Friday, August 1, 2008

Living With a Computer (in 1982)

Just read through James Fallows "Living With a Computer," a piece he wrote for The Atlantic back in 1982. Fallows, then a recent convert to word processing, enthusiastically sang the praises of his first system, a Processor Technology SOL-20 running a software package called Electric Pencil.

It's a fascinating look into the early home computer industry, and also a bracing reminder of how much certain fundamental affordances of the computing experience have changed over the years. One of the points Mechanisms tried to hit repeatedly is that storage was a far more visible and . . . grungier dimension of that experience than we typically understand today, when storage devices are abstracted into disk partitions (accessed via icons on a desktop) or else accessorized as fashion and lifestyle statements (iPods or thumbdrives). Here are some of the best bits. Keep in mind that Fallows is writing within a year of the ascendancy of MS-DOS.

. . . the war of standardization for personal computers is just about over. The crucial, bitterly contested territory was the disk-operating system, the coded instructions that enable computers to interface (the word cannot be escaped in this business) with the disk drives. My system uses the North Star Disk Operating System, abbreviated DOS and pronounced doss, but North Star didn't win. The winner was a DOS called CP/M (for Control Program for Microcomputers), which has become the industry standard and is earning millions for a formerly small company known as Digital Research.

The practical limit on what a computer can do is not the memory built into the machine itself [. . .] but rather how much information it can quickly draw from its disks.

The top of the line among storage systems is the hard disk, most often available in the form called the Winchester. (This is not a brand but a nickname, applied by wits in the computer world because the model number on one of the earliest drives was 3030, reminiscent of a rifle.) The other disks, known as floppies, get pulled in and out of their drives like tape cassettes, but a Winchester is permanently sealed in its case. You don't need to remove the hard disks because each one stores a prodigious amount of data, from two or three on up to several dozen megabytes. With even a small Winchester, you can store some 2,000 pages of data at once—enough, for example, to contain all the notes for a book, along with drafts of all chapters, or a record of all your correspondence over a period of years. Winchesters are expensive; cheap models go for about $2,000, and some of them cost at least twice that much. But you shouldn't buy one right now anyway They're just entering the period of soaring volume and falling prices and will be cheaper in a year.

So, living with a computer circa 1982: hard drives are still as yet exotic indulgences (storing up to 2000 pages!), disk operating systems have been the subject of bitter industry infighting, and the experience of computing itself is characterized in part by the repeated activity of swapping diskettes in and out of drives. (I remember what a big deal it was when my family added a second 5 1/4" drive to our Apple IIe, allowing me to run games and other programs which depended on being able to draw data from two disks at the same time.) There's still much work to be done on storage, inscription, and the machinery of computation.


Anonymous said...

The only issue with harddrive storage and retrieval would be access times and availability of a pipline to the physical drive at any point in time. The next step would be Ram storage which is immediate retrieval and is an entity in itself able to handle traffic much more reliably and efficiently. The challange is the preservation of data at any given time in a Ram environment data storage system, but that can be alleviated, even eliminated with a omnipresent internet system, free floating worldwide. in cyberspace, with built in newer technologies for safeguards of the datum , of course.
Uncle Jamison

Anonymous said...

Interesting observation from an excerpt from "Mechanisms" :
"Though their speed, capacity, and reliability have all increased dramatically—increases in the capacity of drives have in fact outstripped the famous Moore’s Law for processor speeds—basic drive technology remains remarkably unchanged since the technology was first introduced by IBM."
That coupled with the excerpt from "Living with a computer" James Fallows :
"The process works this way. When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen".
Conclusion: As more and more of the advanced, continual growth of technology increases and becomes exceedingly "invisible" as a continual maintainence source for the average end user - thus then the imagination of humanity such as creative writing and promulgation of art and soul, even religion, of mankind will dramatically increase because of the direct result of "technology".
Leads one to wonder of the Industrial age adage:
"If technology is not the answer to mans problems, nothing is".

Uncle Jamison

Matt said...

Thanks for all the comments Uncle J.