A Digital Literacy Narrative

My digital life began in 1984, and the most terrifying woman I had ever known was responsible.  Her name was Marge Bisiar, and she was my kindergarten teacher.  I was five and Bisiar, in my eyes, was positively ancient.  She must have been at least thirty!  She ruled her kindergarten classrooms with an iron fist, but her students were usually productive.  If not, they met with very harsh penalties, not the least of which was Ms. Bisiar’s infamous fury.  While Bisiar was a disciplinarian, I later understood that she expected nothing less than her kids’ best effort—a worthy lesson I learned well (but may have forgotten during high school).

Apple IIe

Apple IIe: My grade school computer lab was filled with these clunkers.

Ms. Bisiar was also the local technology expert, which meant she would remain an important person in my life for the next six years and beyond. My elementary school in Casper, Wyoming, featured one of the school district’s fancy and few computer labs.  It was packed with about thirty Apple IIe’s, which had been state-of-the-art in home computing during the early ‘80s.  Into the latter part of the decade, many of the IIe’s in the school had fallen into disrepair. Gradually the lab transitioned to the more expensive and elegant Apple II-GS model, and the clunky IIe’s were distributed to the teachers to learn basic word-processing and spreadsheet software.

The computer mouse did not yet exist or was not ubiquitous enough for a Wyoming grade school.  I recall using the keyboard to program a “mouse” on the screen to do things like: Go forward 600px and reverse and turn left.  Hit Enter, and the pointer arrow on the green monochrome screen would jump at the command.  A little quick coding for pen down, and the mouse drew a line between the points.  It wasn’t quite WOPR from War Games, but I was learning basic logical reasoning at a very young age.  Ms. Bisiar soon recruited me to a junior tech squad, an elite, handpicked team of mega-geniuses from every grade.  Mostly we built things with Legos.

But they were Lego Technics, which were (and still are) awesome.  First we built a model Jeep that followed directional commands from the juiced-up II-GS in Ms. Bisiar’s office.  We also constructed a large humanoid torso with arms and head that responded to input from the computer.

A Jeep made from Lego Technics

Some of Lego’s Technic sets provide an interface for the computer that allows users to control the machines they have created.

Beyond Legos, I spent many geeky hours with a lost techno-relic of the 1980s, the Big Trak programmable tank.  Almost big enough for an eight-year-old to ride around the gymnasium, Big Traks took up to 16 commands of the kind you would expect: turn right, go ahead X.  Punch the sequence into the onboard keypad, and the beige tank trundled off at unimpressive speed to carry out your confined set of commands. All your base are belong to us, indeed.

Big Trak programmable tank

Big Traks were programmable toy tanks that allowed input of up to 16 movement commands.

Steve Jobs, public schools and Satan made a sacred pact in the ‘80s that all American children would use Apple products in school. Period. My parents were schoolteachers, and the Apple 2GS that swamped an entire wing of their modest house was devoted to their nightly grades and lesson plans.  I was more interested in my friends’ gear, namely the Commodore 64 and the original NES.  Apple only carried educational games that lacked the plumbers and princesses my attention required. The best I could hope was for my family to be spared dysentery and death along the Oregon Trail.  Other Mac “games” included Mavis Beacon, a typing game, and Number Crunchers, which was like Pac-Man plus math — subtract the fun.

There were hundreds, if not thousands, of games on the C64 platform.  Alas, I lived a somewhat sheltered childhood, and neither Commodore nor Nintendo would pass my parents’ scrutiny. (I was forbidden to play with G.I. Joes or Barbies.)

nes

The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) ruled the console gaming market for most of the 1980s.

“Nothing violent” was the rule in my house (yes, my folks are crazy hippies).  My only option was to geek out in overdrive on my friends’ game systems whenever I had the chance, often under the pretense we were “hanging out.” I would lie, cheat and steal to get any quality time with Excitebike or Kung-Fu on the NES.

In the early 1990s — when I was a tweenager — e-mail was the new trending technology and computers were no longer inert, isolated hardware. The idea of the Net had caught on in popular culture, and early ISP’s like Prodigy and America Online enabled computers to connect over existing phone lines.

Taking a walk or catching a quick nap were good ways to pass the time waiting for my Prodigy service to connect to the Net.  The connection speed was laughable by today’s standards, and I knew it was slow back then.  I was an adolescent.  I was impatient.  I was connected to a vast ocean of information, but damned if it didn’t require saintly patience to dip in a toe!

Commodore 64

The Commodore 64 was the ultimate desktop computer for gaming in the ’80s.

Now that dial-up web connection is no longer part of my life, I realize I miss the bizarre squawking of the old modems: the dial tone, the clicking and buzzing.  And just when I thought something had gone awry and began cursing the $20 modem from RadioShack, the key found the lock, and I was connected.  I had opened a door to limitless vaults of knowledge… but the link was fragile.  One phone call would interrupt service, and it might be days before I’d bother logging in again.

Fast-forward to the year 2012.  It’s now officially the future. “The Net” seems like a simplistic name to give the digital snarl our lives have become. The old Apple IIe’s and Commodores are relics whose processing power is dwarfed by the phones we carry nowadays. While I’m still waiting patiently for my hoverbike, I’ve tried to pass the time by becoming more educated about existing digital technologies, especially since resuming classes at the University of Wyoming.

Some tech I can handle.  I maintain a basic portfolio website.  I’m well versed in audio engineering and I’ve dabbled in video.  I’ve got some skills that I hope someday will pay the bills, but a couple high-tech courses have ironically made my own limitations clear.  If Adobe Flash is over my head, then programming in Java is… we’ll say Mars.  I’m competent in HTML, but I don’t enjoy the work.  I’m perfectly content allowing smarter people develop the tools to let me sidestep any heavy coding.  I love technology, but I’m still impatient. I am primarily a consumer, and I’m OK with that.  Besides, if I am confronted with any surprise coding, there are very few questions Google or Wolfram Alpha cannot answer.

In some ways the new digital life is like the Wild West, a frontier where the ability to communicate is such a simple task that anything goes.  Our social lives bear little resemblance to those of last decade, not to mention all the other ones.  Nevertheless, life online is full of constraints and expectations that tend to suck up cognitive space.  Social media and cell phones arguably over-connect us to one another. Facebook is the obvious example that has spawned possibly the largest “community” in history.  Personal information that was once private is now part of the public record.  Every intimate detail of people’s lives is often posted with what I assume is plain boorishness.  Now that individuals feel empowered by the ability to publish about their lives, every mundane thought and deed, spiteful instinct, and political or religious belief is let loose upon anyone bored enough to notice.  Sometimes a little mystery is a good thing.Blogger

Blogging also requires a certain level of exhibitionism that can be intimidating (or irritating when reading a blog) and humility will get you nowhere in Blogland. I’ve blogged for several classes, but I have trouble keeping up when I’m not required to do so, partly because it’s so public. The tactile presence of a pen in hand is still the most comfortable brainstorming method for this aging nerd.

My life is indelibly intertwined with technology, and I’m mostly supportive.  I read sci-fi novels and watch TED videos.  I am hopelessly addicted to video games and I tinker with website development.  Trust me, I’m on the train.  But I recognize that technology used to solve a problem can itself cause unforeseen consequences.  Our lives are increasingly devoted to cultivating our digital literacies and personas, often at the expense of other worthy experiences.  This trend will no doubt continue to simultaneously connect and isolate us in ways we can’t possibly predict.

I’m optimistic, somehow. I’m of the opinion that the promise of technology justifies the risk and sacrifice.  Could be that’s Ms. Bisiar talking.

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