Opinion: The times they are a-changin’

By Leonard Pitts Jr.
Miami Herald

“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.” — The Steve Miller Band

Allow me to offer you a few things to consider while you’re laughing at Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel.

If you were unaware that folks were poking fun at the former hosts of NBC’s “Today” show, you are likely also unaware of a video making the rounds online. The clip, which dates from January 1994, shows Couric and Gumbel attempting to understand this new thing called … the “Internet.”

“What is Internet anyway?” asks Gumbel.

“Internet,” explains Couric uncertainly, “is that massive computer network, the one that’s becoming really big now.”

“What do you mean?” demands Gumbel. “What do you, write to it, like mail?”

“No,” says Couric, “a lot of people use it to communicate.” She turns to someone off camera. “Can you explain what Internet is?”

Folks online have found this greatly amusing, and it is. Still, I think we should cut Couric and Gumbel some slack. Because if it’s true time has made idiots of them, the larger truth is that it has made — and continues to make — idiots of us all.

Try a thought experiment: Imagine you went to sleep in 1850 and awoke in 1900. How disoriented would you be? Well, you’d find there’s a machine now that sews, a device called a “typewriter” that writes, and a gun that fires hundreds of rounds a minute. Oh, and those who can afford it are enjoying a luxury called the telephone. The world has changed, but it has hardly become unrecognizable.

Now, imagine you went to sleep in 1961 and woke up today. As Grady used to say on “Sanford and Son,” great googly-moogly! Suddenly, there are fax machines, iPhones, iPods, iPads, apps, Wiis, HD, LCD, DVD, voice-mail, robo calls and microwaves to deal with. But the elephant in the elevator is this “Internet,” which has revolutionized virtually every human undertaking: sex, faith, news, communication, education, entertainment … “everything.”

The point being, we have experienced – are experiencing – greater change at a faster pace than ever before. But as a fish in water doesn’t know it’s wet, we, living through this challenging, disorienting, dislocating, “tectonic” shifting of everything, don’t always appreciate the blinding speed with which it is happening.

I am reminded of how, back in maybe 2002, I interviewed a guy for some information, but he couldn’t help me. “Why don’t you Google it?” he said.

“What’s Google?” I asked.

Go on and laugh. But understand that what makes yesterday’s cluelessness seem so funny in the present day is the subconscious but very real tendency to take for granted that we are history’s end result, the apotheosis of enlightenment, the thing toward which change was pointing all along. That’s what accounts for the smug amusement you feel when, for instance, you gaze upon one of those magazine ads from the 1940s where doctors are hawking cigarettes.

But that sense of smugness is always folly, always fool’s gold, and never more so than now, when fundamental changes are occurring at unprecedented speed and you and I have not a clue where we’re going, what we’re going to be when we get there, nor even much time to wonder. We are too busy bailing water from the sinking boats of former lives and professions.

We are too busy trying to divine the curve of the new horizon, as familiar old media, modes, models and mores die with bewildering suddenness and new ones snap to life faster still.

So yeah, the video of Couric and Gumbel is funny, but it is also sobering. The fact that they can seem so utterly clueless just 17 years later is stark evidence of the speed with which our world is changing, charging toward an unknown future. Laugh if you want, but realize this much, too:

The joke is really on us all.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.