The Ways My World Has Changed

By Tad Beckman

So much of what an older generation of Americans were familiar with has changed. That presents two problems: there is a strong generational disconnect and the huge urban-rural political conflict in our times is significantly connected to the fact that the rural way of life has not changed as much as has the urban.

We need to begin by talking about “worlds”. And to talk about “worlds” we will need to talk about language.

In standard language use we make reference to “the world”. Our communication through language is based on the assumption that we all live in a world, indeed, the world. I am not talking about whether the world is flat, round, or spheroidal, or whether there are other worlds in the universe. What I am saying is that language --- our medium of exchange --- is anchored in the idea of a single common world. Without that unique world, I would say, communication is impossible.

I say, “Go get the ball.” The listener takes it that there is a ball in “the world” and that he/she ought to go and get it. Doubtless, in some sense, there is a unique single world and that is why language is effective. Indeed, that is why linguistic communication is possible. Language evolves because we are all, in some sense, anchored in a real world.

But does anyone actually experience “the world”? I do not think so. My point is that I experience “my world”. The listener, experiences his world. I believe (but could not prove) that we both start from the real unique world. But our experiences are different and so I carry with me “my world” and she carries “her world”.

Little of this made sense to me when I was young, but after I married I grew to see it very clearly. When you know someone intimately and you communicate about the smallest things, you must come to recognize that your world and her world are not at all the same.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger referred to the human being as ‘dasein’ meaning, literally, “being there.” Each individual is a separate and unique perspective on a world.

The world, so far as we know, has not changed much over the 80+ years that I have been alive. In fact, it has not changed that much in several millennia, probably. But my world has been transformed. That is the story I wish to tell here.

When I was a boy, my world was essentially the town of Wilmette, Illinois. From kindergarten onward, I walked the three blocks from our house on Highland Avenue to the Leland Howard School. My world contained my mother, my brother, and occasionally my grandmother. We also had a cat. After we got our first car (around 1940 I think) my world expanded to include the Michigan lakeshore, our town center, and the truck farm in the country where we bought fresh produce in the summer. As a boy, I belonged to the Wildcat Boy’s Club, run by Northwestern University, and so I explored Dyche Stadium (now called Ryan Field) and Patton Gymnasium in Evanston. In my world, my father was someone who might come to see me and my brother on a Sunday, but other boys in the club had father’s who lived with them at home.

My mother cooked on a gas stove that had legs, four burners, and an oven that you daringly lit with a match. Our refrigerator was electric but the freezer part was very small and only contained a couple of ice cube trays. There was a large radio in the living room and it had a turntable on the top where you could play 78 rpm records. In the summer it was hot and humid and rarely cooled off much in the evening. We used to lie on our beds with no covers and with all the windows open in the hope there might be a breeze. In the winter, the house was heated by a huge furnace in the basement. It was fueled by oil stored in a large smelly tank in a room next to the furnace. A fan circulated air through ducts in the furnace and up into the house through what we called “registers.” Windows were covered by “storm windows” in the winter and screens in the summer. Everything had to be re-painted each year. I spent most of my free time in the back yard or riding in my wagon or on my bicycle. With the bicycle, my personal world began to expand throughout the town.

The radio expanded our worlds somewhat. At least we heard voices, music, etc. that came from great distances. On Saturdays we could listen to someone describe the progress in a football game. I listened to that radio the evening when President Roosevelt announced the attack on Pearl Harbor. But by the time I was in high school, we had a television. This was an amazing revolution since now we could actually see the people and places that were at a great distance from us.

Many, many years later, we have color television brought in from a satellite, an internet connection via a cable that streams data at a frightening rate of 108 mega bites per second, and a tiny Apple telephone that is really a computer with more capacity than I ever dreamed possible when I was starting out teaching chemistry in 1961. My world, like other personal worlds, has not merely expanded, but it has totally blown open.

When I was in graduate school, I used to write and receive letters through the US Postal Service with my mother and brother. Today I can email anyone I know at any time of day or night and get a reply within minutes or hours. Of course, my phone lets me “message” friends and even carry on conversations with them while I drink coffee at Starbucks.

That is my personal story, but the question I have is for all of us. The question is What has this done to us? This question involves at least two different perspectives. One is my own perspective, as someone who grew up in a very different world and has adapted to the present circumstances. The other is the perspective of one who has been born (let’s say after 1990) and has grown up in this very state of affairs.

As a boy, it was pretty easy to be an introvert. My world was not that complicated and was no rival for my “internal world.” I lived in that world of imagination as much as I lived in my external world. I am still an introvert --- no doubt there --- but the external world is now pervasive. This morning while drinking coffee at Starbucks I made a reservation for a restaurant in Los Angeles four days from now, messaged my daughter in Seattle, and had a conversation with a friend in Ridgecrest who will join us at that dinner. Earlier in the morning, via Facebook, I saw posts by my nephew in Chicago, my granddaughter in Davis, another granddaughter in Boise, and several friends right here in town. A quick look at CNN’s website informed me about national politics and various events around the world.

What is interesting about this is that I spend a lot more time in my external world than I ever did before. I am becoming an extrovert not by choice but by a kind of not-so-subtle necessity. I am also in contact with much more knowledge (or should I say “information”) than ever before. For most things, I do not need to go to the library or read a research book; I use my iPhone to access Wikipedia and find what detail I want to know about almost anything from the population of Luxembourg (602,000 by the way) to the birth date of Clayton Kershaw (March 19, 1988). Oh, and speaking of my phone, if I get stalled somewhere and need something to read, my Kindle app has around 40 saved books, including 12 of my own authorship.

And then there is my computer. Word processing is the great boon of computing so far as I am concerned. When I wrote my papers as an undergraduate, I used a portable typewriter and had to learn how to make clean erasures in case of mistakes. You wrote from beginning to end --- no other way available. My dissertation had to be typed by a professional with onion-skin copies on an electric typewriter. And then there was word processing! Now I can begin at the end, move to the middle, and do the beginning last. Also, I can return over and over to add or delete, and it never complains or has to redo anything.

It is hard for me to imagine the perspective of someone born into this world.

Is there a political dimension to the world-view I am discussing? I believe there is.

For one thing, there is information coming at us from all directions and faster than we can digest it. As a professor, I always taught my students to check the sources of information and to check the institutional connections. All of that has become increasingly difficult. Not everyone is honest about their affiliations these days. The example of Russian interference in our national affairs is an example. But we have domestic liars as well. There are media in our own country today who prefer to sow false or misleading information about those they see as adversaries than to aim for peace and understanding. Probably none of this behavior is particularly new but the incredible pervasiveness of communication today makes it far more dangerous.

The pervasiveness of communication has created another phenomenon, I fear. I know of people who have lost touch with what had been their personal experienced worlds and have instead adopted the world of some group accessed through the internet. The group frames their personal worlds as opposed to life experiences. Indeed, the “experienced internet” has become personal reality for some.

American politics today is dominated by a radical division between urban dwellers and rural dwellers. Just look at the political map. The vast majority of our land mass is red for Republicans and the spots of blue for Democrats are, indeed, merely spots cast here and there. Those spots house the majority of Americans because they are densely populated urban and suburban regions.

My point, though, is that I believe rural worlds have not changed nearly as much as urban worlds. The world I have described in my personal story is the evolution of an urban worldview. I do not know how much of a similar affect has occurred in the rural regions. Granted, most regions now have television and some have satellite internet. But rural culture still seems to operate on a small scale of neighborhoods. And I am reminded of that line in the stage play “Oklahoma” --- “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City.” From the rural perspective, the cities are completely crazy places where everything new and radical is embraced --- far removed from traditional religious based society. The urban environment has invited people to experiment in manifold ways and we have gone, quite frankly, far beyond what rural folks are ready to tolerate.

Urban and suburban children of the ‘90s have grown up in diverse societies where there are many races, many religious beliefs, many sexual preferences, and alternative gender identifications. These phenomena, if they exist in rural communities, do not surface publicly. Hence the urban worldview is profoundly different from the rural worldview. So our worlds and theirs have resulted in a huge collision, and as I see it there is little way that cultural collision will be resolved. Politics has become a simple war of numbers --- which group can out-vote the other.

What happens in this “war” is that the Republican rural majorities try to limit the voting rights of those they believe will vote Democratic. A kind of racial nationalism has evolved. Rural societies detest the wealth, diversity, and experimentalism of urban societies. Their revered world is a society of white Christians of European ancestry --- the “good old days.”