What, people managed before computers?

Essay: My parents claim that humanity managed without the PC for thousands of years. As a teen, I find it hard to believe.

Sami Siva/Sipa Press/NEWSCOM
Students type away at the computer lab in Nehru Memorial College in Tiruchi, India.

About 400 years ago, a guy named Wilhelm Schickard made the world’s first computer. It was bulky machine that looked like an oversize typewriter, and it could add and subtract six-digit numbers. It was difficult to operate, was ridiculously expensive, and had no USB ports. But it was the beginning of a revolution. Today’s computers are not very different – only they do billions of such calculations every minute. And they’re much smaller – and prettier.

It took another 350 years to make a computer that was of actually any use to us nonintelligentsia. I was born in the year 1992, so I have experienced a completely computer-aided life. But my parents claim that for thousands of years before me, people existed without computers. How in the world did those poor folks manage?

Imagine a life without Internet Explorer, Facebook, and Microsoft Word. These have been a lifeline for me. I have depended on Explorer and Word for my school projects. (And I couldn’t do without the copy-and-paste mechanism.)

E-mail has kept me in touch with friends and family. And iTunes – where do I even start? It’s hard to believe that just 10 years previously, these things were unheard of. And people still managed. Incredible. It’s like Arthur Weasley in “Harry Potter” asking, “How do these [nonmagical people] survive without magic?”

But apparently they did (or all the parents out there are lying, and there’s been a major coverup). School assignments were done without Wikipedia, letters were written on paper and then mailed, those grotesque cassettes were used to listen to music, and people actually used to hang out in real time, not online.

Sometimes when I have nothing better to do, I sit back and wonder what my life would be like without the personal computer. Life would be simple. Maybe it would look something like this: I wake up on a weekend and play some sports with my friends. After that, I read a book – maybe listen to some music on my cassette player, and then write a letter to my aunt and mail it.

Ah, the simple life.

Wait. I remember that I have a history project on World War II. Panic sets in. I extract the encyclopedia from the library. I dust it. Then I take out a few pieces of writing paper. I start writing. My whole day is spent writing, and then I realize that I was supposed to use black ink instead of blue. I write everything out again.

This takes another day. Then I cut and paste the pictures to go with the text. No, literally cut and paste – with scissors and glue. Finally, it’s over. I take a deep breath and make myself some chilled orange juice.

Now let’s see the same weekend in the modern day: I wake up, log onto Facebook and say hi to my friends. Then I play World of Warcraft for an hour. After that, I download the latest music and play it on my surround-sound speakers. Then I post a couple pictures on my blog for all my friends and relatives to see.

In the afternoon, I remember I have a history project. I calmly switch on the computer. After about 20 minutes of copying and pasting (using the CTRL-C and CTRL-V keys – why bother with right-clicking?) and then putting it into my own words, I have the project ready. I spend the rest of the day switching between TV channels, playing PC games, and listening to my iPod.

Ah, the simple life!

Yes, I’m completely computer-dependent. I can hardly survive one weekend without the computer. It is as essential to me as oxygen.

All I can say, Mr. Schickard, is that I thank you for spending your precious time inventing that calculator. If it wasn’t for your hard work, we would all still be buying postage stamps.

I also applaud all those people who lived before me and managed without computers or Internet. How did you guys do it? Seems impossible to me.

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