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maxed out -Time travels at the keyboard

One of the ironies of personal computers – and trust me, there are many – has been their impact on the relativity of time.

One of the ironies of personal computers – and trust me, there are many – has been their impact on the relativity of time. In the Dark Ages, before personal computers, time stretched out like a Saskatchewan highway in the shimmering heat of summer. Time was endless and if we strained our imaginations, we could almost perceive its vanishing point, the point at which nothing mattered because it was so far in the future as to be almost inconceivable.

If I wanted to produce a document in the Dark Ages, I generally wrote it out by hand first. For me, this was not only slow, it was an embarrassing reminder of just how miserably I’d learned and retained what my tight-bunned primary school teachers tried to teach me about penmanship, now, naturally, called penpersonship. Struggling to read my handwriting, my teachers would often smile at me in frustration and say, "Someday you’ll grow up to be a doctor. God help us all."

It was bad enough, in later years, transcribing my own notes with a clunky, portable typewriter and wondering whether something I’d scribbled was a word or doodle. The embarrassment factor became unbearable though when I ultimately found myself hiring someone to type for me and had to admit I too didn’t have a clue about the meaning of some squiggle or another. This was, of course, after they’d asked exactly what a topic like The Rise of Third-Party Movements in American Politics had to do with the study of medicine.

Written efforts before PCs were comprised of two drafts: first and last. Usually one and the same. The idea of moving a paragraph around or adding a sentence or two was preposterous. No one in their right mind would retype a whole paper just because it might have more impact if the introductory paragraph actually came first. Tough noogies. Besides, it was always due exactly 20 minutes after the last word was typed so the whole notion of changing anything was academic.

The only endearing quality of typewriters was the noise they made. The solitary clickety-clack of a cheap portable tapping away in a poorly lit dorm room in the middle of the night was downright mournful. But the thundering roar of a hundred typewriters being hammered furiously in a large office sounded like a herd of agitated cats wearing tap shoes on a tile floor, all trying to escape the ravages of a hungry junkyard dog. And nothing before or since has ever captured the absolute frustration of writing like the angry wail platen gears make when you rip a piece of drivel-laden paper out of a typewriter’s innards. It was almost cathartic.

Early PC time was revelatory. It may have taken several minutes to load a program – just one at a time – from a real floppy disc, but once you fired up one of the pioneer word processing programs, the world took on a whole new look. This was a lot more like driving in British Columbia than the prairies. There wasn’t much visible road ahead, turns came up way faster than we thought they would and there was always a precipitous dropoff on one side.

The programs were elegant and simple. Words appeared on the screen and with finger dexterity that made Cat’s Cradle seem like child’s play, you could actually move whole blocks of text from one place to another in less time than it took to change your mind and move them back again. Either that or you accidentally managed to erase a whole day’s worth of work with the stroke of the wrong key. The ultimate documents were somewhat crude, looking like they’d been typed with a ribbon well beyond its useful life but the effort and time required seemed unimaginably short.

Then, a funny thing happened. Time compressed and expanded at the same time. In the MacWindows world, computers got quicker, programs got bigger but seconds magically morphed into minutes. Cubicle-dwellers could actually be seen pleading with their computers, cajoling them to hurry up and load whatever program was desperately needed RIGHT AWAY, urging lifeless machines in much the same way they might prod their pet dogs to hurry up and make poopoo so they could come in out of the rain.

We crossed a threshold. Time stood still then moved backwards as we warped beyond commonly understood notions of what were bearable and unbearable delays. The highway analogy seemed quaint and gave way to images of the Millennium Falcon jumping into hyperspace. Desk chairs suddenly needed seatbelts.

Almost lost in this vortex of spacetime was the activity itself, the making of words on paper. Computers were so much more than typewriters; they calculated, composed, published, gamed, mailed, faxed and entertained. The nice people who made them believed – and tried to make us believe – we needed ever faster, more powerful machines and the software writers fuelled that belief by creating larger, more complex programs that did so much more than crunch words. New chips begot new programs begot new hardware connections begot incompatibility begot needless upgrades and the cycle perpetuates itself.

I’ll probably have to buy a new computer soon because mine’s five years old. It still works well. I can make a column every week and a story less frequently. I can keep in e-touch with friends, surf the net and play an old game of Ms. Pac Man.

In some ways, my computer is a lot like my road bike – original frame, upgraded components. But that’s not good enough. This year’s tax program wants a faster chip and my Perfect Partner needs this year’s tax program. Some editors want a newer version of Word than I use and the newer version is like a junkie; it needs more speed, more memory, more of everything to even produce a simple letter. The mouse I just bought doesn’t work because the connection has changed, USB instead of OS/2 or some such nonsense.

I’m not sure why I can still get parts for an ’82 Westfailya but I can’t get the bits I need to keep a ’96 computer running on the information superhighway. It’s unplanned obsolescence and it’s just becoming apparent computers are probably as much a part of the problem as they are the solution. The paperless office is awash with more paper than ever. Computers and networks of servers are power pigs that create a demand for new electric generating plants so millions of pervs can surf the porno sites 24/7. In another decade, landfills will become even more choked with perfectly good, useless computers abandoned because the industry that created them found it expedient to create an artificial demand for newer, flashier models rather than an ability to service perfectly serviceable older models.

I wonder where I put that typewriter.