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

Herb Johnson hjohnson at retrotechnology.info
Tue Jun 7 17:08:50 EDT 2016

here's a bunch of responses, with some kind of order to them as the 
discussion progressed.....

To Neil and Bill Sudbrink, other "engineers" : engineering issues about 
becoming more "abstracted" away from computing fundamentals, is 
certainly a consequence of evolving technology, throughout engineering. 
But I'm not talking about showing engineers how things used to be done - 
although that's something I do - the question is about more ordinary 
people who see our stuff, interact with us. We have to explain our 
legacy mostly to ordinary people, make it relevant or interesting to them.

That said, Dave McGuire makes a case, as do others, that some computing 
engineering is still "fundamental" where resource is (still) scarce.

But the problem I see with representing vintage computers, is generally 
NOT one of explaining them, or making them interesting, to techies and 
engineers. We can generally do that, it's not a big lift, unless they 
are completely cold to history and metal. That's not the big problem for 

To Bill Degnan:

> Sorry to be simplistic, but most people only do things when it's
> in their economic interest.  We live today among an absolute
> glut of supply and disposable computers.  There is no incentive
> to repair when replace is faster and cheaper...Interest will
> return as soon as it becomes economic to fix things again.

Bill and others make the point, most people today have less technologic 
understanding than many people did in the past - and less than most of 
us vintage computer owners. But not all VC owners know the technology 
well - as we demonstrate every VCFed fix-it weekend.

Otherwise Bill says we have an uphill battle with interest, with 
capacity to enjoy learning, and assumptions that repair is irrelevant. 
These are all consequences of the 21st century to consider. There's 
still a subset of the curious and informed and technically inclined - 
that's one audience - and the for-fun gaming/audio/visual, that's 
another audience.

The scarcity/abundance arguments of Degan and McGuire et al are ones I 
often make myself, in justifying why I preserve methods from days of 
"scarcity", as an *engineering* proposition - in case you need those 
skills again despite 21st century "abundance".

Dave Wade says "there's a similar problem with car technology". Agreed, 
a lot of modern technologies are driven by locked-up hardware and 
software. What do we, as vintage computerists offer? - we show 
technology *before*, unlocked and accessible and replaceable. We are 
relevant as counter-example.

Bill Loguidice says the "maker movement" provides accessible, buildable 
technology today, here-and-now. Ordinary computing is what he calls 
"appliances, evolved technology...a good thing". Agreed, but the price 
of convenience is complacency and indifference. And I find much "maker" 
stuff simplistic and Lego-ized (another discussion another day). We 
certainly don't have Lego-class vintage computers to worry about - the 
subject is vintage computing, not Arduino.

Again - How can we as vintage computerists challenge this 21st century 
situation? - Again, among mere mortals? Not "engineers" which is another 
and somewhat different problem. Derrik Walker compares and contrasts 
EE's versus his mother & spouse to portray that difference.

Ethan discussed another point of entry for VC-ists: modern hobby 
computing projects which challenge limits, some literal (FPGA's), some 
arbitrary (64K graphics programs on Windows/Linux PC's). He mentions in 
passing "a few smart people became pioneers....lucky at being at the 
right place and right time". I posted my disagreement - there's many 
unknown people we as vintage computerists can still portray today - some 
of us are still at work!

But he shows we old-ones have common cause with today's constrained 
hackers - that's another solution to "how can we be relevant today?" 
Ethan says "today" has not entirely forgotten the past. ​

Tony Bogan makes the point, there's several groups in discussion - 
please choose which group! I posted "a white flag" about this. Tony 
classifies these groups. The engineers, which is not what I asked about; 
ordinary consumers, which use technology like computers and cars as 
appliances, as best they can for fun or modest purpose.

Then there's "power users" like Tony" those who have real work to do, 
real things to fix, and some real clues about how to do that - but know 
their limits and turn to experts when necessary. I work well with such 
people, in my vintage computing support activities.

I think we as vintage computer people, can "reach" people like Tony, who 
use technology with purpose and consequence. They recognize there's 
"something under the hood" that they need to know something about. If we 
can show that vintage computers have a "hood" and they can do something 
with them - they may be interested. If people have no interest, if a 
computer is an appliance, our exhibits amount to a line of clothes 
washers at a laundromat. I get that attitude about S-100 systems, as in 
"ugly boxes full of boards" - back in the 1990's when I first heard that 

The analogy between automobiles and computers - as consumer objects, 
engineering items, collectables - are numerous, and have been mentioned 
in this thread. Vintage car folks might be a group we can learn from, we 
share common experience with supporting old technology and showing it 
off. Their cars are prettier, and can still be driven with purpose; 
ours, not so much.

So, Johathan (System Glitch) responds with "workshops for mortals!". 
With XT-class technology. Its' interesting that 1990 computing is now 
"vintage" (I started earlier of course). It's certainly accessible today 
(barely, a lot of XT's got scrapped), and 21st century tools make it a 
"mortal" pursuit, to make PC boards and populate them, write software, 
etc.. I'd argue that building 1980's boards in 2015 isn't "vintage 
enough" for me, but people like to make kits - can't deny that. It's 
another answer!

Chris Fala, says "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." It wasn't quite short, but Chris makes an 
important point - we can describe our histories, be our own examples, of 
our relationships in-the-day to vintage computing. We can be our own 
"pioneers...experts...in the right place at the right time".

The 21st century is a period of "narrative". So Chris's narrative has 
impact and value, thank you. I would not mind putting it on my Web site, 

Dean Notarnicola makes a point of similar class: how to represent the 
past, as history, by relating the unfamiliar to the familiar; by 
context; and by other means of conveying "history". Dean acknowledges 
Chris's history as a means to that end, and validates that type of answer.

Ethan offers the dark side of the 21st century: cue the "Hunger Games" 

> Think about the attitude from the flip side. The kids have strange bleak
> futures with little privacy, financial engineering from governments that
> doesn't benefit them but is meant to enslave them and high debt loads for
> the bad educations with bad job prospects and a lot of bad employers.

Well, that's certainly a view that many hold today. Evil government, 
evil business, high debt, limited future. Watch out for what "everyone 
knows", and see who benefits from propagating such "attitudes". Not too 
much political discussion please....

...but certainly part of the historic narrative of vintage computing is 
about resources, opportunities, and a positive view about the future. 
Ethan contrasts that with today's view.

Putting technology aside, the counter-perspective I suggest may draw 
some interest from non-technologists today. Not all of vintage personal 
computing was about "technology". People from Berkley (California) and 
MIT, saw it as a liberation movement, to empower people with ownership 
of and access to information.  Hey baby, who owns your Microsoft Word 
now? Where does your boss keep the data files - on your desk, or in the 
server, or in "the cloud"? These are issues of consequence today - and 
vintage computerists can address those issues.

> Yep. Friends that came with me to VCF East this year wanted to go to a
> game store in NJ on Sunday so we went. There was a collection of new games
> for sale for things like the Atari and Colecovision systems. Homebrew
> games. There are people building emulators, the MAME project that emulates
> arcade games is amazing.

Freedom....freeDOM.....! (raises fist in air) Although, it is "video 
games". My poor S-100 systems....Cromemco Dazzler....."Kill the 
bit"....sigh....But again, we find our common ground where we can.


Friends, I gotta get off my chair and do stuff, not pound keys. I'm glad 
my post evoked a range of thoughts, considerations, reactions - and 
stuck home in ways with many people, familar to me and not. I'm sure 
there will be more posts.

The subject isn't Herb Johnson, I just raised and tried to focus the 
issue. But I hope I've responded briefly to most of those who 
thoughtfully replied and discussed the issues. I'll see if I can 
consider and respond to additional posts in due course; and come up with 
something more thoughtful as I process these responses. Thanks, thanks 
to all.

Herb Johnson

Herbert R. Johnson,  New Jersey USA
http://www.retrotechnology.com OR .net
preservation of 1970's computing
email: hjohnson AAT retrotechnology DOTT com
alternate: herbjohnson ATT retrotechnology DOTT info

More information about the vcf-midatlantic mailing list