What once we could only imagine has now become ordinary. We’ve grown accustomed to our technology and the speed of change. We don’t imagine, we expect new and futuristic products to roll off the line with frequency.
We seem to have the ability to create and prepare for the things we can imagine. (Although I am still waiting for the Maxwell Smart shoe phone. Sorry about that, Chief.)
Now faced with a virus that has the power to take us back in time to the Middle Ages, it is mind-boggling to realize that our best remedy is as simple, as difficult, and as low-tech as staying home. It seems like a Stone Age intervention leaving some people incredulous, angry, impatient, and unbelieving. Perhaps, in the long process from rotary phones to iphones, from automobiles to aerospace travel, we have become smug and lost our regard for the past and what it has to teach us. We failed to plan and to prepare—to imagine and to believe.