Monday, August 23, 2010

Keeping It Simple

Back in the dawn of the computer age, in the late 70s, I bought a PC. It cost almost $3,000 at the time and was as portable as such things were then, which is to say not very. The Kay Pro weighed as much as a Singer sewing machine and as far as computing went, was almost as effective. It was an inordinately complex system that required a boot-up disk, a program disk, and an empty floppy to save your work onto. The Kay Pro had no memory of its own, boasted a seven inch screen and a pre-DOS operating system. It was hooked up to a monstrously large daisy wheel printer that gobbled both paper and ribbon as if famished, and made such a racquet I could print only when the people in the next door apartment were at work.  The woman who lived across the hall once asked whether I had a firing squad at my place.

When I traveled, the Kay Pro had a seat of its own, free, and generally in first-class. The flight attendants found it cute. It had no modem, no graphics, no games save a strange biorhythm-reading program based on your birth date. People thought that was fascinating and when I took the computer to the office, they’d request their charts and ooh and aah. 

I bought the Kay Pro because I had a Philips Mycom word processor at work. It was a dedicated system as large as a Volkswagen with disks as big as spare tires. The UN agency I was with changed word processing packages yearly, so by the time we were using Word Perfect, I was a seasoned expert. It made the labor writing and rewriting almost pleasant.  The Mycom had a ‘search and replace’ capacity and that in no time at all, people were writing memos and changing important words to kumquat and banana so that a paragraph might read, “When Mr. Banana came to do a presentation on his kumquat…” Stuff like that was considered very cutting edge at the time. 

The Kay Pro, all 65 pounds of it, was miraculous.

Keep in mind that my first two books were drafted, respectively, on Underwood and Royal manual typewriters. When I cut and pasted, I literally used scissors and Scotch tape. It wasn’t unusual to have a five-foot page, marked up in pencil and pen, and retyped four or five times. I hung these pages on nails driven into the living room door. The primitive word processing features of the Kay Pro were astounding, wonders to behold.

Today, I am stymied by my $60 phone’s ability to drop calls, fade out, magically connect with the internet when I don’t want it to, and cost me $130 a month so I can be called by people I don’t want to talk to.  We have more and more ways of saying less and less.  The other machines we use daily are making our lives simple in a disturbing way. I suspect that within a generation or so, we will raise children who cannot count—much less do multiplications—or use a map, or spell.

We have already gotten to the point where we can no longer work on such machines ourselves, so we dispose of them quickly when something ever-so-slightly slightly better comes along, adding more simplicity to our lives.

Recently, a friend of mine hired a local company to set up his hi-def TV, sound system and DVD player. This person’s no dummy, but decided the opportunity cost was too great.  

Is the new simplicity letting others solve the problem? Or has that always been the case?

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