Monday, June 2, 2008

Life on Mars

I've been watching Life on Mars on DVD lately. That would be the original British series from the BBC, the U.S. remake will only come out in September. The series is about a policeman having an accident in 2006 and waking up in 1973 in the same city, with some ambiguity of whether he is dreaming all this in a coma, or whether he really went back in time. The main theme is the culture shock of the guy who is used to policing in a modern, CSI-like police culture being thrown back into a 1973 police department right out of Dirty Harry. But what interested me even more is the stark difference in every-day technology between now and one generation ago.

Being thrown back into 1973, the detective has some difficulties to go through life without computers and mobile phones. Getting results on a fingerprint takes two weeks, searching for files involves dusty store rooms and boxes, and the TV in his apartment is still showing some shows in black and white. Video recorders weren't invented yet, nobody had personal computers, and of course video games didn't exist yet. Music was still stored on vinyl discs, or on magnetic tape, and his colleagues from 1973 are mighty skeptical when the time-traveler detective starts using a tape recorder to record witness statements.

As the title, taken from a Bowie song, suggests, living in 1973 feels like living on a different planet. And then it struck me that I was 8 years old in 1973, and lived through all this rapid development from a low-tech world into a high-tech world. It wasn't another planet, it was just half a lifetime ago. My dad bought us a "video game console" in the 70's, but the only thing is played were a few variations of Pong in low resolution (the "ball" was square) and just two colors: black and white. I got my first "personal computer" in the early 80's, a ZX81 with 1 kilobyte of RAM, and there were text adventures and even low-res versions of Space Invaders playing on it. At university I was playing games like Kings Quest in 16-color CGA and 320x200 resolution, at home I had the graphically more advanced Amiga 2000 which supported up to 640x512 resolution if you didn't mind the heavy flickering of the interlaced mode. My first "MMORPG" was LPMUD, played on a green mono-color screen of a university mainframe computer on telnet, the HTTP of the World Wide Web didn't exist yet.

We've come a long way since then, and now all this technology is taken for granted. I'm considered a Luddite because I keep my mobile phone switched off, and only use it rarely for calling people. Everybody else doesn't appear to have a problem with the concept of being available on the phone 24/7. I haven't got a PDA yet, my agenda is a printout from my calendar. I didn't buy any of the current generation of video game consoles, I'm still using a PS2. Only my PC and internet is pretty much high end, although there are already countries where my 6 MB broadband would be considered "slow". And seeing how much technology changed life in the last 35 years, I wonder how it will be in 35 years, if I'm still around then. People will probably look at me strangely when I reminisce over ancient technologies like mouse and keyboard then. :)

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