In a few years, we'll all be looking back on the late 1900s as medieval. With scorn or bemusement, we'll see it as a period of telephones tethered to wall jacks; movies packed in cheap plastic cases that required a trip to the store; cheesy, unreliable computers that required training to use; and acres of unsellable automobiles perching on dealers' lots because nobody knew how to match production to buyers.
Ah, we are a privileged generation that gets to flip the odometer over to a new millennium. Change is in the air. But are we really plowing through greater change than previous generations?
I remember the vision of 2000 from back when we were buzz-cut schoolkids in the Eisenhower years. It was naively Jetsonian. But in truth, a lot of that sci-fi vision has come to pass. We all own Dick Tracy's walkie-talkie watch. (It's called a cell phone.) We all have computers 1,000 times more powerful than Univac. We landed a man on the moon. (It turned out to be of chiefly symbolic value.)
But our personal jet-helicopter-transporters never happened. The steel car of the 1950s, powered by internal combustion, still dominates our transport. It's just lighter, more fuel-efficient, safer, quieter, cleaner and more reliable.
A friend recently drove me to work in his 1989 Acura Integra. As he approached each turn, he handed me his paper coffee cup (gourmet, $4 coffee, which anthropologists will discover as an odd characteristic of the late 1990s). The car lacked cupholders and airbags. During the decade when computers became as ubiquitous as TVs and the Internet went from unknown to connecting all businesses and half of American homes, all cars got cupholders and airbags (and lighter, safer, etc.). And dealers still are supposed to keep two-months' worth of cars gathering dust on their lots.
We praise ourselves for our era of breathtaking change. But imagine 1900. Almost no one owned a car or a phone. Roads were dirt paths. Most Americans were rural. Women wore long dresses and had no vote. In some places, black people couldn't vote. There was no Social Security, no federal income tax. Marconi was just experimenting with radio waves. Motion pictures were crude and silent. The Wright brothers were bike makers.
Fast forward 50 years to 1950: Americans were flying to Florida for vacation or driving in steel cars with internal-combustion engines. TVs were pouring into homes. The nation was becoming electrified and connected by phone. And half the classic movies of the century already had been made.
Grandma KNEW change
Fast forward again to 2000. We have computers, the Internet, home video, 14-hour flights to Asia on subsonic 747s, and protests against any attempts to expand Eisenhower's interstate highway system. And we drive steel cars with internal-combustion engines. So who saw greater change: our grandparents between 1900 and 1950, or our generation between 1950 and the new millennium? I have to vote for the first half of this century. How did Grandma survive those changes?
In five years, we'll have broadband, perfect video streaming into wireless, hand-held Internet terminals, cures for many cancers. And we'll have steel cars with internal-combustion engines (lighter, safer, cleaner, with lots of cupholders).
For the new millennium, we at Automotive News voted to pick the 10 most influential automotive figures of the century (see Page 34-35). I was struck by the difference between the great personages of the two halves of our century. Henry Ford, Billy Durant, the Dodge brothers - all dreamers and revolutionaries. Then Alfred Sloan, who straddled both halves of the century, created the modern corporation.
The nominees from our half of the century, strong personalities all, were corporate or political figures who tweaked the existing order.
So we millennium-straddlers aren't the only Americans who ever created, thrived on or survived change. But as the clock ticks toward 2000, we have a stunning perch from which to remember the old and savor the new. We can be connected as never before, prosperous as never before.
Happy New Year. Happy New Century. Happy New Millennium.