SOON, FOR HUMANITY, THE PARTY WAS GOING TO BE OVER.
Successful science fiction preys on our fears of the future – nobody cares about watching a movie about the peaceful existence we’re all going to have in humanity’s ultimate utopia (boring), but numerous dystopic futures, on the other hand, have ruled the box office, from 1984 to The Terminator to The Hunger Games. The message they contain is fairly straightforward: technology is cold, impersonal and designed to rob us of our humanity, or enable our enslavement, or make us obsolete…or simply kill us. “We have to pay attention to these threats!” their trailers scream. ”The fate of civilisation depends on it. Watch our movie.”
As these tongue-in-cheek cartoons printed in Creative Computing magazine during the late 1970s and early 1980s demonstrate, the general public of the time (or at least the media) took these ‘predictions’ very seriously. After all, science-fiction authors had predicted everything from personal computers to space travel – why doubt their prognostications of technological doom? As a result, the public’s questions regarding that future were numerous and largely negative in nature: would we become subservient to computers, our body merely a physical arm of a logical machine? Would we subsequently lose the ability to communicate with each other on an emotional level? Would computers eventually develop sentience and decide we were no longer useful? Staring down the barrel of one’s own impending irrelevance, it’s easy to see how these kinds of questions could keep a poor human up at night! And the (largely speculative but ‘obvious’) answers to those questions didn’t help either – everyone knew the world was going to a technological Hell, it was only a matter of time. If you didn’t agree you were just naive.
Better enjoy our binary overlord-free life while it lasts, before we’re wiped out of existence – or we nuke ourselves first. That’s the 1980s philosophy in a nutshell (or a CP/M shell?) It was a pessimistic era!
After all, technology had been moving at a breakneck pace – a hundred years earlier most cities didn’t even have electricity! There had since been the automobile, airplanes, radio, television, computers, video games, the Moon landing, the space shuttle – and nuclear bombs. This train had a rocket strapped to it and nobody knew where it was going. Honestly, it’s easy to become paranoid under such circumstances, and while we can look back now and chuckle at those fears as unreasonable, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that in some timeline somewhere we _were_ enslaved by robots, or turned into cyborgs, or quietly sterilised into extinction, or pre-empted any and all of that by pushing the button.
Hm. That’s a bit of a grim start for a ‘party’ issue, isn’t it? Let’s shift gears. Issues with Facebook and ‘echo chambers’ notwithstanding, the future turned out fairly well. We don’t all live in the bowels of grimy industrial megalopolises (yes, that’s a real word!) spending our lives shoving coal into furnaces to feed an ever-growing artificial intelligence comprised of millions of vacuum tubes…(I really need to give up my subscription to the Really Scary Black And White Dystopic Movies channel!) Artificial intelligence in any meaningful way never happened, society appears to have resisted total corporate enslavement (I write while sitting in a Starbucks) and we generally still talk to other people face-to-face at least occasionally. Sure, we carry a little computer everywhere and will hyperventilate if we misplace it, but we do so in fresh air and sunshine. So that’s something.
In fact, as we’ll see in upcoming articles reprinted from our fourth issue, from a social standpoint humanity’s relationship with technology evolved in almost the opposite direction. Rather than becoming an inhibiting influence on personal interaction, it’s arguable technology actually encouraged it, eventually. From allowing us to make personalised greeting cards on our own printers, print newsletters for our community groups and schools, or organise events, to connecting on-line through chat and e-mail and offline via CB radio, to multiplayer videogaming, modern dating websites and social networks, technology has facilitated a virtual renaissance in our ability to make relationships, and while it hasn’t been without its issues, it’s hard to see our modern digital lifestyle as an entirely bad thing (but go for a walk in the park sometime, would you? The birds miss you. So does your grandmother! Anyhow…)
Let’s start by literally putting ink to paper. Starting in the mid-1980s, the Print Shop gave computers in primary schools everywhere a reason to exist beyond spelling and maths drills and easily tripled the size of the fanfold paper and printer ribbon budget. Suddenly, knowing how to use the computer could get you on the dance committee! Another software package, the Newsroom, gave computer nerds a voice and taught them how to use a photocopier. We’re going to look back at both of these. We’ll also show you how you can make your own Print Shop greeting cards today, using emulation.
Next, the modem connected computers (and their users) together, allowing not only for the exchange of information but also the opportunity to meet new people and engage in conversation about diverse topics with people you would have never interacted with in “real life” (the modem wasn’t breaking entirely new ground – citizens’ band radio had revolutionised remote social communication in the 1970s, although it was harder to impersonate someone else over it. We’ll talk a little about it too).
Computerised ‘bulletin-boards’ (or BBSes) and multiline chat systems popped up everywhere, like weeds, and parents found their phone lines monopolised in the evenings by their children talking to complete strangers on their home computers (I’m sure that kept more than a few of them up at night too! The 80s were a magical time.) If they wanted to rein their offspring in a bit, online services such as Compuserve provided larger, more sanitised digital environments but at a significant per-minute cost, while users’ groups physically gathered families together in safer environments to help each other learn about and live with their new computers.
Of course, like with anything this brave new frontier also led to youthful shenanigans, such as hacking and piracy (arrgh me hearties!) and we’ll (re)visit those issues. We’ll also check out some TV and movie moments of teenage technological mischief.
Adolescent misadventure (such as exposure to drugs and fighting) also frequently happened at the video arcades that had similarly sprung up in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the media quickly became quite hysterical over the supposed impending ruination of the entire younger generation(s). To mitigate these concerns, the godfather of video games, Nolan Bushnell, oversaw the creation of the first wildly successful cartridge-based home video-game system, the Atari 2600, to encourage play at home. Secondly, he founded Chuck E. Cheese’s, a chain of video-game restaurants that worked to reposition the image of arcades from being largely adult-oriented to places where families could go for entertainment. All of these will get a look-in. And remember kids, winners don’t use drugs!
Of course, coming at the end of the year, this issue also spends some time looking back at the relationship between consumer electronics and Christmas, particularly those products and innovations found under the tree that went some way to bringing families and friends together, to learn, share and play. We’ll look at the price wars that led to relatively widespread adoption of home computers and later videogame consoles, popular multiplayer and holiday-oriented games, the first portable digital communication devices, and more. There will also be some classic Christmas computer programming, and an electronics project! And plenty of cool historical artwork from classic magazines.
Finally, we’ll examine how retrotechnology is making people social today, through conventions where people gather to celebrate vintage computer systems such as the Apple II, the Commodore 64 and the Tandy Colour Computer; modern revivals of historical bulletin-board and chat systems; and computer-art groups and ‘chiptune’ music events.
Whew! I guess technology wasn’t quite so anti-social after all. Come along and join us while we celebrate the ways retrotechnology has brought us together, then and now. And thanks for coming! It wouldn’t have been much of a party without you.