I have to say upfront that I am not a technophobe. I’m the go-to person in this house for computer related issues. I’m not a bad hand at cell phones either, though my experience is limited, having a dumb phone rather than a smart one. So when getting a new laptop spurred me to think about the evolution and devolution of the uses of technology in my life and its effect on my work and leisure, it is not in a context of fear or aversion. Quite the opposite. I want to think about it because I’m enamoured of my new laptop. I like the feel of the keyboard, the luminescence of the transparent taskbar in royal purple, the shuffle of playful and gorgeous images on my desktop. But do I write any better for it? Really. How did I get here?
My first laptop was a hand-me-down Texas Instruments 286. Anyone remember those? The screen was monochrome, amber against black. Operating on DOS, my computer had no programs except Wordperfect. (Remember reveal codes?)
That was 1994. For the summer I took a chance on devoting my time to writing. I had my laptop, travelling to Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island. Also in the plane, in the special compartment reserved for small beings, was my cat, Snowball, a big timid guy who didn’t like travelling at all. He spent the first three days in PEI hiding under my bed.
Taking a couple of my short stories as a start, I wrote a sketch for The River Midnight, first longhand in a notebook and then transcribing it to my laptop. I spent the summer walking, watching, writing.
There was no internet then. Computers were work tools processing text and numbers. But it was marvelous because you could move text around and erase and it was so much easier than my typewriter had been. You could mysteriously lose a day’s work (or more) by pressing the wrong key. But you could carry backup in a pocket. (I met a writer on the island whose house had burned down, turning 4 years of her work into ash. She planted a garden in it.)
I didn’t want to leave and at summer’s end I had an intense spiritual experience, during which I wept and felt directed home though I questioned what home meant. Back in Toronto, I tossed 90% of the sketch while figuring out how to write a first draft. A couple of chapters in, feeling disoriented by the noise and smell of the city, I met A. The next few summers we went to the east coast together. I wrote my first novel; he wrote his doctoral dissertation. At times, alone at home writing, I felt isolated.
Lest you think I didn’t procrastinate during those golden days of DOS when all I could do was write on my laptop, I’ll quickly disabuse you of that notion. Pre-internet, I watched all the talk shows to avoid a blank page. I got rid of cable. I got rid of my tv, keeping only the small b&w one (I said) in case I was sick and in dire need of tv. The portable black and white served just as well. The only thing that displaced it was digital solitaire.
After RM sold, I bought a laptop with a colour screen, operating on windows 95. No internet yet, but I was able to procrastinate by a) changing the colour scheme on my colour screen and b) playing solitaire. At that time a lot of people were spending a lot of time playing solitaire on their new windows systems. (Other times people tore their hair out. That was because unlike DOS, windows did weird things you couldn’t see. This was the beginning of tech support.)
Email became a thing while I was writing The Singing Fire. At first A and I resisted because we thought email would be distracting (ha! little did we know from distraction yet). But eventually we caved, feeling out of the loop, especially since he could get online free with his university account. I acquired a card for my laptop that slid out with a little opening to plug in a phone line.
For shy people, email felt like a gift though it did take up gobs of time when I signed up for list-serves. No more writer’s isolation. I got hundreds of emails relating to interests and connections other than writing. I became embroiled in flame wars, siding with one side or another, gossiping with A about the people on the list serves. But as I think about this, and then think again, I have to say that I experienced the same thing in 3d when I was on the board of a synagogue in my pre email years. In fact we got an email account because we were late to hear about the latest episode in the skirmish between factions.
What was different was that online gossip and conflict went on at a hectic and around the clock pace. There were new messages every minute (rather like texting nowadays) and I felt compelled to check, not wanting to miss anything, and it was a new way to procrastinate. No more solitaire! That passed by the wayside.
The function of my computer had shifted from a work tool with solitaire to a work tool and communication hub. More tomorrow.