The End of an Era

IT'S a phrase I allow myself only rarely: the end of an era. But it sprang unbidden into thought as I slipped the heavy manual typewriter in its metal case down from its shelf for the last time.

A New Year's Eve sweep of the closets had yielded a couple of big bags of items to be delivered to the Salvation Army in time for a 1994 income-tax deduction - and revealed the typewriter as something I needed to decide about. It had been in fairly regular use for letters until just a few years ago, when the installation of a computer beside my desk at home crowded the typewriter back onto its shelf. Family letters were then done in longhand, and the typewriter used for occasional business letters.

But its fate was sealed when I brought home a printer, just in time to do Christmas-card notes on the computer. I will need it no more, I thought, and so the typewriter took its place beside the bags of old clothes.

The year just ended may not have been a particular milestone for computers in the lives of average people, but over the holidays particularly I've been struck by all the technological transitions in our lives during the quarter-century since my parents wrapped that clunky typewriter and put it under the Christmas tree for me.

We are now living in the period that many world's fairs ago was labeled ``the future.'' The future has turned out to be less about transportation than communication. Remember predictions of space travel, people movers, monorails?

But the moon landing of a quarter-century ago (before I got the typewriter) has turned out to be the peak of popular engagement with space travel.

The future, instead, has been about notebook computers, cellular phones, beepers for children going out to play.

The annual crop of Christmas cards provides an opportunity to review the desktop publishing capacities of friends and relatives. Hmm, one muses, did they do this, or did Hallmark? Look at those fonts.

Watching a holiday rerun of the old ``Dick Van Dyke Show,'' I am struck by the thought that Rob and Sally and Buddy, the comedy writers, worked on typewriters.

At Christmas the question was not, Should I bring my notebook computer along? but rather, Why not?

As my nephew patiently instructs me in the nuances of his Nintendo games - and my Luigi keeps falling into the pit while his Mario leaps triumphantly over the barriers - I am reminded of management consultant Peter Drucker's observation that the labors of the ``knowledge worker'' are not merely intellectual but require considerable manual skill.

New technologies sometimes give us more information than we know what to do with. What do we make of the news that the Pentium microprocessor chip would fail the ``average'' user only once in 27,000 years? The e-mail system reports the time a message was sent in terms of hundredths of a second. The unblinking answering machine gives the lie to the friend who says that he tried to reach us all weekend.

The Monitor's editorial and opinion pages will soon be getting new Macintosh computers on which to write, edit, and lay pages out more simply and easily than we have done hitherto. This is the next phase of what we refer to as our new ``front-end system.'' I can hardly wait.

Another era begins.

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