They Ring And You Run

“So that’s the telephone? They ring, and you run.”
― Edgar Degas

Downtown Square, McKinney, Texas



Oblique Strategy:
Always first steps

I think of the technological advances during the time I have lived.

In college, I had to punch cards to produce input into a computer that took up an entire floor of the business school. I would hand my precious stack – chits of holed paper with one corner gone – through a window to some anointed guardian like it was the gate to the Emerald City. I would then stare at an empty vending machine for hours until my stack of printouts flopped down into a numbered wooden bin.

Almost a decade later I was writing database programs to run on a Radio Shack TRS-80. I would write the program on an 8 inch floppy disk, and the data for each site was on another 8 incher. I think each held 180 K bytes. We kept having problems with data until I discovered my assistant was holding the extra disks onto a copy board with magnets. Reports were slowly spit out on an incredibly loud daisy-wheel printer. Still, as crude as this all was it revolutionized the storage and retrieval of information that we had been doing by hand.

The IBM PC was another incredible advance. Of course, I remember when it was kept in a wire cage and you had to get a key from a manager to use it. They thought it was a waste of money – and couldn’t understand why it didn’t get more use. I finally convinced management to get it out of the locked cage and let anybody sit there and type. Soon, a mouse wandered over and the early versions of Windows came out. It was painfully slow – but I remember when I realized I could cut information from one program (a spreadsheet, say) and paste it into another (a word processor). I remember that moment still – it was like a whole new world opened up.

Another moment like that was the first time I saw a laser printer spit out a piece of 8.5 x 11. I think it was the silence that impressed me, even more than the quality of the work.

And on it goes – for most of my adult life, every year brought new wonders – having my own computer at home, laptops, video games, thumb drives, GPS. All amazing. It’s only recently, as the corporate behemoth ropes everything back in, gets its evil tendrils into and around every byte that I feel we have begun to fall backwards. Things are now getting harder and harder, less and less amazing.

When I talk to my kids about this, the quintessence of millennials, they agree without hesitation that it is the Smartphone that is the game changer. For me, it’s probably the internet… but for them it’s the little piece of glass in their hand – that goes everywhere, that does everything. They can’t imagine life without one.

Each little phone is, of course, many, many times more powerful that that immense leviathan that spread across that entire building when I was in school.

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9 responses to “They Ring And You Run

  1. I remember the first time I was introduced to a computer using a mouse. I was in college and someone had a Macintosh. Other than playing games (which we didn’t know at the time were designed to teach you how to use a mouse), I could figure out why I would ever want a computer with a mouse. However I did know that I really like not having to use DOS prompts! Thus my lifelong love affair with all things Apple started, and not one of my devices uses a mouse, lol!

    • It’s surprising – I have had almost no exposure to Apple computers. My experience with Apple tablets, iPods, and phones is that there are things I want them to do, things that they can do, but that Apple doesn’t let me do.

      • I feel the same way about windows machines. I find myself several times a day (during the work week), wanting to smash the stupid box and replace it with an elegantly designed and intuitive machine wearing an Apple logo.
        Too each his own, some like easy computing, and others like to be frustrated by them, I choose Apple’s to avoid the frustration 😉

  2. Many aspects of history can be linked back to analogies from past times. The spread of the internet, like the invention of the printing press; globalization, well, like globalization of old. Robotics might be akin to slavery (exploitation by few of the many).

    But the smartphone, or what I’ve come to call the pocket NOC (with VR and AR glasses coming, you’ll just carry your phone in your pocket and never actually look at it.) This device has no analog in history, me thinks. How we overcome our addition to its alluring chimes and cheerful glyphs, I can’t surmise.

    I appear to have traversed a similar career path, punch cards of Fortran, PCs as gods, assembler on Motorola chips, and then the internet and the inadequate living it has provided me.

    Computers are a love/hate relationship. Today, I hate them.

    • Another thing that is different now is the pace of change. In the past, a person or society had to adapt to one revolutionary changer per lifetime, more or less. Now they come every five years.

      • Great point. I suppose now, we can only hope to leapfrog our personal selections; only upgrade one’s phone when absolutely necessary, maybe wait for our kids to point out our Luddicism and appease them by adopting new tech only at their insistence. (Just as we did to our parents who, for me, still live, but only email and text — at a maximum).

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