Sunday, August 22, 2010

Going Without

As usually I'm playing Blog-post ping-pong with Evan. At this point it's a long standing tradition. As I said to Evan recently, instead of blogging we might as well just email our opinions to each other…our blogposts tend to just be public conversations between the two of us.

Anyway, in his latest post, talking about his grandparents, Evan said:

"I look at how they lived, and I compare them to my generation, and my kids' generation. We're so soft. We don't understand what it's like to do without. If we need want something, we simply go out and get it. When we're done with things, we simply throw them away. If it's hot, we sit in the air-conditioned living room and watch Blu-Ray Movies on our HDTVs. If it's cold, we don't put on a sweater, we turn up the heat."

I have to disagree with this a little, because I think 'going without' is a matter of generational perspective.

For example, I look at kids today and say they've got it made. I didn't use a computer to write my essays for school. There was no such thing as 'google' and researching those essays meant going to a library and flipping through a card catalogue. We didn't have cell phones, 500 cable channels, instant messaging, on-demand movies and all that other stuff that kids today would feel deprived to go without.

But my point is, my parents said exactly the same thing about me… that I didn't know how lucky I was. Four TV channels? A VCR so you can record shows and watch them whenever you want? Portable tape players that run on batteries and clip to your belt? You're spoiled and don't even know it!

Their parents also said the same thing about them, as did their parents. Thanks to the constant march of technology, each successive generation, at least superficially, has it easier than the previous.

In other words, if Evan had been around four or five generations ago, rather than writing about how his grandparents knew what it was like to 'go without', he might be writing something very different…about how his grandparents don't know how lucky they are, with their motor-cars and electric washing machines and gas ovens. Go back far enough and you'll find someone saying how kids don't know how lucky they are to have steam-trains, because when they were kids they had to hitch the horse up to the buggy and that was only if you were rich enough to afford one, or how they had to draw water from a well and put it into the tin bath in front of the fire when they wanted a wash.

Now, this is the point where someone will point out that their Grandparents didn't have a car or washing machine…well that's my other big point, we also tend to assume that because a certain technology is available, that everyone has access to it. I certainly didn't. There are plenty of families today that don't have air conditioning, blu-ray players or TV's. As a kid, and even today, I tend to put on a sweater instead of turning up the heat. I took my lunch to school in an old bread wrapper. I had store own-brand sneakers instead of Reeboks. When compared to my grandparents, that's hardly going without…but that's my point…it's a matter of perspective. A kid born in 2010 will look at our 1080p TV sets in the same way we look at an old 1960's black and white set. They'll see the internet today was we see the old 1800 baud BBS's.

At some point, people will see having to manually drive a car powered by an internal combustion engine as primitive and quaint as we see people having to ride horses in the 1700's. That doesn't make us selfless or noble for doing so, nor does it make the guy in 2070 riding in a self-driving hover-car soft and pampered.

The other point is here is our Grandparents were frugal and went without because they had to. If you could go to any house in the early 1900's during summertime and offer them an affordable air conditioner, I'd say 100% would take it. Offer an Xbox to someone in the 1970's playing on a pong console and of course they'd take it. We have more 'comfort' and technology than our Grandparents because it's available and affordable.

But were things really so different? My parents used to tell me I didn't know how lucky I was because they had to 'make do' with a black and white TV. But in 1960 a 19" black and white TV cost $250, which adjusting for inflation is around $1500 in today's money. We may consider them 'going without' because we have flat screen HDTV's, but whatever way you look at it, they still spending the equivalent of $1500 on a top of the line TV. In 1940, a decent radio cost around $40, which is still over $600 after adjusting for inflation.

In short, compared to us, our parents and grandparents went without…but our grandchildren and great grandchildren will probably think the same thing about us. I don't think there's anything to be upset or ashamed about in that. After all, isn't the whole point of living and having kids to make sure they have things easier than we did and have access to the things we didn't?

When I was your age, I had an iPhone that only cost 800 dollars and didn't have a holographic display! You had to control it with your hands!

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