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Information Technology / Irreparabile Tempus

May 8, 2011
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I can’t prove it because I’m not a scientist or math person, but one of my theories is that technology is aging people at amazing speed these days. I have a TV with a VCR in it and it looks like something that I stole from a history museum or bought on Craigslist in order to give hipster overtones to my living space. (Why have I not gotten rid of it? I’ll tell you why: because it’s too heavy to lift.)

The TV is almost perfectly square in shape, so every time I look at it I have a sepia-tinted mental image of my 12-year-old self playing Hotdog Stand on a Commodore 64 in grade eight. For real, it feels like 200 years ago. Here’s a diagram of how my brain perceives time; it’s really fucking small so just go on and click it to embiggen it. Go on, don’t be scared.

When I was in grade five you had to get a Computer Licence. I shit you not. Computer Licences were formally awarded to grade five and six students at Monday morning assemblies, and only once you had passed an oral exam (administered by a Licenced peer) and the principal had handed you your card and certificate were you eligible to sign up for a 20-minute turn at one of the school’s four computers. The innocence of it, holy shit! Having to be in a certain grade to use a computer for a few minutes under the strict supervision of teachers, Jesus! And floppy disks, remember? They came in like those like glossy paper envelopes, and there were only two games in the world: Oregon Trail, and the one whose name I can’t think of where you were a fish and you had to eat plankton and watch out for your archenemies: ospreys and “anglers.” Am I kidding right now? No. It just seems that way because of how technology is totally screwing with your brain’s ability to perceive time accurately.

Another anecdote from that same period: one time I went with my enrichment program nerd classmates on a field trip to visit some guy. This guy had a computer right in his house, holy shit! And he had written this amazing brilliant program called “Psychiatrist” where you could type questions related to an extremely limited range of topics and the computer would answer them! It seemed to be having an actual conversation with the person at the keyboard; are you fucking serious?! I’d never seen anything so unbelievable in my entire life! Looking back, I bet it was that guy who incited my future life as a computer programmer mental health patient.

And then 1992, which was not that long ago!, I took a class called “Information Processing.” For the longest time, “web site” was two words. “Cathode ray tube,” that was a thing we learned about. “BASIC,” another. “Mainframe.” But yet keep in mind, though, it was not a history class; it was the exact opposite! It was a class on what had been going on recently and what was going on right now! I don’t know if it’s possible to convey the feeling of those weird and unsettling days when the computer stuff was just starting. One of the major problems actually was that there were no words for it in the beginning; the vocabulary imparted to us by confused teachers felt contrived and weird and it didn’t quite fit right. It was all borrowed from other places that had nothing to do with the place we were in. Using terms like “program” and “dot matrix” was the psychological equivalent of wearing a hand-me-down from your grandma.

(SIDE NOTE THAT DURING THE EDITING PROCESS I HAVE DECIDED TO GIVE ITS OWN PARAGRAPH: One of the best hand-me-downs I ever acquired came from my grandma. It was a white t-shirt purchased ca. 1975-85 that said “Have a Nice Day…Until Some Bastard Louses It Up.” She claims to have worn it to curling practices on a regular basis during that period. What I wouldn’t give for a photo!)

And the teachers who taught classes like that were totally freaking out deep in their minds, you could tell. They had no clue what they were saying, for one thing. These classes had been dropped on them at the last minute. They were not IT experts. There was no such thing as an IT expert back then. IT was such a new acronym that nobody even used it, or if they did, they had a certain uncomfortable “am-I-getting-this-right?” look on their face while they said it. But at the same time, the teachers knew, everyone in the room knew, in a very distant hazy kind of way, as they stood there explaining the rules of Hotdog Stand, that what was happening with the computers was going to be very important. We couldn’t talk about how important or in what ways because those ideas didn’t exist yet. So beneath the utter boredom of copying down an incompetent teacher’s borderline nonsensical notes was a current of anxiety that was fucking with everybody’s head.

I have a distant memory of being in grade 11, 3000 years ago, and learning how to send instant messages on computers that were about fifty times the size of the one I’m typing this blog post on. There was some cumbersome program where everyone got a code and you had to do something with it and it took half an hour to set up and then you could send a message to the computer screen of the person who was sitting beside you! Pretty incredible, but at the same time, how impractical, right? It was ridiculous to think that we would ever have reason to use an electronic “messenger” program to send “text messages” to people we could just as easily talk to in person. For that exercise the teacher paired me up with some popular girl I was mortally humiliated to even think about interacting with. Are you going to the dance on Friday? was the first instant message I ever received. I don’t think so, I replied.

(True to my word, I stayed home from that dance, as well as every previous and subsequent dance.)

In the process of inventing and becoming dependent on new, quick, weird technology, we’ve been inadvertently fucking with time, causing it to fold in on itself like the origami clock from a simile I used in a blog post on New Year’s Eve 2010. And all along, in a twist worthy of Soviet Russia, time has been fucking with us. Everyone’s familiar with the concept of inflation, where something that cost x dollars x years ago now costs much more. The opposite concept applies here: the amount of time that took an hour to pass a century ago is now gone in a second.

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