Magic Fairy-Land Understanding of Computing

Today at lunch, Thrack and I talked about our early experience with computers.  (This is a subject that always makes me feel old, but that’s another issue altogether.)  During our discussion, we discovered a basic difference in our childhood understanding of computers; Thrack saw them as black-box-operated toys and I came up with a quantum-magic abstract picture of the inside.

While Thrack had played games on machines belonging to family, and quickly switched to dedicated gaming consoles.  After the Atari was ultimately a marketing failure, the NES was sold packaged with a zapper and a goddamned robot to ensure that they were perceived as toys and marketed as such.  But the actual early understanding of how the computing systems were a total black box.

My parents were not big on gaming (they were big on all things educational) so my first regular use of a computer  was the family 8088, which had a modem in order to communicate with the University of Utah.  It’s still sort of amazing to me that the U was so important to early advances in computing.  But the child questions of “How?” and “Why?” resulted in a strange quantum-unicorn-mystic image of the contents of a computer.  My parents’ explanation wasn’t one of circuits, or wires, but of the actual processes.  The description of computing as ones and zeros, of the presence or absence of data to my kid-brain was a crazy, sparkly image of flashes and bits like magical or quantum particles floating and without direction.  I blame the fact that my television watching was dominated by programs like Nova and Nature; I suspect that the abstract images used when describing and explaining phenomenon seeped in and influenced the way I worked my way through things.

I don’t really remember when I came to better understand how boards and circuits worked, but I still remember when computers were in the same magical fairy-land of the first blossoms of spring or the musical stairs of the Uintahs (roots in the woods).  The world was a simpler and more mysterious then.


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