My brief history of technology

By Jordan Bailey | Sep 04, 2014

I finally got my first smartphone a couple of weeks ago, and it made me think about how far I've come since 1984 when my family got our first computer, an IBM PC Jr.

I was 8 at the time, and was intrigued by the games it came with. One game let you choose from a list of songs by typing a letter, whereupon it would display a yellow outline of a bird in costume while a MIDI version of the song played. That was great fun.

You could access another game by hitting the escape key at a certain point while the operating system was loading. Gameplay consisted of moving a 2D pixelated man with loud footsteps around a blank screen with the arrow keys. The object was to get him into a gap in an outline of a square, and then a song would play and the screen would change colors. As I recall, there were no obstacles.

Eventually, games became more complicated and educational. There was one I would play in school, "Lemonade Stand," where you would have to choose the price and recipe of your lemonade based on the weather forecast, and it would calculate your sales for the day. Another taught typing skills. And in another you would "explore a castle." (I use quotes because the graphics were so simple it could hardly be called that.) When you came to a room with a treasure, you would have to solve an arithmetic problem or else a spider would come and take the treasure away. I still remember the two minor chords that would play when you got an answer wrong.

Then, when I was 9, we got Infocom's text adventure "Zork." It didn't even bother with graphics, because its graphics were your imagination. It was more like a novel than a computer game — interactive fiction, the genre is sometimes called. Zork spoiled me for any computer game that came after it.

The game took place in an underground world with hidden treasures to collect, but you would have to solve complicated logistical problems to get them while trolls, thieves and monsters called "grues" could thwart you at any turn.

The fight scenes were a little clunky, but is typing "kill troll with sword" multiple times and reading how the troll reacts that much less realistic than clicking a button on a game controller over and over as some glitchy zombie fills the screen? Well, I don't think so. It is too bad text games just don't have a market these days and aren't being developed as they were then.

After I finished that game, I got into programming in the language Basic. I would make simple programs that ask things like "Who are you?" Then the program would follow the code lines "2 IF A$="Michael" THEN PRINT "You're the best,"; A$ 3 GOTO 2 4 IF A$ = "Dad"; THEN PRINT "Hey, Bud." 5 GOTO 4, to create endless, meaningless loops.

We got our first dial-up account in 1993, if I remember correctly, but my mom had been showing me how to use ftp and Gopher before that. (Only when the Internet came into being did I realize what a void I had been trying to fill when I was younger by checking out every single book at my local library about cats.)

I did spend a long period of my life (more than I want to remember) designing websites, starting when they had to be laid out in table-based grids. We eventually created the illusion of breaking design out of those confines by designing the page as one large image full of curving lines which would be chopped up into smaller images pieced together in the tables.

Web design has come a long way since cascading style sheets replaced html tables to control layout and other design elements. Then content management systems like Wordpress built on this and made design of less concern for web developers because there were so many pre-made designs to choose from. The new focus became function as well as scalability for smaller and smaller devices.

Now we have smartphones, which offer the Internet and its many functions at our fingertips at all times. For many years I did without one, even when it would have been incredibly helpful. The summer I was teaching for the National Park Service in Boston and had to find my way by zig-zagging through public transportation options to schools in far-flung neighborhoods throughout the city, a navigation app would have been incredibly useful.

Or so I thought. Just the other day, I was trying to get to a house fire for a story. I was stuck in traffic because of an accident, so I turned the car around, took out my handy new phone and said to it "directions to Harris Road," to try to find another route. I then followed its directions — to a dead end. It told me to drive another 1.7 miles straight down Old Country Road to my destination. I tried, but 500 feet down the overgrown, rutty lane I thought better of it and backed up.

All that effort sending me the wrong way really sapped the life out of the phone, and I had to turn it off for the rest of my adventure. That's when I wished I had my Delorme's map in my car.

Other than that, I have been using apps for things like tracking my calories and my running workouts. I knew I ran slowly, but now I know just how slowly, and have been working on shaving seconds off my 11-minute-per-mile pace.

I've also downloaded the original Zork game. If you ever see me tapping at my phone during a meeting or a slow moment at any event I have to cover, you can bet I'm writing "Kill troll with sword."

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