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Change Has Always Been the New Normal

Posted on Nov 8, 2013

A large offset printing press at work.

By Richard Reeves

I live and work in a world in which, as they say: "Change is the new normal." I’m sure you do, too.

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At the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism of the University of Southern California, there are, more or less, two kinds of people talking forever about their differences.

There are the old-school folks who came from newspapers and television. They are known as "content people." Or "the old farts." I am one of them, teaching writing, communication history and politics.

Then there is the new crowd, sometimes called "distribution people." Or "the kids." They teach about technical, digital, multiplatforms, social media and a lot of other stuff the old folks don’t really understand or are clumsily trying to learn. We are as friendly as people can be when they speak different languages.

The students, almost without exception, are fairly comfortable with both sides of the faculty, wanting to learn old and honored stuff like reporting, good writing and good journalism, and learn evermore about the new gadgets in their "toolboxes."


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There is, of course, nothing new about this, except for the blurring speed of the new media. I am reminded of what life was like on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early days of the 20th century. The kids in families coming from Eastern Europe were greatly empowered because they quickly learned English while their parents and grandparents knew only the foreign languages of the old countries.

I should be something of a double threat because I graduated from college with a degree in mechanical engineering and understand some of the new words rather than the new worlds. But in fact, the engineering I learned—slide-rules, drafting or mechanical drawing, even welding and glass-blowing—is mainly seen in museums now. I used to joke that a couple of years after I left Stevens Institute of Technology in the 1960s, Texas Instruments was selling everything I knew for about $19. Calculators that opened the doorway to the future did in me and my colleagues. We knew how to solve problems—"isolating the variable" was our real tool. It still is at the heart of problem-solving, but unfortunately, many of us were working on the wrong problems, like saving newspapers.

With that background, I was fascinated by the Technology Issue of The Atlantic magazine, out this week. One headline was "The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel."

The magazine, which I think is getting better all the time, used an old-fart writing trick—lists—to draw folks into the story of how technology continually changes people, work, societies and the world. An example I have often used is that without air conditioning there would be no Houston. Air conditioning is No. 44 on the list between television and the abacus.

The Atlantic formed a panel of a dozen scientists, historians and technologists to rank the top innovations. Without giving away all they said in accompanying items, I’ll list the ones I most appreciated, leaving aside some golden oldies—the nail (49), the lever (48), paper money (42), the sailboat (40), cement (37)—in reverse order:

(45) Television, brought the world into homes;

(33) Pasteurization, the most effective public health intervention;

(29) Photography, changed ... how we see ourselves;

(26) Telegraph, moved information faster than a man on a horse;

(20) The pill, launched a social revolution;

(18) The automobile, transformed daily life;

(14) Gunpowder, outsourced killing;

(12) Sanitation systems, a major reason we live 40 years longer than we did in 1880;

(9) The Internet, the infrastructure of the digital age;

(2) Electricity, made possible most of modern life.

And finally, at No. 1, the printing press, without which old farts like me would not be making a living.


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