Nothing like new technology to make some of us feel old
Karlin Lillington: Remember command lines, floppy disks and dial-up modems?
The entire operating systems of the first Apple Macintosh computers were on floppy disks that you had to insert into the computers to enable them to do anything. Photograph: Kris Connor/ Getty Images
I was sitting on an aircraft flying between US cities last week when I overhead a child behind me, talking to her mother.
“You Airdropped the pictures to me,” she said delightedly. She was about five. Thanks to the combination of youthful speaker and verb usage, I felt ancient.
Sadly, this is not a rare occurrence. If you are of a certain age, and have been interested in technology for many of the component years of that age, you are forced to confront your obsolescence over and over again.
It didn’t help that only recently, I’d watched that YouTube video of two thoroughly baffled teens trying to figure out how a rotary telephone works.
It was either the modem or the phone call, you couldn’t do both at once
It depressed me so much that I wanted to lock them in a room, where the only method of escape would be to make a successful call using 10p coins and an A/B public phone.
Add to that, my despair recently on reading a sentence in a book on the history of the internet, in which the (comparatively youthful) author described someone in the 1980s using “a weird version of the internet.” I burned with indignation. That was no “weird version of the internet”! It was the internet! Sheesh.
But all this did get me thinking about tech generation gaps and the things that would make utterly no sense to anyone under about 30 or 40.
Here are a few.
The command line is an obvious starting point. No pictures. No links. Just a blinking cursor on the screen, and numbers and words typed into a prompt.
Youth today will never understand the glorious feeling of achievement at having memorised the needed command line word processing key combinations to italicise or boldface a word.
Nor will they experience the frustration of trying to use the Gopher protocol to fetch files from some distant server on the internet. Add in the chattering sound of a dot matrix printer printing out those files, or an email (oh, the excitement of receiving emails back when they were a wonderment and not a daily chore).
And here’s a doozy for the disbelief department: trying to explain to anyone under 40 that once upon a time, the entire operating system of your desktop PC or Mac was on a single floppy disk, and that you had to stick that disk into the computer to enable it to do anything. In other words: no hard drive, little internal memory.
This was so bizarre to recall, even now, that I’d forgotten this operational nightmare until I looked at my old Mac SE last year and remembered that I’d splurged to get a model with a double disk drive, so I wouldn’t have to swap out the operating system disk if I wanted to copy a file to a different disk.
I realise there’s a reasonable chance you are young enough to think this is a joke. It isn’t.
During my tech writing career, that first iPhone, and the dawn of the web, have been the closest tech has come to magic
Then, there was the oingy-boingy sound of a a dial-up modem connecting to the internet. No, there wasn’t any wifi.
There was just you, the modem, the telephone line and a hopeful mouseclick activating the connection sequence (and a silent prayer to the copper wire gods that you’d get a working connection).
Of course, success depended on having a phone line that wasn’t being used by other family members or flatmates to make (landline) phone calls (sometimes on rotary-dial phones).
It was either the modem or the phone call, you couldn’t do both at once. And who remembers attempting a call and getting an interminable busy signal because Someone Was On The Internet?
We are going on a second generation now that will never have known what it was like to have their mother ask how much it cost to send an email, and didn’t it at least cost a lot to send one far away, and what did you mean that email was free?
How could it be free? Sure, someone had to be getting it from one place to another, and didn’t they charge to do it?
A generation, too, has grown up free of the experience of coming across a web page with an “under construction” notice and a clumsily-animated guy with a shovel.
The same generation has never lost the stylus that went with their mobile phone. Or tried to access a website over a mobile, only to discover it wasn’t a WAP version and therefore looked like it had exploded all over their phone’s two-inch screen.
And, finally – since we’re on phones – they’ll never know what it was like to watch the astonished face of someone who had never seen an iPhone, a strange, flat rectangle, all screen and no keypad, at a time of tiny, mediocre screens and lots of keypad buttons.
During my tech writing career, that first iPhone, and the dawn of the web, have been the closest tech has come to magic.
Now both are (for better or worse) a tech norm.
As I said: I feel ancient. How about you?