The Reluctant Evolution of a Computer Geek

The Reluctant Evolution of a Computer Geek

Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk syndicate
Copyright 2010

I've been amazed at how far computers have come from the first days I used one.

I was 13 years old, when my dad paid nearly $3,000 for a Radio Shack TRS-80 home computer.

"It'll be great," he said. "I'll be able to type my articles on here, and won't have to retype them if I find any mistakes."

My dad was (and still is) a psychology professor at Ball State University, trying to earn tenure at the time. The way to do that was to publish one research article in an academic journal every year.

I realize this is not stretching far back into computer history, and that some of you are old enough to still remember painting on cave walls as an early form of Instant Messaging. Still, I was around for the early stages of the personal home computer.

Back in the late '70s and early '80s, writing a journal-quality article involved a lot of typing and retyping. It was not something you took lightly, since it took several minutes of high-stress worry to type a single page.

You hoped you caught errors before you hit the carriage return to move down to the next line. You corrected errors with White-Out, or if you were really fancy, correction tape.

When you were finished, if you found a mistake on a page, you swore loudly and stomped and slammed around the house for several minutes, before retyping the offending page, praying desperately that the new correction didn't push a line off the page, which would force you to retype the rest of the document.

That's why many people would hire typists, who had mastered the beastly machines and charged $1.00 – $1.50 per typed page (worth roughly $3.30 – $5 today). The real money lay in typing some poor schlub's master's thesis that clocked in around 150 pages or so.

When my dad brought home his computer, you'd have thought we were the first family on the block to get television.

My friends thought it was stupid. "Who the hell needs a computer?" they snorted, clutching their stone knives. My dad's colleagues were suspicious and dismissive, but, I think, secretly jealous.

(No college professor will ever admit when he has been outdone by another professor. The professional jealousy and backstabbing on a college campus makes the Bolshevik Revolution look like a fancy tea party.)

As predicted, my dad was able to improve his output in writing his articles, and was granted tenure. His colleagues were suitably impressed, but like most college professors, didn't embrace change and stayed firmly rooted in the 1930s, until the department bought computers for them a few years later. I, on the other hand, used it for more important pursuits.

I played games.

I also learned some programming skills, using BASIC, the language of the TRS-80. And since I was inclined to, well, cheat at the games, I needed to know how to reprogram some of the variables to insure I didn't die prematurely (or at all).

Viruses were nonexistent, and very few people could ever go online. Not like now, where our entire lives are lived online, and it's a rare computer that doesn't have some sort of virus on it.

Luckily for me, I didn't pursue computer programming as a career, choosing instead to have a social life and to date women. However, I now own a company that does online marketing for businesses and corporations. So I never really strayed from my early computer roots.

I'm often amazed at how far computers have come in just a few short years. In the 1960s, a company computer was a mainframe system made up of a gigantic bank of computers, each bigger than a refrigerator. The processing power and storage capacity of those machines are thousands of times less than your average cell phone, but they cost millions of dollars.

Yet, as I write this, I'm looking at a 1 GB (gigabyte) flash drive that is smaller than my thumb; 1 GB is equal to about 21,000 pages of text. And my laptop is connected to a 1 TB (terabyte) hard drive, about the size of a paperback book, which can hold 1,000 of these little flash drives, or 21 million pages.

I think we're going to see some amazing things over the next 10 years, let alone the next 30. And maybe one day, my kids will be writing about how their dad used to carry this crazy, old-fashioned gizmo called a "laptop," and they'll laugh about how old all that technology is, and how goofy I was for using it.

I hope they get a virus.

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