a moment of retrospection

Sat Jun-11th-2011 // Filed under: Random Crap

The first computer I could really call my own was a 286, bought with my own money. I couldn’t tell you the exact year, but off the top of my head, I’d say it was 1990 — thereabouts, anyway. I had friends whose parents bought them pretty serious computers as presents, but that wasn’t something that happened in our family. We weren’t dirt poor or anything, but money was always a little too tight for something like that. That’s not to say that there had never been a computer in the house, of course, but if I wanted one just for myself — and I absolutely did — I’d have to come up with the cash.

Somehow, I did. I can’t remember where I got it from; a PC was more expensive than I could have afforded with my allowance. It was some kind of windfall money, funds that unexpectedly fell on my lap from some stroke of luck that I no longer can identify.

It wasn’t a new machine — it was a used 286, slow even by the standards of that day. I remember going out to this dingy hole in the wall place that sold stuff like that. I think I actually saw an ad in the paper for the thing. My mother’s new husband drove me there — something that now seems almost embarrassing, because we didn’t get along at the time. We were still adjusting to him being a part of the family, which mostly consisted of me being an asshole while he displayed the patience of a saint. I guess he didn’t have much choice, if he wanted to make the family work; in any case, he took the time out of his Saturday to take me to the place even though I probably had been a dick to him in one way or another. It wasn’t the first time he went out of his way to do something for me that I didn’t appreciate properly at the time. If I could go back in time and meet the teenaged me, I would probably just drown myself, time paradox or no time paradox. Like all teenagers everywhere, I was a fucking idiot and thought that I was awesome — a neat trick for a nerdy kid with the self-esteem of a gnat, come to think of it.

Anyway.

I bought the computer. There was nothing cutting edge about it. I’m pretty sure some of my friends were already sporting 486’s at that point, but so what? It was my own damn computer, I didn’t have to share it with anybody, and I could do what I wanted with it. It had a 32 MB hard drive and some piddling amount of RAM that I can’t quite recall — probably something like 2 or 4 megs, I’d guess. No sound card. A year later or so, I think, I upgraded it into a 386SX — again, I was behind the curve, but it was what I could afford at the time.

What that computer lacked in power, it made up for in sheer utility. I could play fantastic games — the Lucasarts adventures in particular didn’t really care too much about processing power and would run just fine even on my machine. But the important thing is that I had a modem. I could connect to the internet — such as it was at the time — which I was already familiar with. Of course, this was well before the days of graphical interfaces; it was all text, but it was still amazing to me that I was making connections with people who were literally on the other side of the world. I’d stay up all night long, typing messages and reading responses, forging relationships that are mostly now forgotten, but which still pop up every once in a while.

That’s so commonplace as to be mundane now, but the ability to have a real-time conversation with another person somewhere on the other side of the planet was unprecedented to me. The hardware I was using was outdated, but I was right there in the heart of a technological and social explosion that, in a few years, would start to transform the world in amazing ways that we now take completely for granted — that’s how comprehensive that change has been.

It also enabled me to start writing. I didn’t have a word processor and didn’t really understand why anyone would want to use one; I hammered out page after page in plaintext ASCII with a text editor, complete with a manual line break every 75 characters or so… I don’t believe any of the stuff I wrote at the time still survives anywhere, and I can only hope that is the case; just the memory of the horrible crap I pounded out mortifies me. Between very bad cyberpunk fiction, confused attempts at superhero stories, and even the occasional Star Trek fanfic — I know, I know — there was no end to now-embarrassing stupidity… but at least I was some kind of a writer, damn it. I was spinning stories, and once I got started, I never really stopped. Now it’s a career.

And now it’s a couple of decades later, and I have an iPhone vastly more powerful than that computer, and that’s not even getting into my “real” computers — and none of those devices are considered to be in any way out of the ordinary.

When I was a kid, there were still computer geeks, people who got into computers and learned strange and arcane things that were incomprehensible to normal people. They were often treated with a strange mixture of contempt and awe; at the very least, no one could deny that these people had skills and knowledge beyond that of normal mortals. Computer geeks would have computers of their own, and they would write programs, or play games, or take them apart and put them back together. Just starting a program required special skills that ordinary people were absolutely not expected to have.

These days, that concept of the computer geek is all but dead and buried, despite the best efforts of Linux admins all over the world. Can’t use the internet? Don’t have an e-mail address? Don’t know how to turn on a laptop? It’s like saying you don’t know how to open a door. You can get away with that if you’re over fifty, but for a young person, that’s like not knowing how to flush a toilet — if you can’t handle that kind of basics, there’s something wrong with you. You’re a fucking retard.

Getting back to the iPhone, the capabilities of this device — whether I think of it in terms of gaming, or communication, or anything else, really — are so much more advanced than that old 286 that if my teenaged self could see it, he probably wouldn’t take it seriously. And I really do take it for granted. Most people do. I can — and typically do — carry an entire library of music or books in my pocket. Earlier today, I used it to conduct an interview with a guy over 3,000 kilometers away from me, but instead of it being a traditional a phone call, I used Skype and a WiFi connection. A little later, I was hanging out with a friend of mine and, at the same time, downloaded a 200 megabyte file off the internet in a couple of minutes… and just before I did that, I paid for the file. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the number of huge sociopolitical and technological changes required to make that a possibility — let alone a completely mundane event — is staggering.

It’s a pervasive change. I’m pretty sure that I no longer know anybody who has a landline in their house, at least nobody in Finland. Even my grandmother has a cell phone. My sisters, who are quite a bit younger than I am, have essentially always had computers and cell phones of their own. I don’t think they really understand how they work, and they don’t care. And why should they? These devices have evolved far past the point of an engineer mindset being required to operate them. Their users are no longer a special caste of their own, they’re just people who need to get things done. Today, in Western society, anybody whose life isn’t a completely hopeless train wreck can get some kind of a computer of their own that enables them to get connected.

We’re living in the future and don’t really even notice. It’s pretty amazing.


5 Comments

  1. We are living at one of the biggest transformations of human race and it’s bloody amazing.

    I often wonder the social and economics changes that have taken place and those ones that are still in the making. Social life so global. Right now I have a Chinese guest in my home, few days ago I had a Japanese one.

    Comment by FF — June 11, 2011 @ 1307795767

  2. Hear, hear.

    I was a bit ahead of you on the hardware curve, but not that much. I got a 386 in 1991 to replace my (and my brother’s) XT computer, but that one didn’t get upgraded until 1997 or so. Luckily I had the TKK computers to fall on at some point. My friends were sporting 486’s even in 1991, so my computer felt a bit slow. The 387 math coproc helped, it ran some programs with it that my friend’s 486SX didn’t.

    I got a job because of those computers, too. I’m now a software engineer as I was more interested in writing programs than stories, though I wrote both. I still have the 386 around, but I’m afraid to look at what’s there.

    I also have old MikroBITTI magazines from about 1990 to 1995 as toilet reading. They’re fun to read as the computers have progressed quite a bit. Some years ago I read a news bit about the first supercomputer in Finland, a Cray XM-P. Reading that story I realized that my wife’s new laptop had about the same performance – in a portable, affordable form.

    And yeah, even though I’m now reading a Linux Kernel manual and work with it, the nerdishness of computer stuff is not as strong as it used to be…

    Comment by Pare — June 12, 2011 @ 1307871779

  3. I’m trying to keep the 15 year old me in a box somewhere, and unleash him at times to see how fucking weird the world is now compared to 1990. Or 1983 or 1984 when i got my first Commodore 64. Things progress in such huge leaps and strides that it’s easy to become blasé about things, which of course makes the world a much less interesting place.

    A good case in point is what I’m doing now – I’m at our cabin, not totally in the sticks but certainly in the countryside. In 2003 I got my first GPRS card modem so I could use the net in here, and boy did that feel scifi. Having a net on the cabin was a bit weird for my Finnish pals, but especially the foreign pals had quite amusing WTF moments when I told them I’ll have to go offline for a bit to hack a hole in the ice with an axe, so I can get drinking water.

    Nowadays, mobile internet is an everyday thing, and that’s just bloody seven years.

    Let’s not even start how mindblowing it felt to chat with people around the world real time in MUDs and such when I went to do this trainee/”get to know work life” thing in Jyväskylä University’s computer center in 1989. I felt like going to the next room to check if someone was playing a joke on my expense…

    I’m thinking that the internet is going to be as major a leap in human societies as industrialization was. I’m not an internet demagogue or a naive positivist, since like industrialization, it has its bad points too. Nevertheless, we are currently living in a time where the people in charge can still be living in the Fax & VHS era, and for their kids chatting with someone on the other side of the world is totally banal everyday stuff, so the divide is enormous. I still remember when we had a damn B/W TV, for fuck’s sake. I’m waiting with interest what will happen when the generation who grew up with the net is going to get to power.

    Comment by Janos — June 12, 2011 @ 1307900436

  4. This post made me think of this lecture I saw in YouTube (http://youtu.be/E8V8rtdXnLA).

    The basic message of lecture is, that people have always though that they are right, and people before them have been stupid when believing in what they at the time knew to be the truth. And since this has happened over and over again, it is likely we are just as stupid now as for example some of the most brilliant minds that have ever walked on this Earth a few thousand years ago when they believed in what they believed.

    Comment by Scully — June 13, 2011 @ 1307965669

  5. I was at a friend’s house and he received a phone call from another friend asking advice about buying a used laptop. While talking to her, my friend looked up amazon and some other websites to find the model’s going price, and told her to politely inform the seller that she’s not buying today.

    That’s cool and all, getting market information instantly like that, but what twigged with me was the realization that it is now entirely commonplace to buy hundreds of dollars/euros’ worth of tech sight unseen online.

    An online marketplace not strictly headquartered anywhere, relying on users’ feedback to each other, with payments done instantly and electronically has become a more trusted method of buying products than the old meet a shopkeeper – hand over money – receive goods – go on your merry way method.

    The future is nuts.

    Comment by Kai — June 13, 2011 @ 1307967256

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