The Joy of Digital Technology: A Personal History

The Joy of Digital Technology: A Personal History
Richard Blake
(12th February 2016)

I bought my first computer in February 1984. I had used the mainframe system at my university as a word processor, but found it baffling, and there was a print queue of at least a day. For most of my time as an undergraduate, and for eighteen months after, I found it most convenient to write with a fountain pen on lined paper. For business letters and presentation drafts, I had a manual portable typewriter. In 1983, I “acquired” a manual desktop machine from an abandoned office building.

However, relentless advertising by computer companies, and a growing volume of my work as a writer, suggested that I should move into the last fifth of the twentieth century. A further reason was that I had taught myself touch typing, and was soon able to type faster than I could write – a sure recipe for typing mistakes, and a challenge to my habit of revising as I wrote. Lined paper covered with amendments and scorings out and insertions seemed wholly appropriate. Scribbling on a sheet of apparently perfect typescript, and then retyping, seemed less appropriate. And so I went off to the nearest computer shop, and put myself into the hands of a teenage boy. For £600, he sold me an Atari XE64, and a 5.25” disk drive, and a drum printer.

The two inch strip of paper that came with the boxes told me to connect everything, install the software, and then to print the instruction manuals. This was before the Internet, and before there was anyone in my circle of friends who knew more about these things than I did. The all night sitting that resulted was, in retrospect, a useful experience. But I was eventually delighted with what I had bought. 64Kb of RAM, or whatever was left after loading the Atariwriter software, was enough to write nearly a thousand words before starting a new file. The formatting language was a set of codes – rather like HTML tags, though less intuitive – that had to be inserted before and after words and blocks of text. By modern standards, the printer was a strange thing. The characters were on a flexible rubber drum, about the diameter of a broomstick, that rubbed itself against an inked pad, before spinning round so an internal hammer could press the relevant character onto paper. It printed about as fast as I could type at full stretch, and produced the same wavy line of text as a manual typewriter with a worn out ribbon. No monitor – I had to buy a second hand television set on the same day as everything else, to see jagged white text on a greyish background.

As said, though, I was delighted with what I had bought. Two years later, I upgraded to a 128Kb model, and was able to create files of nearly two thousand words. I also bought a Juki dot matrix printer for heavy duty work, and an Epson daisy wheel printer for work that needed to look good. It was a minor nuisance that I had to spend nearly £100 for a parallel interface to get these working with the computer. A slightly greater nuisance was that I was unable to share files, or even disks, with anyone else. But I wrote three books on that system, plus a dissertation, and reams of other stuff.

In 1990, I upgraded to an Atari ST, with an internal 3.5” drive and a whole megabyte of RAM. This was, in itself, a marvellous thing. Sadly, I could find no way of transferring any of the work I had produced on the old system. Even worse, I soon realised that I had backed the wrong horse. By now, Intel and Microsoft had taken over the market, and the best I could say about my Atari ST was that it allowed me to save plaintext files on a floppy that others could read with MSDOS. I wrote more on this in two years than I had on the earlier system in six. In 1992, I backed out of the dead end of Atari by spending £1,600 on a 286 notebook with 1Mb RAM and a 20Mb hard disk. I ran it with MSDOS 5, and fell hopelessly in love with WordPerfect 5.1. Indeed, I used WordPerfect until 2003, when I jumped over to MSWord, which I have used, in its various incarnations, ever since.

Nowadays, I have two computers. The big one in my office I built myself – I have been building computers since 1998. I last upgraded this in 2009, and it has an Asus motherboard, and a Socket 775 processor, and 8Gb Ram, and 5Tb disk space. It has a 28” monitor, and is attached to a Brother HP1100 laser printer. The computer I mostly use for writing is a Samsung notebook that I bought new in 2012. This has 6Gb of RAM and 1Tb disk space. It is part of a home network that allows me to use the laser printer. I run both systems with Windows 10, and do all my writing with MSWord 2010.

Here, the story appears to end. Before the free Windows 10 offer runs out, I shall probably need to replace the motherboard on my big computer. It has a problem with the BIOS settings that two new batteries have failed to solve. I suspect something vital and irreparable is about to fail. This means I shall also need to replace the now obsolete processor. Sooner or later, my notebook will suffer a fault I am unable to repair. The printer will not last forever. But, hardware failure aside, I feel no present reason to upgrade. Indeed, the specifications of both my computers are greatly in excess of my needs. I need to process the occasional video. I browse the Web. I send and receive a large volume of e-mail. My first and essential need, however, is word processing. Do I really need 8Gb RAM for that?

This brings me to what may be an entirely personal reflection, and may even be a sign of advancing years. Until about 2010, every upgrade, whether of hardware or software, was a joy. The jump from one Atari to another was exciting. I loved WordPerfect, but loved Office 2003 still more. Windows XP was a step into the future. There was no going back from Windows 7. Nothing since then has given me more than a languid pleasure. I upgraded to Office 2010 because I needed to format a three column book in English, Greek and Latin, and the 2003 version failed to give me the control I needed over the placing of tables. For all other purposes, I am not sure if it is an improvement on Office XP. I upgraded to Windows 10 because it was free, and because Windows 7 had gone unstable on my notebook, and upgrading saved me the trouble of reformatting and reinstalling – and, having upgraded one, I upgraded all the other computers in my house for the sake of neatness. It is an improvement on what I had, but was hardly needed for what it offered. I doubt I would have paid sixpence to buy a copy. My printer is twenty years old, and 600dpi text looks as good today as it ever did.

Oh, there are some new peripherals that I like. My Blue Yeti USB microphone is lovely. So too my Logitech HD webcam. But they are as perfect as I shall ever need.

What I am saying is that, after three decades of hectic improvement, digital technology, for all but specialist and perhaps gaming uses, appears to have matured. Replacement of worn out hardware aside – and any consequential replacement of incompatible peripherals and software – I feel no incentive to upgrade. I am happy with what I have.

Indeed, I suspect that this is not entirely a personal reflection. It seems that continued growth in sales of retail computing technology is based at present on a combination of replacement of what is worn out, and rising incomes outside the West. Sooner or later, this second curve will merge with that for the West. Or, moving away from the retail market, there is the embedding of computers in things like refrigerators and washing machines. But most people only replace these once a decade. If I am right, most hardware and software makers will soon be in trouble.

I am enormously grateful to live at the dawn of the age of digital technology. If I have written somewhere between twenty and thirty books, and thousands of other pieces, and if I am able to make a living from what I write, this is almost wholly because of my jump from pen and typewriter to computer keyboard. But I fail to see what more I could want beyond what I already have. For me, and for many others, enough is enough.

© 2016 – 2017, richardblake.

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