My Digital History (what’s yours?)

June 5, 2008

As a former print media person, I spend a lot of time thinking about the digital revolution, probably more than people who grew up in the digital age. For them, it’s always been part of the world — they don’t have anything to compare it against. I’m like a guy who grew up with horses, and every once in a while I stop and marvel at what automobiles did to the world I knew.

Last night, I was thinking about my own digital history. Here it is. What’s yours?

1983: Bought my first computer, a Televideo. It cost $4,000 — that’s $8,500 in today’s dollars — and we basically used it as a typewriter. We had a word-processing program for it, and that was all we ever used it for. That machine never solved a math or science problem, played a game or had a modem hooked to it. Trivia note: in the MTV video for “Axel F,” the theme song from the original Beverly Hills Cop movie, musician Harold Faltermeyer poses as a private eye, sneaks into an office and watches scenes from the movie on a computer. His machine is a Televideo just like mine.

1989: First time I used a cell phone and a laptop. I was a reporter in Little Rock, and my paper got some of those “brick” cell phones. Michael Douglas, as Gordon Gekko, has a scene in the movie “Wall Street” where he’s using one while walking on the beach. They seemed pretty high-tech at the time. We had the little Radio Shack laptops — I think they were TRS-80 Model 100s. They displayed about four lines of text at a time, and to transmit you had to stick the telephone receiver into that modem device with two round rubber cups.


1991: We got our first Mac and our first modem at home, and I got my first AOL account.

1992: I took a class in computer-assisted reporting and learned all about how to extract information from nine-track (that’s right, not eight-track) computer tapes. It was a technology that had been in use on most government mainframes since the ’60s, and some reporters produced very memorable investigations by slicing and dicing masses of information in ways that had never been possible before. Unfortunately, right around the time I learned it, governments started moving away from nine-track and toward newer digital languages and systems. I never produced a major piece of work based on nine-track research.

1993: I joined my first online community, the WELL. This was a very early online community (it still exists) that grew up in the Bay area in the ’80s, starting when there were probably no more than a few thousand people online in the whole world. It was full of very smart, very cool, often somewhat haughty people, and I never felt quite worthy of membership. I believe I started using Netscape Navigator, an early Web browser, somewhere around this time.

1994: Had to upgrade to a newer Mac. The five-year-old model was too slow and had too little memory to run newer programs.

1997: Amazingly enough, this was the first year I got my own desktop computer at work. It was an IBM 386, even though the 486 models were out and were much faster. Until then, whenever we needed to use a computer, we had to go over to a terminal and wait for someone else to get off the machine. And this was at a major metro newspaper, the Charlotte Observer.

1999: Another new Mac at home. I can’t remember exactly when we first got broadband Internet, but it was right around this time. Now THAT was a revolution. I still didn’t have a personal cell phone.

2003: I started working at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and they issued me a cell phone. I’d never carried one regularly, and I used to get in trouble with my editor (and my wife) because I often didn’t bother bringing it with me.

2006: Another new Mac at home. The Strib gave all the reporters laptops, and for the first time, I could work outside the office. This is also when I started blogging. Yep, that’s me as the Digital Drifter.


2007: I joined Fast Horse and learned to love hotdesking. That’s what we call it when we work outside the office, tethered with nothing more than a cell phone and a laptop. It’s been quite a ride.

What’s your digital history?