An Increasingly Distant Time

Today is a terrible anniversary: 25 years ago, on December 21, 1988, Pan Am 103 was blown up in the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

Among the murdered were a group of Syracuse University study-abroad students returning to the U.S. As a university student myself then, Pan Am’s destruction made an inestimable impression on me. I flew Pan Am in those days, and my first visit to Europe (to France) had been earlier in the year, in January 1988.

It is easy for those of us who grew up in the 1980s and the 1990s to forget how those years are now increasingly distant history. A British nephew of mine, now college age, was born in 1994. I was taken aback when recently he reminded me that he did not recall NY’s World Trade Center…. except as the scene of horrific, mass murder in September, 2001.

Change is in everything. That was also a time mobile phones were rarities. Email was brand new. Cassette players remained common. Remember CDs as “cutting edge?” The web did not appear until the mid-1990s. (I remember a computer specialist colleague where I then worked, in early 1994, going on in the office about the potential for something called the “World Wide Web.”) The list could go on. (My Dad still has some 8-track tapes, and a player that works, but that’s from an even earlier era, of course.)

If we think back also, we began to see relatively inexpensive air travel really kick off in the 1980s. From an American-centered perspective, by the 1990s you did not have to be rich, retired, or settle as an expat, to travel to places you had once only read about or seen on television. A scheduled airliner would whisk you there and back home in a week if you so wished.

That reality was a “two-way” street. By the 1990s Americans could find themselves also “encountering” people in their own backyard, at home, who had dropped in from “far away” places. The world out there, that had often seemed so distant before, was now suddenly not nearly so far away after all.

Simultaneously, with increasingly widespread access to instant communications (email, especially), in the 1990s we began to see the beginnings of the personal globalization we accept now as pretty much routine. As 2014 approaches, can we even imagine the only means of reasonable personal communication globally being a land-line phone call that costs a small fortune to make? Or a letter that takes a week or more to reach a destination?

Paper, pens, envelopes and stamps? Seriously?