Hey you whippersnappers! More on computing ca. 1980

Various representatives of America's Youth have written in with reactions boiling down to "Doh!" to my having observed, 25 years ago, that computers could be, you know, useful.


Here is the missing part of the story: this was a highly controversial view at the time. It was even brave!

One of my best friends, a novelist, gave me a heartfelt lecture after that article, saying that the "sound" of the computer could never be removed from prose created in this android fashion. After all, the very term "word processing" implied an extruded, industrial procedure. Therefore he would always write his novels the proper way, with pencil on lined pads.


Another friend, a distinguished academic, said that he could already see the way that computers were debasing writing. Because they made it "so easy" to write, anybody would be able to do it -- and do lots of it, even with nothing to say. (I haven't asked him what he thinks about blogs.)


My friend and mentor, the sainted David Halberstam, picked up the phone to roar at me that the clackety-clack of fingers hammering out prose on manual typewriters was an integral part of the process of journalistic composition. Sort of like using a stick shift rather than automatic (which I still do), or growing and killing your own food (which I don't). This was a year or so before he began calling me for advice on how to get his IBM Displaywriter set up, and then his PC. I say this with 100% admiration and fondness -- and he laughed at the absurdity of his own shift of views..


Even the Atlantic's editor at the time, the sainted-beyond-measure Bill Whitworth, was obviously edgy about this borderline-loony, sci-fi-style expression of enthusiasm for the latest computerized gadgets.


(I am grateful to another friend, the accomplished and polymathic, though still too young to be sainted, Fred Kaplan of Slate, for reminding me of these contretemps.)


I eventually did a followup article, making a "public bet" -- in fashion of the famous wager between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich over resource scarcity. I would put up ten of my articles -- half written with a computer, half by preceding "natural" means. If anybody could tell which were which, I would give... something, I'm not sure just what, as a prize.


No one took up the challenge, and no one could have won. As is obvious to everyone now, but as was not obvious to most people then, the "sound" of people's writing is overwhelmingly their own sound, not that of the ThinkPad or the quill pen or the Number 2 pencil or even, gasp, the Macintosh.


So, to Kids Today: As you take for granted your blogs and your iPhones and your broadband connections and your ever-plummeting Moore's law-style prices for the latest technology, remember that an earlier generation of tech zealots fought for the freedoms you now enjoy. Freedom is not free!