The witty CBS newsman Charles Osgood once noted, “The future is not what it used to be.”
Although he wasn’t speaking about computers, he well might have been. For in the world of communication technology, application runs at a slower speed than innovation. We never know what uses the world will make of new inventions.
I confronted my first computer at Northeastern University in Boston back in 1983. It was a large IBM desktop that our department was given to play around with. Trouble is, no one knew how to play. I had heard computers could take you to a realm known as cyberspace, so I sat down, punched the monitor’s ”on button,” and braced myself to be swept away.
But the black screen with a little white cursor just blinked back at me. I had no idea you needed something called “software” to make this box come alive, or that you had to connect it to the phone wire to let it take you anywhere. I was applying television logic to a computer which took that logic a few steps further. What did I know.
So I sat there for more than a half-hour, expecting magic to happen. It never did, I turned it off and gave up. The computer started collecting dust , and we eventually wound up using it as a shelf to stack books on. That was our application.
In 1985 I bought my first computer. It was one those boxy Macs (called by the full Macintosh name then) with the 8-inch b&w monitor, hard drive (all of 128K random access memory), and processor all in the same cube. It had exactly two applications (MacWrite and MacPaint), but you could plug a land line into it if you dared to navigate the infant Internet then without the help of user-friendly browsers.
The price tag was about $2,000 for what many considered just a step up from an electronic typewriter, and which weighed about the same.
Still, this cube was destined to change the face of personal computing forever. Not only did it inspire the many Macs to come, it also inspired Microsoft Windows software. You can still see the early-day Macintosh in Jerry’s apartment if you are a Seinfeld addict as I am.
So here we are, 25 years later and things have changed just a wee bit, no? Today the average selling price of a desktop is under $600. And the 128,000 bytes of storage has morphed into billions on today’s computers and at a fraction of the cost and size. That is especially so when you factor in laptops and the even-smaller notebooks. If you bring “smart phones” into the picture, you can stuff all this into your shirt pocket for a couple hundred bucks.
All of these upgrades, including lightning-fast processors and a mountain range of software, are today connected to a sophisticated Internet accessible through unbelievably user-friendly browsers like Explorer and Netscape. The computer applications have mushroomed geometrically from the early Macwrite and Macpaint to a myriad of uses in both office and home.
The creative ways we’ve found to use computers directly parallels the creative uses that radio was put to, way back in the 20th century. Remember that millenium? Radio was created to be a point-to-point medium linking one ham operator to another or one ship to one port. The idea of using it for broadcasting was unknown because radio pioneers were too busy inventing broadcasting. The same hold true for computers.
Maybe a personal story tells it best: I bought that Mac back in ’85 mainly to create and store words. Fifteen years later I used a computer to find and meet the woman who would become my wife.
The one use all of us make of today’s computers is, of course, surfing the Internet. In its short time of existence, the Web has grown from mainly an online research tool to an essential means of meeting and interacting other people, sharing information about ourselves in the process. It’s the concept known familiarly as “social networking,” and the phenomenon is growing faster than our ability to think up words and phrases to describe it. It has affected all of us in very basic and expansive ways.
In short, the computer and the Web have changed our lives. More of those changes are waiting anxiously in the wings. It is a virtual world we visit when we go to the Web, and it is a world we spend more of our time inhabiting. In so doing, we pull ourselves away from the real flesh-and-blood people – including our wives or husbands, kids and friends – who may be sitting right across the room from us.
Anyone who has done any internet dating knows that we can and often do create an alter ego of ourselves in this virtual world. The persona we create may not be a lie, but it is something of a fantasy, both about the person we’re getting to know as well as about ourselves. We emphasize the positive, confuse their and our ideal and real selves to make us both sound just a touch more intriguing.
The fact that this kind of identity theft occurs at all is interesting and is aided by spending so much time in a virtual world where the real and the unreal appear synonymous. For Baby Boomers this confusion may have begun in the 1950s with Fess Parker’s version of Davy Crockett. But today’s world of CGI (computer generated imagery) movies and the virtual reality of the worlds of Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace have made it harder to tell the real from the unreal.
Even the idea that we come to “know” another person online is something of a fantasy. Why? Because most of the all-important nonverbal cues are missing, even in the age of Skype and webcams because personas can be propped up for awhile on TV, too. The only way real non-verbal communication takes place is the old-fashioned way of face-to-face, real-life human contact.
We know some of the opportunities and dangers that await us in virtual reality, but many remain unknown. Charting these known and unknown waters is what A Virtual Unknown is all about. In the posts to come we will look at some of the impact that the digital world has thrust upon us, some of the changes in technology that are translating into changes in how we live our lives and relate to others, and do some futurizing on what changes lie ahead.
I look forward to this journey of discovery and I would love to hear your thoughts and stories about it, too.