In 1983, all my friends were ga-ga over personal computers.
Keep in mind that I come from a tribe of more-than-a-little-geeky, Star-Trek-watching, science-fiction-reading fen. Fen is, of course, the plural for fan. I took physics in high school, and double chemistry. I could—at a time so far in the past that it is an infinitesimal memory point—use a slide rule.
I said to myself, “I have to get a computer, or I’m going to be left behind.” What I actually said, accompanied by what Andrew M. Greeley’s Bishop Blackie calls, “a west Ireland sigh,” was that I was so far behind the computer curve I’d probably never catch up.
In reality, I only thought I was so far behind.
In 1983, an operating system called DOS (developed by a couple of IBM whiz kids named Paul Allen and Bill Gates) was barely on the market. Most computers were still being programmed in BASIC, FORTRAN, COBAL, and Pascal.
Atari games were three years old. In 1982, Disney Studios had released a movie, Tron, where some of the drawing and special effects was actually done on a computer! Word Perfect was one-year old. Apple had sold a remarkable $1 billion dollars worth of personal computers, and ARPANET had just standardized TCP/IP. If that last one isn’t exactly crystal clear, think of it as the world had just discovered it was pregnant with the Internet.
In any case, I bought a second-hand, cassette-tape-fed Radio Shack computer and fell down the rabbit hole into computer land. The point being, I could buy a computer. It wasn’t just a money thing, but that computer—as primitive as it was—was available to me in a small Canadian town far away from other small towns.
Things have changed.
Today, If I wanted to buy a Kindle, I couldn’t do it. I live in the wrong country. Even if someone I knew in the United States bought one for me, I couldn’t download a lot of material, which is available in the states. Vendors have the ability to backtrack an ISP address and, if that address tracks to outside of the U.S., no sale. Same thing with the iPhone a couple of years back. It took a while to get here, and when it did the service contract was severely limited and on and on. Same thing with sites that offer downloads of old television series, but only if you live in certain countries. I’ve used friends in the states as shipping addresses because many on-line vendors have a ship-to-U. S.-addresses-only policy.
The PEW Internet & American Life Project tracks a lot of Internet stats. According to their May 2008 survey, 73% of Americans surveyed, 18 and older, use the Internet. This goes to 90% in the age group 18 to 29 and drops to 35% for people over 65. If you’re white or English-speaking Hispanic, you’re more likely to be using the Internet than if you are black. If you live in the city or suburbs, you have more of a chance than if you have a rural address. If your household makes over $75,000 a year, the odds are almost double that you would use the Internet than if that income were less than $30,000. The more education you have, the more you use the Internet.
I saw quoted last year in a discussion about technology that last year—2008—was the tipping year for DSL access. For the first time, more than 50% of U.S. computer users were able to have access to cable service rather than use dial-up modems. It wasn’t that more people don’t want to use cable, it was that the cost is prohibitive to bring cable to many rural addresses and small towns.
I know elderly people who can no longer look up phone numbers. They have trouble making ten-digit local calls. They can not contend with the “If you are calling about a bill, press 1,” ad infinitum lists of push-this-button automated services. They can no longer check their bank or credit card balances, inquire about their tax return, order from a catalogue, or in some cases, reach the correct a health care provider at a large hospital. They are getting tired of being told, “No, I’m sorry we don’t have anyone here who can give you that information, but everything you need to know is available on our web site.”
So the question isn’t is technology here to stay, but who is going to control access? Who gets to decide that if a person lives in a certain place they can or can’t get the latest device and the hook-ups to use it? And, what do we do about all of those people who don’t want to or can’t go electronic? What are some decent, humane ways of providing those people with basic customer services? Or is that even our responsibility as a society? Should we simply adopt an attitude of join the technological revolution or be ignored?
We all need to spend some time thinking about what life is like for the less technologically fortunate.
Quote for the week:
You should always know when you’re shifting gears in life. You should leave your era; it should never leave you.
~Leontyne Price, singer