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Remember the rotary phone or the typewriter?

12:07 AM April 22, 2014

During a visit to Manila a few years ago, I showed my two sons my father’s manual typewriter.

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It was a beat up Olympia on which my father had written business letters and letters to family and friends, and to my siblings and me. It was also the machine on which I first learned to type and on which I did homework and composed my early articles.

Of course, to my sons, born in the Internet age, in the era of tablets and smart phones, of speed and instant connectivity, it was a strange device.

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But a fascinating one.

“Wow,” my eight-year-old said at the typewriter’s “klak klak” sound as his brother pounded the keys. It was, to me, a familiar sound, bringing back memories of when I watched my father work at his desk. But it no doubt made the contraption even weirder to my boys.

I remembered the time when I came across a YouTube series called “Kids React to Technology,”  in which children are shown devices from another era — the era when I was growing up — and are asked to react and even use them.

There’s an entertaining episode on the rotary phone. (And if you don’t know what that is, you might want to see it.)

The grownup moderator asks them how to use it, one kid says, “I wasn’t born in the ‘40s so I don’t have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I don’t want that phone, I want to keep my iPhone,” a girl says.

There’s a funny part when the kids were asked to figure out how to send a text message.

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Some of them tried.

“If you want ‘A,’ you only do it once?” a boy says, using a finger to pull down the rotary dial, “and if you want ‘B,” you do it twice?”

Eventually, the moderator says it’s a trick question — there was no such thing as text messaging in my time.

Of course, text messaging is already considered old technology nowadays.

Many people are already looking forward to even more groundbreaking technologies.

That’s what a report that came out last week found: People expect technology to make life even easier in the future, and to lead to even more dramatic changes.

(The report was focused mainly on the U.S., though I think it would be of interest to many in the Philippines where some technological advances, such as text messaging, became big before becoming more widely used in the U.S.)

“The American public anticipates that the coming half-century will be a period of profound scientific change, as inventions that were once confined to the realm of science fiction come into common usage,” the study by the Pew Research Center says.

Eight in ten believe that, in 50 years, people needing new organs will be able to get them custom grown in a lab.

Some of my artist friends and fellow fans of the great novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who passed away last week, would frown on other finding: More than half of those surveyed expect “computers will be able to create art that is indistinguishable from that produced by humans.”

On the other hand, there are exciting, futuristic scenarios that most people don’t really expect to become reality in the near future, according to the study.

For instance, less than half of Americans expect Star Trek-style teleportation of objects to be possible, and only a third think humans will eventually be able to set up communities or colonies in other planets. And less than a fifth think humans will actually be able to control the weather.

Perhaps because they are growing up at a time when technology is advancing at an incredibly fast pace, young people are more daring in imagining the future.

About a third of those surveyed who were between 18 and 29 years old expect “travel related” technological advances. These include flying cars, self-driving cars (which is already being developed in Silicon Valley) and, despite the skepticism of many, even teleportation.

Around 10 percent of 18-29 year olds, and 11 percent of 30-49 year olds, also believe time travel will be possible in a half century.

However, not everyone is excited about the expected the changes.

Nearly 70 percent believe it would be “change for the worse” if would-be parents were able to tweak the DNA of their children in hopes of having “smarter, healthier, or more athletic” kids.

More than 60 percent also aren’t thrilled about having robots take care of old people and those who are chronically ill, and about drones being allowed to fly pretty much anywhere in the U.S.

More than half are worried about wearable computers and implanted devices “that constantly show them information about the world around them.”

The resistance could be based on what many see as the serious drawbacks of too much technology, highlighted by the intense debates and even public outrage over privacy and  government spying, and the growing disenchantment with selfies and over-sharing on social networks.

Technological change isn’t always good, meaningful change.

The good news is even a couple of young people, who offered the most insightful reactions on the “Kids React to Rotary Phones” clip, were aware of this as they reflected on their encounter with the rotary phone.

A girl says of people using rotary phones: “It definitely made it harder but still, people are around. People survived.”

A boy chimes in: “This was awesome, 20 or 30 years ago. Look how technology advanced. And now people don’t even know what this is.”

Reflecting on how society advanced from clumsy phones that cannot send text messages to today’s versions on which you can even watch or create movies, he chortles: “This is why humans are de-evolving”

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On Twitter @boyingpimentel

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TAGS: digital technology, futurism, Internet, iPhones, Pew Research Center, robotics, rotary phones, teleportation, time travel
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