The first computer our family had was a dirty grey Atari ST which we had to get out and connect whenever we wanted to use it. The only thing I can remember using it for was playing Chuck Rock with my sister. I was jealous of my friends who had a Nintendo NES or a Sega Master System. Sometime later I was given a Mega Drive for Christmas and after that the only place I used a computer was at school. A BBC Micro which we played a game called PODD.
At some point my parents bought a Windows computer, set it up in the middle room and connected it to the phone line so we could go on the internet.
Sometime before that I had developed an interest in the legend of King Arthur and Camelot. My dad – who had access to the internet at work – used to print pages of information about it. I would get excited every time he came home and handed me a pile of A4 paper with printouts from whatever website he’d found.
That’s how I continued to use the internet when we got it at home. With dial-up you couldn’t really spend long reading while connected (and on low-res screens you wouldn’t really want to) because there was a time limit. The connection would reset after an hour, or someone would pick up the phone and start shouting about the funny noises they could hear. It was inconvenient.
Now we have computers that are many times more powerful than that old Pentium III in our pockets at all times. We have constant high speed access to a vastly richer internet wherever we happen to be.
It is tempting to call this progress and be done with it, but lately I wonder if that is true. A part of me yearns for the simplicity of a single point of access. A methodology that requires a quick dip into the information stream to retrieve the things we want for later perusal away from the screen.
I don’t think this is a genie we can put back in the bottle on a large scale, but for the individual it may be possible. Once I have an office I intend to sell my iPad (my only “computer”) and buy a desktop machine. Using software such as Freedom I will put restrictions on when and for how long I am able to access the internet.
Perhaps this is all nostalgia but, as the rise of internet addiction becomes a bigger problem, I ask myself how many people were spending 36 hours a week online when all that had were slow dial-up connections and clunky desktop PCs?