The Commodore 64 was the computer that I spent the most time with at home when I was young. We initially had a Vic-20 which we bought from Canadian Tire at a time when every big box store seemed to have some brand of computer on their shelves. I bought the C64 myself a couple years later in my early teens because I wanted ‘more power’.
It was used, for sale in the classified section of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix newspaper. We lived on a farm about an hour from Saskatoon, which was the nearest large center. We normally visited ‘the city’ once every month or two for various reasons. I convinced mom and dad on our next Saturday trip to take me to buy the computer, and the rest was history.
Programming a personal computer at that time, or doing almost anything with a computer was…more personal. At least it seems that way to me looking back. A little more effort was required to coax activity from the machine. Generally, you dealt with a command line such as above — the GUIs that were available for certain systems wererudimentary and rather less than usefu, even when the likes of GEM, Mac OS, and Windows in their seminal versions emerged. Anyone else remember the C64 Magic Desktop cartridge? Yes, I said cartridge, and no it wasn’t particularly magical.
Though I collect and tinker with any older computer I can get my hands on, that does not mean I would like to go back to using them for my general computing needs. I’ve tried it in limited doses, just for the fun of it (my wife thinks I’m not quite right in the head)and to remind myself just how far we have come with our personal computing. The idea of using an old machine is romantic, but not realistic in any sense depending on how far back you are wanting to go.
Really, what I think I miss and find myself recapturing just a little with some of my old machines today is that sense of something new and wonderful. Even now, I get that little rush when I turn on one of the computers from my collection just as I did when I was young. To paraphrase Mrs. Frederick from Warehouse 13, it seemed like ‘endless wonder’ and limitless possibilities. On my C64, that READY. followed on the next line by a blinking cursor was an invitation to create, explore and learn. I had almost total control over the machine at a very seminal level.
Do we still get that feeling from new devices we acquire? I’m not sure. Perhaps because we are fortunate enough to have so much information easily available at our fingertips whenever we want and wherever we go. The possibilities of the machines just aren’t as unique as they were a few years ago.
Ease of use and accessibility come at a price. Perhaps we have become a little jaded about it all, which isn’t unusual with regards to almost any technological progress. For example, if I could go back and talk to my great grandparents, I am sure they would have a much less casual view of daily driving and vehicles than we have today. At one time, it was a much bigger deal to own a vehicle.
I think keeping at least a little of that sense of wonder alive is important. When one of those minor ‘glitches’ happens that frustrate all of us at one point or another (application crash, internet service disruption, or what have you) we have the tendency to wonder why things can’t work better. When I think about the mind boggling number of calculations, synchronizations, transfers that happen in a single computing device of any type…the sheer volume of data that we shuffle back and forth between absolutely everywhere 24/7, increasing all the time…I am amazed and thankful that it all works as well as it does, or works at all. From my perspective, progress is always desirable, but I see the glass as half full, not half empty.
One of my favourite books is “Hackers : Heroes of the Computer Revolution” by Steven Levy. In it he paints an amazing picture of the early years of computing, and for me very clearly captures the essence of that sense of wonder through several different periods in the development of computing. The hardware and software may morph and grow, but the general principles are the same. People exploring the machines and systems, pushing the boundaries. People ready to be just a little amazed at what can be done with the technology.
I think it is important, and I think we derive a lot of drive and innovation from it. That sense of wonder feeds the wonders that we can create.
I picked up a Google Home on my way from work the other evening. I set it up before I went to bed, and then placed it in the kitchen in the morning before my son woke up. When he sat down to have breakfast, I started throwing some questions at our new device, to which it of course responded. The look on my son’s face was priceless, and that look illustrated clearly for me the wonder of it. He knows voice recognition software is common, he knows about these devices and their capabilities. He has access to the internet at school and home every day. Because of what I do for a living, he is surrounded by both old and new technology along with the opportunity to experience it. Regardless, it still gave him that little bit of delight to hear it in action. He was poised to start experimenting with it, testing its parameters and finding out what it could do, and for that I am thankful.