Left To My Own Devices

Memoirs of a wired student

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1983 Fifth grade. I learn pre-algebra and type up papers on the chic Apple IIe. It's love at first byte—and Commodore 64s are sopassé. Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, Harvard students are dropping quarters into Digital Decmate 1 word processors.

1989 Senior year. Applications for eight colleges are due in less than two weeks. Doing the Dew night after night and pounding the pavement to the post office pays off. I use my ever trusty Smith Corona electronic typewriter, which still kicks the ass of my friend's clunky Brother word processor.

1990 College begins with a whimper, as I spend most of freshman year camped out in my best friend's dorm room, bent over her new Mac Classic. I'm pulling all-nighters, churning out the greatest hits of feudal Japanese history at the astonishing speed of four pages per minute on a Hewlett-Packard laser printer.

1991 VAXing from the basement of the library is necessary to reach my Canadian friends. Rigid keyboards and green-tinted monitors aggravate already complicated command protocols, but this early version of e-mail sure beats $10 a minute by phone. Meanwhile, selective narcolepsy kicks in (e.g., European history, 9:45 a.m., turniplike professor). What does any rational-minded student do when faced with the prospect of imminent failure? Dust off the state-of-the-art microcassette recorder and snooze the class away. Naturally, the actual transcription never happens; I wind up taking the class pass/fail.

1991 Apple sucks. Excitement over the purchase of a Macintosh LC loaded with the works (and a laser printer the size of Montana) dissipates quickly when the LC II comes out less than six months later. It's hard not to feel screwed. Apple's aesthetic seduction leads to the tech equivalent of a cheap fling, because the old model becomes not just obsolete but discontinued after a frenzied courtship.

1992 LEXIS-NEXIS rocks my research world. CD-ROM databases start to proliferate around the library as evidence of a new wave of information technology. The ability to access reams of facts and figures is literally at our fingertips. And it's free!

1993 At other schools, computers and keyboards are installed in each auditorium seat to facilitate a completely interactive learning environment. Multimedia presentations keep MTV-nursed students glued to lectures otherwise unsuitable to the attention-deficit generation.

1994 Less than one year after graduation and the campus is wired. The Ethernet hooks up students on- and off-campus to a network with a powerful mainframe. Students plug into the Internet for next to nothing. Revolution. Called "networking to the pillow," high-speed network connections are built into dorms, classrooms, and labs.

1995 Grad school in Silicon Valley. The computer lab is my first prolonged exposure to the Internet and the World Wide Web. All I know is that addictive personalities have another cause for worry. Reading through the e-mailed fan postings for Lois & Clarkinduces assembly-line hypnosis: 100-plus messages a day, on every detail of every episode. Assignments fall by the wayside. Once reality beckons—I have to use this for school?—technology overload occurs. Lurking in BBS cross-country becomes commonplace but chat rooms are still taboo territory for me.

First laptop. True to form, it's a Power-Book. "Once bitten, twice shy" apparently does not apply to me. Just one look—and I'm hooked. The color. The relative speed. The touch pad. It is all part of Apple's deal with the devil, but it plays out so beautifully among the faux Italian palazzi that surround the quad. It is easy to sign such a Faustian compact.

Smith Corona, one of the last U.S. typewriter makers, files for bankruptcy. Brother Industries has one plant and employs 800 people making typewriters and word processors.

Elsewhere, Jennifer Ringley, a junior at Dickinson College, starts JenniCam as a project for a computer class. www.jennicam.org jump-starts the digital voyeur revolution.

1996 Life is all about e-mail (PINE/Eudora system) and code. I know that now. In the middle of the night I write to friends, reach out and touch the last tethers of sanity . . . as time runs out on my Web project and my master's thesis comes to a close. We learn to write in basic HTML and JavaScript. Immersion in the design aspect of the project subsumes the substantive backup, yet in 12 hours a fairly balanced final product gets put up for all the world to see.

1997 My younger sister is entering her freshman year. She and a friend have built her computer from scratch, the way other people scrap together a stereo system. She's part of a new generation raised on computers, the I (Internet) Generation. She comes to class prepared with a Motorola pager, a Nokia cell phone, and a Sharp Wizard 256 KB electronic organizer (pre-PalmPilot and infinitely more economical). ICQ ("I seek you") arguments with the more conservative older sibling erupt from one coast to the other when she brings up the idea of piercing her tongue. Request chat room NOW.

1998 Annual typewriter consumption is down from 10 million a decade ago to about 3 million, a drop of over 70 percent. Seventy percent of the market is in the third world.

New York. Two doors down from the police precinct and the apartment gets broken into—and what is lost will never again be found: The PowerBook gets nabbed. Years of poetry, prose, and angst-filled journal entries go down the drain.

1999 Apple has 160 campus reps spread across the country. They are missionaries hoping to convert the uninitiated to the truth of Steven Jobs's vision. U.S. Robotics' PalmPilots move from the boardroom to the classroom in record time. Others hold out for the new Visors from Handspring, which have modular capabilities to accommodate constant tech innovations—such as the superhot MP3s, perfect for music-obsessed college students who have already burned CDs ad infinitum.

In early January iMacs come out in five colors, a peacock flourish for this campus juggernaut. Apple's success lies with its intuitive grasp of cutting-edge appeal without the intimidation factor, whether it's including DVD players within the newest iMacs or introducing stylish flat screens as part of the G4's new look. The combination of technical prowess and sleek design is akin to the melding of VH-1 with the fashion world. Students are wooed and comforted by the prevalence of the brand on campuses and the user-friendly OS. But while students live in the ideological collegiate bubble, they can afford to indulge Apple's Wonka-like confections.

The live Webcam plays on the desire to be the center of attention, however mundane the activity. At WebcamNow.com, college kids can download free software to use with their little image makers. (Meanwhile, 23-year-old Jennifer Ringley, a Web designer in D.C., is raking in paid subscriptions from some of the 4.5 million hits a day her JenniCam site gets.)

It all seems to culminate in WebDorm—the first online interactive Webcam environment that allows students to build worldwide communities using live cameras and chat. It's The Real Worldset to the monotony of college life. In the end, it's somehow appropriate that students, with their hunger for whatever's new, become the very thing they seek. They become technology.

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