I am living the future and yet I still own a corset. Of course, neither of those is true; still, they encapsulate a sense of displacement I experienced this morning. I’m attending a three-day working conference and have been sitting next to a vice president for research from a research-intensive university. Carving out the time for this meeting has been painful for me, and I can only imagine what it’s costing him in the off-hours of the meeting. I have been watching him juggling the messages that are coming into his phone and computer and making lists about who to call first when we take breaks. (He’s been heroic about not answering his email during the meeting, which has increased my respect for him, especially during some of the really dry stretches of the meeting. I confess that, in a less obtrusive seat today than yesterday, I graded a paper this morning during one patch. I try not to be rude with my computer but probably was while I was grading. It was better, I consoled myself, than snorting, interrupting or saying something inappropriate during the presentation....)
Waking up this morning, I got to thinking about my office-life days, and what it was like to travel before cell phones. Airports back then had banks of pay phones, and between flights, they were always packed with people trying to get a call into their offices. When I was in the midst of an investigation or negotiating a complicated agreement, I would be one of those people. I remember a new vice chancellor once confiding that she’d always thought an earlier campus administrator had been pretentious in using phones in airports, only to discover when she took her new job, how important those calls back could be when others needed information or go-aheads on various projects.
That train of thought led to what it was like, *gasp* when most families had only one telephone, in a central location and everyone in the family knew who called for what family members and what kind of conversations they had.
THAT train of thought led to recollections of generations before me telling stories of growing up: both my dad and Michael’s learned to drive on Model Ts, and my father told stories of growing up on the prairie in a house where they often awoke covered with snow or ice in the winter, and how they took stones heated in the wood stove up to bed for warmth. And what it was like to have a “farm girl” (from a family with too many kids to feed, who helped out with chores for room and board and perhaps a little money) and how, if he was clever about it, he could get her to bring in the wood for the stove so she never had to say she was going to use the outhouse. Those times seemed so remote and old-timey. My imagination all but sepia-colors them.
And yet. I went to the world’s fair in New York in 1964 and saw the outlandish and futuristic “vision phones.” Today, I skyped for a meeting. The transition from before-personal-computers-and-cell-phones to now is as massive a social disruption as many of the technological changes that existed between my dad’s childhood and adulthood. The “primitive” communication technology of my childhood is as remote from my children and the students I teach as my dad’s was from mine. I don’t feel like either a historical or transitional figure, I just feel like me, in my now. Yet, I’m actually living a quite remarkable future, compared to my youth. It’s a strange feeling: I never had a corset, and I’m connected by a strand going way back to women before me who did.