A decade ago, when I named my first wireless network Cry for Help, I was more intent on keeping technology at arm’s length than bonding with it. I didn’t understand even the basic equipment I owned and constantly worried that it would just stop working, for no apparent reason.
I thought computers devoured data for sport, to boost their AI quotient in preparation for some future robot uprising.
I tried, of course, to increase my understanding. But the computer repair guy kept billing me–at $100 an hour–to answer my questions. So I stopped talking. Unlike my children, who happily pounded on oversize keyboards between diaper changes, computers were neither accessible nor acceptable when I was a kid. They were big, threatening, room-size things that offered little possibility to the uninitiated of doing anything but crunching numbers. (Unless you were, say, Steve Wozniak or Steve Jobs and had the foresight to focus on the future the same year the rest of us were reliving the past.
In 1976, when Jobs and Wozniak began marketing the Apple-1, most of us were just trying to make it through a day without hearing a reference to the Bicentennial.)
The thing I remember most about 1976–aka America’s 200th Birthday–were endless fireworks displays (still fired manually from cues on a tape rather than by computer program). If you’d have asked me at the time to name the best thing about computers, I probably would have said the boxes and boxes of punch cards they generated.
I might have even offered you a punch card wreath, things that gave a generation reared with very little personal technology the first glimpse of how useful technology could be. (If only to twist, staple and spray paint into something decorative for the home…)
It may sound lame now, but kids had to be imaginative before video games and Tivo.
A few years later, I might have offered you a laptop…or at least what passed for one around 1980.I’d have done anything to get the suitcase-size computer thing out of my hand, especially if I happened to be in an airport, with real luggage in the other hand.
The TRS-80, semi-affectionately known as the Trash-80, showed an amazing eight lines of type (ALL CAPS) and had enough memory to hold about four average size files.
The most haunting thing about the Trash-80 was the acoustic coupler modem, a circular piece of rubber designed to fit over the handset of a standard telephone. But standard telephones were already scarce in the 1980s, especially in hotel rooms. So the coupler usually wouldn’t fit correctly, and the task of transmitting data–which would take 10 seconds now–could continue unsuccessfully for hours.
Maybe it was wrong to create a machine with the ability to tell you it was sorry. It made the thing much harder to smack or kick–repair techniques that served me well (at least emotionally) on future generations of technology.
As machines became more sophisticated, I became more detached…and far more likely to take out my frustration by pounding the keyboard (a technique which, for no apparent reason, occasionally works).
My relationship with technology only changed after I unwittingly developed an expensive relationship with that computer repair guy. It’s one thing if you work in a corporate office with an IT staff on call; it’s quite another if you run a small business, and have to outsource your computer repairs. So in an effort to boost my bottom line, I stopped asking questions and started taking notes, watching what the guy did when he came to make a fix instead of complaining about the unreliability of technology.
The more I learned, the more I liked it. (Most of it, anyway.) I’m better prepared for anything that happens now. Even a robot uprising.