[vcf-midatlantic] OT: people don't understand computers anymore

Chris Fala chrisjpf33 at gmail.com
Tue Jun 7 16:13:38 EDT 2016

On Tue, Jun 7, 2016 at 12:21 PM, Herb Johnson via vcf-midatlantic <
vcf-midatlantic at lists.vintagecomputerfederation.org> wrote:

> As it's quiet on the maillist, I'll ask about something on the edges of
> vintage computing. People today - I use the phrase "in the 21st century" -
> don't seem to know anything about how computers work, anymore. I'd like a
> little feedback, not a huge discussion (and not a gripe session), about how
> common that ignorance is, what we as vintage computer owners should do -
> once I clarify what I mean, and provide an example.
> It's a subject relevant to vintage computing, because that affects what we
> are obliged to tell people, to explain, when showing our vintage systems.
> It's also relevant, because one reason to preserve and operate these
> vintage systems, is to SHOW how these things worked, to preserve by example
> their fundamental nature and approach to computing (personal or otherwise).
> It's a preservation of a level of direct knowledge, which was necessary
> "then", but not necessary "now".
> Evidence for "now": recently, someone contacted me as part of my
> vintage-Mac services, with a vague request. Something close to "I'm trying
> to read and edit a file from a 1994 Mac, in an obsolete file format from
> vintage publishing software. Can you help me open and reformat that file?"
> It took three or so emails, to get the particulars, which are easy to
> describe either as hardware or software (IDE hard drive, 6300 model Mac,
> Aldus Pagemaker 6). At some point, some "technical service" told this
> person they could "read the file from the hard drive" - yet this person
> couldn't say if they HAD the file on "their PC". Or even clearly say they
> had a Windows PC or a Mac PC.
> I had to keep asking questions to get these basics. Why? Because they are
> no longer active questions. "Everyone" uses Windows (a few use Macs, some
> use Linux, but context quickly establishes which). Those OS's do everything
> by magic now, little user intervention needed. Even the computer dealers
> (by my experience) don't know "how" they work, they just work. On hardware,
> "if it fits, it works". Many people don't know how to find a file through a
> file directory (desktop folders); the programs "know" where they are. These
> people get lost, even doing backups.
> I think that's pretty fundamental.
> Oh - Ted Nelson, at a VCF-E dinner, said to me he tried to teach a
> computer course at a community college. He said "I gave up in three weeks,
> because the students didn't know (bleep) about computers".
> That's my experience today. I get this a lot. Again - I'm not looking for
> a discussion that rags on "today's computer users are idiots". That's not
> the point. the point is, what do we as vintage computer demonstrators do,
> when confronted with such people, who look at our systems?
> Also: I appreciate I have a point of view, not shared by all vintage
> computer owners. Some may see their stuff, as say "neat gaming systems that
> we all enjoyed at a similar time in our lives" and simply want to operate
> them with others who share that same experience. Whether the game is
> downloaded from the Internet or from an original ROM cartridge is
> irrelevant. Or, maybe, played on an emulator. I'm aware of that point of
> view. If those with such interests, have parallel experience with "people
> today don't appreciate 1990's video games", that would be informative to
> me, in this discussion.
> OK? These are real questions of real interest to me. How do we do, what we
> do with vintage computers, in this context? This is not a rag-on-morons
> gripe session. OK?
> Herb Johnson
> with a point of view
> retrotechnology.com
> --
> Herbert R. Johnson,  New Jersey USA
> http://www.retrotechnology.com OR .net


Let me preface this by saying that a few years ago when I first heard about
the “Maker Movement”, I struggled to define just what that meant. I thought
to myself, I make things and fix things. What is the big deal? It turns out
that it was really that simple. The fact is that when I was a kid, my
father and uncles did everything themselves. It was unheard of to hire
someone to do an electrical, plumbing, roofing, automotive, etc. repair. My
mom knew shorthand (lost art), could type so well I am embarrassed, could
cook anything like an expert chef, knew how to garden because the family
were professional farmers (or course she could drive the tractor too),
could sew and crochet and knit… and on and on. We were ALL makers. Everyone
did whatever it took to get the job done, and learned what was necessary to
accomplish the task. On a side note (which turns out to be surprisingly
pertinent), there was a high degree of conservatism. Everyone’s garage had
boxes of every nut, bolt, screw, nail, spark plug, spring, hinge, etc. that
they ever laid their hands on. Nothing was ever thrown away because money
was short and you never knew when you might need something. People used
their heads and hands and hearts to the fullest on every task. Nothing was
taken for granted. (Just like early programmers didn’t waste RAM.)

Not sure if what I am about to say is helpful or if it is what you are
looking for, Herb, but allow me to relate a short story of personal
experience. When I was a kid, I was always interested in electricity and
electronics. My mom bought me several of the Radio Shack x-hundred-in-one
electronics project kits and other types of technical project kits. My dad
let me wire our basement around age 10 after reading a small booklet about
wiring switches, outlets, and fuse boxes. I absorbed the stuff and was
enthralled by it. I couldn’t get enough knowledge about science and
technology (still true about me now).

In my early teens, my school got a computer for the first time (TRS-80
Model I). Shortly thereafter my sister bought me my first computer
(Commodore VIC-20). This afforded me my first exposure (immersion) and the
opportunity to teach myself BASIC. I spend countless hours writing programs
because that was the only way to get programs. Computers actually came with
books back then and I read every word.

To a small degree, I understood binary and how a computer operated on it. I
also had a basic understanding of electronic circuits and transistors.
However, I didn't understand how they worked together.

Then I met a guy who I considered to be an electronic genius, literally. He
could mentally visualize all kinds of complex circuits and could design,
build, or repair anything. I was always envious of his level of skill and
considered myself a beginner/novice/idiot by comparison.

One day this guy was working on some electronic stuff with me and showed me
a simple 7400 IC. He showed me how you give it power, set voltages on the
input pins and get voltages on the output pins based on the function of the
logic gate. It sounds simple and maybe silly, but this small experience was
a huge revelation to me. So you mean that 0 volts is a logic 0 and 5 volts
is a logic 1? That is how numbers and electronics relate to each other?
Suddenly a whole new world opened up to me.

A few months later I wrote by hand on paper (and hand programmed byte by
byte with a homemade EPROM burner with toggle switches) a small Z-80
machine language program after teaching myself the instruction set by
reading the reference book. I also built a digital frequency display for my
CB radio that had custom outputs driven by EPROM data. On another project I
interfaced a touch-tone decoder and a relay to my VIC-20 to control a light
in my house. The hardware and software relationship finally made sense, and
the opportunities were endless.

Because of that experience (and also just because I am very analytical) I
would never be able to take any electronic (or mechanical) device for
granted. I had gained an understanding at such a basic level which allowed
me to see past the superficial, that no matter how complex something was I
could understand or at least appreciated what the engineers must have gone
through to make it work.

Today, technology is wrapped up in a neat package, handed to you, and does
everything automatically. Today the software and hardware are inaccessible
and invisible and all one sees are the bells and whistles. A partial answer
to your question is that people need to learn what is inside that makes
things work, what came generations before which allowed people to learn to
develop the way to make things work, and that there is more to a device
than what you see on the surface so learn to appreciate the intricacies of
how something functions. Above I have shared part of how I learned to
appreciate these things. I am not sure how to convey that knowledge to
others. Perhaps find a way to pull back the curtain and expose a facet that
might pique someone’s interest beyond their usual experience. I was
personally interested in learning, but I fear that most people aren't.
Attention spans are much shorter, the noise level is almost insurmountable.
I heard a sales saying from an old boss that goes, “people don’t buy
drills, they buy holes”. Sell the people what they want somehow. Offer a
reason why it matters to them so that you can then deliver the message. It
is very difficult to say why one person is receptive to something and
another is not.

I hope this was useful and/or interesting.

Chris Fala

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