With iPhone poised I frame the scene. Standing on the east bank of the Huron River near Argo Canoe Livery, I see three yellow kayaks head off downriver. It’s a pretty summer riverscape. With a touch to the phone’s glass, the photograph is taken. After a few swipes and taps, my pic is posted to Facebook, complete with caption. Within seconds, I see that my daughter “likes” it.

I could be lulled into believing this happy iPhone maneuver has been a part of my life for a long time, second nature now. But in reality all the technical wonders we take for granted every minute of every day have been a part of our lives for only a short time.

Coming up on our fortieth anniversary, we took a look back through our nearly 500 issues. And what we found was a story, told through ads and editorial content, about the rise of all our present-day wizardry. When we started out, there were not only no cell phones but no answering machines. But you could pay someone to answer your calls.

How quickly we have taken for granted these devices: answering machines, personal computers and printers, email, calculators, cell phones, smart phones with their apps, microwaves, electronic fences for pets, recording devices, video games, faxes, home theaters and flat-screen televisions, digital cameras, and CDs and DVDs.

Thirty-nine years ago, when the first 12-page issue of the Ann Arbor Observer rolled off the press, the action I performed effortlessly on my iPhone was nary a glimmer in anyone’s mind. The highest-tech reference in that first Observer was a blurb on page eight, complete with photo, on the snazzy new Xerox 9200, ready to spit out two copies per second at Albert’s Copying. Despite the buzz brought on by the top-of-the-line addition at the store, the staff planned to “keep on hand their other two Xerox machines.”

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Parallel to technical advances over the years were the cultural changes in Ann Arbor life, forever altered because of personal computers and cell phones, cable television, CDs and DVDs, allowing a new way of doing just about everything.

In 1978 the Ann Arbor Observer held an ominous article, “It’s 1984 on Maynard Street,” reporting on the video cameras installed in the parking structure there.

Another big story in April 1980 told how cable television came to Ann Arbor. The article showcased Ben Hooks, pictured as the venerable TV savior high atop a utility pole, and how he enabled Ann Arborites to join the “cable revolution.” And in July 1983, “Video Game Whiz” told us about the passionate 14-year-old boy who played at Mickey Rat’s Video Circus on William. The written description of a game illustrates how new the concept was to the Observer’s readers. “The first [game] was called Pole Position, a rather realistic racing car game in which the player’s major tools are a foot accelerator and a large steering wheel. On the screen is a quickly changing view of the road ahead.”

Being a university town helped because technology belonged to the young. Innovations in all aspects of the tech world spawned here. Chris Midgley, a 19-year-old when a 1980 article was written, designed computer programs for Datalab, the company he founded two years earlier. “The firm’s first major product is an eight-inch, $250 magnetic disk that looks like a brown phonograph record without grooves,” the article said, describing an early floppy disk. Midgley, now 54, has excelled in the tech world as founder of six more companies and is the holder of several patents.

A feature article in October 1987 showcased Larry Brilliant, whose company lost more than $20 million trying to bring computer conferencing software to the corporate world. Brilliant’s explanation for his troubles: “The problem is that many people—especially influential ones in the corporate world—consider typing beneath their dignity.”

The Post Office came on board with technology in 1989. The Environmental Research Institute of Michigan (ERIM) worked with the Post Office to automate their mail sorting. Company president Bill Brown explained they’d developed a computer system that could read “handwritten zip code. It’s a very, very difficult vision problem, it’s never been done before, and we’re doing it very well.”

Slowly but surely people caught on to connecting with each other online, first through computer bulletin boards and classified ads. An article in Around Town December 1991, entitled “Computer Party,” proclaimed: “Welcome to the world of bbs.ing. (The letters officially stand for ‘bulletin board system.’) In the 1990s, a PC and a modem are the equalizers. You may be talking to a lawyer, professor, farmer, programmer, policeman, or a ­fifteen-year-old student.”

Five years later came an article about electronic classifieds and “the joy of online shopping.” For a time online shopping remained most common in the then-familiar form of classified ads—a long way from the retailing blitz we know now.

Families changed, too, some more than others. In the December 1997 issue was a story about Joan and Will Weber, whose “ecotour” company then led hundreds of trips each year to forty-five countries. The couple was about to embark on a months-long trip through Southeast Asia and Australia while their two children, ages fifteen and ten, continued their education on the road with the aid of laptops. Daughter Robin is now Journeys International’s president.

In 1998 a feature article title asked, “It’s 9 p.m. Do you know what website your kids are on?”

Then came Y2K, the year 2000. No one was really sure if the two-digit calendaring system established by early computer programmers would crash the world’s computers as the century rolled over.

Once New Year’s Eve came and went without any technical dramas, Ann Arborites settled in to the business of living with technology, with some good and some bad results. At Washtenaw Community College, according to a January 2000 article, a “flood of webmasters” caused the school to add an entire department based on the new industry. In sadder news, in 2001 the SKR Records “empire” crumbled, a casualty of (mostly pirated) digital music. That year, an Observer Up Front story in August noted how Beautiful Island, a “dot-com” company set up with the express purpose of teaching senior citizens how to use computers, crashed and burned like a ‘dot-bomb.'”

The new millennium was the cell phone’s time to shine. Huge over-the-shoulder boxes and clunky things with retractable antennae gave way to ­pocket-size phones—which in turn evolved into today’s go-to devices for talk, text, web browsing, alarms, Facebooking, emailing, TV, movie-watching, and literally millions of other apps.

One of the things we look up on the Internet is lists. Lists can be found on every conceivable topic, including goofy pets, stunning photographs, bizarre people, and city lists. Ann Arbor shows up consistently on those, including “10 Smartest Cities” and “Best Green Places” and “Great Cities for Raising Families.” SPARK, the local business support organization, posted a “Facts and Rankings” list (of course a list!) of 117 online lists the city has appeared on since 2006.

Whether you laugh at online lists or take them as gospel, they’ve placed us firmly in the world’s view. And if all those lists get overwhelming, we can always pocket our devices to take a long walk along the Huron River … looking for pretty scenes to post on Facebook!