The other day, during my long commute to work, I remembered, for no apparent reason, a story I had most likely heard on NPR back in the 1990’s. It was about a young lady who won a four-year, full-ride scholarship to college because she had won a competition for being the fastest and most accurate texter in the country. This was back when telephone texting was so new that you used to have to use your phone’s number pad, and, for example, push the number 2 anywhere from three to seven times (depending upon the phone) in order to get a lower case c.
I was still extremely new at texting at the time, but I remember being jealous of that girl, because I sure could have used a full-ride scholarship back in my day. But when I graduated from college, no one I knew had even touched a cell phone, let alone used one. They were out there, but they were the size and weight of a brick, and only the ultra-rich had them. The line for the payphone at my college dorm was always quite long.
I can still hear the sound of horror in my nephew’s voice when he told me his sister’s phone was so old that it “didn’t even flip”. That cracks me up. But man, it also makes me feel old.
But then, I remember bringing my laptop to work to show people in 2001, and bragging that it had a 10 gig hard drive. People were so impressed! That was cutting age. That was 15 years after I graduated college. So, yeah, I’m old.
Anyway, I wondered what had become of that scholarship winner. What did she major in in college? What is she doing now? Does she ever reflect on the fact that her education was paid for because of a skill that is now so commonplace that people barely give it a thought?
I tried to find the story about her on the internet, in hopes of tracking her down, but I came up empty. That’s not surprising, when you consider that commercial Internet service providers only started up in 1989, so a lot of old news never quite made it into cyberspace. I guess it will just be one of those questions that I’ll never find the answer to.
Still, it got me thinking about obsolete skills. I don’t think of texting as a skill anymore. It’s more like a means of survival. But there are quite a few skills that seem quaint or completely unnecessary these days.
I know someone who got a degree in computer science back when computers still used punch cards. That knowledge won’t exactly pay the bills in 2023. You might say that that skill was folded, spindled, and mutilated long ago.
I also know someone who won awards for her perfect penmanship when she was in elementary school. Her letters were beautiful to behold. Now, cursive writing isn’t even taught in public schools anymore. What would be the point? Will there come a day when only a few people will be able to read cursive writing, just as most Germans can no longer read Old or Middle High German texts?
I can imagine a day when people’s ability to even print words will deteriorate. Yes, they’ll know what shape each letter has, and they’ll be able to read, but they’ll have been typing and texting to the point where they’ll look like three-year-olds when they try to write something. They won’t be confident that they know how to hold a pencil or a pen. Will they even know what paper feels like? That will be tragic.
Other skills that are falling by the wayside are writing checks and balancing checkbooks, reading analog clocks, driving a manual transmission car, doing minor car maintenance such as replacing a flat tire or changing the oil, ironing clothes, making your own clothes, remembering phone numbers, having a sense of direction, folding a map, doing math in your head, finding hard copies of things in a library, making coffee on the stove, refilling a fountain pen, making and flying kites, tying a tie, creating meals using recipes, and conducting business using actual currency.
I suspect that in the year 2050, if you threw people into some sort of a wayback machine and sent them to the year 1950, they wouldn’t have a clue how to survive. From the perspective of a person who has one foot in the internet age and the other one off somewhere holding a payphone door closed while irritated dorm-mates looked on, the loss of all these skills makes me sad.
But it’s the way of the world, isn’t it? I wouldn’t know how to hunt for my own food or skin an animal or find the proper herbs to heal myself or build a house without power tools. (Well, I suppose I could Google those things if I were sufficiently motivated, but you get the idea.)
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