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.

Digital Nostalgia

I was talking to Nick and Lee about digital technology, history, and advancement, trying not to be so much of an old fart – “When I was a kid we had to walk fifty miles to school through twenty feet of blowing snow….”.

They were messing with their IPhones and imagining what the state of digital electronics would be in ten, twenty years from now; when the IPhone will be as clunky and obsolete as a hand-cranked telephone. I talked a bit about when I was young – back then you were not allowed to own your own phone – you rented it from the phone company. They were usually hard-wired into the wall (when I was in college, our city of Lawrence, Kansas, was a pilot program for the now-ubiquitous cube taps – it seemed revolutionary [which it was, more than we imagined at the time]) and very, very few folks had more than one phone in the house.

The kids said that the smartphone was the most important digital invention in their lifetime (so far) and that it had changed the way they lived. They are right – the fact that you are now able to tap into the far-flung digital word from any spot (pretty much) on the planet at any time. They were especially adamant about being able to access the web at a moment’s notice is revolutionary – not only communications, but information, maps, social networks…. it really is amazing… here in this, the best of all possible worlds.

I think of going to high school in Central America…. I felt so isolated and out of touch. If the Internet existed then (forget about smart phones) I would have been able to stay up with things…. A few years later – single, back in the US, it was so easy to lose contact. Social Media, a smart phone – what a difference that would have made. I think of all the time I spent searching for pay phones, trying to keep up.

I started thinking of the moments of digital history that affected me. Not so much the technology itself, but the split seconds, the flashes of epiphany, when I realized that things were changing irrevocably – that new worlds of possibility were opening up.

Nick and Lee really didn’t understand what I was getting at, but I still thought about it-

I remember when I first understood the power of using a computer with a graphical interface. I’d been using the early Windows programs and the mouse and all was cool – but I didn’t see what the big deal was. Until one day, sort of at random, I realized I could cut from one program and paste the data, pretty much intact, into a completely different application…. I could do complex calculations in a spreadsheet, for example, and simply cut the whole mess out and paste them into a word processing document without any extra typing. And do that again and again and again until the report was done in a tenth of the time it would have taken me before.

That was a moment when I knew things had changed.

I remember, long before that, before the Internet, even when I discovered digital bulletin boards. I’d stay up late and use my computer to dial in (remember the sounds of dialup and modem negotiation, the tones, the hissing – like Pavlov’s dogs my fingers would itch whenever I heard that sound) and trade ideas and information with total strangers over the phone lines. Once the Internet arrived a couple years later, I was ready for it – it seemed like a single world-wide bulletin board (which it was).

There are hundreds of such moments… all clear as a bell with the perverse lucidity of nostalgia.

One moment stands out for me, however. In and of itself, it wasn’t a big deal, but something about it…. It was the first time I saw a laser printer spit out a document. I had been working for years with Daisy Wheel Printers and then with the Dot Matrix ones. The loud buzzing of the print heads, whopping of the paper, and the crash of the carriage return were ingrained in my ears, brain, and soul.

Of course, I had heard of Laser Printers, but they were somehow an exotic vision of expense and extravagance, something that worthless peons like myself would never have access to. I was visiting another company, one significantly more advanced than mine, and working on some joint reports. When we finished, the little box started spitting out documents with nothing more than an insignificant little whir. That is what amazed me, the silence. You want it? Here it is. No big deal.

My jaw dropped.

Things had changed; things would never be the same again.