Monday, May 24, 2010

DCMM: Jumping the Computer Gap

I'm always hearing stories these days about how connected we all are online and how we spend too much time sitting at our computers. Stories like that first make me defensive (but my online community has done so much good!) and then they make me nod my head in recognition (yes, I suppose I do spend too much time on the computer), and finally make me think about how far computers and I have come in the past 20 or so years.

I got my first computer about two months before I headed off to grad school in 1996. (That is, if you don't count the Atari 400 my family had as a child, and I'm not sure I do.) I had managed to get all the way through high school with a typewriter and all the way through college with a Brother word processor—which was often borrowed because it was so high tech and useful.

For a long time I was a Luddite when it came to computers. I thought they were lame and unnecessary. After all, my Brother could do anything I needed it to. So what if it took all night to "print" out long research papers with its typing mechanism? In my Berkeley college-age idealism I disliked computers, not just because I didn't understand them (and I didn't), but also because of the "computer gap"—meaning that computers and all their privileges were only available to the wealthy.

Then came my birthday before I headed off to grad school. My then-boyfriend/now-husband bought me a used Mac laptop. I was a changed person. I still felt bad about the computer gap, but now my glorified word processor let me play solitaire too. Not to mention that I had discovered the internet earlier that year, and while my new computer didn't have Internet access, the boyfriend's did.

I still remember the first time I searched for information online, for my grad school applications. I wanted to print it out and was amazed when the printer spit out what was on the screen, pictures and all. After all, I was the person who had to be reminded over and over again how to turn a computer on and off.

Within two years I had purchased another, better Mac—with color monitor!!—had learned how to code HTML, and had my own online presence with a hand-coded website all about ME! For better or for worse, I had jumped over that computer gap.

Twelve years later, I have two laptops and a desktop computer that is dying a slow death. I have an iPhone and my husband carries a Blackberry. I write five blogs and contribute to two more. We have multiple gaming systems, both console and hand-held. Even the picture frame that sits on my desk has a hard drive.

Yeah. My 22-year-old pre-computer self would hate me.

Looking past the embarrassment of riches that my family is lucky enough to have, I see how far my philosophy on computers has come. I still believe there is a computer gap and that it is more devastating than ever. But I am firmly entrenched on the privileged side of the chasm. The other day, the video card (or something) on my main laptop went kaput and I was destroyed. Before I took it into the computer store and got the good news that it was an easy fix, I was heartbroken.

All the things I used to do on paper—my job, my photographs, my to-do list, even quick notes to myself—I now do on my computer and they were suddenly inaccessible and I was at a complete loss. And this is with two one-and-a-half computers still available to me.

It is amazing to me the world that my children are growing up in. They will never know a world without computers. When they go to college, I wonder if they will learn how to comb through the stacks at different campus libraries to find the chapter of the book they need. I know that I need to be better at teaching my kids that all the answers don't come from the magic box that lives on the desk.

I come from a family that didn't have a microwave until I was in ninth grade and didn't have an answering machine until even later, and yet three days without one of my computers threw me for such a loop that it kind of shook me. This world of technology, this world where utter dependence on computers and technology is so wide-spread and personal, well, some days it makes me marvel.

This is an original DC Metro Moms Blog post. Jean is fully aware of how ridiculously addicted to computers she is. Some examples of her intense interconnectivity are her main blog, Stimeyland; her autism events website for Montgomery County, AutMont; and her column about autism, Autism Unexpected.

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