Way back in the nineteen eighties my husband, Mike, came home bearing a big box with almost childlike excitement. Inside the cardboard container was a computer from Radio Shack, an early rendition of the TRS 80 that ironically earned the nickname “Trash 80.” We were very much on a budget at that time, saving for college for our children and working at jobs not known for their generosity in salary. We carefully watched our purchases so it was unusual for Mike to spend what was then a rather large amount of money without discussing it with me. My initial reaction was to be a bit angry but Mike countered my protests by claiming that computers were going to change the world and our family needed to become intimately familiar with them. I was somewhat unimpressed but decided to just humor him since he rarely bought anything for himself.
Our first family computer, if you dare to call it that, was driven by a tape deck and seemed to be operated by a turtle. It did little more than provide Mike with an opportunity to explore a couple of primitive games and learn new ways of incorporating it into our daily activities. If I touched it more than once or twice I don’t remember. It gave Mike something to do after work and so I mostly ignored it.
It wasn’t long before computers were becoming a bit more sophisticated. Inventiveness in that arena was moving quickly and Mike soon enough wanted a bit more power than our machine afforded. In a sweet bow to me and my profession the next model that he brought home was an Apple II of the kind that was showing up in classrooms across the country. It operated with a floppy disk and our model had two drives. Since there were already several educational programs in use in my school I was able to find some practical use for it in my work. Our daughters took interest in the possibilities of the model as well and before long it was a center of family activity.
My eldest daughter and I learned how to actually create programs for our Apple II but it was Mike who took an understanding of its power to a new level. He found ways to use the machine far beyond games and word processing while dreaming constantly of the possibilities of a technologically driven home and work life. It was as though he had become obsessed with the idea of making the world a better place through the use of intelligent machines. He constantly cornered other aficionados of computing and picked their brains about the future of a brave new world.
I soon realized that Mike was willing to drive a car until the wheels fell off but he was not content with keeping a computer past its prime. Again and again he would suddenly arrive home with the newest and most powerful model of computing and we would learn the ins and outs of the enhanced mechanisms. Before long I was incorporating the technology into every aspect of my work as a teacher. I even had a specially designed spreadsheet for keeping student grades. I got permission from my principal to replace the old style handwritten grade book with copies of my computerized system. It allowed me to keep a running average for each student at the instant I entered a grade. It was tied to a word processing program that gave me the ability to send home a weekly progress report to the parents. I became more and more convinced that Mike had been prophetic in his certainty that those machines were going to change our lives.
Of course things just got better and better in the world of technology. I now hold more power than all of the computers used to send a man to the moon in a tiny laptop that I can carry anywhere. I use technology on a daily basis to get the latest news, communicate with businesses and my doctor, keep up with friends, write my blog, do research, make purchases. The list of how my computer has changed my life is almost endless, and it has enabled me to do more in any given day than ever before. It’s difficult for me to even imagine the world as it was before and yet there are indeed times when technology drives me to the brink of frustration.
It’s quite difficult to communicate with a real human being when conducting business these days. I have to jump through a series of computerized hoops before finally hearing a human voice, often from a continent away. I have so many passwords that I sometimes become annoyed by the task of having to retrieve them from my memory. I’ve been hacked and had to spend countless hours repairing the damage. I have had to create a routine of checking email and messages on my phone because important information is always coming in electronic form. Almost every type of business in which I engage relies heavily on the internet, which may or may not be up and running when I need it most. The frustrations of our modern conveniences have created their own form of stress including a toxic political environment and a haven for bullies.
For the most part I am in awe of the conveniences that I enjoy as a result of the continually improving technology that I use. Nonetheless I see its flaws and they are dramatic. As a society we have yet to understand the implications of instant communication around the world. We have a power that can go terribly wrong if we are not careful. Our inventiveness is moving forward so quickly that we barely have time to understand it before it changes. The lessons we teach about it are often years behind. It is a power that is both truly wonderful and frightening.
There is no doubt that today’s technology has improved life for millions. I can attest to that on a very personal level. We just have to be careful in how we use this great gift. We must be aware of its dangers and not rely so heavily on it that we become paralyzed when it fails. In the end we have to remember that we are dealing with machines that have no heart. We must be the ones to provide the human feelings.