Friday, May 3, 2013

The good old days.

Vintage Atari Computers and peripherals

I've been rummaging around the house and I came upon a box.

Nothing uniquely special about it but when I opened it I found the contents magical.

It contained a collection of memories in the form of some old Atari computers.  I'm not talking about an old 2600 or a Jaguar but rather a collection of those old 8 bit wonders from the late 70's and early 80's.  They have names like 800, 130XE and 800XL.

I look on them with the same reverence someone a few decades younger may look on a Nintendo 64 or their first Mac.  They represent a time when technology couldn't come close to our imagination but we tried anyway.

I think those of my age are far more fortunate, however.  If you grew up in the late 70's and early 80's and had any interest in computers then you understand what I mean.  I've been privileged to witness the evolution of personal computers from little more than a novelty to an invaluable tool. 

Strange how things have come full circle in the so-called "post-PC" era of tablets and the Smartphone.  To listen to the pundits you'd think we were on the verge of personal computers becoming a novelty again.

To some extent they're right.   There's not much mystery to computers anymore and I doubt anyone will ever look upon their laptop with the same nostalgia I feel for that box full of Atari's.

When I was growing up I was aware that I was in the midst of a sea change.  When I was small there were no electronic games or home computers.  The few that existed  were crude and more expensive than any suburban middle class parent could justify. 

Childhood was occupied by exploring the world contained within a few square blocks of my house.  Friends, adventures and fun were all very much real.  No virtualization allowed aside from what came from my own imagination.

Atari 410 Recorder
When I got a little older I found myself in the middle of an explosion of technology. The first hand held games soon gave way to the first game consoles and finally my box of Atari memories.

 It was nothing short of amazing.  Turn on the power switch and I could play a game or if I had the patience, I could write my own.

I remember spending hours entering hundreds of lines of code from a magazine article knowing that one mistyped character could make it all for naught.

Looking back now, I was a data entry clerk at 12 and didn't even know it.

By today's standards using such dinosaurs was a tedious and laborious affair.  Hours of work could be lost seemingly without reason.  Cassette tapes and later floppy disks made for a poor archive with more than a few hours of feverish work lost because of them.  "Save now and save often" became a mantra.

I doubt today's teenagers would tolerate the shortcomings of early home computers for long.  Maybe that's where I learned the patience that I rarely see in those that came after me.  Today's world is geared toward instant gratification.  Even those of modest means can instantly satisfy a whim with an Internet connected device.  A feat that would take me weeks in my youth if it was possible at all.

Things moved quickly and before you knew it technology was advancing at an exponential pace.  The novelty was wearing off but it was still an exciting time.  The first modems allowed us to reach out to those similarly enamored.  The BBS or Bulletin Board System was the precursor to the Internet most evident in the millions of online forums that exist to this day.

Atari 130XE
It seemed every corner had a computer store and its aisles contained the stuff of dreams.  Computers, Software and periodicals about them seemed to be everywhere. 
Technology itself was the entertainment medium.  Just standing in the middle of a Federated Department store or a Radio Shack was better than a ticket to Star Wars with a free pizza. 

Even movies and television reflected the culture.    Tron was revolutionary for its visual style.  Wargames made millions of parents nervous about their kid's computing habits.  Both films showed how technology had moved out of the dusty confines of universities and corporations and into popular culture.

By the time the 90's came around the idea of personal computing was no longer in the hands of hobbyists or tinkerers.  They were as commonplace as traffic during rush hour. 

Suddenly the computer store on the corner closed replaced by Supermarket-sized electronics stores like CompUSA and Circuit City.  Technology had become commoditized, outsourced and disposable. 

Computers weren't fun anymore, they were just tools.  Cold instruments hailed as revolutionizing a workforce.  In reality, performing the same mundane tasks as their ancestors: pen and paper, abacus and calculator. 

Instead of being a catalyst to our imagination, computers and technology in general rarely rise above the menial anymore.  Smarter, faster but with no imagination there is no substance. 

A faster computer can calculate your spreadsheet in seconds.  A faster Internet connection can connect you to anything the online world can offer assuming there's anything worth seeing. 

Atari 800XL
Technology isn't the catalyst for change I'd hoped for in my youth.  It's little more than a new means to do the same old crap and that's the real tragedy.

Which makes my little box of memories all the more special.

I think I'll keep it.