Sunday July 3, 1983, was an exciting day for me. I picked up a copy of the Los Angeles Times and there, in the business section, was my very first column about personal computers.
I remember calling up a friend and telling him I had good news and bad news. The good news was that I just signed-up to write a column for one of America’s largest newspapers, but the bad news was that I had to write about computers rather than important stories like politics.
Little did I know that technology would evolve into one of the most important stories of our times and that, in addition to getting to review hardware and software, a career as a tech journalist would eventually allow me to weigh-in on much broader issues such as privacy, personal safety and even political stories, including, of course, Russia’s interference with our 2016 election. The column was syndicated to papers around the world. I wrote for the LA Times until 2002 and have had three stints with the San Jose Mercury News, starting in the ’90s.
In celebration of my 35th anniversary, I signed up for a subscription on Newspapers.com so I could download and re-read some of those early columns, which I have since posted at LarrysWorld.com. My first column, “Learn Buzzwords Before Shopping” helped my novice readers understand basic terms like hardware, software, RAM and ROM. I also explained the meaning of bit, byte and kilobyte — the units of measurement that were important at the time. I did mention that a megabyte is a million bytes but there was no reason to explain gigabyte or terabyte. I’m not sure I even knew what those words meant at the time. I wonder if that’s now true about kilobytes for some of today’s readers. For you youngins, there are a million kilobytes in a gigabyte. Today’s smartwatches have millions of times the capacity of those early PCs.
My second LA Times column was a review of the Radio Shack Model 100, the first computer small enough to fit into a briefcase. I wrote that column aboard PSA flight 501 from SFO to LAX and marveled that “the machine I’m using weighs less than four pounds, runs on batteries (AAs) and fits nicely on the airline’s tray table.” The machine had 32K of nonvolatile memory, which meant that “the information in the Model 100’s memory remains active even when the power is turned off.” It was the precursor to today’s devices with solid-state storage.
Later that year I wrote “How to Stop the Floppy Shuffle,” about my first computer with a hard disk. “A computer with a 10 megabyte (10 million character) hard-disk drive and one floppy-disk drive generally costs between $1,000 and $2,000 more than a similarly equipped system with two floppies” or you could upgrade a floppy-only PC with a 10 MB hard drive for $1,295. In that same column I wrote about Compaq’s 31 pound “transportable” computer that “sells for $4,955 and includes one built-in 360K floppy drive plus a 10 megabyte hard disk.” HP, which acquired Compaq in 2002, now sells a $199 laptop, which, adjusting for inflation, is 893 times cheaper than that Compaq with 327,680 times as much storage.
My favorite 1983 column was called “Users Have a Head Start on the Future,” where I wrote “Futurists have long predicted that citizens will someday routinely use home computers for such tasks as shopping, banking, making travel plans, checking the news and paying bills” and that “Microcomputer users have a head start on the future.” I marvelled that I was able to read a story in the next day’s Washington Post. The paper hadn’t hit the streets of Washington, but an electronic edition was available throughout North America to subscribers of CompuServe Information Service.
I also posted my 1984 columns on LarrysWorld.com, and on January 1, 1984, wrote “For some, the technological revolution is a bit too reminiscent of the portrait painted by George Orwell in his novel 1984 … Orwell’s ‘thought police’ employed a two-way ‘telescreen’ that loomed in hallways and homes, providing citizens with information and propaganda while randomly spying on their activities.” I cited a Harris survey that 69 percent of people believed “that the sort of society depicted by Orwell is at least ‘somewhat close’ and “67 percent believed that information about themselves ‘is being kept in some files somewhere for purposes not known to them.”
In my 1984 column I also wrote, “Unlike Big Brother’s pervasive spy and propaganda machine, the home information center is under your control. In Orwell’s nightmare, the telescreen ‘could be dimmed but there was no way of shutting it off completely.’ Our home computers are equipped with a very powerful component — an on/off switch.” Technically that’s still true but most of us never turn off our smartphones, which are even more powerful than those early PCs and, perhaps, Orwell’s telescreen.
Little did I know that the issues I raised in 1984 in the business section of the LA Times would eventually become front-page stories around the world as we all grapple with the fact that information about us is indeed “being kept in files somewhere.” The California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018, signed last week by Governor Brown and Europe’s recently implemented General Data Privacy Regulation are attempts to deal with issues we’ve been talking about for decades.
I feel very fortunate that I got to start telling the story about personal computers back when they were still novelties for most people and that I’m still getting to write about how PCs and their descendants are affecting us today. Thanks for indulging me.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.
Published at Wed, 04 Jul 2018 06:23:23 +0000