The Old Man and the PC.
kitten   July 9, 2007

Kids today. With their fast computers and broadband. Their Farkmemes and Slashfilters and Diggwoots and Facespaces. Where any doofus can smear up some graphics with a few clicks, drop the result into an HTML editor that practically runs itself, and call themselves web designers. Where installing hardware is a matter of plugging it in and turning it on. There are scores of you young whippersnappers talking about how "back in the day" of 1999 you got your first computer with, sighing as you reminisce on how you had to learn the hard way how to use Blogger and now everyone has a blog. Well, boo hoo! Punk kids. No idea what it's like.

If you're thinking of disregarding this as another curmudgeonly rant about how we had to surf the net uphill both ways in the snow, let me disabuse you of that notion right now. Because you see, back in my day, we didn't even have the internet. And we liked it.

Being born in 79 afforded me and my peers a unique perspective on the world. There are people older than me who can tell you about soldering together their Sinclairs or flipping punchcards through readers. But with our birth, something else was born. Our arrival on this planet coincided with the rising epoch of the personal computer, something that few had predicted would ever exist within reasonable cost of the average home, but which was becoming a reality just at that moment. And so, as I grew, so did the computer alongside me, maturing as I did. It means that we learned how to do things the hard way because there was no other way, and we didn't think of it as hard. It was just the way things were.

First computer I had was one of these babies, a TI-99. There was no such thing as a floppy disk -- you shoved a huge, solid-state cartridge into the slot, plugged the entire thing into your television, and powered it up.

When we got an IBM PS/2 it was a big deal. Now we could store 720 kilobytes on a floppy drive labelled "DOS", load it into the disk drive, and flip the large mechanical switch that powered the whole thing on. It took three minutes for the noisy drive A: to grind and clatter, finally loading DOS into the 640k RAM available, and everything else we wanted to do required us to slot another disk into drive B: and hope for the best. Disks routinely went bad and to do anything meant sorting through a shoebox of floppies hoping we'd labelled them appropriately.

When I was your age, .com was a file extension, not a top level domain. We didn't know what the hell a domain was. .com meant "command" and we ran it at a cryptic DOS prompt. We ran everything at a cryptic DOS prompt because a cryptic DOS prompt was all there was. Copying a file didn't mean dragging pictures from one folder to another. It meant finding a floppy disk with enough space and typing "COPY [/Y|-Y] [/A][/B] [a:][path]filename [/A][/B] [b:][path][filename] [/V]" to move it from one disk to another, and that's if we were fortunate enough to have more than one drive.

But you didn't hear us complaining about how these commands were too hard to learn! No sir, we were damn thankful for the privilege of getting to learn 'em.

If our monitor could display more than four colors (black, white, cyan, and magenta), we were on the cutting edge of technology. The most high-tech games looked like this but most looked more like this, or maybe this if we were lucky and got to play games on the Apple IIe green-screen at school.

We traded those games with our friends on floppy disks, but most were too big to fit on a single disk, which meant learning how to create multi-part ZIP files that took three hours to generate and if you messed up one parameter the entire thing would be destroyed.

We ran these programs under BASIC. If we got bored with those games, or needed a program for school, there was no way to just download a new one. We programmed your own in BASIC and spent two weeks debugging our GOTO loops and IF-THEN statements. Don't know what BASIC is? Damn kids!

Did we complain that it was too hard to do this? Hell no, we didn't.

In my day, if we didn't know how to do something, there was no Google to ask. We consulted heavy technical manuals written by computer scientists for computer scientists -- none of this user-friendly happy cheery nonsense -- and tried to figure out the exact commands needed to accomplish the task. There were no one-click software installs, no wizards, or any of that fancy crap.

Today you kids just shove a card into an expansion slot and let Windows configure everything for you, while you lean back and complain if you have to find a driver online. Back in my day we had to manually configure the IRQ settings, bus settings, and memory allocation. With dipswitches. Which we'd toggle with a ballpoint pen or toothpick. And if we did it wrong we'd destroy the hardware.

And you know what? You didn't hear us complaining about how hard it was. We were damned thankful to have the chance to use this technology.

Then there were the modems. Plug a phone line into one, get it connected to your computer via the above obnoxious process, then yell at everyone in the house to stay the hell off the phone so we could maintain our connection at a blazing 2400 bits per second. It was easy to tell how fast the connection was by listening to the modem handshakes, because we heard it fourteen times a day.

There was no internet. A few university geeks and UNIX sysadmins played around with Usenet and posted to mailing lists, and that was about the extent of it. But you didn't hear us complaining. We'd go to the library and get a dot-matrix printout of local BBSs because that's all there was. And we liked it.

To dial into one of those coveted BBSs meant learning how to manually manipulate and interpret modem strings. We didn't type it into a nice simple window, no sir. We memorized the Hayes command set and typed things like "ATDT5551234", then proceeded to do it fourteen more times because the line on the other end was always busy. When we got connected, characters crawled across the screen and we could access the contents of the board. Downloading small 20k text files about how to build a red box took twenty minutes and that's assuming the modem would stay connected that long.

Annoyed when your DSL or cable connection dies once a week for a few minutes? Feel like raising hell with Comcast about it? Listen, sonny, if we could maintain our modem connection for more than an hour at a time we were damn near ecstatic about it! Nine times out of ten the line would drop, or our parents would pick up the phone, or someone would call in making the call-waiting beep interrupt your connection. We learned to start downloads at night, and using the XMODEM protocol at 300 bits per second, hope it'd be done by the time we woke up. But usually some noise on the phone line would have terminated the connection by then, and we'd start over.

But you didn't hear us complaining about it, hell no. The fact that we could use the phone line to connect our computers at all astonished us. Always-on broadband at 6 megabits per second? You damn spoiled brats.

When the internet started getting noticed by the general public it was considered elite if you had direct ISP access. Most of us went through "online service providers" like CompuServe and Prodigy. We had handles like "NightShade" and "Red Baron", with email addresses like 77162.27186@compuserv.net. And we didn't have no fancy Outlook address books! We memorized those numbers like we memorized phone numbers, another thing kids these days can't seem to manage anymore.

Our net access was limited to text at first, which was good enough for us. Later, in the early 90s, the Web was born and those of us awesome enough to have computers capable of running graphical web browsers were treated to pages like this. If we didn't adjust our web window to precisely the right size it wouldn't work at all, but the attitude was that if you thought you were so special that you had to have your own particular window size, then you can go make your own goddamned website. Of course, most of you damn kids still haven't gotten past that one.

The web promised us a new era in information sharing and sharing. But finding that wealth of information was a chore. Search engines looked like this and provided mostly useless results, but that's partly because most of the information on the web was stored on free Geocities and Angelfire sites, run by some random weirdo with a specialty interest in beekeeping or the history of the Aztecs. Maybe their information was useful, and maybe it was just crackpot nonsense. It usually came complete with embedded midis and hit counters and animated pictures of galloping horses, which took ages to load even on our amazingly fast 28.8kpbs modems which were no more reliable than the old 2400 affairs we had before.

But were we complaining? No sir, we weren't. It suited us just fine, because our 500 megabyte hard drives and 20 megs of RAM could only handle so much anyway.

There was no Google and there was no Wikipedia. You kids have no idea how easy you have it when you want to plagarize do research. And unless we carried floppy disks around, storing information meant printing it out on ungodly loud dot-matrix printers which fed from a big box of paper underneath a desk and spewed out one page per minute.

So you downloaded "Tom's HTML Editor for Myspace". Or managed to change the colors on your blog using CSS you copied and pasted from somewhere else. Well, congratulations. Aren't you elite? Come back to me when you've grafted a comm port into your motherboard by examining pin outs so you can plug in an external 9600 baud modem. You Photoshopped some graphics you found on Google for your website? Talk to me when you had to manually program line graphics in LOGO to make images. You prettied up your AIM emoticon set with prepackaged sets of "smilies"? I'll be impressed when you can carry on a conversation two pages at a time by typing your response Edlin, posting it to a bulletin board, and waiting three days for your fellow BBS user to dial in and check his messages. And we used proper spelling and grammar in those messages, too, because we'd be mocked without mercy if we didn't.

Damn kids. Get off my lawn!