"How Technology Changed My Life"

Compare your technological evolution to this writer's life--from his first manual typewriter to his recently purchased 433 MHz PC.
This story appears in the May 2000 issue of Startups. Subscribe »
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I recall the farewell party my office gave me when I quit to become a freelance writer. I was editor of a small weekly newspaper, and we all gathered around the coffeepot in the back of the composing room. The year was 1978, and because electronic composition hadn't yet reached the boonies, the smell of hot lead type filled the air. The publisher surprised me with a very nice gift: the manual hunt-and-peck typewriter I'd written my articles on.

Today that typewriter sits moldering in the cellar. Sentimentality is the only thing that prevents me from chucking it. (Though greed should motivate me: Just last week the oil man was cleaning my furnace when he came across this valuable antique. "A typewriter!" the young man exclaimed. "I've always wondered what those looked like.")

Twenty years later, we're in a revolutionary new world and I find myself in the unique position of being able to track the revolution by tracing the changing technology I've used as a self-employed person these past two decades.

Daniel Asa Rose is the author, most recently, of Hiding Places: A Father and his Sons Retrace Their Family's Escape from the Holocaust (Simon & Schuster). Visit his Web site at www.danielasarose.com.

Hunting And Pecking Like The Masters

That typewriter, for instance. For five years after I left the newspaper, I used that trusty old machine to write my short stories. It was a principle akin to the one used by the staff of The New Yorker when they made a point, as they rather grandly did in those days, of declining the use of electric typewriters. Receiving laboriously typed rejections from The New Yorker in response to my laboriously typed stories felt proper, part of my apprenticeship. Those inky "e's" and "q's"-indistinguishable from "g's"-were something to take pride in. It seems quaint in retrospect, but it had something to do with doing things the hard way. There used to be verity in that.

After a few years, the modern world won me over. Maybe because I had lunched with New Yorker editors and saw they had the audacity to use credit cards, the principle of doing things the old-fashioned way no longer seemed meritorious in and of itself. So I bought an IBM Selectric. I remember my friends gaping when they saw it had an automatic backspace with lift-off tape. "Just think how this will free you up!" they yelped. "You'll be able to erase your typos!"

Little did they know. The Selectric typewriter made it possible for me to finish a page of my novel and not have to retype the whole thing just because I had written "knfie" instead of "knife." What would they dream up next? Home computers that you could play word games on?

In fact, yes. I remember the night my son and I plugged in our Texas Instruments machine. Sitting on the living room floor in front of the wood stove, we hugged each other with delirium as "Hangman" revealed itself with a pop on the screen. The marvel now is only how we marveled then-just 14 years ago!-at such primitive pleasures. Like silent movies, the first stabs at what was to become our brave new culture seem charmingly baroque in retrospect, part of a lost world infinitely more innocent and naive than our own. Especially when I see the short stories and book reviews that came off my TI printer, so boxy and wedge-shaped as to read almost like cuneiform.

The Revolutionary Word Processor

Adjusting to life with an Epson word processor was the next step. My puritan conscience had to get used to its supernatural ease. Remember rugged individualism and self-sufficiency? The word processor seemed too effortless. Then, too, it was hard for me to get used to not seeing the detritus of my work. I was trained to value the sight of an overflowing wastebasket. Where was the evidence of my exertions?

Writers as a group tended to feel uneasy about the new technology in those days. "Does it offer a creative advantage, or is this another step toward Armageddon?" was the sort of question we asked. It was with a blend of guilt and disbelief that we admitted this thing was as good as it seemed to be. Then all of a sudden, it seemed, we decided to lighten up. It's hard to imagine writers could have demonstrated such prescience, but maybe we really did realize what a wonderful gewgaw this was. More likely, though, we just decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. But whatever the reason, in the mid-'80s, writers started to revel. "At last, a companion!" exclaimed a writer friend of mine who had spent the three loneliest years of his life in his room writing a saga of India. "Now I've got something that seems to think with me!"

For writers faced with the painstaking task of setting the words of our brains out in front of us in an orderly fashion, it was quite simply the first toy we had gotten to play with since Lewis Waterman invented the fountain pen in 1884. Granted, the initial weeks of adjusting to a word processor were cumbersome. But once acclimated, the sensation was like flying, like having a secretary in our brain doing all our paperwork telepathically so all we had to concern ourselves with was composing. No longer did we have to hit the Return key or stop to change paper. In my euphoria, the word processor sometimes made writing feel more like skywriting than the medieval scribing it had resembled until that point. Being able to blow away entire paragraphs and have them reappear from the wind was like writing on air.

Word processing liberated a whole generation of writers. Until then, writers were restricted in their revisions by the nature of ink or lead on paper. The physical document became cramped or smudged, and the mounting existence of copy after copy presented testimony to the writer's botched attempts. Suddenly, with the word processor, none of that evidence existed. Composing on an infinitely mutable screen, adding and deleting and reformatting words at the touch of a button, I grew not exhausted but exhilarated.

Spared the sight of cross-outs, cramped inserts and faded deletions-by all the joyless evidence of toil-I was free to feel as fresh with the 30th draft as I did with the first. I grew lighter in spirit. Tapping on a keyboard felt like playing ragtime. But I was only scratching the surface. The best was yet to come. Because last year, as a gift to myself for my 20th year of gainful self-employment, I went out and researched-drum roll, please-a 433 Mhz PC.

Going Digital

The entire process was fun. I studied computer magazines. I perused ads. I dialed sales reps. Finally, I spoke to my sons, one of whom promised me that if I got anything faster than a Pentium 90, he would rake the leaves this autumn. I opted to have him shovel the driveway as well because I ended up buying a Gateway PC with a 17-inch NEC monitor.

And momentous it has turned out to be. Besides having my leaves raked and my driveway shoveled, I get these other benefits:

  • I can fax my food reviews directly to the magazine where I have a monthly restaurant column.
  • I can work with my film script co-writer in Los Angeles via modem.
  • I can download articles from newspapers and libraries from around the world.
  • I can come to the aid of my sister, an ethnomusicologist who, at the oddest hours, suddenly needs to record a segment of aboriginal music.
  • I can finally find out whether the hype about "Myst" is justified.
  • I can automatically put these bullets in.

And all this without venturing from my office sun porch. Hell, I don't even need that driveway shoveled. There's nowhere I have to go. Not only that, but because of the speed of my fax-modem, I can send and receive this information at lightning speed. I can back it up on an automatic tape system so that at the end of the day, I can leave the office without worrying about losing my files if the hard drive crashes overnight. And because the world's wealth of information seems but a key stroke away, I find myself enjoying the process of writing more than I ordinarily would. I can look up the date when the fountain pen was invented, for instance, and wile away many pleasant moments reading about quill pens of ancient China and the dynamics of modern ballpoints. It's like I already knew this stuff somehow, like I've had an encyclopedia installed in my fingertips.

Welcome To The 21st Century

It isn't just my world that's been rocked. The whole look of exurbia has changed. Guys at the supermarket who used to stand around boasting about the size of their car engines now compare hard drives. My neighbor, a partner in a major law firm, works from his home now and, like me, loves to prepare dinner while listening to the evening commuter reports. He finds it very relaxing, he says.

Best of all, it's altered the most painful sensation that many writers experience: the isolation. No longer do I feel I'm secreting myself away in the attic with my ink and foolscap. Writing suddenly seems more of a social activity. I can be in communication with other writers at the whirl of a mouse. I can share congratulations or commiserate with my colleagues around the planet, and it's my choice whether to remain anonymous or not. All in all, a thrilling change from the days when I'd watch the hills fill up with snow outside my windows and think, Did I really do the right thing, going off on my own?

In fact, the only thing that keeps me from waxing even more ecstatic is the perspective I've developed from having gone through so many technological changes. For I know that even my 433 Mhz system will seem embarrassing in five years. My 6-month-old will be in kindergarten then, and I only hope he won't be too humiliated to have his friends over to play on it. And I'm not stopping here. There's more of this techno world I want a piece of. I plan to get a disc burner, a 21-inch monitor, maybe even a scanner so I can load all those old newspaper articles I created on my manual typewriter. Only then will I feel I've come full circle. I will have brought my Stone Age past with me into the space age.

To read more about the Internet and its effect on homebased business owners, click over to TechTalk for columnist Robert McGarvey's take on the issue.
Edition: November 2016

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