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The World is Getting Better, Not Worse!

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My family’s first video recorder, a Betamax, ranks high on the list of milestones: to think that you could capture something forever. I’ve kept holding on to a stack of tapes of 1978 World Cup matches—presided over by those creepy Argentine junta generals and enlivened by the free-flowing, hippie-looking Dutch squad—perhaps to prove to myself that the miracle did happen. (Too bad I no longer have a machine on which to play them.) And we had movies, too, that first year we had our Betamax. Two, to be precise: Tora! Tora! Tora! and Von Ryan’s Express. Not exactly the two films most people would put on their deserted-island-essentials list, but we were still amazed we could start movies whenever.

I left Chihuahua for school in 1981, just as satellite TVs were starting to make their appearance. Had I been 10 years younger, my Mexican childhood would have been decidedly less Mexican; I would have grown up watching The Brady Bunch and U.S. newscasts instead of 24 Horas. Chihuahua was (and is) a four-hour drive south of the border, but in terms of access to American television we might as well have been living in Burkina Faso. We got four channels growing up: 2, 5, 8, and the government-run 13. Our biggest thrill each week—unfathomable as this might be in our age of wall-to-wall SportsCenters on ESPN—was the hour-long sports highlight show on Sunday nights.

Until I was 7, we’d lived in Mexico City, where my dad worked for Channel 8, a perennial ratings laggard. One of the channel’s trademarks was Sunday’s “Permanencia Voluntaria,” which consisted of one featured movie—shown again and again, all day. In retrospect, the odd name for this gimmick, “voluntary permanence,” is a nod to the universal yearning propelling us on this voyage toward all things all the time—the quest for permanence.

We now transcend time and place. I may not have benefited from satellites in Chihuahua, but DirecTV now allows me to watch any football game on any Sunday, no longer condemned to the local market’s choice. And YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and all the rest of it make all TV and films from all time accessible all the time. If I wonder what the Downton Abbey hype is all about, I can start sating my curiosity in a minute. Even my dentist offers a menu of DVDs to pass the dental hygiene time away. You can program your life as you please, even if it means being consumed by a drama that consumed much of the country a few years ago when first released. Everything is captured, nothing fleeting.

My dad’s birthday was last Thursday, which I didn’t remember until midafternoon. The ensuing guilt triggered these memories. He’s been dead eight years now. At my father’s funeral, one of his younger colleagues told me that one of the things he most appreciated about working with Dad was his youthful penchant for saying “Wow” at new discoveries, new breakthroughs; little things.

Why isn’t this wonder at all that surrounds us more pervasive? Too often we whine as if things are getting worse all the time, even if we are whining into some handheld device bouncing our complaints off a satellite in outer space—or conveying this sentiment onscreen to another friend visible onscreen halfway around the world in a conversation that’s essentially cost-free. As my old boss Gail Collins would say: People!

I often wish I could go back to the mid-’70s for a day just to count the entertainment options, to experience what sheer boredom, or at least info-scarcity, felt like. How would I have reacted if Dad had told me en route to my first ATM that as an adult I’d be able to carry hundreds of books on a light screen, or that I would carry around a phone with live maps (“because phones will be like small TVs, son”), a phone that would also be able to instantly show me photos taken by friends back in Chihuahua? Or that the day would come when I would be able to type in any query to a machine, for free, and summon up unfathomable amounts of relevant information? Imagine if we’d been able to Google the future then, or simply been able to imagine Google.

No jetpacks, alas, but if someone had offered you this everything-all-the-time power back then, it would have felt like being offered the power to fly. And yet here we are, hardly feeling like we conquered the universe, rarely taking a moment to marvel the way my dad did.
Is it simply because of the constant struggle to keep up? Or have we become so immune to progress, we’ve lost all sense of wonder?

That’s too big a question for my 30,000-foot ruminations, especially as we’ll soon be asked to power down our electronic devices. But, as a belated birthday present to Dad, I for one vow to find more moments to appreciate the remarkable age in which we live. Or, to put it as Dad would have: Wow!

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