I was born a couple of months after Elvis passed on to life eternal. I think it was around six years later, in late autumn 1983, or early winter 1984 when, on a dark rainy evening, my father brought home a video game for my big brother and me. I’m not sure what it was, but it was ridiculously expensive (I remember heated discussions between mom and father about the instalments they’d have to pay), and, to my young mind, wonderfully impressive.
It was not too long ago that the old black and white television in our living room had been replaced by a colour one. Was it a Saturday? It must have been, because my father was at home in the morning. I had no idea what to expect when my father said: “are you coming? Come, we’ll go buy a new television”. Minutes later, we were in my father’s mini-van, an indestructible Toyota HIACE, on our way to the shop. The shop had five to ten brand new sets in its “showroom”, a couple of them on, and another dozen old sets, in various states of disrepair. Did we unpack it on the spot to check that everything was there? I do not remember. I remember being home again, and I remember the new television set standing proud (on the very place where its predecessor had been turned off for the last time!), crackling with static electricity, its fresh smell of Styrofoam and new plastic tickling my nose. (Those were the days.)
Most of all, however, I remember the parrot. The screen was adorned with a sticker of a plastic parrot, the colours of whose wings were more impressive than the colours of the rainbow it was perched on. I removed the sticker with care not to damage it, and was surprised when I saw that this sticker stuck to the screen by sheer will, by adhesive magic-ness - but not by UHU, glue, the sticky stuff that had varying but always important roles in my daily enterprises. The parrot made a stronger impression on me than Tarzan, the first coloured show I watched on television - not a movie or an episode of a series, but a cartoon Tarzan in a cartoon Tarzan jungle, with vibrant reds, greens, yellows and browns, and cartoon-jungle orange monkeys.
But television soon found its way into the background as the novelty of colour faded away - this was a coloured world after all, colour wasn’t new, and the shows on national television were just the same old shows on national television.
This, however, this machine, this console (it had buttons, knobs, sliders, switches) was new. Where to start? Which button to push? It must have been an Atari, I think it was. It came with a cartridge of sorts which, when placed into the slot, proved to be a racing game. There, on screen, was a little character, in what looked like a racing car, driving into the horizon on a winding road, avoiding obstacles and other vehicles. The game was very noisy and simple, the picture was blocky (but what did we know), and it reacted in very predictable ways when we moved the joystick this way or that way. Of course it was highly addictive. Buy more cartridges, it said, there is more fun to be had.
Being the junior of the three (I, brother, and father), I am not sure I clocked any playing time on that game. Just as well, for I would have missed it even more when it went back to the store (mom won the argument, it was too expensive after all) to be replaced by a cheaper, simpler video game console. The new one, which we still have (and it still works), did not take any cartridges. It did not have as many buttons. It did not have a joystick. The few games preprogrammed on it were rather repetitive and boring. They had no colour, and the sounds they made weren’t as quirky as we’d come to expect. This new console paled in comparison to the other one - but it did have one important advantage on it: it had two (hardwired) controllers instead of one. Sure, they were no joysticks, they were turn-knobs but they did allow my brother and me to spend hours and hours of our young lives playing TV tennis. White parallelograms for rackets, and a square for a ball, and we’d go at it for as long as we were allowed.
It may have been guilt for taking away the Atari from us, or it may have been genuine visionary foresight - perhaps both, perhaps something else, I’ll never know, but something, somehow, caused our parents to go even deeper into their pockets and buy us an AMSTRAD 6128 CPM. This was no mere toy. Not a game. This was a Computer. It had its own (green) screen and keyboard. It worked with diskettes. The year was 1985.
The AMSTRAD may not have been a personal computer, but it changed my and my brother’s lives drastically. Before learning algebra and geometry, we could program a computer to speak out our name (thanks Byte magazine!), let alone operate a word-processor or a DTP application, manage a file-system and so on. By the time 286’s and 386’s were affordable, we were confident that computers would never hold any secrets from us.
Now I am writing this outside, on a laptop that is more useful, ergonomic, and elegant, and many orders of magnitude more powerful than that old Amstrad. In fact, if I were I so cruel to compare that ancient Amstrad to the rather old mobile phone in my pocket, it would seem like an amoeba standing next to Richard Feynman: same principle, yes, but a lot less interesting. Those were the days indeed.
Technology is becoming so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible. You have to stare really hard, squint, tilt your head, hop, and take a step back all at once just to notice it’s there. And still, chances are, you’ll still miss the point: It’s not just there, it’s everywhere. It’s even inside you - it is you. (Have you had any medicine lately? Any food? Where does your drinking water come from? Are you sure?)
How to explain all this to my seven year old niece? Having no Internet is just as unthinkable to her as having no electricity is to me. Yet there was no Internet when her father was her age. Her grandfather didn’t even have electricity at home at that age - though now he has Internet, and an LCD TV, complete with surround sound. But why bother to explain all this to anyone? Why does she, or any child, need to know what it’s like to live with no running water, no electricity, no phone, or no Internet if they do not have to? Never mind. The question I do find interesting is this one: And now what happens? I do not know. To be sure, we have come a long way and there is a long way ahead of us. Things are not only getting better, they are becoming more interesting every day.
However, not everyone agrees. There are many who lament the old days, when life was simpler, and people did not waste their lives behind screens at work and at home, incessantly talking on a mobile phone (especially where it’s not appropriate), and so on. Technology is an addiction, they say. We have sped up the pace of our lives to unhealthy levels, they say.
That is fine by me. If technology is an addiction, I am an addict. I cannot have enough of it. I was born a technology crack-baby, and raised to be a dealer. Do I spend every waking hour behind a screen? Absolutely, wouldn’t have it any other way. Give me augmented reality. Give me fully immersive virtual reality. Give me robots, and let nanobots swim through my bloodstream! Let me plug my mind into my computer, or the other way around. Let me build the computer into my brain. Shouldn’t happen? Can’t happen? Won’t happen? Just you wait. I just hope I will live long enough to be part of this next step in our evolution … and that we won’t trade the infamous “Blue screen of death” for actual, physical, death.