It is Saturday, Sept. 3, and there is a slight, almost imperceptible breeze blowing off the Sound. This morning I have my coffee — Green Mountain Dark Magic — and NPR’s Weekend Edition providing commentary both profound and ephemeral.
This is Labor Day weekend and an opportunity to celebrate American labor. When I was young American labor was pretty much defined by the American Federation of Labor as the celebration of union labor — which is to say manual labor. It was men working an assembly line or women hunched over a typewriter for eight tedious, tiring, soul-killing hours. It was an easy holiday for us kids to understand because it marked the end of summer and the beginning of a new school year that would require student labor.
In my youth, there was no economic tent pole called “tech” providing consistent adrenaline for a robust stock market. In my carefree, barefoot, cheeks-of-tan childhood that tent pole was General Motors and a nation-wide empire that supported the maintenance of millions of Bonnevilles, Corvettes and RoadMasters.
In my youth it was possible to look at the things we manufactured — a carburetor for instance — and understand how that device worked and how it might be repaired or replaced when it failed.
In my teenage years, many of my friends owned their own automobiles. In many cases they could rebuild the transmission or install what were then called “glass packs.” And these callow, flat-topped boys were universally envied when their modified Dodge Meadowbrook pulled into the Skyview Drive-Inn in Florence, S.C.
The transition from auto parts to laptops came slowly, incrementally and the very first products — Nintendo video games for example — didn’t seem all that meaningful or momentous. Who would have though that these first devices would morph into a hand-held, Eskimo Pie-sized device that would change the way we lived our lives. Who could have predicted that the cellphone would replace Timex watches, Kodak cameras, daily newspapers, Oxford dictionaries, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Good Gulf road maps, and the routines and rhythms of previous generations. But who, among us, knows how these devices actually work.
Some weeks ago I was talking with my son about the camera that comes inside one’s cellphone.
“I understand how a 35mm camera works — light comes comes into the lens, hits a plastic sheet coated with silver nitrate, and transforms those chemicals into images. But I don’t understand the digital process,” I began.
“I don’t understand how light enters a cellphone and is transformed into an image without a piece of chemically coated film,” I continued.
My son, who makes his living in television, started by talking about how photons hit a sensor site, are measured and then converted into pixels. “The sensor chip measures the quantity of light and changes that into a number.”
I will admit that my baby-boomer mind could not envision a thin piece of metal making millions of pixels and then turning them into numbers. The mechanics of a cellphone making photographs is simply beyond my imagination.
And this, I think, is the problem with most of my aging friends — we simply cannot understand how our cellphone does what it does and that makes us uneasy. Where once we could understand a carburetor, and how to fix it, we are now encouraged to simply buy a new laptop if and when the old one fails.
This lack of understanding of how cellphones, laptops, automobiles, aircraft and most battlefield weapons work is now an ongoing, fundamental problem hanging over my generation and virtually everyone in their 70s and 80s.
It is, however, a passing problem. It’s passing away because our generation — its unease, paranoia and sense of helplessness — is dying-out. Our children and grandchildren have no fear of these machines — they are fearless when its comes to using and often repairing their old computers when they fail.
All of which brings me back to Labor Day and the fact that I no longer understand what labor is these days. I only know that “tech” employs a huge labor force and the growth of “tech” has fueled the American economy for the last 40 years. I know that we continue to be innovative and prolific in this field and this gives us an edge.
I know that I dislike Twitter, Facebook and the fact that Zoom has become a noun. But maybe it’s time for my generation to sit back, open a second bottle of Bogle Chardonnay, and enjoy what’s left of our ride.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.