Monday, January 3, 2011


I turned six in 1993. I received two presents: a CD drive, and a CD to go in it. The CD drive was external, meant to be attached to the computer with the sort of thick cable that's been obsoleted by USB. The CD was a game, The Even More Incredible Machine. It's still on my shelf, though I'm not at all confident that it'll run.

Obsolescence isn't what it used to be. When I was 2, the family computer was an Amiga, running its own command-line operating system, Amiga OS. A few years later, it had been replaced by a Packard-Bell running Windows 3.1, the first real popular Windows release, with graphics in place of the command prompt (though DOS was still there every time it booted, cursor blinking, waiting for you to type "win" and start the new OS). The next computer had a built-in CD drive, and a little black box called a modem, which brought us email at turtle speed courtesy of America On-Line. Somewhere along the line we bought into the Zip Disk fad, and had an external drive for those too, marveling over the storage space of 100 floppies in a single plastic case. The peripherals were necessary to keep up, if you weren't going to buy a new computer every two years.

That Zip Drive turned out to be a bad investment. Modern computers still use CDs. The modem's quietly disappeared in favor of wireless Verizon fiber-optic through a wireless router, and it's hard even to remember that "tower" used to be the opposite of "desktop", not a synonym. Even so, it's hard not to feel like things have settled down. Long before the numbers stopped going up (how can another 2-gigahertz processor inspire those who plugged a Pentium upgrade cap over their 486?), new computers started looking less like brave new worlds, and more like better, faster, cleaner iterations of the previous ones.

Maybe it's the new year, or reading the new novel by New William Gibson (completely unlike Old William Gibson*), or the influence of a certain web site. Whatever the case, I've been thinking about 1993, and about technology, because to me the two are intimately related. I'm not trying to say that computers aren't advancing as fast as they did in the past, or hold up signs proclaiming the End of Moore's Law or anything, though I do believe that we've reached a point where the next revolution (and the previous) won't be driven by advances in hardware. I'm just remembering a time when things felt different, at least to me. Wishing you all a happy and healthy New Year.

*For readers who remember '80s computers with fondness, I highly recommend Digital. Even if you don't, it's a lovely adventure game/visual novel, and worth giving a try.

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