One of the characteristics of the modern era is how everything seems to be moving, changing, and happening faster than ever. For most of history, the human race was limited to wind and animal power for transportation, and about the only forms of communication that were faster than transportation were signal beacons and carrier pigeons. Then with the industrial revolution came steam engines, railroads, and telegraphs, and everything speeded up. Before industrialization, the typical person could go through his whole life without experiencing any major changes, unless a war, epidemic or natural disaster struck the place where he lived. Inventions like gunpowder or printing made their mark, but they usually only affected one aspect of life. In the past 200 years, however, every generation has basically lived in a different culture from those before and after it. I remember in particular the show I saw at Walt Disney World on that subject, the “Carousel of Progress.”
And then there was the time when I told my daughter what television used to be like: we had a black and white TV set, and it only had three channels if you didn’t count the occasional UHF station. Cartoons were mostly confined to Saturday morning (there might be one or two cartoons around 7 AM on weekdays, but nobody got excited about them), we planned trips to the bathroom or kitchen around commercials because we had no way to record or download the show, and because we didn’t have remotes, we had to walk all the way across the room to change the channel. Alas, my daughter didn’t have much sympathy for my plight.
With most of these changes, whether they are good or bad depends on how we adapt to them. The point is that progress is not likely to stop for us, so get ready for a world without the items listed below.
40 Things That Were Common In The Twentieth Century, But Will Probably Disappear In Our Lifetime
Ash Trees. Sometime in the late 1990′s, a pretty, iridescent green beetle, the emerald ash borer, hitched a ride from northeast Asia in a cargo of ash wood products; it was first identified near Detroit in 2002. Like the rabbits in Australia, the borer found North America an alien but friendly environment. Within a decade, it spread to every state in the Midwest, nearby states like New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Tennessee, and two Canadian provinces (Ontario and Quebec). By then, the borer's larvae had killed between 50 and 100 million ash trees, especially in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. Now I regularly hear public service announcements warning us not to move firewood, because it transports the emerald ash borer. More than 7.5 billion trees are currently at risk.
(Update from January 2014: The exceptionally cold weather generated by this winter's "polar vortex" has killed off huge numbers of ash borer larvae. Some will survive, no doubt, but their population has been reduced, giving millions of trees a reprieve. Where man has failed to stop the pest, nature has succeeded.)
Bees. “Bee” afraid. Be very afraid. Honeybees are disappearing from beehives at an alarming rate. Since 2006, beekeepers in the United States and Europe have seen anywhere from 50% to 90% of their bee colonies wiped out. This phenomenon is called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and only recently has there been agreement on what causes it: a combination of neonicotinoid pesticides and varroa mites. Hopefully we caught the culprits in time to reverse the trend, inasmuch as we don't know yet how the pesticides and mites work together to kill off the bees. Even if you don't like honey, this is very scary, because $15 billion worth of fruits and vegetables in the US depend on bees for pollination, and no other insect or animal can take their place.
The Book. When I was a teacher I didn't expect this one to go away. Books have been around in their current form for centuries; most of us like the feel of a book in our hands; unlike computers, you don't need to take a college course to know how to operate a book; you don't even need electricity to read one on a sunny day. Well, now we have e-readers like Amazon's Kindle, and they're so convenient that people are changing their minds in a hurry. You can browse through books and read a preview chapter before buying one, it's nearly as easy to turn the page as it is in a real book, you never have to worry about losing your place because a bookmark is always available, and an e-book is cheaper than a real book. And think of how much space you'll save, now that you can carry an entire library with one hand!
Speaking of a portable library, I just heard that some schools are starting to issue iPads to their students, so they can use e-textbooks instead of the old-fashioned kind of textbooks. I can believe it; not only will this make the student's backpack much lighter, but it will save a lot on the cost for an education, even when you factor in the price of the iPad. I always thought the cost of textbooks was a scandal; not only did the books cost more than the books available in a non-college bookstore, the publishers revise a typical textbook every two or three years, though the changes only matter much for advanced courses, meaning that even students taking basic "101" courses had trouble returning their books for a little money at the end of the semester. The best deal I got as a student was in a course where, instead of a textbook, the professor had us buy a duotang folder full of notes containing everything you needed to know to pass the exams--no more, no less--and it cost only $2 (even in 1980, that was a very good price). I'm sure he only got away with it because he was the assistant dean.
On the other hand, I don't think this is good for public libraries. If the paper book is obsolete, can the real-world library be far behind?
Cameras that use film. Anyone using digital cameras could have seen this change coming. If you are old enough to remember Polaroid cameras, you know how much fun it was to watch the picture slowly appear on a piece of film. With the Polaroid, you didn't need to take your film to a darkroom or drug store to get it developed. Now with the digital camera, even waiting a minute for a Polaroid picture seems like a long time. Artists and professional photographers were the last folks who thought it was worth the effort to expose film. Companies like Nikon and Kodak have switched to digital cameras and their accessories to stay in business.
The Cassette Tape. Cassettes outlasted reel-to-reel and eight-track tapes because they were more convenient, but they had drawbacks, too. The tape was too easy to erase, you could not make good-quality copies, the sound faded within a few years, and tape players with dirty rollers tended to “eat them up.” Finally, the tape format does not allow for easy listening, the way a CD does. For instance, if you were at the beginning of a cassette album and only wanted to listen to the third track, you had to fast forward, stop every few seconds and hit “play” so you could see if you were at the right spot, and rewind if you overshot it. With the introduction of recordable CDs, cassette tapes went into oblivion, and unlike vinyl records, I don't expect them to make a nostalgic comeback.
The Catalog. They used to be a staple of the mailbox; in rural areas, people depended on mail-order catalogs for anything they couldn't get locally. I for one enjoyed browsing through the Christmas catalogs every year. Now that it's easier and cheaper for a business to keep its website up to date, as opposed to sending out thousands, even millions of catalogs, why bother killing so many trees to get a sale?
The Check. Admit it; if you have a checking account you don't write as many checks as you used to. This was a state-of-the-art tool for financial transactions when the Arabs invented it in the Middle Ages, but now it costs billions of dollars every year for our banks to process checks. Credit/debit cards and online bill payments solved this problem in the 1990s, and made checks obsolete at the same time. All that remained was for bills to come by e-mail rather than “snail mail,” and you no longer have to touch a piece of paper when paying them. The result? In 2013 less than half as many checks were paid out as in 2003, and a lot of those payments were business-to-business transactions, done with checks to make sure there is a paper record. I guess the last place where I’ll be writing checks is for the collection plate at church.
Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs. What animal do you think of when somebody mentions Maryland? That's right, the blue crab. Unfortunately, making it the state crustacean hasn't kept its numbers from shrinking. Nowadays Chesapeake Bay fishermen are only catching one fourth as many crabs as they did in the 1960s. When the first crab census was done in the 1990s, the bay had an estimated 900 million crabs; now the population is more like 300 million, and crab-counters think they need 200 million for a sustainable population. As with bees, several culprits have been blamed for the blue crab's decline: overfishing, pollution, sedimentation of the bay, hostile new species, and even global warming.
The Compact Disk (CD). Definitely an improvement on cassettes and 12-inch videodisks (videodisks are why we called CDs “compact”), but after enjoying great times in the 1980s and 90s, CD technology has reached its limits. The first reason is, of course, the DVD, which can do anything a CD does, and holds almost seven times as much data. The other reason is greed in the music industry (see music below). As the cost of making music CDs went down, the manufacturers did not pass the savings on to consumers; even now, CDs still cost more than cassette tapes ever did. In response, the consumers turned to pirate copies and downloading practices that were questionable at best. When legal downloading sites appeared, like eMusic.com, consumers discovered that they did not have to pay for a whole album, if they only liked one track on it. Do you still play your CD collection, now that you have MP3 files on your computer and portable devices? How often have you gone to a record store in the past year? I rest my case.
Dial-up Internet Access. Everybody probably got started on the Internet with a dial-up connection. Aside from it being cheaper than high-speed connections, there is no advantage to having dial-up now. High-speed is more available and affordable than it used to be, and it doesn't interfere with phone calls. I don't think anyone in my family uses dial-up anymore, and the same is probably true for your family. The disappearance of the land-line phone (see below) will probably put an end to this technology. Anybody miss the ear-splitting screams dial-up modems used to make?
Drive-in Theaters. Anyone who knows anything about the 1950s will know that drive-in theaters were a popular entertainment spot for young people, whether or not they actually watched the movies. The best year for them was 1958, when more than 4,000 drive-ins were operating in the US. However, rising real estate prices made drive-ins less attractive than other forms of commercial property, because in at least half the country drive-ins were only open during summer months. These drive-ins couldn't make a profit when Hollywood decided to release a blockbuster film around Christmas. Other factors were daylight savings time (which forced movies to start an hour later than they would have otherwise), bad weather interrupting or preventing showings, color TVs, and VCRs. Consequently most people found it easier to rent a movie than to go someplace to watch it. I still remember when the last drive-in closed in the Orlando area, in 1997, and there are two left within an hour's drive of where I live now (Lexington, KY). As of 2016 there were 300 drive-ins still in business. A few of those that closed have reopened since 2005, but this happened while the movie industry was switching from 35 mm to digital projectors, and the high cost of digital projectors made sure that drive-ins would not recover. No wonder Joe Bob Briggs, the drive-in movie critic, often writes about other subjects these days, and the remaining drive-ins make ends meet by renting out their property for car shows, gun shows, etc.
This might work for the drive-ins near me.
Encyclopedias. I was happy when I first got a CD encyclopedia. It meant that I would no longer have thirty huge books taking up space on my shelf, nor would I have to add another volume to the collection each year, to keep it up to date. Well, it took less than twenty years for even the CD encyclopedia to go out of date; e.g., Microsoft stopped making Encarta in 2009. There's a one-word answer to explain what finished off real-world encyclopedias: Wikipedia. When I was a teacher, I told my class why online encyclopedias are a useful research tool, and I mentioned Wikipedia in case they weren't familiar with it already. The good news is that if I ever teach again, I won't have to tell the students about Wikipedia anymore.
The Family Farm. Probably the oldest economic unit anywhere, over the course of history families owning farms have passed them down from one generation to the next. In the United States, they have been a part of life for four hundred years, since the first settlers realized they weren't going to get all the food they needed from Europe or the Indians. As of 2007, more than ninety percent of US farms were considered family farms, but it is estimated that 330 farmers quit the business every week. The main reason is factory farms, which produce more grain, vegetables and meat for a lower price. Another reason is the lack of jobs in many places where family farms exist, like western Nebraska; those places have become depopulated as younger people leave to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The number of farms in the US peaked at 6.8 million in 1935, and by 2009 had plummeted to 2.2 million. Many family farms remain in business by offering organically-raised and free-range products, to consumers who are willing to pay extra for them.
The Fax Machine. In the 1990s, no business could be taken seriously if it didn't have two phone numbers, one for calls to/from humans and one for faxes. Just over a decade later, fax machines became irrelevant, because with a computer, you could scan forms, pictures, printed pages, etc., convert them to PDFs and send them by e-mail. A few companies still accept/send faxes, but why they do so is beyond me.
Floppy Disks. You could have seen this one coming when the size and number of files on our computers kept growing, but the capacity of floppy disks stopped at 1.44 megabytes. Long gone are the days when we could carry all our work around on a floppy or two; now they won't hold the typical MP3, video file, or picture taken with a digital camera. I haven't even owned a computer with a floppy drive since 2005. When I first bought a computer without the A-drive slot, I also bought an external floppy drive, just in case someone gave me a file on a floppy instead of a thumb drive, CD or DVD, but I haven't used the floppy drive in years, either.
Foldable Road Maps. You can still get one from a gas station, but because GPS devices and websites like Mapquest carry much more information, don't expect to see them much longer. A lot of folks can't fold them right, anyway.
Ham Radio. For most of the twentieth century, amateur radio operators (“hams”) had the closest thing to today's online community. They communicated with each other, provided emergency communications in disaster areas, and learned about electronics all at the same time. Well, like so many other things, the Internet made ham radio obsolete, because it is more versatile and doesn't require a license. I can think of some Internet users who should have a license, but that's another story. The main reason why some people still hold active ham radio licenses is because the FCC removed knowledge of Morse Code as a requirement in 2007. We heard about the Egyptian government shutting down the Internet in that country during the 2011 revolution; how active were ham radio operators in filling the gap created by that?
Hard Drives, and What's On Them. Some of the items on this list are younger than I am, which for me is more evidence of how quickly things are going out of date. That includes hard drives; I remember how before the mid-1980s, only mainframe computers had them. Now flash memory is taking the place of hard drives. Flash uses less electricity, and because it has no moving parts, it doesn't break down as often. When the day comes that flash memory can hold as many gigabytes as spinning hard drives, you can kiss the latter goodbye.
You probably won't miss hard drives, but you may miss owning the pictures, music, videos and documents you store on them. Several companies, including Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft, are creating “clouds,” places in cyberspace where files are stored and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection and a password. Once your computer is connected to “the cloud,” anything you save can go to it. There are even some computers (i.e., the Chromebook) that run on files in the cloud, instead of files on a hard drive. This has the advantage of saving space on computers and handheld devices, and it makes installing/updating programs simpler when the job only has to be done in the cloud. However, you can expect to pay a monthly fee for your cloud space, unless you have a tool like a Pogoplug. Even worse, you sign away your rights when you agree to the terms and conditions for using the cloud; the cloud's content can disappear with a “poof” if somebody presses the wrong key. Therefore, can we really say we “own” our files, if the cloud service provider has more control over them than we do? See also what I wrote here about how information is more volatile than ever.
“The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.”-- Paul Muad'dib to the Guild Navigators, in Frank Herbert's Dune.
Incandescent Light Bulbs. For more than a century, Thomas Edison's invention lit our homes. The straight fluorescent bulb put a dent in that market, but not a critical one. The Compact Fluorescent Bulb (CFL), however, is another matter. I remember the day in 2006 when I first saw those twisted things in a Wal-Mart, and they were just a novelty to me. A few months later, I learned how much electricity and money they can save, and how much longer they can last. Since then I have been replacing burned-out incandescent bulbs in the house with the newfangled ones. Now the only sockets that still have the old-fashioned bulbs are those with slider switches, because CFLs don't work in them. And I'm not alone in doing that; incandescent bulb sales dropped so quickly that the last incandescent light bulb factory in the US closed in 2010. Well, I have heard that with all the patents Edison earned during his lifetime, he was the type of person who would not be upset to hear that there was a new light bulb better than his.
The Land Line Telephone. When I got my first cell phone, I used it sparingly, only when a land line phone wasn't handy. I'm still that way, but because cell phones are getting more convenient all the time, land lines are becoming a luxury that we only need if we make a lot of phone calls from a fixed location. Answering machines are on the way out, too; with voice mail, who needs them?
Measles and Mumps. Here's a disappearance you'll truly be glad about. Before the introductions of measles vaccine in 1963, there were half a million cases of measles reported in the US every year, meaning that virtually everybody got measles in childhood. Mumps weren't too far behind; there were 212,000 cases of mumps reported in 1964. Thanks to a vigorous vaccination program, the number cases has dropped like a rock, and if we can vaccinate the Third World as well, there is a good chance both diseases will go the way of smallpox. In 2008, only 140 cases of measles were reported, and three fourths of them could be blamed on the bug being imported from another country. Regarding mumps, an average of 265 cases has been reported for each year since 2001.
Music. Next to bees, this may be the saddest item on the list. The music industry is dying slowly. Not because of illegal downloading. Not because of a lack of talent. It's because innovative new music can't get to the people who want to hear it. Record labels and radio stations are greedy and corrupt, so they only produce or play what they think the public wants to hear. More than 40% of the songs purchased today are "catalog items," traditional music that you have heard for years, from older, established artists. It is the same story with live concerts; so far the only reason I've heard for why concert tickets cost so much is because aging rock stars have astronomical medical bills! On the radio, “oldies” stations and “mix” stations have become more common than “Top 40” stations. Most of the AM and FM bands are a wasteland, especially on weekends when the stations broadcast enough commercials to drive sane people to satellite radio, MP3 players, and websites like Pandora.com. However, there is still a spark of hope with the college stations, which play the music you don't hear elsewhere. And new artists are turning to nontraditional sources to get their music out, like YouTube. Did you hear how the band “Journey” picked up a new member from a slum in Manila, after they saw his YouTube video?
The Newspaper and News Magazines. Young people simply don't read newspapers anymore. Most of us don't have the time, unless we're waiting in a doctor's office or at the airport. Nor do we need to read or buy a newspaper, when we can get news, sports scores, classified ads, opinions, comics, and so forth online for free. In my house, if I didn't put the newspaper under the car in the garage or in the bird cage, I'd have no use for it at all. And most of what I just said about newspapers applies to news magazines, too. Recently I heard that newspapers and news magazines are going to offer their online content as a paid subscription service; we'll see how that flies.
Original Movies. Here are the top ten movie box office hits from my teenage years, the 1970s:
Star Wars (1977) Jaws (1975) The Exorcist (1973) Grease (1978) The Sting (1973) National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) The Godfather (1972) Superman (1978) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Now here are the top ten movies from the 1990s:
Titanic (1997) Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999) Jurassic Park (1993) Forrest Gump (1994) The Lion King (1994) Independence Day (1996) The Sixth Sense (1999) Home Alone (1990) Men in Black (1997) Toy Story 2 (1999)
And here are the top ten movies from the 2000s:
Avatar (2009) The Dark Knight (2008) Shrek 2 (2004) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) Spider-Man (2002) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) Spider-Man 2 (2004) The Passion of the Christ (2004)
In case you weren't looking for numbers at the end of the titles, the answer to the above question is that NOT ONE OF THE 1970s HITS WAS A SEQUEL. The top films of the 1990s were nearly as original; that decade's list has one sequel (Toy Story 2) and one "prequel" (Star Wars: Episode I). On the other hand, seven of the ten from the 00s decade were sequels or prequels. Among the other three, The Passion of the Christ and Spider-Man were about characters the audience knew already. Thus, for the top-grossing movies in the first decade of the twenty-first century, only Avatar was "original." And note that I put quotation marks around the word "original"; the argument has been made that Avatar has the same plot as Disney's Pocahontas. Both films have exploited native peoples, a mixed-race romance (actually mixed-species romance in the case of Avatar), greedy villains, a mother goddess in the form of a great tree, and an environmentalist theme.
To find out why movies are less original than they used to be, just follow the money trail. I remember when the first Star Wars movie came out, it cost $10 million to make. Adjusted for inflation, that would be around $40 million today, and that was considered a lot of cash. It didn't take long, though, for Hollywood budgets to pass that, with all the studios going for blockbuster hits, actors earning ridiculous salaries, expensive stages, stunts and special effects, the works. To give one example, Harrison Ford was paid just $10,000 when he first played Han Solo in 1977, and when he came back to play Han Solo in 2015, he earned an amount between $10 million and $20 million. Afterwards, when Jimmy Fallon interviewed Harrison Ford about playing the role one more time, Ford gave him a line that could have come from Han Solo:
Fallon: "Did you get emotional when you put the wardrobe on?"
Ford: "No, I got paid."
Nowadays, if you want a movie that people everywhere will be talking about, you can expect to spend as much as $200 million making it, and $100 million promoting it. Those costs are passed to the moviegoer in the form of grossly inflated ticket prices, causing us to choose between seeing a movie when it first comes out, waiting until it moves to the cheap cinemas, waiting until the DVD is available, or waiting until it is posted on YouTube. With that much money on the line, few studios and directors want to take risks. Instead, they play it safe by doing films that are spinoffs/remakes from those that already did well ("Did the public like Harry Potter? Great! Let's do more Harry Potter stories!").
In the early 1990s, there was a silly TV program in my home town called "Dr. X's Cinemondo," which featured bad low-budget movies, mostly horror flicks. For example, one of their favorites was Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy, and their program guide described it as "a sensitive documentary on feminist issues and the plight of the elderly." Nowadays, however, I expect I'll have to go to YouTube to see a low-budget film. And to see a film that is truly original, the next Citizen Kane, I'm afraid YouTube is the answer, too.
Paid-for Pornography. This includes 1-900 phone numbers, as well as the magazines, books and DVDs found in adult bookstores. With all the free smut online, only a fool pays for it these days.
The Post Office. I knew this one was on the way out when I bought thirty holiday stamps for my December mailings, and had two left over a year later. Like all government-run entities, this one hasn't turned a profit in a long time, if ever. E-mail, text messaging, and e-cards have gotten rid of the personal need for “snail mail,” while UPS and Federal Express can send packages cheaper and more efficiently. The post office's response is to raise its rates, without a corresponding improvement of service; anyone not working for the government knows they are pricing themselves out of existence. These days the mailman brings mostly junk mail and bills, and because bills can now be delivered by e-mail, I don't expect to see them in my real-world mailbox much longer.
Privacy. If the current generation and future ones look back to the twentieth century with nostalgia, it will be because they miss privacy. Cameras on the street, in buildings, in computers, in cell phones--and now on military drone planes--will let people know where you are, whether you want to be seen or not. Google Street View will show the world what your home and car look like, and various apps will give you the GPS coordinates of your kids. Click here for an article on how intrusive our gadgets are getting. Telecommuting and services like GoToMyPC are blurring the line dividing work life from personal life. You can't hide from the world if you use social networking sites like Facebook, and they will match your interests with ads for stuff they think you will buy. Computers won't even let you forget anymore, by using e-mail and other tools to remind you of upcoming events like birthdays. Now social networking sites broadcast what you are reading and some of the webpages you have recently seen--unless you specifically tell them not to share that information. As Time Magazine recently put it: “Everything about you is being tracked--get over it.” At least they can't change our memories (yet).
The Rolodex. Whereas there is some life left in most of the items on the list, this one is already gone. Pity; they were such a handy way to keep track of phone numbers and addresses. My mother, for example, over the years put together a pair of rolodexes so big that the family now considers them treasures. Well, a simple database program made that tool obsolete. Take your pick as to which program did it: Microsoft Access, Lotus 1-2-3, Act!, etc. My choice is Cardfile, a nifty accessory that came with Windows 3.1; each record in Cardfile looked like a card from a rolodex. Later versions of Windows did not come with Cardfile, but I found it so useful that I copied the Cardfile executable and help files onto each computer I had, which kept it running up until Windows Vista. Now that I'm using Windows 7, a 64-bit operating system, I can't get Cardfile to work anymore, so even the program that replaced the rolodex is out of date.
Smoking in Bars. Even here in Kentucky, a state that grows tobacco, smoking has been banned from most public places, including bars. I understand foreign tourists had some trouble with that, when they came here for the 2010 World Equestrian Games and dropped into the local establishments after each day's contests were finished.
Stand-Alone Bowling Alleys. Bowling Balls US claims that 60 million Americans go bowling at least once a year. That's good news for the sports industry, but a lot of them aren't bowling in the kind of bowling alley that Fred Flintstone patronized. Today's bowlers probably find it boring to go to a place where the only alternatives to playing are beer and video games. I say that because most of today's bowling alleys are in establishments that also offer laser tag, go-carts, bumper cars, and miniature golf. And that's not all; you can find bowling lanes in places not associated with athletic activity, like adult communities, hotels and casinos.
Subway Tokens. Who needs them, when you can pay for everything by sliding a credit or debit card through a slot? (see “The Check” above)
The Swimming Hole. Here's another part of traditional America you don't see much of anymore. You probably guessed why already; it's because we live in the most litigious society of all time. These days when somebody gets hurt, a common first reaction is to sue. Many swimming hole owners have posted “Keep out!” signs already, rather than wait for the lawsuits to hit.
Television. My wife and I forsook the boob tube in 2009, when the signal went digital and messed up our picture, even with a converter box. We don't miss it, because we can get all the entertainment and information we want off the Internet. Apparently others feel the same way, because TV ratings and revenues are down dramatically. Not only are people watching their favorite shows and movies from computers, they are playing games and doing other things with their time, instead of parking themselves on a couch. Prime-time shows “jumped the shark” years ago, when the networks put up warnings about violence, language or nudity, but not for what I consider the worst offense – insulting my intelligence. The cost of cable gets more expensive every year, and the networks give us more and more commercials, though we only want to see commercials during the Superbowl. As for the evening news, it isn't going anywhere, but the audience is. In 1984, The New York Times reported that the evening news programs of the big three networks had 40.9 million viewers between them, or 17.4 percent of the US population, at a time when CNN was the only real competition. Twenty-five years later, the big three's share of the market was only 6.5 percent. I can't even remember the names of the current news anchors on those networks. It's a safe bet that the evening news will disappear before the other programs do, “and that's the way it is,” to quote Walter Cronkite. Goodbye and good riddance to the whole TV industry.
Time Out From School. In the past, schools gave students several opportunities to blow off stream. One was recess at some point during the school day; another was a summer vacation that lasted from early June until Labor Day--almost three months. Unfortunately, at the same time we fell behind other countries, academically. Far Eastern countries like South Korea routinely get the highest test scores in math and science, while the United States ranks alongside modernized but minor nations like Lithuania. In the name of correcting that, and meeting the standards of the "No Child Left Behind" law, American schools are cutting recess short, or cutting it out completely, so they can cram more facts into the kids and they will score better on those standardized tests.
On the other hand, childhood obesity is also a serious problem, so the kids are going to need some physical activity every day. Well, there's one recess activity I had as a kid that future kids won't have -- dodge ball. Dodge ball has few rules and requires only one piece of equipment (a large ball), so any school can play it, but most are getting rid of it, because they see it as a mean-spirited, violence-promoting game. Oh, really? Back in the day, I hated getting hit by a dodge ball, but I also got over it by the time I was in my next class.
As for summer vacation, today I am a winter person, but when I was a kid, summer was my favorite time of the year, for one reason--I didn't have to go to school. I was thirteen years old when Alice Cooper's hit "School's Out" was released, and I could really relate to that. For the next three months I was free, unless my parents sent me to camp, a special summer class, or they decided to go someplace. Here, as with recess, school districts are shortening the time out (these days, the typical school year starts in early to mid-August, not September), in the name of more instruction time.
When we ask why school summers are getting shorter, the answer we get is that summer vacation is an archaic leftover, from the days when most Americans were farmers. According to this, the typical family needed extra hands to work the farm in the summer months, so the kids stayed home to help, and the schools cooperated by planning their schedules around the farming cycle. This isn't really true. The times when little farm hands were needed the most were for spring planting and fall harvest. In the Northern states, summer was the second slowest time of the year; only farm animals were likely to need much attention. In the Deep South, summer was the slowest time of the year, when about the only thing the farmers had to pick was okra; you didn't need extra hands for that.
Summer vacation was meant to make life easier for city folks. By the mid-1800s, the US had several big cities, starting with Boston, Philadelphia and New York, but they weren't nice places to live. Contrary to what you hear from today's environmentalists, in urban areas, pollution was worse in the nineteenth century than it has been since. Before the introduction of the internal combustion engine, cities were choked by coal smoke, industrial waste, poor sanitation, and most of all, horse manure. Most of the people living in cities did so because their jobs were there, and before there were automobiles, suburbs and zoning laws, it made sense to have your home as close to the workplace as possible. Urban smells and filth were at their worst in the summer months, so any working man who could afford it got his wife and kids out, usually by sending them to a beach or into the mountains, and if possible, he would go with them.
Anyway, there are two real reasons why school boards would like to make summer vacations a thing of the past. First, they have noticed that the countries where students are doing great don't give them long vacations. Second, there is the problem of kids forgetting what they learned during the previous school year, while busy with anything that doesn't require much brainwork, so the first few weeks of a school year involve re-teaching what the kids should have remembered. Some districts are trying semesters in which kids are in school for nine weeks, and then out for three, the idea being that they won't forget as much if they take several short vacations, in place of a big one. Others are simply making the school year longer, at summer's expense. By 2012, 10 percent of all American students are expected to have some kind of year-round schooling, and as time goes by, that number is only expected to increase.
Travel Agents. Have you used a travel agent since Priceline.com and Travelocity.com made it possible to book your own airline tickets, car rentals and hotel reservations? I haven't. Need I say more?
VCRs, VHS Tapes, and Movie Rental Stores. VCRs served us so well in the 1980s and 90s; virtually every home in the developed nations had one. We all know what made that industry obsolete; first DVDs, then Tivo, and then streaming video off the Internet. Now all that's left of the industry are blank VHS cassettes in the electronics section of a department store. For a while it looked like Blockbuster Video and the other rental stores would survive, when they switched from tapes to DVDs, but then Netflix and RedBox showed us that you don't need a brick-and-mortar store to manage movie rentals, so now the rental stores are giving up the ghost, too. I still have my old VHS tapes on a bookshelf, but I haven't watched them in years, and only keep them because I hope one day to transfer their content to DVDs, or some other digital format.
The Watch. Now that we can get the time and date just by looking at a cell phone, the watch has become a fancy bracelet.
Wild Horses. They roamed North America during the ice age, became extinct, and were reintroduced to the continent by Spain in the sixteenth century. Some of those horses escaped from Spanish colonies, and were caught and tamed by the Indians, making life on the Great Plains a success for tribes like the Sioux. Now it looks like the day is coming when wild horses will die out again, and the only mustangs in the United States will be manufactured by Ford. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there may have been as many as two million horses running free. Despite efforts to protect the herds, National Geographic News reported that the number of horses dropped to an estimated 50,000 head by 2001. In February 2010 the Bureau of Land Management reported the feral population was 33,700 mustangs and 4,700 burros, of which more than half live in Nevada. Another 34,000 horses are in holding facilities, and Western Canada is home to a few hundred more. 26,000 is considered the largest manageable size, so the BLM is looking for ways to reduce the population to that level, possibly by adoption or selective euthanasia.
Wires. Once upon a time, a radio was called a “wireless,” and it wasn't really, because you still had to plug it in somewhere; only the signal came without wires. Now we have wireless keyboards and mice, and a whole lot of devices that can run without being plugged in for hours. As we improve batteries and the ability to broadcast commands and even power, you can expect our appliances to really become wireless.
The Yellow Pages. Like the newspaper, the Yellow Pages are something we don't need anymore, because Internet directories like Anywho.com do a better job of keeping track of phone numbers; you don't have to wait until next year to see a new number listed. Now how long will the phone company keep dropping off several phone books every year, when all we use them for is door stops and paperweights?