Sunday, November 11, 2007

Computers Then and Now

Dick Francis is another one of our authors to turn to for a good escapist read. I've just been re-reading 'Twice Shy', which was first published in 1981. Some of his books don't date that much, the world of horse-racing carrying on pretty much as it always has, but this one has at its centre a betting system on computer tapes. It had me glued in reminiscent wonder, as it mentioned the computer they were to be played on - a Grantley Basic with a 32K hard drive, the Basic language taking up 12K in memory so you were left with 20K to work with. Each character, space or comma that you typed would take up one of those 20,000 slots of memory, so all your programs were on cassettes to be loaded only when needed.

In 1981 I was in my O'level year. The year below me was the first group to be taught on the one computer that the school had just acquired. They learned how to write a basic program and play Space Invaders, by repetitively pressing the space bar to shoot and the arrow keys to manoeuvre. Computers seemed then to be on the periphery of life, I played Space Invaders once or twice myself and went on my way.

Five years later computers had advanced enough to be more useful. At university there was a computer room in our faculty building, where we could sign up for a 'Word Processing' course. Some of the more forward-looking did and were able to present essays and theses beautifully typed. I carried on with my fountain pen, tormenting my professors with essays written in turquoise ink.

I slightly regretted not taking advantage of the computer room when I graduated and tried to earn my living from temping. I started as the lowest of the low: doing data entry - names and addresses punched into the membership list of a big company, whereas if I had mastered Word Processing I could have earned double… but anyway eight months later I drove off to Italy in a Mercedes minibus with the world of computers just an inconvenient blip, no longer necessary to master.

I eventually did get to grips with them. By 1995 PCs were affordable and essential to any business and I started doing our accounts on them and typing letters. They had evolved into glorified typewriters and calculators - e-mail was becoming a normal way of communication. My new husband learned about the innards and started dropping motherboards, megs, gigs and ram into the conversation. Computers had edged into our lives and were now indispensable.

Dick Francis' novel has a second section 14 years on, where the computer betting system again rears its ugly head. He would have boggled back in 1981 if he had seen the extent of the shift in computer usage that would actually have taken place by then. His vision encompassed a few boffins with banks of gleaming equipment in air conditioned rooms, complicated programs still in basic that had to be comprehended to make any use of a computer, cassettes still loading programs onto computers and telexes the height of communication technology.

What would he have said to the internet - in fact what would we have said back then if somebody had told us that we would be sitting at computers for fun, blogging late at night? That Microsoft had made sure that we didn't need to learn Basic to be able to use the computer, that most of our communication would be dependent on a temperamental machine deigning to be cooperative and that international boundaries would shrink to nothing in the face of a virtual world.

So now here I sit in my dressing gown with two screens in front of me, so that I can read something on the internet on one and type on the other, behind me my husband's two monitors, both connected so that we can send each other things, though we mostly Skype them to each other, and I write insignificant musings on retro computer culture shock to share with blog friends on the other side of the world. Who would have thought it back in 1981?


  1. Kit, when my dad was a child the idea of talking across oceans and being able to see the person in real time (SKYPE) was as much science fiction as Jules Vernes 20 000 leagues under the sea was when it was written. The point is, someone saw the possibility and many someone elses worked on it until it was a reality. I taught myself to be computer literate just from using one and playing around, but my 10 year old daughter who is by no means addicted to computers and has never had playstation, nintendo, a mobile phone etc is way ahead of me. The logic of the technological world seems to be breathed in at birth with this generation and if I wish to search the tv channels or change the ringtone on my phone I ask her. After hours of perusing the incomprehensible instruction booklets that come with anything you buy these days, I am just as clueless about how they work, and my daughter, who has never read an instruction book in her life, has usually worked out the entire contraption by this time. Are the brains of the new generations hardwired differently? 20 years ago would anyone other than a military technician even have understood that term which is now in such common usage? I'm just going to take a cup of tea outside into this beautiful autumn day, to breath in the mist and the red gold mulch of fallen leaves, and to remind myself of the flipside of the coin.

  2. I am waiting and know it will come true when I can type:
    Chocolate hot brownie and out it will pop from the computer.

  3. I can relate to this so much! I think we're about the same age. When I went through school, there were computers, but they were for the science geeeks, off in the corner. Normal people didn't use them. In univ, I studied journalism, so I started to use them and I loved them, but couldn't imagine having one in my house ;) Who knew?
    Donn's sister, just 5 years younger, grew up using computers in school. It changed that quickly.
    And I actually reread that Dick Francis novel last year and had the same reaction :)

  4. yeah and years later we have novels which consist entirely of emails! quite funny, too. especially when you work in advertising. the compute gap is nowhere more apparent than in an agency where you still get art directors who cannot use photoshop to save their lives and graphic designers who cannot draw because all they use is their mouse... very challenging.
    i only got my first pc when i was at uni in the eraly nineties, but i once had a (borrowed) mobile once which weighed more than my laptop now and was only marginally smaller ;-)

  5. I remember how horrified I was in high school at the notion that I'd have to learn how to use a computer even for something like being a teacher. (To record the marks, I think.) That was it - computers were ruining everything.

  6. I remember waiting for the mail to come in 1981. Listening for the postal truck. Now people only wite by hand at Christmas, but all my gifts are ordered off the computer.

  7. How I wish I had paid attention in typing class...then I wouldn't be sitting here as a two finger typer at the keyboard now.


Thanks for your comments - I appreciate every one!