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ESSAY

The Computer and Me.

An essay by Jane M McCabe

One of the big books of last year was The Innovators by the prolific Walter Isaacson. It was a history of the evolution of computer technology. This interesting book started a line of thought about my own personal history with computers.

In 1981, shortly after I arrived in New York City, I dated a man, who said soon most people would have computers in their homes. For some reason that I don’t understand, this claim infuriated me; however, six months later I purchased my first computer—an Osborne.

Few of you probably remember the Osborne. If I had kept it, it would be a valuable antique today. It came in a case that resembled a portable sewing machine.  When the cover was removed, the machine had a five-inch screen with an “A” drive on the left where I inserted a program disk, and a “B” drive on the right for storing work.

It didn’t have a central operating system. It had a keyboard for inputting data but no mouse because they hadn’t been developed yet. Now that Osborne seems like a dinosaur, sweetly laughable.

Early printers, if you will recall, used perforated paper, which had to be fed through them. And, the only font they would print was the ugly Courier.

Over the next twenty years, I was hooked and purchased the latest models. Each successive computer I bought embraced the latest in hardware and software advances. I remained in the IBM camp. Soon the MS DOS dull, but efficient interface gave way to Windows. Now I could install whatever programs and fonts I wanted on the computer’s internal hard drive.

For 35 years I have participated a technological evolution that compares to the Industrial Revolution and all that came in the wake of that. It’s probably too early to say how much our lives have been altered by computers.

Because of my dependence on computers, I was curious about Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators—How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Indeed, to whom are we indebted for this marvelous technology we so enjoy? After we name Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, most of us draw a blank. We can add Alan Turing to our list since The Imitation Game brought his contribution to our attention but surely there are many more who have played instrumental roles in the development of digital technology?

There were—too many to name. Walter Isaacson is a forthright, perhaps even a pedestrian writer, who earned his credentials by writing an authorized biography of Steve Jobs. He tells us again and again that the computer revolution was the result of collaboration rather than the brainchild of the lone genius working alone in his attic.

Machines are envisioned for years, sometimes centuries, before they come into being, and so it was with computers.

The first computer was the abacus, which was invented 4,800 years ago in Samaria. Babylonians used the abacus for of addition and subtraction, however, it couldn’t do complex calculations.

One of the visionaries who dreamed of a machine that could process things notated in symbols was Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815-52.) She was the daughter of Lord Byron (1788-1824.)

“The only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron, Ada had inherited her father’s romantic spirit, a trait her mother tried to temper by having her tutored in mathematics. The combination produced in Ada a love for what she took to calling ‘poetical science,’ which linked her rebellious imagination to her enchantment with numbers,” Isaacson writes.

She met Charles Babbage, a science and mathematician, who had created what he called a Difference Engine, which could solve equations. Ada saw the beauty in this machine. It caused her to envision what would become, in another 150 years, the modern computer.

“Innovation is matter of timing. A big idea comes along at just the moment when the technology exists to implement it,” observed Babbage. His Engine made use of punch cards to input data. But, the birth of the computer age required some larger imaginative leaps from creative visionaries.

***

I was a newcomer to New York City in the early 1980’s and when personal computers became available, I saw my opportunity. Schools would need people to teach the programs. I was right. Soon I was hired by a school in New Jersey to teach word processing on the Wang. From the outset I fell in love with word processing. It is to writing and printing what the printing press, first built in the mid-15th Century, is to print.

As lovely as the Wang Word Processor was and however much I loved it, it was doomed because it was a “dedicated” computer, dedicated to word processing alone. People didn’t want computers that ran only one program; they wanted computers that would run ALL the programs they needed to run a business, or be a graphic designer. In a couple of years the Wang Company was dead in the water.

Then the Apple Company came out with its graphic interface, which was much more user-friendly than MSDOS, because it made use of icons, and it was colorful, fun and intuitive. It was an amazing advance. Now Microsoft was challenged to develop its answer to the Apple operating system, and so Windows came into being. When Apple sued Microsoft for stealing its idea, they lost the case. The judge ruled that there’s nothing wrong with copying a good idea.

Then in the 1990’s along came the Internet, an advance that increases the connectivity of the world exponentially!

In 2004, on a trip to North Africa, while still in Madrid, while waiting for the bus that would take my friend and me to Altagracia and from there aboard a ferry to Tangier, Morocco, my wallet was pickpocketed. I was devastated and felt stupid in the way the victim generally feels stupid for letting this to happen, however, I was able to go to an Internet café in Tangier, e-mail my brother, who lives in Vancouver, Washington, and ask him to please send me the money I would need to continue my trip.

Since I was insured, I would be able to repay him upon my return to the States. When we got to Fez, I was able to go to a Moroccan post office to pick up the money. I was amused that it was paid out in Moroccan currency, so I walked out of the post office with a stack of bills two inches thick.

I was so grateful that the Internet had made it possible for me to email my brother.

Soon computers had crept into all walks of our life, often forcing dramatic changes in the way things were done. This was no more evident than in the printing industry. Before the advent of computers, typesetters had to set type “blindly” on linotype machines, but once computers embraced a graphic interface and digital fonts, typesetting was done on computers. Type never looked so good because graphics programs allowed type to be manipulated in a myriad of fashions. That’s why when you look at magazines that were printed before this advance in printer technology the type looks quaint, as though set by children.

I watched the technology evolve at such breathtaking pace that as much as I was amazed by its genius, I wished that it would slow down. How much change can a person adapt to in one life? We’ve been asked to adapt to changes in 50 years that in the past would have taken 500 years.

For a number of years I told myself how much I dislike modern times—how unnecessarily complicated things had become, how impersonal, how cruel… People seemed to have lost their values; they had become rude and crass; they had no manners—yada, yada, yada. This attitude, of course, didn’t contribute to my personal happiness, so, then I said to myself, wait a minute. Consider how much the computer technology has contribute to your life—how much you love word processing, doing research online, using your Iphone, and, yes, checking in with Facebooks almost daily…

I think we are social animals—we want to be contact with one another. Since emailing has become available, my siblings and I have been contact much more than we were before, and on Facebooks, extended family members, even high school classmates, whom I haven’t seen or heard from in 50 years, have begun to appear.

All that the Internet has spawned is not good—there are scams galore and using it to apply for work can sometimes be a nightmare. It seems to make things more impersonal…

But, overall, I would say the computer technology has made us happier.

The most recent advances are the smart phones, the IPad, and now computer watches. Mr. Isaacson is a competent, however prosaic writer. He delivers. But, the scope of this book didn’t allow for what I wanted to know, which, was how did the designers design these small devices that have such amazing capabilities? I guess it will take another book to learn about this…

Years ago, in my mind’s eye, I saw people walking around talking to one another on wrist-bound devices. The future is here.



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