The multitasking. Twenty years ago, it was

 The phones: The idea of a phone
dates back at least to 1947, but the first call was made from the sidewalk
outside the Manhattan Hilton in 1973 by Martin Cooper, a Motorola researcher
who rang up his rival at AT&T Bell Labs to test the new phone.  Thirty
years later, more than half of all Americans own one and cellular networks are
beginning to serve Internet access at broadband speeds through thin air. Cell
phones have brought a whole new meaning to the term multitasking. Twenty years
ago, it was not possible to talk to the office while you were at the grocery
store picking up some necessary items. You could never have had a three-way
business conference while you were fixing dinner or been able to deal with a
business client from home while caring for a sick child. Cell phones have
enabled us to do various tasks all at the same time.

Space
flight: Americans from 50 years ago would be disappointed
to learn we never went further than the Moon — no Mars colony, no 2001 odyssey
to Jupiter, no speed-of-light spaceships.  Even the Shuttle is in
trouble.  But the space race against the Russians that dominated the
national psyche (and a good chunk of the budget) in the ’60s and ’70s pushed
the development of hundreds of enabling technologies, including synthetic fibres
and integrated computer circuits, necessary to fly men to the Moon and
back.  And the astronauts brought back a lesson from space: “We saw the
earth the size of a quarter, and we realized then that there is only one earth.
We are all brothers. “With the revolution of space flight launching network
satellites that has enabled global connections that has enabled global
communication.

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Personal
computers: Before IBM recast the desktop computer from
hobbyist’s gadget to office automation tool in 1983 followed by Apple’s
people-friendly Macintosh a year later a “minicomputer” was the size of a
washing machine and required a special air-conditioned room.  But the
trained technicians who operated the old mainframes already knew computers were
cool: They could use them to play games, keep diaries, and trade messages with
friends across the country, while still looking busy.  Today, thanks to
the PC, we all look busy.

 Digital
media: “The camera doesn’t lie” went a saying not heard much since the
release of Photoshop 1.0 in 1990.  Digitized audio, pictures, movies, and
text let even an amateur edit reality — or conjure it from scratch — with a
keyboard and a mouse.  A singer’s bad notes, a model’s blemishes, or an
overcast sky in a movie scene can be fixed as easily as a spelling error. 
Just as important, digital media can be copied over and over nearly for free,
stored permanently without fading, and sent around the world in seconds. 
It rightly worries the movie and music industries, but how do you put the genie
back in the bottle if there’s no bottle anymore?

The
Internet: This one seems like a no-brainer, but the Net’s
unique strength is that no two people will agree on why it’s so
important.  The world’s largest and most unruly library, it’s also a
global news channel, social club, research archive, shopping service, town
hall, and multimedia kiosk.  Add to that the most affordable mass medium
ever, and a curse to anyone with a secret to keep.  Three-fifths of
Americans now use the Net, but it remains to be seen whether the connections to
one another will transform us, or prove that we’ll never change.

 TV: Barely
20 years after radio shook the entertainment landscape, broadcast television
sent out another temblor in the 1930s and 1940s. Television changed everything
from the way people got their news to how advertising was done.

Despite being blamed for everything from our sedentary
lifestyles to societal violence, TV isn’t going anywhere, and in fact an
incredible number of waking ours are spent in front of the boob tube. Last
year, a Nielson report estimated that Americans watch more than 5 hours a day,
on average. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) recently estimated that,
recession be danged, ownership of high-definition TVs in U.S. households has
doubled in the past two years.

Radio: When
Guglielmo Marconi patented his radiotelegraph system in 1901, he envisioned it
as a way for ships to wirelessly communicate with one another. But by the
1920s, regular broadcasts of music and news exploded, ushering in a new era of
mass media. From baby monitors to military radar, radio is now firmly
entrenched in everyday life. The ability to harness radio waves eventually made
possible all forms of wireless networking, from cell phones to Wi-Fi.

 

 The
Printing Press: The original game-changing gadget was too
big to fit in your pocket, but it revolutionized literacy all the same. Around
1450, German goldsmith Johannes Gutenburg transformed printing with his press,
a table-sized machine modelled after the wine presses of the day. The invention
used thousands of movable metal letters to quickly and cheaply copy text.
Gutenburg’s press took the spread of ideas out of the hands of elites and paved
the way for the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment.