Saturday, April 07, 2007

Words and Pictures

It was a different world.

I was on the brink of my first paying job in journalism: That summer I got up every morning before the dawn, strapped canvas bags over my shoulders, straddled my ten-speed bike and rode off to deliver the San Francisco Chronicle not too far from where I lived.

Back then, there was only one Star Wars movie, and it was called Star Wars. Purists raised on Star Trek reruns cocked an eyebrow at explosions that could be heard in space, but at least it was something fresh to watch. Star Trek was long past being renewed by any network, and on little TV screens its special effects couldn’t compete with the six-track theatrical hum of light sabers and the vast proportions of an Imperial battle cruiser. Carrie Fisher had not yet met Paul Simon, who back then was famous mostly for being half of the defunct singing duo Simon and Garfunkel.

I remember the television show Nova ran a really cool segment around that time about hydrogen-powered cars, the technology of the future. I remember when the phone company came out and replaced all our rotary-dial phones with pushbutton models. For some reason when we call someone on the phone today, we still say we’re “dialing” their number. Back then, the telephone company owned your telephone, and if it was broken, they’d come out and fix it. If you wanted a telephone that looked different, you could pay an extra monthly fee and they’d offer you some distinguished-looking custom telephone. Otherwise all our phones looked the same, except the color of the plastic.

Up on a hill west of our neighborhood was Hewlett Packard. Their buildings were nondescript, but we all knew who they were. HP made computers. Handheld digital calculators were pretty neat back in those days—you could multiply or divide numbers as long as eight digits—but those were the domain of Texas Instruments. Hewlett Packard made serious computers—the kind you could program.

And I had, because our school district had one of these, its own computer, an HP 2000. We kids could could sign up for a timeshare account and learn to program in BASIC (Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). You could program a little tic-tac-toe game, for example. Each time you or the computer moved, the teletype would chatter away and print a fresh diagram—using only uppercase letters and the symbols available on a typewriter—showing what the game looked like now. We went through roll after roll of computer paper. I wrote programs more than a hundred lines long.

Up behind Hewlett Packard, near the top of the hill, was another long low-lying building: the West Coast headquarters of the Wall Street Journal. The Journal had a West Coast printing plant so folks in the business world could read its reports they day they were published. The New York Times could be delivered by air mail, but that meant you’d get it a few days late. Unless you worked in an office that spent the money to rent a teletype machine with access to wire services, there was no other way to see Wall Street news before it appeared in the local papers.

Our neighbors got the Wall Street Journal, a serious paper with no comics page. In my room in the front of the house, I heard the car drive up our cul-de-sac early every morning to toss their copy into their driveway. I thought what intelligent people they must be.

I remember touring the printing plant of the Palo Alto Times, a noisy place with lots of fast-moving newsprint. They used hot lead plates to put the ink on the paper. To change a page, you had to make a new mold, then cast a new metal plate. I was fascinated to see how black-and-white pictures could be converted into tiny dots of different sizes, then transferred to the page. This was nothing new, of course, but I was young and learning.

There was a girl in some of my classes whose older brother was friends with mine. We met, then, because she knew who Albert was and I knew who her brother Andy was. Our brothers were off in high school, doing the mythic things that older brothers in high school do, like rebelling and discovering really cool new music. What I knew of Andy was mostly gleaned third-hand from conversations Albert had with my parents. I did know that older people were more intelligent.

It really was a different world.

If you had told me back then that one day I’d be able to type up some words over breakfast and have them show up on TV screens attached to computers of six friends all over the world, I probably would have believed you, because I’d seen movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. (If you had told me I’d have friends who lived on space stations, I would have believed that too.) I would have been thrilled if you’d added that I would have a flip-open communicator just like on the Enterprise.

If you had told me that in less than ten years I’d be helping typeset a weekly trade magazine about the computer industry, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But if you told me that twenty years after that a better medium than paper would make the print version of that journal obsolete, I would have been baffled. Movies about the future, Nova—none of these showed new ways to read. And yet there it is on my sofa, a headline proudly proclaiming InfoWorld’sFinal Print Issue,” articles inside bragging about how they’re keeping their staff and saving trees. Berners-Lee trumps Gutenberg. I checked the dateline to be sure, and it was April 2, not April 1. I remember making dummy April Fool’s Day covers to circulate in the office, back when we used to use a mainframe to set type electronically.

Back then, if you had asked me back then what some friend of my hugely intelligent older brother might do that would find its way into the pages (yes, pages) of the Wall Street Journal thirty years hence, I might have guessed he’d be an inventor, or some kind of new corporate executive bringing humanity to a boardroom, or a technological miracle worker bringing relief to famine-stricken countries in Africa.

I would not have guessed that this new medium that let the masses publish what they like would have left stately old icons of serious news gasping for oxygen, or that the Wall Street Journal would have added a weekend entertainment section (and colored ink!) in a struggle to stay relevant. Nor would I have guessed that Janet’s older brother Andy would have been spotlighted in a rather hefty thought-piece in the Journal for his performance on a TV game show.

No, reportage on game shows wouldn’t have sounded like the Journal, and it wouldn’t seem like what one of our brothers would get famous for. Something to do with saving the world, maybe.

But it was a different world then.

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