Today’s Rip van Winkle

Rapid innovation is startling, wondrous, and worrisome


Life Issues

Sometimes I feel like Rip van Winkle waking from a 20-year sleep to find drastic changes, not only social but technological as well. Our standard of living has improved more in the last 100 years than in all recorded history. Such rapid innovation is startling and wondrous. But it’s also worrisome — dare I say disturbing — to oldsters like me who daily face the challenge of new-fangled gadgets.

I know seniors who understandably neglect or avoid using a PC computer or iPad. When I was an undergrad studying engineering, a large room housed a metal frame computer filled with glass vacuum tubes. Today, a million times more computing power lodges in cell phones, which can feel overwhelmingly complicated. We seniors can’t keep up. Oldsters in the mid-1700s woke to circumstances that had barely morphed in 10,000 years. Today, however, after the steam engine, horseless carriages, and rockets to the moon, technology changes faster and faster, exponentially doubling every 18 months (Moore’s Law). Just think of the enormous industrial impact when nuclear fusion replaces gasoline combustion engines. Will physicists develop teleportation of material, as in Star Trek? Entire medical industries are sure to disappear like oversized dinosaurs when replaced by the unimaginable machinations of invisible stem cells and nanotechnology.

Back in the mid-1700s, old Rip no longer saw King George’s profile swinging on a pub shingle but President George Washington’s instead. Likewise, big social changes are now in the offing. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, doctor-patient telemedicine, lawyer-client video-counseling, and grocery delivery are developing as substitutes for person-to-person encounters. Will live sports be challenged by video games, and will politicians seize the chance to mandate higher and higher taxes? Debt-strapped businesses like Macy’s, GM, and Boeing may go bankrupt. The grand illusion of productivity and earnings growth will stop. Even cash — that germy, filthy lucre – may go, replaced by credit cards and phone wallets.

In the not too distant future, we humans may be part “bionic” creatures with enhancement devices implanted in our heads. Think instant language translation or fast statistical calculations. Without that imbedded chip, one may have no access to basic necessities or banking. Haphazard sexual reproduction could be deemed a form of Russian roulette, replaced by assembly-line test-tube babies, all DNA engineered. Programmable lifelike robot sex partners could become big business.

How many local churches will be converted into fancy luxury condominiums? Grandiose cathedrals like Notre Dame–no longer tax free–could become virtual 3D touring sites. Liturgies could be celebrated only on TV. Catholic canon law will be forced to change, as seen in China. All sacraments could be done via video by a dwindling cadre of bishops, priests, and deacons.

These musings give a glimpse of why I sometimes feel like Rip van Winkle. Every day I wake to what seems like a leap of 20 years, to where nothing much is left of my innocent childhood. I find a frenzied world gone mad and yearn again for the bowling thunder of the mysterious Catskill Mountains.

Forgive us seniors for harboring nostalgia for the old fashioned ways. Our short term memory loss often defers to what’s long past.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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