Letter from the President
Change is as old as time
By Paul A. Levengood, President and Chief Executive Officer
Not too long ago, I was the guest speaker at a luncheon. The conversation was lively and at one point turned to the topic of the way that kids communicate today. More than one person remarked that their grandchildren always seem to have electronic devices in their hands, texting away at the dinner table or wherever they happen to be. There was general agreement from my lunch companions that the world has changed—and probably not for the better—when teenagers behave in such a way.
I am the father of three tech-savvy children, and so I do agree with some of the sentiments expressed by my luncheon hosts. But the historian in me feels compelled to offer a less-than-profound rejoinder: there is nothing new under the sun. Although the pace of change in our society now seems to increase exponentially, there is a strong thread of continuity in both the change that we all see around us and in our reaction to it.
I am sure that if we could go back in time and observe our early ancestors, we would hear Mesopotamian mothers and fathers in the fourth millennium B.C. complaining that their children refuse to stay at home and would rather roll around on these new-fangled wheels to visit their friends. Certainly the late nineteenth century saw strong negative reactions to the dizzying technological change of the day. In 1890, Mark Twain famously wrote: "It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us . . . may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss, except the inventor of the telephone."
You may be asking yourself, why is Paul rambling on about the pace of change and people's reactions to it? Well, public history institutions like the VHS are in the business of documenting and explaining change (and continuity) over time. Like so many things, the change that we see around us in smartphones and social media can be better understood as a part of a long and ongoing transformation of how we communicate with one another—from the written alphabet to the telegraph to the internet. An understanding of history shows that from the earliest recorded human history technological innovation has spawned anxiety, even fear, about its effects. It also shows that this often falls along generational lines. The young tend to be more eager to adapt to new inventions than do their elders. And history also demonstrates that predictions about the downfall of civilization because of the rise of the automobile, telephone, or home computer have proved false. I think it's vitally important for the VHS to be a place where these lessons of history can be communicated and learned. It's a big part of what we do.
Sorry, I have to go. My son just texted me, and I have to pick him up.
Posted April 2012
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