Legolas (legolas) wrote,

Making sure I remember this

Just posting this in the hope that I think about it and can tell some tales when my daughter grows up, if perhaps I don't remember some of this... This will be a brain dump, with only as much structure as I can put in afterward.

Now that I'm writing this down forgetting it feels like a real possibility. Strange how fast something becomes common, like it's always been there, and how fast you forget when you first saw/had/used something. Anyway...

I was born in 1973, and just today it hit me that this means that I have personally experienced the gigantic take-off of (computer-)technology. It also means I can actually remember (although it's hard to imagine already) the days when some stuff I take for granted did not exist. I'll try to put this more or less chronologically. Ah memories memories. All this is as I remember it now, which may not be accurate!

I got my first computer around 12-14 years old, I think. It was a Commodore64, and it was used (and meant) primarily for games. You could attach a printer and have a very basic text processing program, but the printer was a 'dot matrix impact' printer. Since their dpi was very low (commonly something like 60dpi horizontal, 72dpi vertical), and mostly black and white only, they couldn't really produce 'graphics', and whatever came out of them was nowhere near what came of a printing press. So text processing was really only useful to print letters (for snail mail, no email yet! Although BBS's did exist. They had 2,3 or even 4 phone lines attached to them, so you can imagine how many people had a modem. Some of the BBS's cooperated to pass along the first form of email, in something called 'fidonet'). Simple spreadsheets were also a possibility.
Before that, no one had a computer. Letters were written by hand, or typed on a (mechanical) typewriter. Come to think of it, my parents had a mechanical typewriter. If you wanted your letter twice, you put in 2 pieces of paper with a 'carbon paper' in between (the origin of the term 'Carbon Copy'!). Children played outside, or indoors with blocks, lego, playmobil etc. We listened to music on the radio and taped shows/songs you liked. There were vinyl records, but since these were so sensitive to scratches, no one in their right mind let kids touch them. Typing was a strange art only typists had any use for.

Wikipedia lists the CD as being 'introduced' in 1982. For quite some time after that, CDs were uncommon, and vinyl records and cassette tapes were normal. Radio-cassette players were common for kids, vinyl records were restricted to stereo combinations, esp. because of their size, and non-portability that came with both their size and their fragility. Being able to record on a cassette was a feature not all radio-cassette players had!
I remember the heated discussions about the CD's to 'clean' sound, people somehow liked the slight variations the vinyl records caused, and the CD would never make it etc.
Copying CDs to a cassette was the big worry of the day, mostly because this copy would be just as good quality-wise as a pre-recorded cassette you'd buy would be. There seemed to be less worry about the then already very common practice of copying tapes (most radio cassette players came with 2 tape decks, one of which could only play back. No one complained that this could only be meant to copy tapes, or at least not that I remember. It's unlikely no one actually complained, but they probably lost out to the tidal wave of 'dual-deck' radio cassette players made pretty much only to copy tapes. Or maybe it wasn't a lawyers world yet at the time? I was to small then to know this.).

When I went to university, the Internet did not exist very long. The university was connected to it, and it was common on universities around the world, but not at home. Since the 'web' had not been invented yet, discussions groups were one of the most used features of it (discussions groups in email-lists or in 'nntp', aka 'netnews', aka 'news', aka 'Usenet'), and email of course. Because a university means students, 'games' also existed, in the form of text-only adventures called MUDs (Multi User Dungeons). Yes, text-only! (The connection speeds were to slow for graphics anyway.) You logged on with a user name and password, and got a text screen saying "You are in a small town on the main street. There is a knife on the street. There is a dark alley to the east, a door to a bar to the west, and the main street continues to the north. You can see a castle to the southwest in the distance. Gimli the dwarf is standing next to you. You can go [w]est, [n]orth and [e]ast." You could then type commands like 'look', 'take knife', 'west' (usually with shorthands n, e, s and w available for movement), 'say ...'. Each command would deliver a bit more text as a result. And you had better take the knife before going into the dark alley! In this environment, you could cooperate with others, go on quests etc. Students wasted whole weeks doing pretty much just that in the universities computer rooms (where terminals and later pc's were made available, since the ones you had at home, if you had one, generally were not connected to the internet)!

Pretty quickly this was followed by the first ISPs, which had several computers (note several, not many!) in a local network, to administer a pool of modems (a few dozen for smaller ISPs) connected to telephone lines. They were local only at first, so if you lived outside the area, you paid long distance (in Belgium the actual distance wasn't very long, but the extra charges were still considerable). You dialed into these (blocking the use of your home phone line...) paying the telephone charges (these were high and per minute in europe, but already very cheap in the US) and your ISP (usually you had a right of connecting x hours per month). Your connection died if someone in your house lifted the horn of the phone, or randomly if the line quality became to bad. And all this at an incredible 16kbps, later 34.4 kbps and in the end 56.6 kbps, although the quality of the line usually meant you never actually connected at 56kbps.
By that time netscape had invented the web, and the first websites appeared. Links to other sites were one of the more important features on any website, apart from actual content obviously. There was much discussion about the use of the 'blink' tag in html, about how many images you could put on a site before it became to slow, and how to get your images down to the smallest size. Even later, someone came up with the idea of a search engine, a revolutionary concept that changed the way the web worked.

The computer use of CDs, especially writing them yourself, wasn't commonly available at first. At first, someone bought a writer (incredibly expensive at the time, something like a months pay, IIRC) and wrote CDs (empty media equally expensive, think the price of 10 loafs of bread at first, 400fr in my local currency at first, IIRC. Went down to 200 in the first few years, again IIRC) for their friends for a price (this I can't remember for sure, but I think I paid a friend double the price of an empty CD for my first CD). Since a CD could hold the contents of an incredible 400 3 1/2 Inch Floppy disks (1.44MB fit on those), this wasn't much of a concern at first, since you weren't going to write many anyway. Windows 95 came on 12, count em 12 floppies!).

Even during all this GSMs did not exist. If you wanted to contact someone, you called their home phone, talked to their father/mother/.., who passed them the phone, and whoever you wanted to talk to sat in their living room talking to you with probably everyone in their family in the same room, like you were doing on your end. (Wireless phones fixed that part at least, when they were introduced.) As a kid, I didn't call other kids until I was 16, and even then it wasn't all that common. (Maybe this was just me however ;-)
If they did not answer, you simply called again later. Before GSMs, answering machines were not very common, and getting one if you called someone was always a bit unexpected. I remember I hated them and mostly just hung up and called again instead of leaving a message. You kept phone numbers in a paper list in a small book by the phone, and you actually knew important numbers (your home, your grand-parents) by heart.
If you went for a walk in the woods, you were unreachable. You could also not call anyone, if something went wrong. Strangely, nobody worried about this, in fact nobody even thought about this as a problem at all AFAIK. (This in particular hit me recently when walking somewhere worrying that we had no signal there, and thinking what if something went wrong now etc.) If something went wrong, you knocked on a door to call for help, or stopped a car and drove with them to the nearest house. (It was funny to go 'back' to this when we went to Canada a few years ago.) Highways had emergency 'phones' in a special stand every kilometer or so (do they still?).

Around the time of the first computers, some wealthy people or a few business men had a car-phone. This was a unit the size of a pack of cereals, build into the car somewhere, with a horn attached. A few years later, 'hands-free' was added as a feature. You could drive for hours with the horn held to your head, there were no rules about this since almost nobody had such a thing anyway.

GSMs were then introduced as a lighter version of this, but weren't common while I was at university, certainly not among students (meaning no one I knew had one. In fact, al through university, I was the only one to have a phone in my room. Some others had a phone in the house, shared amongst the rooms, most went to a phone boot to call their parents twice a week). GSMs only worked in a few cities at first, since their signals were so weak they had to create an entirely new network of masts for them. Nobody had one at first, and everyone hated the huge array of masts put up everywhere to support this "idiotic thing only the wannabe-hip people have". Those that did have it made a point of using it in public to show it off. The actual phones were LARGE and HEAVY and barely fit in the pocket of a pants, more likely kept in coat pockets. It took several years before I came round to the idea and bought one, at that time they were relatively common already amongst young people.

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