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When I was Your Age: Caitlin on Computers

24 November, 2011

I am amused by students’ complaints regarding how I missed a post or message from them. They are quite indignant that their message should sit unread in my inbox for longer than twenty minutes and they are horrified when I explain to them I do not check my email or Twitter account after five during the work week and never on a weekend or holiday. Their eyes go wide with fright at the prospect of not having near instantaneous access to someone. “But . . . what if I have a question?” they ask in a voice bordering hysteria. I just smile genially; in essence patting them on the head and sending them on their way.

When I was in high school, there was no Twitter, no boards in the classroom other than the blackboard, and teachers did not have e-mail accounts. What little Internet there was existed only in privatized groups. The ARPANET had been decommissioned but it would be another five years before the first commercialization of the internet. I remember, my senior year the earth sciences teacher showed a small group of us he thought capable of understanding and appreciating the sneak peek (a total of three students) a data list he could access over the phone line through the then NSFNET. He was the most technologically advanced person we had ever met and his over-the-phone-line-encyclopedic-thing was straight out of an Isaac Asimov story. What the teachers did have was landlines at their home but their numbers were typically unlisted, so that was no help to us. We got our assignments by listening in class and writing them down in our notebooks. The advanced and savvy kids stored this information in their TrapperKeeper. If we had a question about the work after the school day we utilized the LSINET (Localized Student Information Network), that is, we used our parent’s landline to call their parent’s landline and we politely asked Mr. or Mrs. Soandso if we could speak to their daughter or son about a school assignment. If the LSINET failed, we sat down, reviewed our class notes, and did our best on the assignment, hoping we understood enough to get a C, which at that point still meant average, and not an F, back when there was still a letter for “you fucked up”—er, “failed.”

College was even worse. The professors were only available briefly after class or in a limited window called “office hours” and those coveted times were by appointment only. The appointment was attained by scheduling it with the professor in the ten minutes s/he was available after class and then dutifully trudging cross-campus to her/his office for the appointment. We did not cancel or reschedule these appointments because we would not be able to arrange another one until after the next class, if your failure to show had not annoyed the professor to the point s/he would not meet with you.

The NSFNET was finally decommissioned and the Internet commercialized my first year of college. We had one computer that could access it. It was located in the library, you had to sign-up in advance to use it, and all we knew how to do was look up the previous night’s David Letterman’s Top Ten list and Shakespeare quotes. There were no pictures. Only text and text that pretended to be a picture called ASCII Art. They looked liked this:

(__)
oo )_______
|_ / \………….|\
……..| |____ | |.\
……..| |…..W| |

Mostly they were of cows doing funny things, like kicking a lantern and setting Chicago on fire.

I did not get my first e-mail address until my Sophmore year of college. To access it I had to trudge cross-campus to the Gilbert Science Center’s computer lab. This was an amazing place. A whole long table full of computers that all had the ability to access the Internet through a special phone line specifically devoted to that purpose! In other words, you would not get booted off by an incoming phone call—just lagging connectivity, inactivity while you were reading the page’s text, or a host of other mysterious reasons ranging from faulty switches to squirrels chewing through the landline. Of course, once I got there I did not know what to do with my e-mail address because the only other people I knew who had e-mail addresses were professors who never checked their inboxes and other students, most of whom were sitting beside me wondering what to do with their e-mail addresses. So I did what every techno savvy student did. I joined a list serve. A list serve was like a chat room only slower because your e-mail message went to the central hub that disseminated it out to the e-mails of everyone else signed up on that list. I joined a The X-Files list serve, proving that the Internet always has been and always will be the home base for obsessive fandoms.

My senior year I got my first desktop computer, an E Machine. Now I was cool because I could access the Internet through the phone line in my dorm room. Of course, I got kicked off every time some tried to call.

Eventually the Internet got pictures and web pages. This was followed by IM—wow! a fast list serve that does not flood your inbox. In graduate school I was told I had to join this new personalized site called MySpace. Then it was the facebook, back when it still had the “the” and you needed a university e-mail address to join. Now it is a mishmash of posts, tweets, “likes,” YouTube vlogs, wikis, and tumblogs. All accessed from a computer that fits in the palm of your hand with touch screen input. The whole techno culture is mind blowing. But, in spite of these advancements, I still prefer my students pay attention in class and ask me questions after the lecture.

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