The Pace Of Change

How life has changed. It used to be so different. Does anyone else remember their shelves groaning under the weight of all those books?

For a writer it’s incredibly easy now. Want to research some obscure topic? Just go to Google and start searching.

But take a moment and – unless you were born any later than say 1990 – remember how it used to be.

Once, I felt quite insecure without my reference books around me. They gave me security. I’m proud of having a fairly wide vocabulary (words are wonderful and I never really understood that time a friend took the mickey out of me for using the word ‘fractious’ in a pub conversation).

But even with all the verbiage that sometimes trips off my tongue there are still occasions when I can’t think of the right word – or the correct spelling.

It never used to be a problem though. I’d simply reach for the reassuring weight of my Oxford English Dictionary, sitting there next to a battered edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, a synonym finder and a copy of Brewer’s Dictionary Of Phrase And Fable. Nearby were various encyclopedias, books on plants and birds, an atlas and assorted travel guides.

All of the above were a fairly standard writer’s library. But where are they now? Mostly in a box in the attic getting mustier and dustier with every year. Superfluous when, with a few clicks on my keyboard, I can find more detailed and up-to-date information online, often far quicker too.

Old technology: 17th century clock in Copenhagen – still working, still beautiful.

What amazes me is how fast, in relative terms, the world has changed. (For those of us living in the developed or the developing worlds anyway.)

My father used to lecture in electronic engineering at the University of Southampton. He started as a lab technician and, back in the late 50s, one of his roles was to go in and switch on the university’s Pegasus computer so its valves had time to warm up before anyone wanted to use it.

Back then Pegasus was the university’s only computer and had its own building. Now, the apps on your mobile phone are way more sophisticated.

In the early 80s I was a student at university and unusual in having my own PC (a cast-off thanks to my dad’s job). Most of my fellow students at that time had never touched a keyboard.

In the late 90s I went on a rather belated gap-year, backpacking around the world. It was truly a voyage into the unknown and I remember the excitement of arriving in bigger cities like Kathmandu and going to the main post office to see if we had letters waiting from family and friends. Phoning home was a major operation. Email was barely heard of. We even sent postcards.

Three years ago I started planning a major charity cycling trip around the world. The difference was incredible. Using Google Maps I could plan the route for each day, calculate distances and even ‘fly’ sections with Google Earth. I contacted hundreds of individuals and organisations in advance, booking up places to stay, talks and media interviews. All done electronically and the information saved on my hard drive.

Researching stories is equally different. For my forthcoming novel Pagan’s Sphinx I was able to check all kind of details without leaving my desk or picking up a book. Facts like sunrise and sunset times for the Western Sahara on particular dates, road numbers in Morocco, what 19th century Egyptologists said about The Great Sphinx at Giza etc.

Technological progress seems endless and I’m sure it must help save the trees but sometimes I miss the real books, the weight and the feel of them.

We also start to take the technology more and more for granted but occasionally it turns round and bites us. Like when I wrote the first draft of this post last night (without remembering to save as I went) and then WordPress had a glitch and I lost the lot!

Maybe I’d better keep hold of those books. Just in case.


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59 responses to “The Pace Of Change”

  1. MayContainBitsAlex says :

    I too think that old tech is beautiful and that we take it more for granted. Its actually very interesting how technology has changed

  2. dongrgic says :

    A wonderful trip down memory lane. Thank you.
    Takes me back to all the adventures I had with the first computers when writing random access programs and saving the data to a tape drive and watching it go back and forward searching for data at an amazingly slow pace, by todays standards. Then it was high tech. Now if you had been writing your post in an app on your Mac, you would not even have to save… it would just do it for you and the same content would be instantly available to you on all your cloud connected devices. Amazing.
    It’s interesting how “back then”, we used to go to a library to study and do research for our projects, these days I tell my kids to “google it”. Instead of books gathering dust on shelves and being picked up occasionaly, I carry a substantial library of them on my phone and the same large library on the iPad.
    Do you remember when you wanted to check out new music? You used to go down to the record store and listen to the tracks. If you wanted to listen more often, you would buy a vinyl record and play it at home. That was portability. Now you preview on line and download the tracks as you go and of course carry your music with you at all times.
    Do you think all these changes have somehow degraded the value and quality of the content?
    And I don’t think you need to worry about keeping those books. Pace of change will keep increasing.

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Yes, we’ve certainly seen some changes and I don’t doubt there are more to follow.
      I hardly bother with CDs anymore, just load everything onto my hard drive.
      Still got my old LPs though – you can’t beat the sound of vinyl when it’s cranked up on a good sound system!

  3. Katie says :

    Well I was born in 1990, so for most of my life I’ve had the luxury of Google. We still have some old encyclopedias at my house, and I just can’t imagine writing a paper or doing any kind of research without a trusty search engine or Wikipedia. I think we don’t realize just how much faster and easier the internet makes everything.

  4. Gavin says :


    Like your post a lot. You’re right how much things have changed. I wonder how much the technology changes us and our behaviors. Google and access to information implies that there isn’t a premium anymore on learning stuff, but on learning how to find, filter and synthesize stuff. I don’t need to know how to spell synthesize, spellcheck does it for me. I don’t need to write legibly, I can type. I don’t need to learn to plan, I can call you or text you and find out where you are, I don’t need to read a map… the list goes on.

    I wonder if all this access to information driven change is near the end of its cycle. After all, the change was the availability of the information, and ability to access. It’s there now, surely it will be refined, but will it change the way we behave? It’s analogous to swapping out old skills as a race (walking around and being able to ride) to new (driving a car) but if you could drive a car in 1920, you could probably drive a car today…

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Ah yes spellcheck… I hate to tell you but it’s not infallible!
      I can’t comment on US English or other platforms but Microsoft’s grasp of British English is certainly far from perfect. There are plenty of valid words that it doesn’t recognise and it’s grammar is a guide at best.
      Like many things, the tools are only there to help the workman. They can’t do the job for you and the trouble is the more that we believe them then we get lazier and we also get more ignorant.
      But that’s just a personal rant in reaction to a particular pet hate! Other than that, I think you’re right. It’s all out there, now it’s about how we use it.

  5. segmation says :

    The digital picture of that old clock is such beautiful Natural Art, don’t you think so?

    • Huw Thomas says :

      I’d missed the irony that I’m using digital technology to show the clock. I used to love film – and the detail is still hard to beat – but digital images are just so much more convenient and so much easier to manipulate.

  6. mynameisyuyu says :

    i’m one of the late 80’s borns and i grow up being a native to technological advancements..i’m currently doing my post grad studies and i can assure you that we are the generations who prefer for resources to be available online – that we don’t have to go to the library and go through shelf after shelf just to find the right read..if it’s in pdf, we hold the power of knowing the right keywords to search for and it saves a lot of reading time..

    i think with time, the next generation wouldn’t even value the smell of a newly purchased book..or value highly the author’s signature on the book..we’d forget the wonders a book can give..true technology is important but i really wish we’d not say ‘oh, good old books’ in some distant future..

  7. legendsofyouth says :

    Wonderul post. I’ll admit, writing plus google equals a good time haha So much easier with some help. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! Keep it coming.

  8. Matt_S_Law says :

    I like talking to younger folks about typewriters. The old mechanical ones, where the harder you struck the keys, the darker the letter imprints on the page… And when you made a mistake… you threw away the paper and started over. Even though I haven’t touched a typewriter in over 20 years, I like the sound it makes. Makes me feel like a reporter for a newspaper in a black and white movie. Maybe I can get a word-processing app for the iPad with keystrokes that sound like a typewriter.

  9. donisonl says :

    I think technology speeds up time. It allows us to do things faster. In todays society time is money, in places like the USA and Canada people are always in a rush and life is very high pace. If we didn’t have technology and we didn’t have cars everything would take longer to do. I think we defiantly gain but lose with technology. For an example people working at some fast food restaurants do not even need to figure out how much change to give the customer back because the machine gives out the change automatically. This person working barley needs to think, the calculations are done and the only skill left is to hand the money to the customer. If we don’t learn to control Technology it will control us and eventually we will be like robots.

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Now, I definitely agree with that. We need to be the masters of the technology not the servants… and recognise that sometimes we don’t need it.

      • donisonlaurel says :

        This is also why is it important that we educate people and children to give them experiences and allow them to realize how technology can effects us in a negative and positive way. We know it will never go away so we must learn no matter what with anything WHEN YOU GAIN SOMETHING YOU LOSE SOMETHING!

  10. DrAnthonysBlog says :

    #CoolBlogPost @DrAnthony

  11. JB says :

    There is still something reassuring about those old books around us though. Well for me anyway.

  12. Airstream Family says :

    I grew up before Google was invented and used to have to go to the library to research my school assignments. I remember having to load a cassette tape into the Commodore 64 and wait for at least 20 minutes to play Wonder Boy. I used to love making mixed tapes for my friends. I learnt to edit footage on large Betacam cassettes, way before Final Cut Pro and digital editing was widely available.That was less than 15 years ago! Now my 3 kids, under 3, already know how to work an ipad and iphone… But despite all the new technology and instant gratification, is anyone any happier?

  13. Dale Degagne says :

    thanks to technology, we can reach out to thousands of people. We can assist them from our virtual office and possibly fill a need for them without even leaving our home office. As an example, I’m currently working from India. Why? Because it’s possible. The sad irony though is that the easier it is to “stay connected” the more easily I feel disconnected from people. Does anybody else feel that way?

  14. swozy says :

    It’s funny I’m reading this ‘Freshly Pressed’ post today – congratulations!

    I went for a walk this morning having ran out of excuses to do so and whilst walking I realised how much time I’m spending with technology these days.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but at times it seems we’ve become preoccupied with it.

    I was born before the 80s so I know what you’re talking about. Take for instance ‘Mail’, it used to be and still is delivered once a day – the old fashioned way. Once you got it – that was it till the next day. BUT, how many times a day do we access our emails to see what we have, who has written and what they have to say.

    I love the benefits technology has given us, but for me at lest, I’m wondering if we should be socialising with humans more often than we do with our laptops.

    Know what I mean?

    • Huw Thomas says :

      I know just what you mean. Also, because we now expect things instantly it means that all too often we do things, respond etc without taking the time to really think about it.
      Back in the days when communication was by post we had more time to consider before we made contact.
      On the other hand we couldn’t reach out to the same number of people with such ease. It’s easy to take for granted but the visitors to my blog are coming from all over the world (literally) and I’m in touch with people I’d probably have never met otherwise.

      • elmer says :

        Right. Cheers to you from Manila!

        And let’s not be too delighted. The surge of information technology also brought us trash in unimaginable proportions.

  15. clarewells says :

    A discussion something like this came up in a seminar I was at yesterday – because we can access any information online, schools should be moving away from teaching solely fact-based learning and instead should encourage children to learn how to research for themselves. I would love to see more independent study in the national curriculum, but it’s a case of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Following that idea to it’s logical conclusion – why teach kids to spell? They have an automatic spellchecker.

    I think everyone here has hit the nail on the head. Modern technology is one tool, but not the only one we have available to us.

    Great Article!

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Thank you! I’m delighted so many people have enjoyed it.

    • Lilian says :

      As a librarian, I totally agree that children/young people should be taught how to search for information effectively. Even though they’re ‘digital natives’ so many of our students come in to university not even knowing how to search a library catalogue properly (which, at its basic level, is almost as simple as using Google) so I do worry that, although information is now more freely available*, people still don’t know how to find the information they actually need very easily. A main part of our job is to teach people to find information, which is often not as easy as just typing stuff into Google.

      *Lots of information, particularly academic research, is actually only available for money or, if you’re lucky enough to be a student/academic, via an academic library who will have paid for it for you!

      Interesting post, Huw.

  16. jamesroom964x says :

    Cool post. I was born just at the tail end of all the stuff you’re talking about, so think I’m probably the last generation that grew up with the big old print edition of Encyclopedia Brittanica. The high tech solutions certainly have their place, but the low tech solutions like books, paper maps, and just straight up knowledge will never be obsolete in my opinion.

  17. sportsandthecross says :

    Great post. It really makes you think about some things! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! Kepp it up

  18. annabelsglassdesigns says :

    Good post, the pace of change is frightening, I too was at school with no computers. I’ve just written a blog about getting a new mobile. There is almost too much choice today and models seem to have such a short shelf life, which although saving trees it must be increasing our electronic waste!

  19. lomauk says :

    Old technology has definitely become rare but beautiful in that sense. One product i’m not a big fan of is the Kindle. Knowing many people that like it i’ve seen the advantages, but for me? Nothing will ever replace the smell of old books and the feel of the paper and spine in my hands.

    Wonderful post! Congratulation on being freshly pressed!

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Thank you. Never thought I would like Kindles myself but was converted a year ago when I got one for my birthday.
      It’s a bit risky taking it in the bath but much easier for taking a supply of books when I travel!

  20. James R. Clawson says :

    Life now and what it used to be is quite different. Now life is very fast pace due to the internet, social media and iphones. Life is a bit more complex.

    As you so eloquently put it “Technological progress seems endless and I’m sure it must help save the trees but sometimes I miss the real books, the weight and the feel of them.”

    Technology has taken over our lives and life will never be the same.

  21. Melanie says :

    “Look it up in the dictionary” was the household answer to “how do you spell…?” There is something lost in this now. You don’t have to work your way thru a word to find it in the dictionary; you can type something vaguely similar into Google and it gives you the answer without thought. “Google it” just isn’t the same as “look it up”.

  22. yonahlevy says :

    Great post! I came up during the transition of typewriters to personal computers. Things have changed markedy and on we go. There is still nothing like the weight and smell of an old dusty book. I really enjoyed your writing.



  23. SookyumL says :

    Nice this is really interesting and I cannot believe that technology is still working from the 17th century haha

  24. Keu Reyes says :

    Reblogged this on Keu Reyes and commented:
    I remember those things we used to call books…

  25. maxcollinge says :

    I am all for this simpler and faster way of sharing information. Nothing is as nice as a real book all dogeared and tattered though πŸ™‚

  26. Rustic Recluse says :

    Good points there. I’d once written a paper on how technology has made us so reliant on it that we’ve lost some of our old practices and skills. I still blog about it sometimes, that I too miss the feeling of a good old book in hand rather than swipe the screen to read. πŸ™‚

  27. DrFrood says :

    Ah the dark days before Wikipedia, when all you had to rely on were encyclopaedias and reference books that went through vigorous fact-checking procedures and basic editing for spelling and grammar.

    One must be truly thankful for the march of progress.

    Also, I fear for the future of all those highbrow books people used to read in public places – if you use an Ebook no one can tell that you’re reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and be suitably impressed, so you might as well just read 50 Shades of Grey instead.

    I don’t believe in emoticons, so I’d be grateful if y’all wouldn’t mind picturing a winking smiley face to demonstrate the extent to which my tongue is embedded within my cheek. Firmly.

  28. Maddie Cochere says :

    I loved our old World Book Encyclopedia set. It had everything I could ever want to know in it, and sometimes the entries were like their own little stories. Haven’t used them in years. The internet is an amazing thing.

  29. ryanrussell3330 says :


  30. dialectetus says :

    I still have shelves teetering on the edge of collapse with books…still purchase new and used books. They are still reassuring. One good solar flare and all these ones and zeroes are gone. Analog still lingers even in the deserts of the Mideast.

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Yes. I know the prophets of doom have got it wrong in the past but I’m still a bit wary – something’s going to get us sooner or later… solar flare, climate change, meteor strike…

  31. michaellangford2012 says :

    OK, technology is faster, if that’s your point. But you haven’t mentioned Skeat’s. Pick up Skeat (the Oxford University edition) and feel the letterpress texture of the pages. Try looking up just one word; without getting distracted by some other word that starts a train of association and remembrance that keeps you (at least me) occupied for the better part of an hour. Google will pinpoint that first word, and bypasses all the peripherals and accidental discoveries that happen when you read a really rich book. The experiences are different, each valid in its own way.

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Absolutely right. I’d neglected the pleasure of accidentally stumbling across other new words when opening a dictionary.
      Although technology sometimes makes us able to do things faster it’s not always an advantage. Like all these things, there’s pros and cons and I’d never get rid of all my books. I love them too much for that (and I always have a slight mistrust of technology… because it does sometimes fail.)
      If you read the following post on my blog I’m arguing in defence of books. (Can’t fit all the reasons into one blog post).

  32. nrhatch says :

    I first visited your blog on 11/7, to check out “Bah, Humbug.”
    Within hours of my first visit, this post is Freshly Pressed.

    Coincidence? Or not? πŸ˜‰

  33. askthebookdoctor says :

    The subject of change in books is the centripedal issue of my life at the moment. I have been in the book publishing business since 1973 as an editor and the movement from legacy publishing to independent publishing fortified by the accessibility of tools to printer/publishers has caused a revolution as historically important as Guttenberg. It’s so right that the tools have been delivered to the writer, but it requires an adjustment in how books are created from the concept to the product.
    So happy to be introduced to this blog

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Glad you could visit. Tools are important but it’s the knowledge of how to use them that are crucial – and I think too many people take all our technological resources for granted without stopping to check that they’re doing what we want them to do.

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