When I was 5 years old my father came home one evening with considerably more excitement than normal. “Look at this,” he glowed, as he put a box on the kitchen counter.
He plugged in the box and turned a knob. In a moment I was slack-jawed in amazement. There, right on the front of the box, gray images of moving people suddenly appeared out of nowhere. My dad turned another knob, and sound came out of the box.
Funny lines went back and forth across the picture. Dad jiggled a couple of metal sticks sticking out of the top of the box and the funny lines went away. Clearly, my dad could do anything.
And with those grainy images the Huston family was ushered in 1957 into a world so modern it contained something called television.
In the years since then there have been a few more inventions of note. Stereo. The measles vaccine. Agent Orange. Lava lamps. Satellites. Valium. Pocket calculators. Microwave ovens. FM radio. Cable. Artificial hearts. Cars with eight-track tape players. Computers small enough to fit inside your home. The World Wide Web. Space Invaders. Facebook. Digital everything.
Along with the inventions came the moments: The grassy knoll. The British invasion. Woodstock. Civil rights. Roe vs. Wade. Vietnam. The pill. Watergate. Tear down this wall. Read my lips. AIDS. I did not have sex with that woman. 9/11. Desert Storm. Change you can believe in. Sandy Hook. Ebola. Gay marriage. ISIS. Trayvon. Build a wall. Lock her up.
In the pre-digital world of my childhood my parents complained about the Beatles, mini-skirts and the difficulty of living in such modern times. We may laugh at that today, but 50 years from now our children will likely look back on the early 21st century and marvel at the digital stone age in which we lived our lives. Old or young, from the past, present or future, we’re all just trying to make our way through what for us is modern life.
For 40 years I’ve worked in television news. You might say I’ve had a front-row seat watching the good, the bad, and the sometimes very ugly. When I began my career in 1977 we wrote with typewriters, Apple was just a fruit, disco ruled the world, and CNN was still three years way. Since then I’ve watch the raw tapes of two generations worth of war, political turmoil, natural disasters, and social upheaval. But as much as the headlines fascinate me, I’m more fascinated by the way people react to the headlines. The selfless service after the disaster. The cruelty born from fear and misunderstanding. Why despair crushes some but strengthens others. Why thoughtful understanding so often takes a quick back seat to rushed judgment.
A few things have come into fairly sharp focus at this point in my life. Our digital age — born in the promise of bring us together — has left us more divided than ever before. Yes, it’s a beautiful thing when a soldier serving on the other side of the world can see his new daughter back in the States. But it is also true that the digital flood of frenzied information has placed the fake and the factual on equal footing in our lives, and it is driving us into angry opposite corners, where the edges bulge and the middle continues to collapse.
We can whine about it, but nothing comes from whining. For good or bad, or both, this is simply modern life — our version of it, anyway — a divided world filled with beauty and ugliness, made up of people like you and me who, despite our best efforts, are capable of both.
In the weeks to come we’ll take an eyes-wide-open look at the comedies and tragedies of living our modern lives. I’ll welcome your comments along with your own tales from the front lines of the daily battles that engulf us.
So as we now return to the war, I hope you’ll join me in remembering that win or lose, the good fight is always worth fighting. See you next week.