Some thoughts on my early experience with computers

Here is an observation of mine:

A long time ago I had a TRS-80 personal computer.  I think we bought it from Radio Shack.  I can’t remember when we got it.  My guess is 1980 but it could of been as early as 1979 . . . I’m not sure.  It is very similar to the personal computers of today. It had a cathode ray tube TV screen and a keyboard.  I can’t remember if it had something like a “tower” (it could of been integral with the screen) but the way we put in programs is with cassette tapes.  For example, if we wanted to play a game we put a cassette tape into a cassette player and it loaded it into the computer.  I also saved programs on a cassette tape as well.

(This looks like the User Manual I had so that’s probably what my computer looked like.)

We used to play games on it.  A popular one was “asteroids” and “ping-pong”.  These used simple graphics.  Each pixel was, if I recall right, about 1/16 inch by about 3/16 inch and was whitish in color (there was no color).  There was also games where you went into some building and had to determine what to do.  This had no graphics but you had to read descriptions.  Its been a long time but it seems like it would say something like “You entered a room.  There is a door to the right and to the left.  A man is standing next to the door on the right.”  You’d then say something like “go left” then it say something like “you entered a room with a stairway in front of you and a door to the right” and so on.

It used a program called BASIC.  I had a book on BASIC and used to program things.  I tried to replicate “asteroids” (that type of programming was just too advanced for me at the time and I could only barely get it running).  I also tried to program those descriptive games.  It seems I experimented with some other programs, with practical applications, as well but can’t remember.

At that time there was no Windows or any of the fancy stuff you see today.  You basically wrote the program on the screen similar to me writing on this article.  When you wanted to play the game, or see if your program worked, you’d write “run” and it would start.  Anyways, I got very interested in programming and actually considered becoming a programmer but something happened which changed my whole view of things.

As I said above, we had games.  These were probably the first home computer games you could get, though I’m not certain.  It seems that, within a couple of years, you could get at least one type of computer game system that you could hook up to your TV.  But, because of the games, I had a number of friends who would come over and play.  This was fine at first but then a change began to happen.  I’m thinking this was about 1981.  Basically, all they wanted to do is play computer games.  Here are some examples:

  • They’d come over and all they’d wanted to do is play computer games.  I would tell them I only wanted to play for a half or an hour and that was all.  It seems my dad, even, had to tell them that they could only play for a little while.  After we quit it was like they didn’t want to do anything anymore.  Sometimes they’d just go home acting as if they are bored.
  • After a while, if I recall right, we started to tell them the computer was broken (even though it wasn’t).  They then seemed to lose interest in wanting to come over and play.
  • I recall a friend of mine came over.  I was in the kitchen and I think my dad answered the door.  I happened to hear the conversation.  He asked for me.  My dad said something like, “the computer is broken” and he said, “OK” and left.  This made me go “wow!”.  You see, he was only interested in playing computer games.
  • When the other computer games came out that’s all my friends wanted to do when I went to their house.  So I’d go over there and all they’d do is play computer games . . . for hours.  I got to the point that I didn’t want to play with them anymore.  I think, also, that they didn’t want to play with me much anymore as all they wanted was someone to play computer games with.

I could see how the computer games were literally destroying friendships.

And then, one day, an event happened that had a great effect on me.  I went to my friends house and stayed over night.  He had his cousin with him.  All they did, the whole time, is play computer games.  I later said that I’d never stay over again.  But, at one point, I got so bored with the games that I said “I’m just going to sit over here for a while” and went and sat on the lounge chair.  I sat there and watched them.  I recall going “wow!”.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  When I sat there on the chair I sort of realized the effect these computers had on people.  I saw its power, the control it had.  I saw its mesmerizing power, its addicting quality, almost like a drug.  I saw how it was destroying my relationships with my friends.  It was like a realization, as if I knew that things had changed as a result of this, and not for the better.  I recall going home and telling my dad, “I hope this computer stuff doesn’t became that big, all everyone will do is play on their computer”.  I was hoping it would all “blow over”.  Unfortunately, it didn’t.

The effect of the computer games made me break with two of my friends, one was my best friend who I had known for years.  There was simply no reason to play with them anymore . . . all they wanted to do is play computer games.  There was nothing holding the friendship together anymore.

This so effected me that I quit working on the computer and gave the idea up of being a programmer.  Ever since then I am reluctant to play computer games.  I am even still reluctant to go into an arcade!  During the middle part of the 1980’s I wouldn’t even touch a computer.  When I was in Vocational Drafting, in High School, they had one of the early CAD systems.  It had two screens, one for writing commands and one for the drawing.  I wouldn’t even touch it.  When drafting went CAD I actually dropped out of it, as I wanted nothing to do with computers, and went into Psychology.  When that didn’t work the only field that I was interested in, and looked viable at the time, was drafting.  I “bit the bullet” and tolerated the CAD.  I’m still working on CAD a quarter of a century later!  I sort of don’t have a choice.

I still do not, after all these years, like to have much to do with computers or technology.  I tend to take what I often call the “tool orientation”.  In short, I only use computers and technology as a tool.  Some of the traits of this orientation include:

  • I only use them if I have to, such as writing this blog.
  • I try to not get too involved with them.
  • I try to not rely on them that much.
  • I don’t glorify them.
  • I don’t gawk over them.
  • I don’t not make them the focus of life and the center of my life.
  • I look for life beyond computers and technology, in the “human world”.

In short, I see the computer and technology as being no different than a fork or a hammer. . . its something you use and that’s it.  This appears, at least to some people, as a reluctance (I would describe it more as an attitude of “practicality”).  In the 1980’s this reluctance would make people say what, to me, is a silly statement:  “you’re scared of technology”.  I find that insulting, particularly if its said to me today.  You must remember that for many of the people in the 1980’s, and especially today, I not only had a personal computer but was programming on it before they even knew what a personal computer was!  Not only that, I was there when it appeared and, as a result, I saw some of the initial reactions which revealed a side to it most people never saw later. This is because most everyone was too busy gawking over it to see it or being too amazed by what it did.

As I think about it now I saw a number of things that stunned me about all this, which were first seen with my friends and which would be repeated later on:

  1. The drug-like effect the computer had on people.  I couldn’t believe how people were so mesmerized by it.  Later, in the 1990’s, I used to joke about people getting “high” on computers and technology.  Even more than that, I couldn’t believe its addictive qualities.  Once people got “hooked” they couldn’t live without it.
  2. The dominating effect it had on people.  It seemed to control people and dominated their lives.  Its not uncommon for me to say that “people gave up their lives to the computer” or “they allowed themselves to be enslaved by the computer”.
  3. That it created something like a “wedge” between people.  The power of the computer seemed to interfere with peoples association with each other.  It intruded, disrupted, and even destroyed relationships.  It certainly did this with my friends and I would see it later.
  4. There’s nothing you can do about it.  To this day, one of the connotations of “computer” or “technology” is “helplessness”.  Once a computer or technology is there forget it . . . its going to control everything.  I saw that with my friends in 1981 and have seen it ever since.  In my life, I have never seen anything which displayed so much control, more than any government, religion, or morality.  I’ve also seen nothing which has made so many things redundant and useless, and so quickly.  I’ve also seen nothing that has made itself the “only solution” and the “only way”, with little opportunity for anything else.

During the 1980’s I only saw these effects occasionally.  In the 1990’s they grew, especially when the Internet appeared.  In the 2000’s it got horrible particularly with the social media and especially the cell phone.

Overall, I’m still seeing what I saw in 1981.  For example, recently we happened to have a number  of teenage girls over and I was sitting in a lounge chair and looked at them with their nose in their cell phones completely dominated by its mesmerizing effects.  They wouldn’t respond to you and forget trying to get in a conversation with them.  This was reminiscent of 1981, just a new version of it.  Instead of computer games, it was a variation . . . the cell phone and social media.  Needless to say, my reaction was similar.  It was like deja vu.  I found myself, yet again, watching the dominating effect this thing had on people and I couldn’t believe it.

What I feared back then has happened, a society dominated by the computer and technology as well as a bunch of people who willingly let it dominate them!  In fact, these later generations have practically made a way of life out of the dominating effect the computer and technology has had.  I think it defines the later generations, and the so-called “millennials”.  Their whole lives is nothing but being dominated by the computer, technology and its effects, just as I saw with my friends in 1981.  This has caused a number of effects such as:

  •  They let the computer and technology run and dictate their lives to the point that they can’t live without it.  They have to have their cell phones on them at all times, they don’t know what to do if they don’t have their cell phone, they have to have this or that “app”, and so on.
  • They have developed a general life attitude of “being dominated”, of submission, of following.  A person does not “dominate life” (that is, take control of ones life) anymore.  One follows what computers and technology dictates.  They follow what it creates.
  • They rely on the computer and technology to tell them what to do in life.  In fact, it practically does their thinking for them.  For example, they consult “google” or “youtube” to find out any question they have.  Many of the younger generation does not do their own thinking.  This has caused a deterioration in common sense which many of us are noticing.
  • They live life through computers and technology.  Many people are living a big part of their lives through a screen by way of computer games, cell phone screens, etc.  They are not living in the “real world”.
  • They let the computer and technology dictate how they associate with other people.  People don’t associate directly with each other.  Instead, they text each other and such.  As a result of things like this, there is an absence of person-to-person association.
  • It creates an arrogance.  I’ve found that many people who use computers, or are into technology, seem to think that they are somehow “one notch above” people who don’t.  This was true in the 1980’s and its still somewhat true today.  Interestingly, in the 1980’s I associated a person who thought they were superior because they use computers with someone who, deep down, felt inferior and inadequate.  Basically, they use the computer to compensate for this feeling of inferiority and inadequacy.  Personally, I think that is still valid today.  I know, from observation, that many people use the “amazing” quality of computer and technology to make themselves appear “amazing” in their own mind.

To be frank, watching all this develop over the years has this quality of watching a drug addiction turned into a way of life.  I still think that this comparison with a drug addiction is fair and somewhat accurate.  It seems, to me, that there may even be several precedents for this tendency in this society:

  • The Hippi’s.  This addiction has a similar quality to the Hippi’s in the 1960’s and 1970’s who tried to make drugs a way of life.  In other words, they tried to make being “high” the great height of life.
  • “Mind expansion”.  Many Hippi’s thought that drugs created an “enlightment” or an “expansion of the mind”.  This could even get to the point of being religious.  Many people think computers and technology do the same thing, though I’ve seen no evidence of it.
  • The “stoney’s”.  In the 1980’s these were kids who acted like they were in a “perpetual high” all the time, even when they weren’t “high” on drugs.  In other words, at this time, acting like you were “high” became an act, an “image”, an “ideal”.

I sometimes wonder if these attitudes set the stage for these later generations and their attitudes.  They seem to give a “cultural basis” that may of predisposed this tendency in the latter generations.  Basically, the effects of drugs being replaced by the dazzlement and the mesmerizing effect of the computer and technology.  They seem very similar but I can’t say for sure.

I also think that computers and technology creates a natural “dazzlement” that affects many people.  There seem to be a number of causes of this, such as:

  • They are amazed by the graphics and acts of the computer and technology.  Its almost like a magicians show.
  • Some are dazzled because they think its some sort of advancement, an improvement on humanity and the conditions of life.
  • Some think that computers and technology makes them superior or better in some way.
  • Others are dazzled because it is new and offers new ways of doing things.  Of course, once they’ve been here for a while they become “old”, boring, and out-of-date (just like a lot of the younger generation would laugh at the TRS-80).

I started to call this effect “technological dazzlement” in the 1990’s.  Interestingly, even then, I compared it to drugs.  But I also compared it to people watching a circus or a magicians show, which is what it often looked like.  People show similar behavior but at a circus or magicians show it is temporary and they move on with their lives afterwords.  With “technological dazzlement” this not the case.  It grows to have a dominating effect on their lives . . . just look at a lot of the younger generation!

But watching the power the computer and technology has had on people has been an unreal experience for me.  I’ve never seen anything, except for drugs, which has a quality that has so sucked people down into it and in which people so willingly gave up their lives to its power.  I’ve always found it ironic as these same people sit and condemn any form of government control of their lives but yet they willingly submit themselves to a computer program, having it run their lives.  They do it willingly and gladly, even bragging about it.  It seems hypocritical to me.  I feel like saying, “if you guys are so concerned about things controlling your lives, such as with the government, then why don’t you look how you’ve allowed computers and technology have so much control over your lives”.  I still can’t believe it.

Copyright by Mike Michelsen

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