Monday, January 14, 2013

Generational Wows

My Mother often told my brothers and I as we grew up, the story about the first time her great grandfather and great grandmother who were straight off the boat from Italy, Nunna and Tuddi as she and her siblings knew them, saw an airport.

Like many of our Ancestors, they had come across the Atlantic Ocean on a boat through Ellis Island and unfortunately they lived some of the very real horrors that those trips entailed, death and disease. Their youngest child fell ill on the journey and for fear of being sent back, they had to bury the child at sea as to avoid suspicion and be denied entrance in to this land of opportunity. The sacrifice they made to come to America was certainly paid in more then just dollars and cents, but they made it here and did so the only way they could given the technology of the time.

Let's fast forward a half century, in 1951 construction that had begun a few years earlier on the Broome County Airport was completed and it opened to the public. It was a few years later, when my mother's father, my grandfather, took his grandparents to that airport so they could see for themselves this marvel of modern technology. As my Mother explains it, when they got there the two of them stood there looking out the windows at the planes landing and taking flight, they stood there holding hands with tears streaming down their cheeks. Not out of sadness, but out of true amazement and wonder. In their lifetime they had seen and been apart of the migration to America in what was the technological revolution of their age, the transatlantic freight liner; and yet here they were, witnessing regular Americans, purchasing tickets and boarding flights which would take them all over the globe in a matter of hours. This perhaps was the greatest moment of disbelief and wonder they ever experienced.

Let's fast forward another half century, to Thanksgiving 2012. There I stood in my parents basement next to a plywood structure, with a footprint no bigger then 9" x 5", that was whirling away squirting hot plastic in a preprogramed and computerized pattern producing a plastic bracelet. My grandparents watched in simultaneous disbelief and wonder as they peppered me with questions about how it worked, what it could do, where it could go! After about 10 minutes, it beeped and let me know it was done. I popped off the bracelet and handed it to my grandfather, who turned it over in his hands in amazement before sharing it with my grandmother. When my Grandmother asked "Someday, could it print a kidney?" and my response was "Yes, someday it will", I saw tears well up in her eyes as she thought about the potential of the little miracle that sat between us.

About a week ago, I visited the elementary school where my Mom is the librarian to share and talk about 3D printing with a group of 5th and 6th graders. I had been anticipating maybe a group of 10-15 students who didn't mind skipping recess to learn about a new technology. Much to my surprise, over a hundred students gave up their Recess and packed the library story steps past full to standing room only. They fired off a hundred questions: "Could it print jewelry?" - "Body parts?" - "Robots?" - "Cars?" - "Food?" - "Cheese blocks!?" As I answered their questions and watched as their eyes as their imaginations ran, these kids didn't question it. This was the future, they saw it how it existed and where it would go, but this was not a wow moment for them.

They are used to technology wowing them, they are used to the things that generations past see as magic as being explainable and comprehensible. This is the generation who came out of the womb with the iPod already dominating the market, for them this is the natural progression of their tools. Born into the internet age, these types of tools are expected and understood by this generation. For them it is but an extension of their skills and ability to actualize their imaginations.

My great-great grandparents lived from a day and age where a transatlantic steamliner was the only means to travel from continent to continent to a world where it was a matter of purchasing a ticket and sitting in a seat in the sky for a couple of hours; now, today's generation comes to school and is exposed to additive fabrication on their desktops. So I leave you with a thought to ponder: imagine what amazing and unfathomable technological accomplishments this generation will see, that will some day bring them to tears, as the tools of today have for generations past.