Posted by: nickgerlich | January 22, 2008

In Their Genes

I remember my first experience with a computer. It was 1973, and I was a freshman in the Honors Math program in high school in suburban Chicago. We were the nerds of the school, pocket protectors and all. And as we progressed through the program those four years, we would always try to be the first to class, in order that we might get a coveted seat near an electrical outlet, in order that we might plug in our LED TI-30 calculators. TTY TerminalAnd somewhere amid all that calculus, between the derivatives and integrating, we were taught the fundamentals of a programming language known as FORTRAN IV (which was IBM-speaking for Formula Translating System). Our exposure to the computing world was by several TTY terminals and a clumsy cradle modem that connected us to a large mainframe at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Our programs were typed on the TTY and punched into a ribbon of yellow paper tape, which was then run through the tape reader whilst connected to IIT.

Never mind USB drives, floppies, and such modern marvels. No, our “memory” was limited to whether we could manage to not lose that roll of paper tape. And you had better type it right the first time.

The last 35 years have been much better, thankfully, as I progressed through punch cards (try carrying a box of these around with you to school), massive floppies like Matthew Broderick used in War Games, and then an ever-downward miniaturization of memory devices that allows me to now carry the entire contents of my brain on a jump drive the size of my pinky.

It’s a wonder I stuck with it this long, because there were a lot of frustrating years along the way. Even a mere 8 years ago I moaned about always being tethered to a wall-mounted phone jack; I could not work unless I had access to a data-compatible phone line. Thankfully, the wifi I so eagerly dreamed of in 2000 became reality.

But what about the people born in recent years, who never had to experience the stone tools we had a few decades ago? Like my daughters, for example. Both have had a mouse in their hand since the age of 1 (I searched high a low to find child-size mouses that their little hands could grasp). They have known no other way; they use mouses and remote controls as if they are the opposable thumbs of their generation.

This week PBS’ Frontline will air Growing Up Online, examining what it is like to have been surrounded by techno marvels since birth. While crusty old curmudgeons such as yours truly had to often be dragged kicking and screaming into new applications, today’s children embrace each wave of change as if it were as innocuous as the changing of the seasons. No big deal. Perfectly normal.

I was commiserating with a colleague yesterday about cell phone plans, and how most now foist upon us the ability to text in mass quantities. Never mind how many minutes you have for actually speaking; no, the selling point is how many text messages one can send or receive each month.

“I just don’t get it,” I rued. “Why text when you can just call?”

It’s not that I am opposed to technology. Far from it. I just don’t understand why anyone would want to thumb-type when a few spoken syllables would be faster.

Which probably explains why for my generation a Frontline documentary would be called Growing Into Online. No matter how much we embraced the changes of the last 35 years, it was all new territory for us. Kids growing up today know nothing more (or less…and you can take that as either a compliment or an insult). We suffered through the discontinuous change of technological upheaval, while our progeny see it today as just continuous change.

And that also helps explain why our 10-year-old figured out her MacBook faster than I could shift gears with my iMac. Maybe my brain just needs a lube job.

Dr “Trying To Keep Up” Gerlich


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