My brief history with computers: Part two

If your idea of editing text is vim and Microsoft word, then boy am I going to have a tough time trying to explain Wordstar to you. And yet, such were the times that (I imagine twenty years from one people will refer to today in the same way, which makes me anxious about what exactly is possibly equally dumb right now) it was a fairly popular piece of software! nearly universally used by “people without macs”, which was most people.

In a sense I suppose typing Ctrl-K-S to save isn’t all that different from typing Ctrl-X-S to save in Emacs, but this was all that regular people had to use, and I suspect most people were quite relieved to get a more “wysiwyg” application like Microsoft Word — which is of course the norm now.

The other thing that no one does anymore is have their own database software (indeed, you would be crazy to do so today). But I remember getting painfully acquainted with the minutiae of DBase(“in its day the most successful database management system for microcomputers”) — and later FoxPro and then Microsoft Access — though I never built anything more than a simple library application with it.

The only one that has survived in some recognizable form today is the venerable spreadsheet. Now Lotus 1-2-3 didn’t have any of the bells and whistles of today’s software (and the version I had was keyboard-only), but at least the notion of sheets with rows, columns and cells is still conceptually current.

After a couple of years, my dad got the “next big thing” — Windows!

This was version 3.11, if you’re interested, and it came on a huge bundle of floppy disks (about thirty of them!) which had to be patiently inserted one after the other as the system was copied over, but by bit. Explaining what a floppy disk will just make me feel old; go look it up.

So this was great. We now booted up, got the prompt, and then typed “win” which loaded up this fancy GUI. Mind you, I still didn’t have a mouse, which meant learning all the keyboard shortcuts for minimizing, maximizing, moving a window, and so on.

Agh this is already too long, but a small digression before I go: this is something that you just cannot be aware of today, when so many layers blend in together so seamlessly. In the old days, the fact that you were running programs inside a shell was very obvious, and you were aware that “the real computer was underneath” etc, which is unfortunately impossible with, say, a smartphone.

It’s all a matter of communication: if you could describe what you’ve done or what you need done in such a way that a computer can help you find what somebody else wants or has already done, without the high overhead involved in normal transactions and without the high cost of expression yourself very clearly, then that computer or network of computers could perhaps again make possible what smaller societies that had total communication did, only now with computers taking care of the total communication, and also the almost cost-free shipping of the works involved.

Neither programmers nor users are able to purchase a modern computer which behaves sanely – at any price. We have allowed what could have once become the most unbridled creative endeavor known to man short of pure mathematics to become a largely janitorial trade; what could have been the greatest amplification of human intellect in all of history – comparable only to the advent of written language – is now confined to imitating and trivially improving on the major technological breakthroughs of the 19th century – the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, and typewriter.