Thursday, October 31, 2013

From the Archives - I Enter the Computer Age


A whole lot of what I wrote in college now embarrasses me, due to its poor quality. (I’m glad it didn’t embarrass me then, or I’d never have written anything, and I’m glad that what I’m writing now doesn’t yet embarrass me.) But some stuff gains in value over time because it captures a real-time personal response to the culture of the day. This is particularly handy when the culture in question has changed radically.

In 1989, personal computers didn’t do much other than creating documents. Nothing was networked. Computers were only a social tool if you widely shared those documents and got a lot of feedback about them. I did the first half of this—writing essays I thought my friends and family would enjoy, and mailing around photocopies—but of course I almost never heard anything back. It was a bit like blogging, but to a small actual audience instead of a practically infinite hypothetical one.

This essay captures the state of personal computing in 1989 as viewed through my young eyes. I think this may be the only essay you’ll find that talks about fax machines as a cool technology, rather than as outdated old crap. (Disclaimer: in this essay I cast aspersions on Apple computers. Forgive me. I was young and foolish, and I thought DOS prompts were pretty cool, and anyway I couldn’t afford a new computer.)

I Enter the Computer Age - November 9, 1989

I have entered the computer age: an age of processing and transferring information in ways never before possible. The question is, is today’s information really worth the new and improved technology?

We could either assume it is, or else take the really cynical view that our information has never amounted to a hill of beans anyway so we might as well transfer it as quickly and as slickly as possible. Heck, if you’ve got nothing to say, you can at least fire it across the nation at a million miles per second, so maybe it comes out on a fax machine.

Ooh, fax. I hit a nerve there, huh? It’s the cool, groovy new way to say, “Hey, I’m hip, I’m hop, I’m a digitally connected happenin’ type of guy. Yo, babe, let’s do lunch. I’ll fax you three martinis and a rice cake.” Okay, I don’t have a fax machine, but some of you out there know I was faxing all the way back when a transcriber was called a Dictaphone. Fax is nothing new to me.

But what are people faxing now? Charts? Yeah, that’s it. “Here, I’ve made a pie chart of how my day is divided up.” How could I use a fax machine? My writing isn’t timely enough to warrant being sent out to waiting hands in half a microsecond.

Phones: now there’s a rapid data transfer we can all use. It’s just a matter of knowing how to master the technology. I’m all over that game like a cheap suit. Not only do I have a GTE calling card, but I’ve got an AT&T card. (These days, it’s a kind of status to have as many magnetic‑strip‑bearing cards in your wallet as possible. I’ve got five, and two UPC‑code cards which can be read by computer laser. I’m trying to get up the guts to ask myself for an autograph.) I can call anywhere from a block away to the other side of the world—and I can even choose the company that gets my money! So what if I can’t afford long distance?

But wait, this phone thing gets even better. The other day, I was at the library and I decided to see if a certain someone had called my apartment and left a message on my phone answering machine. I cruised to the nearest phone booth and entered my super‑special secret calling card code so I wouldn’t have to deposit a quarter like all those mere mortals. Had I chosen to use the Toll‑Saver function on my machine, I would have known after only one ring whether or not there was a message. After four rings I got my machine. My outgoing message is worse than I thought—but we’re a high-tech nation, we all know how to leave a message anyway. After my outgoing message was over, I entered another secret code to play back my messages. Had there been any, I could have saved them with the push of a button.

Okay, I guess you probably caught that: there weren’t any messages. Oh well, at least I verified my fluency with the latest technological wonders. “But wait a second,” I could ask myself, “what good does all that technology do if I still don’t get any messages?” Aw, hell, let’s not answer that. I’m having fun here.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Where do I sign up?” Yeah, you want in on this. You, too, want to be a master in the art of manipulating little digital bits and bytes, wielding electronic data like a Greek god hurling lightning bolts. Well don’t worry, there are companies out there that specialize in quenching the little man’s thirst for digital glory.

Apple has jumped on this one. As if “Macintosh” weren’t bad enough, now everybody is past the first name basis and calls them “Macs.” And these computers have gained widespread praise. Why? Does this reflect some cool new technology? Can they do the phase‑lock‑loop in 0.027 microseconds? Does the new 80‑86 Hyper‑Detonator Processor put you in direct contact with a higher order of electronic entity?

Of course not. They’re popular for the same reason as Care Bears and Suzuki Samurais: they’re cute, and they’re fun. Oh, look at this cute little keyboard! And this here, this is called a mouse. Just aim and point! Oh! Look at that precious little screen! There’s even a garbage can to dump your unneeded files into. It’s spiffy!

Okay, I’ll concede that the Mac has some legitimate boons. Yeah, it can graph anything, right on the page, so when you write your research paper on Homer’s “The Iliad” you can graph Achilles’ daily rate of slaughter as compared to Hector’s to truly illustrate his dominance on the battlefield. Of course, for this you’ll need a $5,000 laser printer, unless you want to fight for the one in the Microcomputer Lab on campus. (I got cold feet about that place after I jammed theirs.) Most of you will settle for a cheesy dot‑matrix printer, which is all you’ll be able to afford after blowing your whole savings on MacCool and MacStatus.

But now you’re going to protest: “The Mac is user‑friendly!” Yes, just like a picture book. Nothing seems very complex anymore when the computer draws a smiley face to indicate that you’ve logged on correctly, and makes a little picture of a watch instead of making you decipher the word “Wait” like I have to do. And then there’s that nifty mouse. You can move your cursor anywhere just by leaving the home row to grab the little mouse and drag it across your desk, eventually running off the end (at least if your desk is as small as mine) so that you can simply pick the mouse up, move it, set it down again, and keep dragging. It’s so simple, so uncomplicated. Heck, I had to memorize about five hundred control-characters sequences instead. So what if now I can instantly place my cursor anywhere in the document without interrupting my typing? It’s too hard, it’s not worth it! I’d rather be spoon‑fed, even if it will cost me hours in mousing around in the future.

I’ve got one big beef with the Big Mac. It eats your files. A document you were working on is suddenly destroyed.  You don’t just lose your changes—the entire file is corrupted and thus lost forever.  I know, I know, that’s just the software, the machine really had nothing to do with it. I’ve heard this a million times. But what are you supposed to do, write your own foolproof software? If you can’t get reliable software for your hardware, what good is it? I think those who rush to the Mac’s defense must be the ones who haven’t seen it draw a little bomb on the screen to accompany an error message that is one version or another of “You’re doomed!”  How did this come about? Some software engineer told his boss, “There’s a glitch in our software that eats files. What should I do?” His boss must have said, “Deal with it,” so the guy shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, if we’re gonna destroy people’s documents, we might as well be cute about it. After all, we are user‑friendly!”

My computer is more mature, more direct. Today I was screwing around, trying to make the computer do something it clearly didn’t want to do. (Don’t worry, I was using an unimportant document—a letter to an insurance company.) It kept saying, “Disc Failure in Drive B: Abort, Retry, Ignore?” and I kept saying, “Ignore!” until finally it got sick of me and said, “*** FATAL ERROR F27.” I like that. Cold, impersonal, digital. Just like a computer should be. You want personality? You want warmth? You want something truly expressive? That’s up to the person using the computer.

Uh, wait a second. On second thought, who uses these computers? What do they really have to say? On second thought, maybe we ought to go ahead and use the Mac. Yeah, get some of those graphs in here. Dress it up, make it slick. As Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the massage.” Not “message” (although he said that, too) but “massage.” Think about it.

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