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five years

Five years ago today, we got broadband Internet access at our home.

If I had to list the three most important events in our home computing lives, they would be:

1983, when we got our first computer.

1984 or thereabouts, when we got our first modem.

August 31, 1999, when we got cable internet.

The first one is obvious ... without a computer in the house, I wouldn't be having this discussion. A tip of the cap, though, to that Macy's salesman back in '83, when we walked in and I announced that I'd done some studying and clearly what we wanted was a Timex Sinclair 1000. The Sinclair was about the size of a paperback from an academic press (about 7 inches square, roughly). Crucially, the "keyboard" was membrane, like what the workers use at McDonald's when they key in your order. If we had bought that computer, we would have played with it for a couple of days and then used it as a door stop. But the Macy's salesman told us we didn't want the Sinclair. I figured he was just trying to make commission, but far as I can tell, he wasn't making commission. He was just pointing out to us that a real keyboard would make a difference. And that's why we walked out of Macy's with a VIC-20.

The first modem came not long after we saw War Games for the first time. I SO wanted to start WWIII, and soon afterwards, we had a modem for our VIC-20. 300 baud, but it seemed much faster because the VIC screen only allowed 22 characters per line and only fit 23 lines on a screen, so everything scrolled by really fast no matter how slow the modem was. The modem helped introduce us to a new world ... the computer did that too, of course, but it was an insular world ... the modem opened the door so we could see all the other geeks.

And for the next 15 years, things changed only gradually. We went from VIC-20 to Commodore 64. When I had to write my honors thesis for my bachelor's degree in 1987, we got a DOS machine. Sometime after that we moved up to Windows ... 3.1, I guess, then 95, 98, and now XP. In 1988, I began working for CompuServe, and those years (through the mid-90s) were my ultimate online geek years ... nowadays, people like me who are online all the time are hardly unusual (what the heck, I *work* online now), but in those days, we were like a club, and I would spent hours every night chatting with my CompuServe friends. But in all of this, I hadn't moved much beyond that first VIC modem.

Broadband changed everything. By that point, we'd been online for 16 years, so it would be a lie to claim that the cable modem introduced me to the online world. And Robin and I both had killer net access at our jobs by then. But being able to access the internet from home 24/7 at usefully high speeds was truly a different experience. All that information at our fingertips whenever we wanted it. Some of this was frivolous ... we'd see one of those "who is that guy" actors on teevee, and during a commercial break we'd check online to see who it was. Some of it was educational ... I grew up in a household with a set of World Book encyclopedias, but now, it felt like I had access to every bit of information, at any time. And some of it changed my life in ways some would call unfortunate. I have so much to read online now that I barely have time any longer for books, and so the vast majority of my books at this point were purchased more than five years ago. And I teach English at the college level. I rarely watch news any more ... why bother, I already know what happened. Same with the newspaper ... hell, I don't even look at the hardcopy Chronicle that comes to our house every morning, I read it online.

The speed of broadband is part of it, of course, especially for media-heavy stuff. It's no coincidence that within a year of getting broadband, I had my first portable MP3 player (a Rio 500). The whole notion of turning thousands of songs into files that can be stored on tiny players owes its existence to broadband net access.

But more important even than speed is the 24/7-ness of my cable modem. It's partly physical, partly mental: physical, in that the computer is now connected to the internet 24 hours a day unless I turn it off (which I don't do very often), mental in that I have the assumption in my brain that I can go online whenever I want. That mental step is crucial to why going broadband was a more important step than anything in the previous 15 years.

Now we have a wireless laptop, so we are not only 24/7 at broadband speeds, we can do it from any room in the house. That's a pretty big step itself. But the fundamental change came five years ago, when the cable guy came to our house and changed our lives.

You'll hear it said on occasion ... Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame was one person who made this argument, as I recall ... that computers were to the last few decades as psychedelics were to the 1960s. I think the idea was that computers helped us to expand our minds or something like that. I can tell you that pretty much my only ambition when I was in high school was to become a hippie, and outside of one year in Capitola living off my brother, I didn't really achieve my ambition, but if the idea was to get inside my own brain, work things out inside there, and then connect those workings to the outside world, well, that's pretty much what the computer does for me now.

Not long after we got our first computer back in the early 80s, I remarked that the computer thought just like me. I haven't changed much over the last 21 years ... I guess now I'd rephrase it to say that I think just like the computer. And then there's that afternoon in Nerja last November, when Robin looked out at the Mediterranean and wondered what animal she would come back as if she was reincarnated. I thought about that for a bit, and then said I'd like to come back as a computer, so I'd know everything.


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