Technology marches on, and we skip along with the parade

Like many of us, I use technology so much that I barely notice it. I sit at my computer for hours each day noodling around with novel revisions, blog entries, freelance articles, and it all seems quite unremarkable.

Then every so often something makes me remember how new this all is.

Recently it was holiday photos. Snapfish had a 30 percent discount if you ordered holiday cards by Oct. 31st, so I corralled Sam, Becca and the cat for the annual picture.

When Becca was a baby, I still had to take rolls of film into the photo store to be developed. I’d wait several days to get the pictures back, choose the best one, and return to the photo store to order the cards.

Now we use our digital camera and see the results immediately. This year Becca even photoshopped our favorite picture to remove wrinkles, blemishes, shadows and gray hair! (An unexpected benefit to having an artsy teen – we will look younger every year, a la The Holiday Card of Dorian Gray.) I uploaded the photo, clicked through a bunch of card options to find one without any crosses, mangers, trees, ornaments or red-and-green… and that was that.

It’s only been 12 or 15 years, but the old process of slogging back and forth to the photo store seems like ancient history.

That started me thinking about other technological changes in my lifetime.

If you were chronicling your life for archeologists from the year 3000, what would you remember about new technologies? Do you recall a specific time, place, circumstance when they appeared in your life?

For instance:

ATMs. I started college in 1976, just about the time that ATMs were introduced. I remember going to the BayBank branch in Harvard Square to open my first-ever checking account, and getting a plastic card that I could use to get money. Wow! My parents never got money with a card. It felt very cutting edge.

COMPUTERS. I used electric typewriters all through college; computers were still huge boxes off in the science building. After I graduated in 1980, I worked for a while as a clerical temp where I was thrilled to be able to use IBM Selectrics. The height of luxury, I thought, would be to have a Selectric at home for personal use.

I think I first ran into word processing machines when I was temping; I vaguely remember being awed by a machine at one company that had a screen that showed REAL WRITING with ACTUAL FONTS rather than bunches of little electronic dots. (My first glimpse of a graphical user interface?)

The first time I used a desktop computer for writing was when I was living in Jerusalem in 1984-5 and writing a novel. My Israeli friend Ivonne, a graduate student, had a very early pre-Macintosh Apple. I would hand-write pages at my apartment, and then go over to her house to type them onto a floppy disk. When I returned to the U.S. for journalism school in 1985, I bought a PC (“Leading Edge” brand with its own proprietary word processing program!) and paid to have the files transferred from Apple to PC format.

During my first reporting internship at the Waterbury Republican in 1986, we filed stories from the field on Radio Shack TRS-80 computers – warhorses that would have probably survived a drop from the Empire State Building. They had displays that showed about two lines of type – the equivalent of a Tweet! – and rubber cups that you attached to a pay phone in order to transmit your text. I suspect any boomer-age newspaper reporter reading this blog remembers them.

EMAIL. When we were starting to organize the Julia Morgan School for Girls in 1996, email was still relatively new. We had long, earnest discussions about whether it was equitable to send messages to parents by email – would we be excluding families without the means to buy a computer? Today those discussions seem quaint. The school hasn’t sent out a paper newsletter for years; everyone reads it on the web site.

Those were just the first personal takes on tech history that popped into my head. It’s interesting how we date historical events — whether technological change, moon landings, or political events — by remembering where we were and what we were doing at that moment.

How about you — any moments in your life that are linked to the arrival of a new technology?

Some things, of course, remain the same despite any and all technological changes. When I was little, my parents took Instamatic holiday photos of the three of us kids and the cat. The cat invariably was half out of the picture, squirming and clawing to get back under the bed where life was sane and normal.

 

If you look at our 2010 holiday photo at the top of this blog post, Bowie doesn’t seem much happier.

I guess you could photoshop some kind of Zen-relaxation-expression onto a cat. Or you could photoshop in the entire cat.

I can envision the PETA-friendly disclaimer: “No real cats were annoyed or even slightly inconvenienced in the making of this greeting card.”

But somehow the holiday photo experience just wouldn’t feel the same.

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7 Responses to “Technology marches on, and we skip along with the parade”

  1. James Richardson Says:

    I graduated from college a year before you entered, and even in those short five years was huge technological changes:
    1- I typed papers on my state-of-the-art portable Olivetti manuel typewriter (and I still have it and will never part with it).
    2- When I took a dreaded math class, I rented a calculator for the term at the UCLA student store. It came in a big carrying case, heavier than my current laptop.
    3- Computers were totally in the realm of the engineering and science nerds, and they carried stacks of IBM cards around campus to show their superiority.
    4- I had a phone credit card my parents gave me for phoning home.
    5- I had to cash checks at the Alpha Beta to get cash. I cashed one check for $10 per week.
    6- At the Daily Bruin, we typed on copy books — thick layers of paper and carbon paper. The copy books were donated to us by the LA Times. The copy went to a backshop where typesetters inputted our eloquent prose into state-of-the-art cold-type machines that spit out column strips that were waxed and stuck onto galleys. We took turns every midnight driving the pages to Glendale where the paper was printed.
    7- My camera was an Instamatic, with flash cubes. Each cube had four flashes and would rotate each time I took a photo. Film was easy to load by then, in a little plastic cartridge. Pop it in, wind, pop out when done. Expensive!

  2. Sam Schuchat Says:

    When I started college computers occupied entire rooms and used punch cards. I took a class in Fortran programming, and learned to use a punch card writer. Then my college got a time sharing system; I promptly wrote a program that had an infinite loop in it, causing the entire system to crash.

    When I was in graduate school, I had a “portable” computer, and hand me down from my Dad. It weighed 30 lbs, and had an acoustic modem. I could use it to dial into the mainframe at SF State and run my statistics homework from the comfort of my group household; my roomates thought it was magical!

    On a less positive note, when I started backpacking at age 13 we drank directly from streams; now we have all sorts of high tech filtration devices which must be used lest we get disease.

  3. Anna Mindess Says:

    Somehow I have always been a “late -adopter”. When my husband (then boyfriend) and I moved in together in 1979, he wanted to get rid of my black and white TV and get a color set. “No,” I said, “it will be so gorgeous we will watch too much TV.”(we got it anyway and I liked it).

    Then he suggested a dishwasher. “No,” I said, “I do some of my best thinking while I wash the dishes.” (we got it anyway and I liked it).

    Microwave? – “No, weird radiation” — got it, wondered how I ever lived without it.

    Cell phone ? – “Don’t need it” — until we had a baby, then could be in constant touch with babysitter.

    Computer? – “No, I don’t want to spend all my free time on it like you do.”
    Then, I started writing my first book in 1996. Got a computer but refused to do anything other than word-processing. My husband told me I had to play with it in order to learn. Make mistakes, figure it out by trial and error. “Nope,” I said don’t have time to make mistakes, gotta finish the book.”

    Now I have it all and can’t remember why I made such a fuss. No, wait a minute. I do not have a Kindle because books are meant to be smelled and touched…hmm, I wonder how long that will last?

  4. elliot Says:

    A moment forever etched in my mind binds together technology at several levels with the glue of human excitement and imagination. In the wee small hours of July 1969, my father was bouncing around like a little kid all excited. He was pointing our ancient Revere 8mm camera at the tv that the rest of our family was watching. My dad was exclaiming ‘This is so GREAT!” So the old home movie machine was filming goings-on on the relatively new color tv console as 2 corn-field Americans were climbing out of their cool-as-anything machine to go prance around for the first time on a celestial body that had been but a techno-dream since time immemorial for humanity. No longer was our reach beyond our grasp.

  5. Meg Spencer Dixon Says:

    When I started college in 1978, I brought with me the manual typewriter I’d used to write papers during high school. I was heavily resistant (understatement) to learning how to use a computer. (“No, really, I don’t mind re-typing a page if there’s a typo on it!”) I had to be physically dragged by my then-boyfriend, a sophomore Computer Science major, to the Computer center (blocks away!) and forcibly taught how to use Script (anyone remember that?). I still remember being petrified that I’d press the wrong key and accidentally blow up New Jersey (so there were mixed incentives there, really).

    But I soon saw the light, and used Script to write the rest of my college papers (anyone else remember tearing off the side-strips-with-holes-on-them from the finished product?) I eventually became so comfortable with computers that I learned to play Adventure, with its cutting-edge text interface (“You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”).

    Back then, using the computer was quite a sociable activity, since the terminals which which you accessed one of the mainframes were all in one room, with open carrels. I remember being at the Computer Center in my senior year, the night before my department’s thesis deadline, being surrounded by my classmates as we all frantically finished our theses. (One weird, unofficial goal was to have your thesis’s page count exceed your weight.)

    Oh, and yes, ATMs were just coming out then. I remember the first one in town was installed at my college bank my freshman year, and, probably to lure customers into using the intimidating machine instead of bothering the actual tellers, the bank tried to anthropomorphize the thing, giving it the official name of Harvey Wallbanker. No more writing checks to “Cash.” (Nowadays, I hardly even write any checks at all. As soon as my daughter’s piano teacher starts accepting EFTs or credit cards, I’ll be able to shred my checkbook — which holds only checks; the register has long since gone computerized.)

    Thanks for instigating this trip down memory lane, Ilana! :)

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