Steven: Life in the Palm of My Hand
Jul 25, 2010
|One day, when I was sixteen or so and still in school, I caught wind of news that a “computer” would be on display in one of the empty classrooms. I had never seen a real “computer”, only the ones in science fiction movies where there were either lots of random lights flashing on a dashboard or huge rooms housing what looked like gargantuan washing machines with tape drives perpetually spinning. Hell yes, I wanted to see a computer so I signed up in haste to go see it at lunchtime.
By the time I got there, however, a line had already formed all the way down the main corridor. I didn’t hesitate about the idea of blowing my entire lunch hour going to see this marvel of modern science.
For what seemed like an eternity, I fidgeted and tapped my foot and drummed my fingers. The entire hour had almost expired by the time I finally caught a glimpse of this big clunky half-metal, half-plastic state-of-the-art machine. Everyone slowly shuffled around the big table trying to get a glimpse. It felt like we were at an open-casket funeral for some head of state…
The computer looked like a television to me, not as futuristic as I expected. A little square of light flashed at the top left side of an otherwise black screen. I don’t remember if the computer actually did anything but I do remember the fan inside made a huge racket. No wait, the computer definitely didn’t do anything. It just sat there. Still, when I walked out of the room, I was mesmerized, like I had been in the presence of a miracle. I didn’t even know what a computer could possibly do or how it would ever be useful to me but it didn’t matter, this was bigger than all of us…
For most of my early childhood in Dublin, my family owned a black and white television. We had two channels from which to choose. One was almost completely in the native Irish tongue, which I mostly didn’t understand, and the other consisted mainly of news programs or talk shows targeted at retired women. With that said, most of the time we spent in front of “the tube” was one of fascination with the picture itself. I remember spending hours watching news in Irish and not understanding a word of it.
When we finally got a color television, people didn’t know how to deal with it. I remember watching a soccer game, where the commentator had to describe what was going on both in color and black and white. One time he actually said “…and for those of you watching this game in black and white, Arsenal is the red jersey”.
In my technology-deprived childhood only the privileged few owned a telephone. If someone had one of these devices in their home, they would receive an abundance of visitors wanting to either try it out by holding the receiver and pressing all the buttons (while grinning like idiots) or they would actually make a call by choosing a number from the phone book. The conversation would go like this “Ah howya missus, I’m just tryin’ out me new phone. Sorry to disturb you. Tanks and gobless”.
We eventually got our own phone a few years later and it sat there performing absolutely no useful task. None of my friends (or my parents’ friends, for that matter) had phones so we weren’t really sure what to do with it.
As technology progressed and I became interested in music, the Sony Walkman became the iPod of the day. Most people I knew couldn’t afford it. I dreamt of being able to listen to music in stereo while walking around. It was almost inconceivable to me that this could be done. I made the fatal mistake of going to a “hifi” store to try one out. I even compiled a cassette tape of my favorite songs, recorded from vinyl, complete with scratchy sounds so I could discriminately listen to the sound quality. The quality was indeed beyond awesome. In fact, it was about fourteen miles beyond Awesome City and I became obsessed with owning one. I got a job cleaning up my uncle’s shop and, between other money making ventures such as mowing the lawn for the neighbors, I gathered enough to buy my very own Walkman.
Years later, when laptops eventually came to be, and I had moved to New York, I bought one of the original IBM Thinkpad computers. I think the processor was a x286…not sure… but it took about five minutes to open Notepad and about six minutes to close it. Nonetheless, I was hearing much talk about something called the Internet and was really curious about it. I thought it had something to do with the endless floppy disks I would get in the mail emblazoned with the letters “AOL”… Someone likened the Internet to an encyclopedia that had about five thousand pages!!! Wow, now that’s frickin’ cool!
The idea of “getting on the Internet” seemed really overwhelming so I put it off for weeks but eventually I decided to take the plunge and loaded up the AOL floppy. After I installed the software (which took about an hour), I fired up the 14.4k modem which sounded like a distress call mixed with police sirens that finally quieted down to reveal a blazing fast connection. I held my breath and launched AOL for the first time. I was greeted with a message that said “Welcome to America Online, you must first download the latest version to run this software…please click here”. I clicked there and a progress bar monitored the download progress.
I felt so excited. In no time I would be getting “online” and having access to a plethora of information. I put the laptop on the floor while it downloaded the software and went about my business. This is so cool, I thought, it’s only six o’ clock, I’ll be “surfing” by eight at the latest…and, yes, I did do the finger quotes when I thought of the word “surfing”…just like Doctor Evil. Using any kind of computer terminology at that time just felt dorky.
Of course I couldn’t resist checking the screen every five minutes to see the progress. It seemed to be taking forever. I think the total size of the file I was downloading was about 2mb! By 8 o’ clock, about 5 percent was downloaded. Bummer! Guess I wouldn’t be surfing tonight. By midnight I was too tired to stay up anymore. About 30 percent of the file had been downloaded and I was trying to do the math to figure out when it would be done. I fell asleep with formulas swirling about me.
It was a night of tossing and turning, thinking about the file downloading. I debated in my head about checking to see but then another voice would say “no, just go asleep”. No prize for guessing which voice I listened to. It was now 3am and I took a peak. 60 percent!! Well at least it was making progress. As the morning broke, the progress bar burned a pattern on my retinas until I was dizzy for lack of sleep all night. I didn’t have to be in work until noon that day so I figured I would have time to play. I did manage to fall into a deep sleep until about 9:30. I awoke with a start and immediately grabbed the laptop, opened the screen all the way and my eyeballs literally popped out of their sockets like a cartoon character. The progress bar, frozen at 99 percent, sat behind a dialogue box that warned “connection has been lost, please try again.” OH MY GOD!!!!! I lost an entire night’s sleep waiting for a moment that never came. I was so pissed I wanted to throw the laptop out the window and slash my wrists with the AOL floppy. Thankfully, after the second attempt and returning home from a full day of work, I found joy in the form of a “download complete” message. Thus, my foray into cyberspace began and it changed my life as it did the majority of the Western world.
I was an early adopter and it makes me laugh now when I think back on what I regarded as sophisticated. There was a program on my computer that allowed me to create a smiley face that I could animate (just barely). I would get endless pleasure moving the mouth up and down about six pixels on the screen.
Today, of course, our kids don’t know a world without technology. They can’t even imagine a world without cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, laptops, PDAs, you name it. This was the stuff of science fiction when I was a kid yet a good portion of my life now revolves around this technology.
I recently graduated from my laptop to a Motorola Droid. This amazing gadget allows me to take high resolution photographs, check my email, browse the web, take and make phone calls, text message, play games, use a GPS to find where I’m going, read a virtual daily newspaper, stay in touch with my family in Ireland, store thousands of my favorite songs in amazing quality, the list goes on and on and all in a device that is smaller than the size of my hand. It’s hard for me to become complacent about the technology, it amazes me every single day.
I regard myself as a Droid power user. I utilize every single capability the phone has. Linda, on the other hand, has a Droid even more powerful than mine and yet she can barely answer the phone! For her, the technology is overwhelming and a hindrance rather than something of benefit. Her phone is called the “Incredible” but I jokingly call it the Droid Invisible because I barely ever see her use it.
Oh well, maybe someday she’ll figure it all out. In the meantime, I’m thankful to have come from such a primitive past.
Could I do without all this cool stuff? Probably but it would be like severing a limb so, if you don’t mind, I have to go lock in the navigation for our upcoming camping trip…a trip that will lead us out of Cyberspace to Polson Montana, where we will meet our Facebook friends Margaret Wright and Ian McKee for the first time. What an amazing journey.