Friday, October 7, 2011

15 years online

I started writing this post a couple of weeks ago. My plan was to have it ready to post on the anniversary date mentioned -- but life intervened, as it too often does. I dusted it off again after hearing about Steve Jobs's death this week. I've never owned anything by Apple (yet?)... but no matter what brand you own, he's essentially the reason why we all have personal computers sitting on our desks or in our laps today.

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The last year seems to be chock full of milestone "annivesaries" of one kind or anothern -- our 25th anniversary & my parents' 50th, my 50th birthday, my 25th anniversary with my company. Here's another one: 15 years ago, on September 21, 1996, we bought our first home computer, & shortly afterward, I went online for the very first time.

But first, let's go back. WAAAYYYY back. ; ) I guess my generation sort of straddles the time between the older folks, who didn't grow up with computers at all, and kids today, who seem to be born with an iPad or Game Boy in their hands.

I have no clear memory of when computers first entered my life in a meaningful way. They were around, although certainly not in the same way they are today. My first memories of computers are associated with my uncle, who got into the mainframe computer industry after graduating from university in the early 1960s. He worked for what was then called Univac, later became Unisys, and was Honeywell by the time he retired several years ago. He used to bring us excess continuous form printer paper to draw on, & would send us posters with images of Snoopy and Linus from Peanuts, fashioned from rows of printed numbers.

The one Christmas my family spent with his, in 1976, my cousins had a newfangled game -- called Pong -- that you played on a television set. A little white dot bouncing back & forth between two white lines on a black screen, like a ping pong game. I'm sure today's kids would find Pong about as exciting as watching paint dry (maybe even less so), but it was pretty fascinating stuff back then.

By the time I was off to university in 1979, games like PacMan & Galaga had replaced pinball machines in the campus bar, and one of my girlfriends was actually studying computer science, which meant spending long hours in the lab with boxes of punch cards, learning new languages called BASIC & COBOL. In the early '80s, my mom bought my dad something called Intellivision, which came with game cartridges for Donkey Kong, poker, hockey, golf, etc. My dad was enchanted and it provided us with endless hours of entertainment on cold winter nights during Christmas and February break.

But nobody, except maybe the very geekiest of the geeks, had their own computers or wrote term papers on them. For me, researching and writing a term paper in those days would mean spending long hours going through the card catalog at the library, taking pages of notes from stacks of books (if I could find them), using roll after roll of nickels to photocopy materials that weren't allowed to be signed out, then spreading all my raw material out on my dorm room bed & floor and starting to write. Longhand. I would revise my draft at least once, perhaps two or three times -- and then I would start typing.

Because I had probably procrastinated, I would often start typing late on the night before my paper was due, type through the night, turn in my paper the next morning, & then go home to sleep. ; ) To muffle the sound in an attempt not to annoy my dorm neighbours, I would put the typewriter on top of a couple of towels. And I woudl use easy-erase paper, which was much easier than trying to correct errors with whiteout. And trying to realign the typewriter carriage with the spot where you had corrected the error -- ARRRGHHHH.

I spent the month of January 1984 as an intern reporter at the London Free Press, before entering my final term of journalism school. This was the first time I ever used a computer, I think. Very basic, primitive stuff, of course. I would type my stories on a black screen with glowing yellow type. Then, after I'd filed it, I would read other stories from the wire services that were coming in, stories that would appear in the paper the next morning. It was intoxicating.

When my internship month ended, I returned to J-school for my final term -- and surprise! We now had computers too. We were the first class in the his­tory of the school to use them. Again, very basic, primitive by today's standards -- black screen, green type, very lit­tle for­mat­ting, & there were 30 of us shar­ing a dot-​​matrix con­tin­u­ous form printer (with a tan­gle of num­bered cables cor­re­spond­ing to our indi­vid­ual com­put­ers, which you had to plug in — & then unplug so some­one else could use it).

But oh, what a thrill!!

When I started working in 1986, I still had a typewriter on my desk, but the secretaries had huge, boxlike computers on their desks, called Wordstars. The rest of us shared two Xerox PCs that sat in a separate cubicle, and had to take turns using them, saving our work onto 5.25" floppy discs. We would compose our stories longhand or on the typewriter, & then input them on the computer.

Eventually, we upgraded to IBM PS/2s (blue screens, white type) with WordPerfect software, & just kept upgrading from that point on. And although I never could have imagined it, I became comfortable with composing onscreen (to the point where I do very little writing longhand these days). It wasn't until 2001, though, that we all got e-mail & Internet access (and we were the communications department!!). We switched to MS Word software in 2006.

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By the mid-90s, I was thinking it would be nice to have a computer at home. I could bring work home, write letters, play solitaire! And there was this newfangled thing called the Internet that I was curious about. The idea of all that knowledge at my fingertips, just waiting to be explored, had me salivating. (But then, I used to read encyclopedias when I was a kid...)

At the IBM store at the mall. I'd seen a newspaper ad offering "back to school" specials, & there was a "Back to School Bundle" deal that looked promising. I still have the ad: an IBM Ambra Achiever, including a 100 mhz Pentium processor, 16 MB RAM, 1.2 GB hard drive, 28.8 K modem, one free year on the Internet, speakers and a colour inkjet printer -- all for $1799 (plus tax, plus the cost of the desk we bought).

I had this computer until the fall of 2003, when I bought a Dell Inspirion 4600. Again, I saw a newspaper ad, but this time I actually ordered it sight unseen over the telephone (!) & had the local Geek Squad guys set it up for me & transfer over my files from my old computer. By last spring, it was giving me increasing grief, & my sister's boyfriend -- who, amazingly, could remotely access my computer from their home 1,000 miles away, run a diagnostic program & make some fixes -- advised me that the hard drive was going. So I bought my first laptop -- a Toshiba Satellite that he recommended.

I can still remember the thrill of going online for the first time. I knew that this was life-changing stuff, a whole new world opening up before me, & of course it was. I wasn't quite sure what to do, but somehow, I figured it out. I think I looked up the URLs of a couple of magazines I subscribed to, and some news sites.

Two years later, during my pregnancy, one of dh's coworkers (who was also pregnant), gave him the URL for a pregnancy website -- Parents Place, part of iVillage -- she thought I might be interested in. I didn't join an expecting board -- I was still very wary of message boards & the like at that time -- or otherwise spend a lot of time there then -- but when Katie was stillborn, I went there again, looking for support. The computer became my lifeline. I obsessively searched for information on stillbirth, bicornuate uteri, IUGR. I ordered books on pregnancy loss from Amazon. I found an e-mail list for grieving mothers, hoping to try again.

I spent less time reading and watching television as my time online increased, and I sometimes regret that (the reading, anyway -- I don't think the TV time has been any great loss!). But I've gained so, so much from being online. New worlds of knowledge, new friends from all over the world, the ability to stay in touch so much better with old friends & family members. I certainly never could have envisioned it all 15 years ago.

But I still sometimes think that I'd like to go back to school someday -- if only to expe­ri­ence the plea­sure of both research­ing AND writ­ing a term paper com­pletely on a com­puter. Kids today have NO idea…!! ; )


  1. I love love love this post. Huge smile as I walked down memory lane. We also had Intellivision. I can't remember how old I was when we got our first computer -- some time in the mid-to-late '80s. I remember the first time I saw the Internet -- there were no search engines and I didn't know how anyone would find sites. Or email! A friend told me about email when I was 16 and I didn't believe him.

  2. It's incredible to think how much things have changed, and so quickly as well!

  3. Fun post!

    Re: term papers, I'm surprised the index card industry hasn't completely collapsed.

    I started college in fall 1995, and we were the first class to NOT ever have to stand in line to register. And I received an email address but didn't bother checking my email until late October, and it would be a couple of years before communicating with instructors via email was encouraged. (Now my college instructor friends can't get a moment's peace.) By the time I graduated in spring 1999, nearly everyone had desktops but students still didn't bring laptops to class. This was at a big university with the world's biggest supercomputer on campus and the rightful claim to having invented the World Wide Web. : P

  4. I love this post!

    On September 21, 1996 I was getting married :) We bought our first computer, for about the same price you did, with our first tax return a few months later. The internet has been a lifeline for me too, but I didn't discover the blogoshere until 2004.

  5. What a great post. Pong!! Hee :) Thanks for all the wonderful memories.