One of the things I miss about the first decade of personal computing was that nearly every computer enthusiast you met — on BBSes, in computer stores, etc. — was pretty good at using them. Early personal computing meant you couldn’t be a total idiot and still use a computer, unlike today. So if you met someone who used computers enough and liked doing so, chances are they were not an idiot.
I think it’s amazing how much of a commodity personal computers have become. Last year, my then 2-yr-old nephew could navigate an ipad without any help, even though he wasn’t talking yet. My 12-yr-old son has a typical smartphone, which means he can send sound, images, and data to anyone in the entire world no matter where he is — that’s stuff I used to watch on Star Trek, and now it’s reality! That’s both pretty damn scary and pretty awesome. But I think what’s missing is the element of discovery, of natural intellectual curiosity, trying to figure out what the machine can do, why and how it does what it does, and how to push it farther. That’s what I miss about the early days, and is probably why I have 27 old computers stuffed into my crawlspace, with 1 or 2 in regular circulation.
I feel like that intellectual-curiosity-for-tech has been lost from the general public in the last 10-15 years. Maybe I’m wrong and it never existed at all, and I was just lucky enough to always be surrounded by people who were interested in computers in my youth.
A month ago, the newly-unearthed M.U.L.E. for the PC (more on that in a later post) got hours of use as my 12-yr-old and his friend played several games. Because we didn’t have the manual at the time, there was much experimentation and probing on what keys to press and how the game mechanics worked. A few months ago, they did the same thing playing 2-player simultaneous Zyll, where they poked and prodded every square inch of the game to try to see what made it tick (and when I surprised them with a dot-matrix-printed Zyll FAQ after they’d played for a few hours, they just about lost their shit).
My point is that they were really into it, and I can’t help but wonder why they aren’t into much neater tech they own that has vastly more power and flexibility. I never see them as enthusiastic around their xbox or iphone as they were playing these old games and trying to figure out how to drive them. They might be enthusiastic about the game they’re playing or the people they’re playing with, but never the machine itself.
Why is that? Does a device lose all interest once it has been through commoditization?