Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

You couldn’t be a total idiot

Posted by Trixter on July 9, 2012


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?

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6 Responses to “You couldn’t be a total idiot”

  1. Dan Chisarick said

    I think the curiosity is still there. There are a lot of reasons I can think of why it may not seem like it. First there’s so much noise and information to sift through now, that it’s easy for the nuggets of interest to get drowned out. Second, many new technology items are evolutionary not revolutionary. It takes more to get people excited at a discovery. Third technical information is far more accessible now than ever, making what would have been tribal knowledge 30 years ago accessible to the masses. It gives a significant head start to many people who would have otherwise had to struggle for that information. Fourth, the nature of the accomplishments has changed or expanded. Rather than “how can I make this hardware do something more than its designer envisioned” its also “how scalable can I make my website”? So I’d argue that the curiosity is stronger now than then, just that it’s in a different form to accommodate the changed nature of technology.

  2. Alex Brands said

    I’m not a computer guy but…..

    It seems to me that the old machines must have been much more accessible, that is, easier to understand, enabling tinkering. This seems to me to be exactly analogous to guys working on their cars at home. It doesn’t really happen with new cars, because they are so complex. It was no big deal for someone to take apart an old VW beetle engine, clean it up, and put it back together. Order a few parts from a car magazine, and “soup up” the engine. An average guy could have a pretty good understanding of what every part was for and how it worked. Not so for new cars.

    I see something kind of similar in the field of biology. Molecular techniques are so advanced/automated, and so much sequence data is available, that many current students kind of miss out on the more basic understanding of biology, and how the techniques actually work. You buy all these “kits” to do molecular biology, and if you follow the instructions, it works. If you don’t, well, who wants to waste the time tinkering with it? I guess it seems sort of like magic or something too abstract to grasp, but they just go with it. It can be frustrating to see, but in reality, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for a student to learn all the background for all the current techniques. There’s just too much information to assimilate.

    Obviously some people do still tinker with computers, new cars, and molecular biology techniques, enough to keep the fields moving forward. For the rest of us, those things are a tool to do cool stuff, and we’re happy that they work.

  3. Joe said

    Technology has defeated itself. The problem is that modern devices are so complicated and work so perfectly, they are impossible for kids or even amateur enthusiast adults to pick and probe on.

    Years ago you could pull the case off a piece of hardware and with a couple hundred worth of equipment make it do something very different. ICs came in DIP packaging that allowed the amateur to remove a package or easily solder/probe the pins.

    The cost of tools needed to do anything remotely similar to an iPhone like device is way outside most home tinkerers budget. I’m not even going to talk about the kind of experience and finesse required to make these kinds of mods. Even with a 4 year engineering degree you will still have a hard time working with these tiny things.

    The same thing has happened to software too. Back in the day, you completely controlled the box you were programming on. Try doing that today. With that said, software is probably the easiest/best way for a kid hungry for tech-knowledge to get his feet wet and learn about the field.

    IMO the rise of the “maker” community was driven in a large part by the result of modern technology. People still want to tinker with hardware. So, now we have hundreds of these little micro-controller boards and companies like Sparkfun creating break-out-boards for all kinds of sensors, controllers, and other various ICs.

  4. Frode said

    I wondered for years about what makes computers work, and my experience is that the gap between the user interface and the actual workings of the CPU creates a very big barrier. What I mean is that most people look at the workings of a computer from the perspective of the user-interface. This perspective badly reflects the actuall workings of the CPU and the rest of the system, and it’s typically very missleading.

    How I got to know how computers work was through a book called “The IBM PC from the Inside Out”. This book starts off directly by explaining how most CPUs work in general, and then goes directly on to teaching x86 assembly language. This puts things in the right perspective and removes the barrier. I have not seen any other book, document or website that does anything like that to put things in the right perspective, and this may be a challenge for many yonger curious people.

    Another problem with today’s tech is that much of it is designed as closed architecture. Nothing in the user-interfaces engages in curiosity, and the end user is simply not supposed to know how the technology behind the user interface works, and if anyone figures out then they’re not supposed to use that knowledge for anything at all.

  5. Optimus said

    Not only that, but if you were using a computer even if you just played games then you were instantly a nerd :)
    Now everyone is using a computer, they may just use it to log into facebook or play MMORPG. Hard to distinguish the very few individuals out of the bunch who might be willing to learn more.

    Another problem is that I cannot imagine how a young person being overwhelmed by the mass of information and media, would decide to avoid these distractions and become more creative with his computer. I mean, we have facebook, youtube and other stuff, but just look at one single modern game. How can one who is introduced to the world of MMORPGs get away from it and learn some programming. I mean the 3d worlds are enormous, so much exploration, so much fun, endless hours, it’s so awesome that someone would hardly switch and spend his time in learning programming instead and leaving those amazing 3d worlds. And the other fact is, so if he decides to learn programming, where to go? Take the old basic language that is obsolete or learn something modern like C/C++ or Java which can become overly complicated for a young mind? Of course there might be other alternatives but there are so many roots out there that makes one hard to design. Fact is, several years ago when I got my first 8bit computer, there was a basic interpreter installed, so whether you wanted or not you were prompted to code some fun stuff and learn each time you opened your computer. And there was only basic at first which was good and not 10s of modern alternatives and so much overwhelming information.

    Now, sometimes I do find some young individual who jumped into deep water and started learning a language. So, the exception exists of course, there are always some people in every age who want to explore below the surface. I guess we are still nerds :)

  6. Well there is certainly a hardbeaten charm with old computers, they have a certain HAL quality that the modern interface just can not have match. For some reason that blinking cursor just seem to wait for us to take first contact with it.

    A blinking cursor AI will always “appear” smarter then a shiny interface AI. I think it is the scaled off interface that triggers imagination, nothing is set you have to do it all yourself no gui, no classes just funktion and maybe procedure calls.

    It is a make it all yourself adventure once you installed a programming language (if your not into machinelanguage, i already lost at assembly…..).

    The possibilities just seemed endless, back then. Nowadays it is so obviously clear that someone already programmed it much better and coherent, so why do it yourself.

    And the answer is to make something extraordinary different that do not fit into the angry-birds paradigm, and requires more then 5 seconds attention spann ;D.

    Do not get me wrong angrybirds is a great little game for a dull moment, that probably could be patched to work on 8086 with vector graphic and a little ballistic knowledge. But it is a mainstream game just like worms, the game development today so driven by how well it will be received as a product, don’t get me wrong there is still gamedevelopment driven by interest but it is just drowning in the overall information flow.

    So was the games better back then, probably not but computer had that charm of a onetime exclusive experience once the game started, and that kind of affection is hard to beat within todays internetbased society.

    Who do not remember the distinct tunes from the modem call up and log in to a BBS, and see those ASCII paintings flashing to be able read newsgroups. Those flashing leds just can not be matched by an Iphone, or maybe they can and i am just getting old ;D

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