Growing wildly

Drew and Matt explore a computer encyclopedia at Science World, Vancouver, BC, 1993

Drew and Matt explore a computer encyclopedia at Science World, Vancouver, BC, 1993

“After growing wildly for years, the field of computing appears to be reaching its infancy.”  — John Pierce

When I first read this quote, I thought, “How true!” Then I realized that what we once thought of as computers, even the notebooks and netbooks, are fast becoming obsolete themselves.  But the term “computing” can be broadly defined to include all digital technology, in which case, Pierce is frightfully accurate.

When I started library school in 1994, the internet was still primarily text-based; the World Wide Web existed, but was accessible primarily through a text browser called Lynx.  The first graphical user interface (GUI), Mosaic, was released in 1993, and was soon eclipsed by Netscape, the ancestor of today’s Firefox, though neither were widely used by today’s standards.  In those days, it might take a full hour to download a single color image.  Remote access was limited to dial-up speeds.

When our professors told us that it was only a few years before full color graphics in audio and video formats would be delivered instantly, and used by the majority of people worldwide, it sounded like a space-age dream to me.  They predicted, with surprising accuracy, many of the advances and issues we are dealing with now, including what all this digital technology would do to our relationships with each other and the world, for better and worse.

I’m probably not alone in thinking that computers can provoke levels of frustration that were unknown before the advent of all these advances that supposedly make life easier.  Still, having been a teller who kept handwritten credits and debits, and an airline ticket agent who remembers the old red-carbon tickets and color coded bag tags, I remember how quickly the early computers introduced in those fields became so essential as to cause panic when they went down.  For all the irritating malfunctions and impenetrable mysteries of technology, I love the innovations microchips have made possible.

Pierce’s quote rings true because digital technology seems perennially young, outgrowing itself far more quickly than we can.  Keeping up with it to any degree, even as partially and selectively as I do (I STILL don’t have a smart phone) demands a mental flexibility and focus that I hope will ameliorate, to some degree, the typical cognitive risks associated with aging.  No matter your age, it will be a challenge to keep up with the changes that are certain to continue.

What do you love best about the digital age?  What do you find most frustrating?  For a little comic relief, you might enjoy reading these submissions to the Haiku Error Messages Contest.  Who says technology and poetry don’t mix?

One year ago today:

Exquisitely dependent


  1. Ah ha haha hah ha! Thank you, that was hilarious!
    I once had guests coming and a toilet handle that needed jiggling, so I made up a haiku and printed it up, posted it next to the toilet. All I remember of it was the ending: dry season no more.
    I bought a cute t-shirt for my daughter (she didn’t see the humor, so I got to keep it)
    Haikus can be fun
    But sometimes they don’t make sense

    Have a fun day!

    • Susan, these are great! I love that t-shirt. Maybe I should use haiku as a means of coping with stress. Here’s one that fits how I feel now:

      Problems multiply
      People care from a distance
      while slowly we die

      Hmmm, that’s pretty grim for a blog called Defeat Despair. I’ll try for some humor:

      Save your energy
      Give up now and seek other
      galaxies far off

      Hmmm, still too grim! OK, one last time:

      It’s been a hard day
      It’s been a hard week and year
      Give me some ice cream

      I think that one works! Thanks for the comic relief, and for being here.

  2. Mary Ellen

    Oh Julia! What I love most about technology is my smart phone! The answer to anything I am curious about is in my pocket. Where is Tunisia? Pull out my phone and Google it. Why did Jesus say “My God My God why have you forsaken me?” Key it in. Up comes references to Psalm 22. Where aspects of his crucifixion are predicted. He was continuing to teach us from the cross! What will the weather be in Port St Joe tomorrow ? Weather apps will tell me. Left my grocery list on the dining room table. My husband shoots a picture and emails it to me in the grocery store! I too resisted a smart phone. (What I need to do with a phone is call somebody.) But now that I have one, the body of information and degree of communication ability in my shorts pocket is invaluable. I wouldn’t be without it! God Bless you and your family! Thank you for this blog!

    • Mary Ellen, you have just described the reasons why I’m trying to avoid a smart phone. Can you imagine what a nightmare it would be to an eternally inquisitive, monumentally distractible person such as I? It would be like turning a kid loose in a candy store a half-hour before supper time! From watching the people all around me who seldom look up from their devices almost anyplace I go, I am also afraid of tripping and walking into stuff, which is already easy enough for me to do, since I’m naturally clumsy. In any case, I am happy you like the blog. I imagine that most who read it are reading it via a smart phone, so I should be grateful for them even if I don’t use one myself. 😀

  3. raynard

    Julia,,while in Hawaii, someone I served with was already online back in 1992. Then I served with someone in the reserves in the late 90’s telling me about email. I got online in March of 1999 on a used laptop using AOL and Yahoo. These days I’m on my 5th cell phone in 15 years. I took a 6 year hitas.. I still enjoy a few times a month, going on line reading ” techy” stuff and keep my mind sharp. Keep it simple has always been my motto.( I dont do” smart T.V, video games ie X box or anything ” Blue( tooth or Ray lol) Be blessed

    • Raynard, we don’t do any of those things either. When our sons were growing up and people with childre would visit us and ask “Where are your video game?” and we would tell them we didn’t have any, they would look as if they were on the verge of asking whether we had indoor plumbing. I think some people considerd it borderline child neglect to be without a game console. No regrets,though! I hope you have a great weekend!

  4. What I like about the computer age is meeting fine people like yourself,Julia, that I otherwise may not.
    But I do sadly miss the “slide rule” and “pong.”

    • Thank you Alan! That’s what I like best also, making new friends and keeing in touch with ones I’ve known for years. WOW – when you mentioned Pong it brought back memories! When I used to work at Rich’s in Atlanta, I worked in the department where those games were sold, and when it was really a slow night we would pay. Good old B&W screen and I’m not sure joysticks were even invented then! I don’t remember a game called slide rule. I do remember my brother using one at Georgia Tech, and my Daddy using a round one in planning flights and navigation. Are we old or what?

      • We are old or what! The slide rule I was speaking of was exactly that used by your brother and dad. Long before hand batter powered calculators.

        • As I recall, the numbers on those things were so tiny that it would seem to give someone eyestrain to use it much! But knowing how to use one was a sort of status symbol, at least among those who were blissfully ignorant of such.

      • singleseatfighterpilot

        What’s yo mean “Old”! The leather case on my slide rule (it was second or third hand) had the name “Newton” carved into it. Classmates kidded me, saying I had Isaac Newton’s slide rule. BTW – the Hewlet-Packard hand-held scientific calculators began to replace the slide ruleon the Tech campus in the early seventies.

        • Eric, I remember that old case! And slide rules were quite expensive. I was working at Rich’s Department Store when we first began selling the old HP calculators (the HP-35 was the first) from behind the same counter where we sold cameras, binoculars and handguns (yes, handguns…the rifles and shotguns were sold from a separate standing case lining the back wall, and once while I was working there, a customer came in with a loaded, jammed rifle that ended up being misfired – nobody hurt, but a shattered glass case and quite a lot of excitement as security came running to find out where the gunshot came from. The context of such an incident in what is now a Macy’s department store is possibly more interesting, historically, than the slide rules…) But I digress!! Those HP calculators cost over $100, a princely sum in those days, and indigent young students used to come drool over them, playing with them for long periods of time and exclaiming from time to time at their speed and prowess. They had tiny red numerals on the display, hard to read by today’s standards, but easier to read than a slide rule! Sometimes I would have the fun of selling one to a student who had been saving a long time to get it and was thrilled that day had come. Sometimes I think young people today don’t have a clue what life was like for us. I told you I was OLD! and proud to be so.

  5. Ahh… I remember dial up access. 🙂 In rural SE Oklahoma we were the last to get the inter-net! I remember calling a long distance number to get on-line and the cost restricted usage.(.20 cents a minute) The local phone company finally begin offering the internet at affordable rate.
    Wow! Welcome to the world! 🙂

    • Yes, those dial-up years seem much longer ago than they really were. The same is true for the advent of microwave ovens and touch-tone dialing. We had neither for at least the first 10 years of our marriage. And I remember when Jeff used to carry a hospital-issued cell phone for ER calls – it was about the size of the shoe phone Maxwell Smart used to talk on in the show Get Smart. Now I’m REALLY showing my age!!

  6. Julia…one of my favorite quotes…”Do not grieve, for the Joy in the Lord is your strength…” Nehemiah 8:10 (MSG)
    not sure what happen to my previous reply to computers but that’s techology 🙂

    • Merry, I think the comment came through – see if the one that’s posted is the one you are talking about. The comment software at WP sometimes leaves much to be desired. I love that verse, thank you for reminding me of it. It brings to mind the Twila Paris song based on that passage, which we sing often at church. Very uplifting.

  7. Sheila

    Julia, I’ve had you, as well as Jeff and Matt, on my mind and certainly in my prayers, always! Let’s just say I read “between the lines”! What computes for me is our online friendship, our closeness, our almost daily contact that is endearing to me. We have shared so much that I cant begin to describe, except to say “Thank you!” and I really care. Love, Sheila

    • Sheila, thanks so much. At the risk of sounding a bit odd, I must say that there are some people we connect with (even if we’ve never met them) in such a way that we can feel their caring without their presence or even their words. In your steadfast friendship here, you have put yourself in that category for me. Last night as I was reflecting on having survived another day 😀 I thought of you and knew you were thinking of me. It was truly a comfort and consolation! Bless you for reading “between the lines” with such accuracy. As General Yevgraf Zhivago says at the end of the film: “…it is a gift.”

  8. I love being able to pay so many accounts online and internet banking. Who’d have thought that we could do that one day. But I do miss the old PC games the kids and I used to play on the 90’s such as Keen 4, commander keen. Those were the days haha… Slow but good.

    • Yes, I also conduct pretty much all our business and record keeping online now, and can’t imagine having to waste time standing in line at a bank. I don’t remember those games you mentioned, but I did get seriously hooked on “Amazon Trail” in the early 90’s, which sneaked into our home via computer (since we didn’t ever own a game console). I did learn a lot of interesting stuff that way, such as what a coati is, and a fer-de-lance, along with a lot of other specimens in my “photo album,” so I guess the time wasn’t entirely wasted. 😀

  9. Michael

    I will have to check out the Zhivago film again. I am with you on the smart phones and continue to use a dumb one.
    Reading Gladwell’s book about “Giants”- and I think he does not give David enough credit. Regardless of what he describes as the advantage of the disadvantaged in David- lighter, faster equipment, skill of the slingers and Golitath’s possible acromegaly- which made it difficult for him to move quickly and affected his eyesight -you still have to give the courage of a junior high school age shepherd some credit. And if this was so true why did they- the Israreli army- not then always send their young skilled “slingers” into battle. A lucky shot? I think not. David had killed lions by hand and was not afraid of hand to hand combat, but still I don’t think the odds were in his favor.
    This reminds me of what I have read, that in some situations -though antiquated and sometimes clumsy- fly fishing is the most effective means of gathering in the fish.
    What was the haiku.?
    It’s been a tough day,
    And its been a tough year, so be a dear and get the ice cream

    • Michael, I have Zhivago on the brain right now because I am FINALLY reading Pasternak’s novel, on which the film was based. Though the movie version is (as they inevitably are) much abridged, I think David Lean did a great job of capturing the essence of the story, though with perhaps a good bit more romanticism than the novel, despite Pasternak’s poetic prose which is rich with imagery yet surprisingly simple (as Drew once pointed out to me, part of that simplicity may be because I’m reading it in translation). A lot of the war details have been left out of the film, but the brutality of it does come across.

      Gladwell is a contrarian, so he naturally argues against conventional wisdom (one reason why I find him interesting and engaging). I do think he credits David’s faith briefly, but not to the extent that it becomes essentially a religious argument, since he does not write from a Christian mindset. Still, I love the Bible verses he has scattered throughout the book. I don’t remember him saying luck was involved with David’s shot at all. I think he is saying there was more skill involved than people realize, and also clever planning. Gladwell’s point, taken in the context of the entire book, is that no matter the odds, one can find ways of working against them to win — or at least come close — when others are telling you to give up. The rest of the book is quite interesting too – especially his analysis of how going to an Ivy League school can actually be detrimental. Having said all that, I don’t think he can possibly find any arguments to explain Jericho! 😀 Tonight Jeff and I enjoyed some frozen fruit bars as our “it’s been a hard week” treat.

  10. Michael

    Contrarian: Have to look that up? Interesting book and when I was kid people would ask why are you reading that non-fiction stuff?
    My brother in law- Danny- is dyslexic and had a terrible time in school. He is also a gifted carpenter and tradesman who is able to memorize large amounts of material and does not have to write anything down. He can also put together complicated models and engines without instructions- which would take him hours to read. I.E. the Gladwell chapter on dyslexics and ways of compensation, in his example the gifted businessman still takes about 6 hours to read about 22 pages of material. Those of us who are readers, love to read and have found reading easy-again have much to be thankful for. It is easy to take for granted. In his example also some dyslexics have been able to cope with so much failure in the academic scene that they have become great risk takers- able to go places that gifted readers might not tread- the advantage of the disadvantaged. Being not afraid to fail might be an incentive.
    Hope y’all have a better week.

    • Yes, I loved that chapter about learning disabilities. We are still hanging in there. It will probably be next week before Jeff is fully over his current difficulties with side effects, but I hope each day will get a bit easier.

  11. Michael

    Also Gladwell’s comment on some suicides was interesting in the comparison chapter, especially in light of recent Robyn William’s death. Countries that are considered happy- Denmark, Switzerland, Canada and Holland have higher suicide rates than countries where people consider themselves not so happy- Spain, Italy, and Greece. Apparently it is harder to be depressed when you are in a place where everyone is smiling. It is all comparative and if you are feeling down it is better to be in a place filled with the discontented ones and if you are poor it is better to be in poor place than in the land of plenty. It is the comparing ourselves with those around us that can drive us off balance- over the edge.

    • Michael, I totally agree that comparison drives most discontent; perhaps as much as 90% of it. I too found Gladwell’s discussion of the topic quite interesting. Though I believe that suicide, in most cases, is preceded by a break with reality, there is no easier way to break with reality than to imagine everyone else as having an easy life. It just isn’t so. Life is hard for everyone, and humanity’s consistent failure to find the answers is one of the strongest arguments (in my opinion) for the existence of deity. To those who question how an all powerful God could allow suffering, I would reply by questioning how such flawed and repeatedly mistaken creatures have nonetheless managed to enjoy so much that they had no hand in creating. As long as we keep trying to create heaven on earth, we are doomed to failure.

  12. Michael

    Well Said, but not sure about break with reality. I think of it in terms of an unrelenting mental pain from which people see no way out.
    Watching the second part of Zhivago ( 2002? ) yesterday and there is the line toward the end,” What a gift it is to be alive and to know that you are alive.” Now will have to read the book- which I think I started once.

    • Michael, in some cases I have known of, depression brings on true psychosis that leads to suicide, but most of the time I think the break with reality (as I see it) is more subtle; the feeling that nothing can ever possibly get better and perhaps will only get worse, AND/OR the genuine belief that people will be better off if one is “out of the way.” I don’t believe either of these feelings are rooted in reality, though they can feel very rational to the person suffering. It’s the seeing no way out that I think is a sort of temporary insanity, brought about by pain. I hope you enjoyed seeing Dr. Zhivago again. The book is slower going but it is much more substantive, in terms of the characters and the history. Tonya is a much deeper person (in the movie I remember her as sort of a china doll). In the book we come to know her better. In the book I thought Lara comes across as a much different type than Julie Christie projects; more forceful and far less passive, also much more in love with Pasha. Through her eyes we see Pasha as a man of great integrity and character, a man of whom she feels unworthy. In Russian stories the persistent use of patronymics always throws me off a bit until I can keep the characters straight in my mind; the same character might be referred to in several different ways, depending on who is referring to that person. I do find that the reward of sticking with it is commensurate with the effort, though.

  13. Michael

    Patronymics? You might like the more recent version -2002 with Kiera Knightly playing Lara.
    In this version Pasha kills himself after reading one of Zhivago’s poems. So it seems poetry can also bring on temporary states of insanity. I don’t remember the previous version- although I remember having a crush on Julie Christie In high school- so am not sure how close this version deals with the book reality. By the way Christie is also in a very nice film that deals with dementia called ” Away from her” if I remember correctly.
    All kidding aside the only way I can explain the rising tide of suicide among our returning veterans is the lethal combination of alcohol and easy access to firearms- a most deadly combination. Tragic.

    • Yes, patronymics, Mikhail Bertolovich! I didn’t even realize there was a newer version of the film, but I love Keira Knightly so I’ll have to check it out. However, as with Julie Christie, it’s hard for me to think of her when I read Pasternak’s infrequent descriptions of Lara’s appearance, which are mostly references to her “big white arms.” In the book she doesn’t come across as slender or delicate, though she is described as beautiful.

      SPOILER ALERT – Pasha does kill himself in the book, but only because he is about to be killed by the Bolshevik traitors who turn on their erstwhile comrades, loyal soldiers who “know too much.” He fears being tortured to the point of betraying others by giving information. Pasha’s idealistic dedication to the Bolsheviks is met in the end with treachery. It is not Zhivago’s poems that precede his death; rather, it is a touching conversation in which Zhivago and Pasha (a.k.a. the notorious and much-feared “Strelnikov”) meet when Pasha is on the run and seeks to see Lara and their daughter one last time. He finds Zhivago in their home, Lara and the girl having fled for their lives after being told Pasha has already been killed and they are next. From the beginning, Pasha and Lara each think themselves unworthy of the other (Pasha goes to war largely to become a hero worthy of her), and just before his death, Pasha is overwhelmed with gratitude when Zhivago relates to him a conversation he had with Lara just before she was (falsely) told Pasha had been shot. She says that if she could only have the life with Pasha that they had before the war, she would crawl on her knees to wherever he was, no matter how far, and that she loves him more than anyone in the world (including Zhivago). This will give you an idea of how much of the book the movie re-writes and shortens. The novel is really not a love story as the movie made it out to be, but in most respects I do think the movie captures the dark beauty of the book, though it simplifies and changes the story considerably.

      Re: the rising tide of suicide, I think the alcohol (a slow means of suicide for many) or firearms (a quicker one) are just dangerous but neutral tools that are used for destructive ends, as result of a much deeper systemic problem in our society. After all, it isn’t just returning vets whose suicide rate is soaring; it’s our whole generation, as this article from the NY Times discusses. I think it’s fundamentally because we are the first generation raised largely to believe that there is no objective truth, that life is about entertainment and self-gratification, and that so many are without hope because they have decided this life is all there is, and if it’s bad enough, there is nothing for it but to end it. I’m not saying that believers never commit suicide, but I think that the pervasive cultural message convinces most all of us that we are here on this earth to be happy or at least avoid too much pain, so if the pain becomes great enough, we think relief trumps anything else. That too I see as a break with reality, at least for those who believe in God. Just my two cents (adjusted for inflation). 😀

  14. Michael

    Very interesting article. I had no idea that the suicide rates were climbing for the boomers. Some of the comments after are truly heartbreaking- like the first one about the person who had a good job that disappeared in 2008. Losing that position put them on a downward spiral toward self obliteration. I can understand that happening. Some of the rational such as being kind of a sandwich generation – caught between caring for older parents and helping out the struggling kids- I am not sure I buy into. But certainly we have not dealt that well with crushed expectations, and those of us who are children of immigrants know a thing or two about expectation. I don’t think we know how to deal with psychic pain that well, That certainly fits well with my Buddhist readings and the cogent insight of Pema Chodron who says “Never underestimate the human tendency to avoid discomfort.” Above all as you say, we want pleasure not pain, fun not discomfort, peace not discord, order not chaos. Above all lets not have any discomfort of any kind, any where, any time. And if, heaven forbid, discomfort comes lets try and obliterate the pain through the wonder of chemicals.

    • Michael, I agree. The scary thing is that the chemicals are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to methods we use to avoid pain. Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death makes a very good comparison with our current culture and Huxley’s Brave New World. There is a good summary of that discussion in this brief article. I think our attempts to avoid pain lead to all sorts of addictions, including workaholic Type-A behaviors. I’m not saying pain is a good thing, only that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can outrun it for very long.

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