Beware of Global Shrinkage

In seventh grade I had a remarkable science teacher named Mr. Buarendfeindt. I still remember how to spell it because the last question on all of his tests was: How do you spell my last name? It was pronounced BarnFiend which of course conjured up pictures of some Boo Radley character who hung out in barns and scared little children. But he was a great science teacher. I remember him taking us out onto the school lawn when they launched Alan Shephard into space so that he could give us his lecture about how our lives were about to change because of our adventures in space. I was excited and fascinated because I was a young boy with a head full of science fiction and curiosity. Mr. B. was one of the avatars in the area when it came scientific imagination because the farmers down at the coffee shop couldn’t see the world shaking importance of Sputnik. It was a nice trick that the Russians did but Hiram the rancher didn’t see how it was going to affect the price of sorghum. The grandchildren of those farmers are now planting their fields using lasers and GPS guided tractors.

Coach Buarendfeindt, he was a football coach as well as a science teacher, Demanded perfection. His personality was exact and military. But you had to love him because he was almost courtly in his avuncular formality and was always upright and fair in his strictness. He was just the kind of moral wrangler that pre-adolescent heathens need, one who you could fear and respect and love at one time.
Coach B insisted that we not only learn about scientific history and method but also that we keep up with the current science that was changing our world. So, he had us out in the school yard and I could barely see Alan Shephard’s tiny streak in the sky but Coach assured us that what we were seeing was much more significant than the usual and ubiquitous contrails painted on the deep blue West Texas sky by the jets from nearby Dyess AFB; what we were seeing was Man pushing forth to a New Frontier.

I went home that night and when I was supposed to be asleep I was listening to Paul Harvey’s voice of pure golden persuasion over the marvelous new Texas Instruments transistor radio that fit nicely under my pillow. Despite Coach B’s most fervent admonitions I didn’t quite appreciate the profound changes in our society and our lives that integrated circuits and satellites would make. Nobody anticipated it. Oh, maybe Isaac Asimov or Arthur Clark.

As I write, I’m a brisk 15 minute walk from Texas Instruments where in 1958 Jack Kilby came up with the idea of the integrated circuit. Two years later I was a tweenager being thrilled by Ferrante & Teicher’s grandioise version of Exodus and intrigued by Wolfman Jack broadcasting from South of the border on a tiny radio made possible by that invention. Transistor radios and handheld calculators soon blossomed into personal computers and smart phones and we can’t even remember what the world looked like without everything having a chip in it. Computer chips are easier to make than potato chips. You don’t even have to grow a potato first. Space travel and tiny integrated circuits have changed our world. Coach B warned us that they would.

My grandfather taught me how to make a crystal radio when I was ten or so. He was an electrical engineer who played on a more modest field than Jack Kilby, he wired houses. A crystal radio was my grand-dad’s idea of the technical revolution. A few years later I was listening to a transistor radio and now I get my news in an instant at my fingertips on the world wide web. It’s been a mind-blurring 50 years since Kilby made it possible for the world to go small. It’s become so small because of communications satellites and spy satellites that we can almost see it in our minds from a distance, as a whole and not in local pieces. From the viewpoint of a satellite it is much easier to conceptualize our planet as a single integrated organism. Certain things we all share such as the oceans and the atmosphere. And the weather.

Weather is the Great Democrat. It happens to everybody equally and demonstrates how helpless and small we humans can be in the face of natural forces. It’s a worldwide affair, like the internet. It respects no borders. In just a week a hot day in the Canary Islands can turn into a hurricane rolling over Miami. A volcano in Iceland can choke air traffic across the entire European Union. Smaller things can cause larger things. It is too complex a system for us to understand or predict. Technology is a natural force much like the weather. It sweeps over our lives quite without our consent and very small things can have very large effects and we can’t exactly predict its results or interfere with its process any more than we can stop or change the weather. Both technology and the weather are without ethics or regret. They simply move forward at their own pace.

Jack Kilby’s invention changed the world as much as the electric light or the telephone. He made our world smaller in so many ways. It seems almost cramped when we know the precise price of tea in China and see every disaster in moments and people are breathing down our necks on the internet and when we wonder just how tightly we are packed on this planet, how close together are we? the answer is, ‘look at your iPhone. How thick is it? That’s how far you are from every other person on Earth.’ It’s getting stuffy in here. Jack Kilby allowed us to miniaturize our lives.

In the early 70’s one of my childhood friends was working for Sam Wylie at UCC computers. This was back in the time-sharing days when nobody could afford to own a computer so they rented them. My friend took me up into their building on Stemmons Frwy and showed me a 1970’s data storage device. It was a huge spinning cylinder that ran the whole length of the building. It was larger than a sperm whale and probably heavier. Now I can carry as much digital memory on my keychain. Our world gets smaller.

When Coach Buarenfeindt sensed that his class was drifting into inattention, he would throw open all of the windows in the classroom. He would do it with such a ruckus that he would wake the currently dozing and also discourage further napping by means of fresh cold air. Sometimes we all need a blast of fresh air. I wonder what Coach B is teaching his youngsters today. Certainly he is retired by now but some pictures must remain intact in our memories and I have to imagine that he has a new crop of budding scientists and poets in his charge. I wonder if he instructs them with the same optimism and hope for the miracles of technology that he had when he taught me at the dawn of the ’60s? He thought that man’s inventions would make our world larger. I wonder if he would be pleased or disappointed?

There is just one moon and one golden sun
And a smile means friendship to everyone.
Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
It’s a small small world–Disney Inc.

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One Response to Beware of Global Shrinkage

  1. Barbara says:

    I wonder too.

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