I Wish It Were 1981… How Technology Changed And Continues To Change My Life

Remember when computers looked like this...? Thought not.

Remember when computers looked like this...? Thought not.

When I went to college, computers were an afterthought and computer science was a major for the geeks (yes, I was an accounting major... much cooler).  Most people took a programming class in their first couple of years and there were two main programming languages you could choose from: COBOL or FORTRAN.  Most business majors took COBOL and most science majors took FORTRAN.  You learned the basics of programming in these classes and at some point during the semester you had to write a “program”.

The programs were incredibly simple. They consisted mostly of determining if a number was greater than or equal to some value and producing a yes or no answer. Very advanced stuff for 1978. But saying that we wrote these programs is a bit of a misnomer.  Each command you wanted the computer to perform in the program had to be “written” via a punch card.  The program consisted of a series of index card-like layers that you punched holes into via a punch card machine. When finished, this “deck” of cards represented your program.  

FORTRAN punch sheet

FORTRAN punch sheet

For those of you under 50 and confused, just think of a hanging chad on a voting ballot.  In fact, those are punch cards!  What a joke that this is the technology we use to vote in this country! Anyway, in order to “run” your program you had to take your deck of cards to the computer lab where you would turn it over to a computer science grad student (a guy who typically hadn’t showered in a week) who would submit your deck into the computer. You never actually saw the computer, but it was held in a building the size of a small office complex with special air conditioning and a lot of wiring.

If all of this doesn’t sound like the stone ages yet, here’s the kicker… it could take two weeks to run your program!  You would eventually pick up your deck and see if your program had worked.  If it didn’t, you got the cards back wrapped with a green bar report that said “ABORTED” on it.  You had to find the error, punch the cards again and resubmit to the guy in the computer lab. Whenever I hear people (including myself) on an airplane complain about the Wi-Fi speed on the flight, I have to laugh.

That was the world I came from out of college in 1981.  It was the last year that technology didn’t have a substantial impact on my life, the last year I wasn’t married, the last year I didn’t own a house, and the last year before IBM created the PC and changed the way business operated FOREVER.

It’s hard to describe to people under 50 what that world was like in 1981 and it’s impossible for anyone under 40 to even begin to comprehend it. I have always felt a strange connection with technology because it has run so parallel to my life as an adult, a businessperson, a parent, and a member of the human race.

Along with IBM’s 1982 PC came the first-ever operating system shipped with an IBM computer that was not developed by IBM: MS-DOS.  The MS stood for Microsoft. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

Somewhere, there is a graveyard of floppy disks

Somewhere, there is a graveyard of floppy disks

I laugh at the first IBM PC I ever worked on.  It had one 5 1/4 inch floppy disk drive.  You had to load the MS-DOS operating system floppy disk into the computer, then load the application disk (WordstarLotus, etc.) into the computer.  If you wanted to save a file from an application program, you had to load yet another floppy disk into the drive and then hit save on the application program.

***Note-I am typing this on an airplane using an iPad as I watch TV, flying to Chicago.  There are no drives, disks or actual computers involved.  There is no computer science major sitting next to me to run my deck.  The world has become a wonderful and scary place. I wonder if my plane crashed, if I could watch it go down on TV as it was actually going down… a weird and morbid thought.  

The technology world boomed from 1982 to 1994. Here are a few well-known changes that really helped push the world of tech to where we know it today:  

1.     Apple developed the icon-driven Macintosh and Microsoft developed Windows.  We all now use a mouse instead of MS-DOS commands on a keyboard.

2.     Laptops came on the scene.  The first laptop I bought was a Compaq.  It was as big as a sewing machine and weighed about 30 pounds. It had a screen that looked like a TV out of 1950's… but damn I was cool!

And they say  texting  and driving is distracting. Courtesy of The Fabulous 80s.

And they say texting and driving is distracting. Courtesy of The Fabulous 80s.

3.     Cell phones started their insidious takeover of our lives.  Some cars even offered them as a built in feature (yes, I had one).  In fact we called them "car" phones.  They were very expensive and were typically only used for business.

4.     Almost every business, large and small, became dependent on PCs for critical business functions.

Then, two things happened... Microsoft introduced Workgroups, which had email, Microsoft Excel, Word, Power Point and networking capabilities. Then, the Internet came out of the government shadows and into public use.  These two events occurred around the same time and were the first steps to intertwining our personal lives with our work lives. As a result, almost everyone is available 24/7 today.

We're always plugged in.

We're always plugged in.

1994 was the last year I could get in my car, drive home and leave work at work.  Email, the internet, and networks allowed the workplace to bleed into my home life.  I thought it was great that I could work from home on the weekend and not have to drive into the office.  Little did I know this was the beginning of the end for any hope of life/work balance.

From 1994 to 2007 computers got faster, more pervasive.  Desktops were dead and everyone moved to laptops.  Connectivity became commonplace and everyone began using the Internet for everything in their life.  Cell phones were cool, but basically we still only used them to talk.  Blackberrys were for texts, but it was mostly business types that used them.

The advent of the iPhone

The advent of the iPhone

Then the iPhone went on the market, and the world changed in a way I am still trying to process and cope with.  This device has changed the way we live in almost every aspect of our lives.  It would be useless to list examples of how it has; It is simply everything.  How many people freak out if they walk out of the house without their phone?  The amount of information you can get via the iPhone is limitless.  It's an incredibly useful tool for me and millions (if not billions) of other people.  But, there is a dark side, a side I fear.  This could be the rambling of a man on the downside of the life curve, but I see things that disturb me....

I see families going out to dinner at a casual meal with Mom, Dad and two kids.  They are all on iPhones and iPads.  There is no human interaction.  Everyone is living in their own reality via the device.  I don't know what the affects will be on the next generation, but I don't think they will be positive.

I scan the terminals at airports and see almost everyone with arms bent and eyes glued to a phone screen.  There is no human interaction or understanding of what is going on around them in the physical world.  I know I can be one of those people, and it bothers me that I am.

Social media for teens and preteens has to be one of the worst things to happen to the adolescent brain in the history of the world.  It was tough enough going through the teenage years in the 70's when trying to find yourself, doubting you would ever kiss a girl, hoping you wouldn't get humiliated in P.E., and praying you wouldn't get beat up by the smokers in the bathroom at school.  I am sure these are still real fears in high school, but now they’ve added on having to deal with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and additional apps I don't even know about.  I fear I would not have made it out of high school, and I thank God that these didn't exist to any great degree when I was raising my kids.  It's hard enough being a teenager; having everything public is beyond my comprehension.

There is no downtime, there is simply the device.

There is no downtime, there is simply the device.

There is no downtime. There is no workplace. There is no home.  There is simply the device.  I said earlier that I'd thought it was great to have email at home, but I don't think that anymore.  Everyone everywhere expects instant response to texts, emails, etc.  I simply don't think human beings were built to be plugged in all the time.  I don't have any answers, I just have concerns.  I wonder if Steve Jobs had any idea that his products would change the way human beings interact with each other.  I wonder if he would care if he went into a Starbucks and saw everyone waiting in line looking at his or her phone.

Technology has driven business efficiencies; it's made my life better in many ways. But there is no doubt it's a monster.  I don't go anywhere without my phone.  It is a harsh task-master whose  siren call gets me every time.  It is also a safety blanket. I never feel lost.  I can always find a restaurant.  The connectivity to information via the phone takes away most of the fear of the unknown. And yet, I hate the phone.

On the balance, I wish it were 1981 again.  I never thought the world my kids would grow up in would be as different as the world I grew up in when compared to that of my father.  He was a Depression-era kid without a high school education who fought in WWII.  He passed away several years ago, but if he were around I would ask him if he had ever wished it were 1950 again.  In his later years, he lamented the fact that no one knew how anything actually worked.  The ability to fix cars, lawnmowers, appliances, etc. was nonexistent in my generation.  I always brushed his concern off as a guy who didn’t understand how the current world worked.  Now, we are even further removed from understanding how anything really works (does anyone really understand the internet?).  I think my dad’s concerns were more insightful than I ever gave him credit for.   

I wonder if my kids will yearn for the simple days of 2020. But life rolls on. Humans adapt.