A Brief History of the Computer and Me
It occurred to me today that I have been using personal computers since 1988. Prior to that, I had a tangential relationship with computers. I had people use them to get things done for me. In 1987, I began to use a PC in the computer lab in the basement of one of the University of New Brunswick buildings. I was both excited and intimidated by this. My good friend and fellow graduate student from Sri Lanka, Walter Pererra, had already been using the PCs and he seemed to have a handle on things. I was impressed with his ability to code the PC and to produce reams of attached sheets of paper with the jagged, official looking texts stretched across. The printer hiccupped out these sheets, and it all seemed amazing to me. You will understand that prior to that, my last moment of amazement was when I had purchased a brand new Smith Corona electric typewriter that auto-corrected mistakes, and that had a peculiar delay in the system making me type for a few seconds before the digital ball of letters would start to tattoo out the text on the paper before me in that rapid way of hi-tech things. I transcribed many sheets of poems into clean type-written form over the space of a few weeks. This was the height of technology for me.
So when I came to the PC, I was entering another level of excitement. This system could save what I had written, store it on a really large (in retrospect) floppy diskette, and then, at a command, print out all of the work I had done. I was writing a number of papers and several plays at the time, and soon my Smith Corona seemed dated. Still, I never got the hang of the PC. Instinctively, the business of learning all those codes and commands seemed like an unnecessary annoyance. At one stage, the computer somehow devoured nearly fifty pages of writing I had done and no one seemed to think it could be retrieved. Frankly, nor did I. In my logic, this box had somehow done exactly what I feared it would do—take in my text and keep it for itself. Recovering data seemed like an impossibility to e—the very thought was an indulgence.
One night, during a particularly long session in the lab, growing slightly drunk from the green text crawling across the black screen, I was suddenly alerted to a streak of data at the bottom of my screen. It was a message from Walter. He was saying hello. I never replied, but I was startled by his capacity to communicate with me. He grinned from across the room. This was the first e-mail message I was getting. I did not need an address, or perhaps I did. I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to do it, and I was fascinated. But not fascinated enough to think of learning how to do what he did. More importantly I was sure that he was able to communicate with me because we were in the same room. My imagination did not allow me to see any useful benefit in something like that.
Left up to me and the PC alone, I would never have gotten into computers, as they say. However, a year after my time in that lab, the student newspaper that I worked for acquired brand new computers. These were all Macs. They were kept in a small computer room that used to be the office of the managing editor and the advertising folks. Very soon, the now ubiquitous computer geeks who mastered the art of assuring their importance to any organization by complicating every function of the computer, emerged. The role attracted needy people who were not necessarily the most social adept. But as computer geeks, they became necessary and they forced you to have to relate to them, be nice to them and seek their help all the time. It was clear to me quite quickly, that the Apple people had made an important decision—that they were going to make computer use easy for ordinary people. There were no codes to learn, the system was basic, logical and visually driven. I learned how to make the Mac do things I wanted it to do, things I needed done. I never returned to the PC Lab in the basement. I watched as the Macs proliferated in the Brunswickan offices, and during the two years I was editor, I pushed for the acquisition of the best systems and for the computerization of the entire process of producing the newspaper. For a long time we danced between the old system and the new. We worked on the Mac and printed out sheets of paper that had to be sliced on the light-boards and then waxed onto the layout sheets with the light blue guides. It would be a few years before the light-boards became completely obsolete. I had long left the university when the four-hour drive in both directions through any kind of weather to deliver the layout sheets to the printers was abandoned as the entire newspaper could be sent directly to the printer by e-mail.
Computers, though, transformed my life as a writer. The computers in the Brunswickan offices changed my life. I did draft my poems in long hand before transferring it to the computer, but once that was done, the editing process became extremely enjoyable because I could print out sheets and sheets of poems to review. I began to write my plays straight unto the computer. But it was my non-fiction work, my editorials, my reviews, my critical essays, those things were churned out on the computer. Without those computers I would not have been able to complete an 860 page dissertation in less than a year, as I did in 1992 while still touring in clubs and dives with my band Ujamaa. The computer helped me organize myself as a writer. I could send out manuscripts, poems, letters, and a whole range of things easily and with very little hassle. Yes, it was a glorified typewriter, but it became more than that. It became an organizing principle for me. When I had to apply to over 100 schools for a job, this was done on the small Mac that we had purchased for ourselves when Lorna and I got married.
In the space of five years, everything about how I worked had changed so much. And this was before e-mails had become so ubiquitous in my life. This was before I even understood how to search the internet for anything. It was before Google, before roving e-mail servers that could be logged into anywhere I the world—at airports, in the lobbies of car dealerships, in restaurants.
Everything has changed now, of course. As soon as I finish this entry, I will enter the Harriet website, post this piece, and in an instance, it will be available to millions of people all around the world. Writing has become a strangely different exercise now, the immediacy of it is the most striking feature. Nonetheless, I am grateful for those years in Canada when I became part of this transformation. I was working in the radio station when the LP was being replaced by the compact disc and the console became less and less cluttered with the paraphernalia of broadcasting. One felt that sense of loss in not being able to handle the music, letting the needle find the groove manually, rather than press a few buttons until a number appeared digitally. Eventually you got used to it, but you understood that you were in the middle of a shifting of things. When the dark room became an office because digital images were all one needed for the newspaper, when meetings were replaced by e-mails. What I feel about the period before these changes is not nostalgia at all. In fact I am grateful for these changes. But I am more grateful that I could watch them happen. A website is still, in my head, a newspaper/ magazine digitalized. I think of cutting a paste not as metaphors but as extensions of the act of cutting and pasting that I literally did.
For a long time I was a Mac person. Eventually, I had to accept the PC, as the computer folks at the University of South Carolina were reluctant to deal with Macs—to support them. For a while I had both a Mac and a PC in my office, but after a while I gave up the Mac. The PC had become as friendly to me. I could point and click. The graphics were quite fine and the PC could handle Pagemaker, a piece of software I had mastered during my newspaper days. But this year, I have returned to the Mac. I am not sure. One would think the ads on television worked on me, but hardly. I hated the commercial with the very superior and annoyingly pompous Mac guy constantly making fun of the PC guy. I did not want to be that Mac guy at all. But I have found my ay back to the Mac. It may be a hint of nostalgia for the days when the Mac saved me from my aversion to computers.
I can’t imagine that my writing will be any different. That change wrought by computers has long happened to me, ad what I do now as a writer has become almost pedestrian and unremarkable. The computer is, for most of the business of writing, a glorified typewriter and filing system. Not a small thing, really, but the basics are still the same.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...