Augmenting Capabilities & Emotions: quick reflections on my long-term relationship with computers

October 1, 2012, 2:14 pm

I took my son to an office store this weekend. We went down the desktop aisle: they had four. By the time he’s a teenager desktops will be faded memories. He already has his own iPad.

This semester I’m participating in a seminar titled Awakening the Digital Imagination: A Networked Faculty-Staff Development Seminar. We’re using the New Media Reader and it’s loaded with all the classics: V. Bush, Licklider, Engelbart, Kay, etc. Each week we read an essay and discuss the foundations of computers and the web. We’re encouraged to blog our thoughts and so I’ll devote a few posts here to that experience.


Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about my early encounters with computers. I can’t recall the first one I ever saw or typed on, but it must have been in elementary school. I know my mom signed me up for a weeklong computer camp one summer, but the details are foggy. And I think I remember being in middle school (?) and having an assignment to write a program (copy code from a sheet of paper) for a ski game. Once we finished we could spend the rest of the class playing the game: great incentive.


I was about eleven years old when a computer was introduced into our home. It was my dad’s so it must have been work issued. My good friend at the time also had a computer (or rather his dad did) and I remember staying up late playing questing games at his house.


That’s when I learned the difference in operating systems and computer capabilities. Not all machines were equal—there were great distinctions. Even if I had my friend’s game on a floppy disk, it would not work on my computer: I tried. Keep in mind that this was all before Windows.


It wasn’t all about games for me though. I remember using Word Star in middle and high school to type essays. Not everyone had word processers and I recall a few friends typing their papers at my house.


I think on a subconscious level having a computer for this task helped me to enjoy writing. It made the labor of composing my thoughts fun. The fact that I could use a computer instead of cramping my hand with pen and paper was an incentive. It also made spelling easier since my mom liked to push Webster on me and I’d much rather use electronic assistance.


Anyway, the fact that I could use this machine to do homework made it more tolerable. It makes me thinks about certain kids today who “hate” books but will read via eReaders. The technology provides a gateway for positive intellectual encounters.


I bought my own first computer the summer before college. I was proud at having saved up the money (plus high school graduation gift funds I’m sure) to make the purchase. The first thing I bought, after some tacky screen savers, was a desktop publishing program. This led to me landing a job where I could do some very basic page design work. My computer enabled me to leave the fast food industry behind.


During junior year of college my roommate bought a new computer that had a modem; we dialed into the Internet every night. This was 1995. The web was still raw back them. Everyone was figuring out what it was and how to use it. That computer was a social experience. Not in the modern Facebook type of way, but we would literarily hang out around it in our living room, friends over, music blaring, beers being consumed, and… dial into AOL. I’ll leave it there for now. But I want to emphasize that this wasn’t a stereotypically geeky group. There were some pretty hardcore dudes in the mix and many of our peers were not enrolled in college. But there was something about this box connected to the phone line that brought us together and piqued our curiosity.


As I reflect upon my relationship with computers the central theme emerging is that each one expanded my capabilities and fostered new experiences. This was back in the time when getting a new computer was a big deal. What you could do was greatly limited by the hardware you possessed. Often the software I wanted to run required greater memory, faster processing speed, or higher graphical specifications than I had access to.


It’s not like that anymore. Getting a new computer is almost routine. The last time I remember being inspired by a computer was when I tossed aside my RAZR for an iPhone 1. That was a transcendental experience. It not only changed my behavior it exceeded my expectations and cemented my affection for computers. However… all subsequent iPhone upgrades didn’t have the same impact. Even my iPad, which I love, wasn’t as transformative, even though I depend on it every day. I kind of miss that feeling of a new machine bringing enlightenment. The closest thing in recent years has been converting to Kindle books.


I could continue rambling but I’ll save that for my next New Media Seminar post. We’re reading AUGMENTING HUMAN INTELLECT right now. This paper was published exactly fifty years ago this month and we owe a great debt to Engelbart for his vision.

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