A Computer Named Earline

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On the rare occasion when my computer turns hours of work into eMulch, my free association isn’t “oh shit”, but “I never used to have this problem with a pencil and a piece of paper”. I’m no Luddite – although I often sympathize with them – but I’m no leading edge technology adapter either. My technology lag has nothing to do with my adaptability to technology, I just don’t really see the need for much of it. I’ve learned to use dozens of applications, worked as a technical writer for hi-tech devices, and can troubleshoot the Omnipotent Dad’s frequent computer issues over the phone with 98% success.

Perhaps there’s an opening for me in Bangalore.

A Computer Named Earline

My first experience with computers predated the PC revolution by more than a decade. It was a typesetting machine – quaintly named Earline – that stood five feet tall and three feet wide. It read paper tape punched by a separate keyboard, offered no editing capabilities, and produced text on photographic paper that had to be developed, dried, and cut into the desired segments before pasting it to a paper galley with hot beeswax. Earline had less computing power than your average digital watch and a brain comprised of 37 printed circuit boards. I attended an intense month-long school on how to operate, troubleshoot and repair the temperamental bitch.

Today, that sounds like an arcane way to do something a modern word processor can do better in substantially less time. However, it was a quantum leap over the behemoth Linotype that represented a mechanical update to hand set type little unchanged since Gutenberg. Clunky as it was by today’s standards, it, at least, served a useful purpose.

Today’s technology often isn’t.

iPod? No Thanks

I only reluctantly bought a cell phone years after they became fashionable and still only use it when absolutely necessary. My first VCR came years after everyone else had them, my DVD is only two years old, and I have no iPod. There is no TiVo in our house and we also do quite well without an entertainment center or HD television. I still own a turntable and hundreds of albums on old-fashioned plastic rather than on fast-disappearing disks.

Early hi-tech pioneers envisioned a world where computing would benevolently advance civilization beyond comprehension. Of course, such pipe dreams have come and gone before. I’m old enough to remember how chemicals and noo-ku-lar power were to transform the world into an ultra-clean utopia with robot maids and Jetson cars. Instead, computer technology primarily exists to create believable online porn and more efficient ways to blow one another up.

Somewhere along the line, technologists stopped writing software to take mankind to the moon and started creating applications that cause clear-cutting the rain forest to make paper for paperless offices. Today, we can easily access more information that our grandparents could glean in a lifetime. Unfortunately, our ability to use all the data is another problem entirely.

Perhaps the Luddites Were Right

There’s no doubt computers have changed our world. Sometimes our self-imposed slavery to them creates good things, other times…not so much. We see computers do amazing things and seem alarmingly willing to forget they’re stupid boxes that can’t think. We transfer more and more of our world to their control, creating an environment where no one is really expert at anything. The useless data piles up and the development goes on so rapidly it has outstripped mortals’ ability to cope with it. Soon, the dumb boxes will think and our evolution truly will be intelligently designed by a human God creating machines in his image. They’ll eventually will self-perpetuate without regard to biological life. Perhaps the Luddites were right.

We never used to have these problems with a pencil and piece of paper.


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