Sometimes I think we complain about the shortfalls of modern conveniences because we don’t know where they came from. Everyone gets tired of their parents’ “We walked uphill both ways” stories, but when it comes to technology, it’s helpful sometimes to pause and think about the things we can do that we couldn’t before, even if it’s not perfect now.
Take, for instance, the personal computer. Almost everyone has one nowadays. In my house, we have four–a desktop, a netbook, a media center connected to our TV, and a home server my husband built just to see how one worked. Oh, and my husband has a work laptop that lives part-time at our house. And his Windows Phone 7 probably counts. So that’s, what, six? Geez! And like almost everyone else I know, I in equal parts depend on these machines, love them for their immense capabilities, and loathe them for their failings: “Stupid printer! What do you mean you’re offline? The world is over! I can’t print a document emailed to me from across the country from a printer across the house!”
Wow! If I really listen to myself, I should be amazed that all of that is even possible! One of my favorite movies, Desk Set, is great for reminding me how far communication and information exchange has come since 1957.
Such a funny movie, and so many things that could be said about that ancient computer. It takes up the whole room, for crying out loud! All the flashing lights and random beeps are more like Star Trek than anything we use at work, home, or school today. But Desk Set isn’t science fiction. My dad-in-law was in college around this same time, studying electrical engineering. His senior class took a field trip from Clemson University in South Carolina to Georgia Tech to see a computer much like this. Why the long drive? It was the nearest one.
The first programmable computer came out in 1936–though when I say “programmable,” it was probably comparable to a modern graphing calculator. It wasn’t until twelve years later, in 1948, that you could store significant amounts of data without rewiring. But even though you could store things, getting the information to the computer required paper cards filled with rows of punched holes, like Spencer Tracy displayed. These had to be fed to a machine one at a time, and to retrieve said information, it had to be printed. All that space and no screen! Inventions such as the transistor and the integrated circuit (“the Chip,” forerunner to the modern microchip) allowed for smaller and smaller designs, and floppy disks and ethernet allowed exchanges of information without walking a piece of paper to another room. And in 1981, the first computer actually labeled a “PC” came out, running the DOS operating system written by Microsoft, the company that twenty-five years later hired my husband to help plan Windows 7, an opperating system that would completely befuddle the users of Miss Emerak from the video.
So at least I don’t have to rewire the machine if I want to edit a chapter of my current novel. And I don’t have to write my novel using a hole-punch. But I can tell my grandchildren I remember floppy disks (the big ones that actually flopped) and the days before email when most computers were little islands unto themselves. Maybe they’ll appreciate the microtablet chew-toys Grandpa Mike buys them for their first birthdays just a little bit more.