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Several months back I discovered a fantastic blog called The Digital Antiquarian.  It's written by an author of interactive fiction (text adventures and the like), and is a compelling and astoundingly well-researched history of the early days of computers and electronic gaming.  After first sketching in the very earliest days of the 1950s and 60s, he then begins in earnest with the state of computers in the 1970s - including the (literal) game-changing invention of Adventure, a.k.a. Colossal Cave, the very first text adventure game.  Subsequent articles discuss the beginnings of personal computers (then called microcomputers), the meteoric rise and fall of Atari and the rest of the videogame boom and bust of the early '80s, the rise of Apple (then a struggling company, as opposed to the staggering behemoth it is today), and the astounding speed with which computers took off in Britain when embraced by Thatcher as a way to pull Britain out of their economic doldrums.  I've read a couple hundred of his blog posts by now - they make great bedtime reading - and am currently up to 1985. 

It's been an utterly fascinating trip, and I'll truthfully be a little sorry when I've caught up and have to wait days or weeks between further installments.  (I see that he's currently approaching the end of 1986.)  I've learned a lot, and it's definitely sparked my creativity in a couple of ways as well; I'm currently brainstorming at least two stories I can credit in small or large part to all this reading.  But it's also been interesting just to learn about the rise and evolution of such technology, in both hardware and software, and compare it to the previously uninformed and very microscopic view of it I had myself while growing up.

I received my first computer, a Commodore 64, when I was 7 years old in 1983.  I'd had an Atari 2600 for a couple of years before that, although the action-based videogames, while fun for the time, rarely stuck with me.  On the other hand, I recall the first time I played the Atari videogame Adventure (maybe 1981?), and being rather more caught up by the sense of exploration and open possibilities it hinted at - far more than the videogame norm of one screen with one thing to do (e.g., Space Invaders, Frogger, Pac-Man and the like).  And let's be honest: The actual graphics and implementation took the concept about as far as it could go on something as rudimentary as the Atari VCS.  So it was clearly the very idea of what it was attempting that I found myself instantly responding to.

By contrast, the C64 initially came with a tape drive - yes, an actual audio cassette player, through which you could load programs by pressing "play", which then fed the data into the computer - and both that and the later floppy drive brought a much wider breadth of programs and games to my attention, due to the rapid spread of public domain and shareware games.  I received some tapes and then later disks just crammed full of C64 programs (and only realized later how many of those were not shareware so much as pirated).  Again, a small number of action games were sufficiently entertaining - but it was the text-based story games which caught my full attention, including a C64 implementation of that original one by Will Crowther and Don Woods, Adventure - and which the Atari game by the same name had been inspired by.  These games of interactive fiction (not that I would encounter that term until years later) would become a serious love throughout my childhood and teenage years, and ultimately beyond.

But, as mentioned, it's been really fascinating reading this history of the field, and comparing that to what I saw at the time.  Case in point: Not long after getting that first computer, I received a subscription to a kids-focused computer magazine called K-Power.  I really enjoyed reading it every month, and was a little sad and confused when some months later a note stated that the issue in my hands would be their last, because the computer revolution hadn't caught on quite as rapidly as everyone had predicted.  I looked around, bemused at this new information:  I dunno, I thought mine was great.  Oh, the myopia of youth!  (K-Power would continue as a small 16-page insert in Family Computing, until even that went away after another year or two.)

It wasn't until high school that I finally upgraded to an IBM PC, the greater capabilities of which I'd already been envying for the past couple years.  (Still, that C64 had a good seven- or eight-year run!)  The massive leap-forward in processing power was inconceivable; when my uncle Donn helped me to set it up, he asked what I was going to do with the Commodore, and I said I still expected to use that a bit.  He laughed, predicting that as soon as I got used to how fast the PC responded to inputs, I'd never go back to the 64k computer again.  It's almost ridiculous how instantly right he was.  Especially since this new PC came with, wonder of wonders, a hard drive inside it!  And I could even install half a dozen large programs at the same time, because - get this - it was 20 megabytes large!  Truly, I was now living in the land of science fiction.

It's funny how I recall such details vividly ... but I don't recall which one of my friends or relatives first picked up a cell phone in the 1990s.  I had a pager for a year in 1999, but didn't get a cell until late 2000 (by which point I already felt like a late adopter).

In 1993 I got to the University of Illinois and received an email address; one of the first people I emailed was Zach, then down at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, and through this correspondence we not only stayed close in touch, but he also taught me all that he'd learned in the last year about this Internet thing.  I still remember finding out about this World Wide Web which I could access via the NCSA Mosaic (and later Netscape), and then passing on this newfound knowledge to my equally newfound friend BJ.  (I was astonished and touched to read a recent Facebook post where Zach recalled that our email correspondence at this time was one of his earliest consistent Internet memories.  I had always just assumed that after a year of living at IMSA, this was old hat to him and he'd just been kind enough to show me the ropes.)

It's dizzying to think of all the technological advances that came after.  Watching video on a computer.  The first smartphones.  Going from an enviable-at-the time dial-up modem to DSL to cable.  Everything being connected everywhere.  Tablets.  And hell, through all of this, the massive and unifying presence of Apple, which I had never really cared for: the Apple IIs I saw in school were "fine", the original black-and-white screen Macintosh computers were clearly more powerful but also bizarrely "other", and even today I still find using a Mac kind of ... weird. 

I mean, in my teens I was already (with the help of friends) buying component upgrades for my PC, like a bigger hard drive or more RAM, and then opening up the machine and learning how to install them myself.  I've heard it conjectured that one of the reasons text adventures worked so well for some, while being completely off-putting to others, was because those of us who grew up with these ever-evolving computers had needed to figure out pretty arcane commands just to get the damn programs to run.  I mean, I still recall the command needed to start most programs on the Commodore 64, the very first thing you would type in after its boot screen had come up:

LOAD "*",8,1
Seriously: WTF was that?! 

And the PC's Disk Operating System (DOS) was more understandable, but equally ran programs via command line inputs, which thus needed to be learned or divined.  It really wasn't until Microsoft Windows made home computers usable right out of the box, to the normal everyday person (not willing to put up with learning things like C:\cd programs\other\games to navigate), that the home computer revolution - predicted a decade too early - could finally begin in earnest.  And so I understand why people love Macs, which are all about the clean, graphical OS.  But for someone like me, who grew up tinkering?  I still like the ability to root into the guts of the machine, and troubleshoot it myself when things go wrong.

And yet, when MP3 players came along, I eventually found myself owning an iPod (with the staggering ability to carry all my 1500 CDs' worth of music in my pocket).  When my Motorola Razr died for the last time, I accepted a friend's old iPhone and never looked back.  And I've even owned an iPad for the last 3 years.  In many ways I'm living in an Apple world ... but man, I still can't (or don't want to) get used to using a Mac.  Windows NT/XP may have finally taken out DOS, but I still have the ability to configure my computing setup in any number of ways.

So it's been fascinating to read this early history, and compare it to my own, and read about the massive changes as they happened, and which I was at the time only vaguely aware of.

Where will we be in another 10 years?  Another 20?  Or more?


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 11th, 2015 03:19 am (UTC)
DOS is still in Windows. Start menu, type in cmd as the program to run, it'll launch a dos window. And Mac OS, of course, is now a unix, with a terminal for the command line goodness.

I've definitely seen an issue though with beginner programmers not really understanding a text-based interface. I sniff with the sadness of nostalgia and then try to teach them what they missed.

Edited at 2015-03-11 03:20 am (UTC)
Mar. 11th, 2015 03:29 am (UTC)
Oh, I know it has a command line interface you can pull up. But it's no longer a GUI running on top of a DOS layer; now the GUI is the native OS. (Which affects certain things, if not others.) I may have gotten a bit far afield of my point there. ;)
Apr. 12th, 2015 12:26 am (UTC)
You bring back memories of all the time I spend making cool graphics (in basic?) on an Apple 2, and figuring out how to "fix" a broken DOS character editor for Wizardry. Good times.

With recent updates, Windows seemed to have returned to its roots. I really dislike Windows, but Powershell is really quite nice, and my recent Server 2012 r2 "Core" install seemed to confirm that you can get the whole functionality with little more GUI than a terminal window.

I've had email continuously since 1991, had a pager in 1995 and a cell in 1996, but I think I had neither by 1997. I didn't get another cell (a flip phone for a business trip) until late 2013, but had upgraded to a second-hand Nexus S within 6 months. I did get a third-generation iPod on one of my trips up to see you, and I got a replacement iPod Touch two years ago. :) I've been an early-adopter in some ways, but rather behind the times in others.

I definitely appreciate being able to root, rom, and otherwise customize my well-supported phone (well, it was until Android 5), but I do miss the Apple ecosystem where the majority of apps aren't crazy ugly and using inconsistent under interfaces.
Apr. 12th, 2015 06:44 am (UTC)
That is an impressive 17-year gap between your first cell and your second! I'm not sure you'd find many (any?) others who have done the same. :D

Apr. 12th, 2015 06:47 am (UTC)
Also, if you too have an interest / fond memories of older technologies, I cannot recommend highly enough that you check out the blog cited at the top. I started reading a blog post or two before going to bed most nights; to my shock, I caught up to his current writings in remarkably quick time. And I've learned so much! :D
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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