30 January 2009

Technology and Me

Recently, someone said to me, "When I was in grad school, there was no Internet, that's how old I am." Well, when I was in grad school, the Internet existed, but it didn't do very much. "I had to type my dissertation on special paper." I printed my thesis out using a dot-matrix printer.

In 1981, I was 16 years old, and still writing term papers out by hand. Even at Queens College, most of my instructors allowed assignments to be handwritten. When I started working for temp agencies that year, I was limited to straight receptionist and filing jobs because I was utterly hopeless with a typewriter. After a few years at SUNY-Binghamton, though, I became pretty proficient with my Smith-Corona--so much so that I periodically had to take it into a repair shop to get key covers replaced--(I was more of a POUND typist than a TOUCH typist--still am).

I remember browsing Macy's while I was in college. Apple computers were on display, selling for around $2,000, maybe even more. They looked so cute! Those little screens. That scary ESCAPE key (there were signs, as I recall, that said "PLEASE DON'T PRESS ESCAPE!") Totally out of my range, but I liked daydreaming about them. Instead of a computer, for graduating college I got an electronic typewriter with a 3K memory. If I remember right, it was about $500. I thought it was fabulous. I'd type into the memory (watching my words scroll across the 2-inch LCD screen) and then load a piece of paper, press a key, and watch the typewriter bang out the page.


In 1986, I bought my first PC for $800. It was an XT-compatible custom-built by a professor and contained two 5.25" floppy drives and no hard drive. When you wanted to use your computer, you put a DOS boot disk in the top floppy drive (A:) and waited for about 10 minutes for the system to be ready. Then you took out the boot disk and put in a disk containing a software program--say, IBM Writing Assistant, which let you create documents. You would type a command to start the software (say, write). Then you would type your document. When you wanted to save it, you would put a formatted data disk in the bottom floppy drive (B:). Saving your file would take about a minute, and the computer would make grinding noises.

A few years later, I realized I needed a hard drive. I sent away for one from an electronics store in Brooklyn and installed it myself. I thought I remembered that hard drive was 20 MB, but as I research what that would have cost in 1989, I realize that I could never have afforded so much storage. Maybe 10? Whatever the case, it was fabulous not needing to put a disk in the drive to boot up, and I remember thinking there was no way I'd ever need more.


At work, I went from a typewriter to a Wang word processor, which was connected to a letter-quality printer that actually typed out the documents. There was no email. I typed out memos on the word processor, printed them out, and delivered them by hand or put them in envelopes and sent them by mail. By 1991, my business unit had a single IBM 286, loaded with Microsoft Windows, which we all shared.

Then we moved to Seattle to go back to school, and used our student loans to replace my old PC-XT with a 386. It seemed so slick! The top floppy drive (A:) was for a 3.5" disk; the bottom was for a 5.25" disk. It came with a modem that promised fast connections and we used it to access the Internet, such as it was in the early 1990s. Text and UNIX-based, more interesting for the fact that it existed at all than for what you could actually do with it.

It was in Seattle that I bought my first laptop. It was reconditioned, so I was able to get it for less than $1000, which I considered a coup. I loved the novelty of it. I could write at the local cafe.

It was also in Seattle that my conversion from (text-based) WordPerfect to (GUI-based) Word happened. In a Microsoft town, there was really no other possible outcome. I still missed the "old" WordPerfect for a long time, though--the WordPerfect for Windows never caught on with me.

The World Wide Web was starting to make the Internet more interesting. But at the company where I worked (1993-1995), technology managers doubted the utility of providing employees with access to the Internet. They also doubted the benefit of the company investing in its own website.

They have a pretty slick site now
, though.

Since leaving school, we have changed computers every few years. Each time we get a new one, it seems improbable that we should ever need more (speed, storage, functionality), but software continues to increase in complexity as the dual costs of storage and memory continue to diminish. Our entire music collection (more than 500 CDs) is on a hard drive now, and I look forward to the day that we'll be able to store our DVD library on disk, too.

From a world in which a two-hour download of the text of a single newspaper was considered a marvel, to a world in which such access is nearly instantaneous, and in which I can ask my computer virtually any question and get a pertinent answer, in fewer than 30 years.

I can't even remember how I did some things before I did them electronically. I guess before there were online options, I used to look up airlines in the phonebook and how much it would cost for a ticket or go visit a travel agent. And we would mail away to government tourist bureaus to get information on what to do in faraway places (like Nova Scotia, where we took a vacation in 1999). Of course, before Mapquest, we had maps.

Made out of paper. Really.

For big trips, we would call up the Automobile Association of America and ask for a Triptik to be drawn up.

And when we wanted to buy things, we had to go to stores. In person. Every time.

Crazy, huh?

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