Writing Tools and the March of Technology

Kaypro III bought my first computer thirty years ago, a Kaypro II. It was state of the art for the personal computer: no hard drive, of course, but duel floppy drives so you could run software on one and save your work on the other.

The operating system was CP/M. I picked the Kaypro because I’d read that the CP/M operating system was the one most likely to survive. Microsoft was still an upstart back then.

It was “portable,” meaning that it closed up into something about the size of a sewing machine and could be carried with you if you didn’t mind lugging around a 20-pound object. No battery, of course. You couldn’t really take it to the coffee shop.

I bought it for writing fiction and doing legal documents. It cost about five times as much as a correcting Selectric typewriter, but it made it so much easier to revise and didn’t require accurate typing ability. And you didn’t have to have a hard copy of everything.

I didn’t use it to communicate with others, didn’t get on bulletin boards and the other chat stuff going on back then. It was strictly an advanced writing tool.

Fast forward to today: I have three computers: a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone. Each one of them is so much more powerful than that Kaypro it makes my head spin. They’re imminently portable — all three together weigh maybe five pounds. I can and do travel with them all at once.

And the three of them together cost about the same as the Kaypro cost in 1983, and that’s not taking inflation into account. If you consider that, the three of them together probably cost less than half of what I paid for the Kaypro.

Of the three, only the laptop is intended for the same purpose as the Kaypro: to be a writing tool. Of course, it does much more than making it easier to write and save what I write. I also use it for research, for submitting work (very few publications want hard copies these days), for general communication, for reading the news, for paying bills. The Kaypro was little more than a fancy typewriter, though you could also program on it and there were a few games.

But here’s the thing: If I wasn’t a writer, I wouldn’t even need the laptop. For most of my non-writing needs, the tablet and the phone do more than enough.

Back when I bought the Kaypro, I didn’t even know I needed devices that would do what my phone and tablet do. I had a landline. I went to the library. I bought books. I had a TV and a radio and a stereo, not to mention a camera and a tape recorder. I wrote letters (well, at least to my grandmothers). I made phone calls. I sent postcards. I subscribed to newspapers and magazines.

I still have some of the devices (not to mention the books), but only because I acquired them when they were necessary to do the things they do. I wouldn’t buy them today. The tablet and the phone replace pretty much everything I need for communication, entertainment, reading, and even documenting my life.

A few years ago I didn’t even know I needed those items and now they are essentials.

But the laptop: that’s for work. In fact, in my office I have it hooked up to a large monitor and use a full size keyboard and mouse, because when I’m working I like to see as much of the document as possible and I like to have all the bells and whistles of a larger keyboard. I can write on the laptop without those things, but it is more physically exhausting.

I can write on the tablet — if I use the keyboard that comes with it — but only for short bursts. The tablet is fine for email — hell, the phone even works for email — but it isn’t good for long bouts of work.

If you’re a student or a programmer or a designer or a videomaker or a maker or a scientist setting up research studies or a publisher or running a webhosting service or doing any one of thousands of jobs that require processing power and to be able to see what you’re doing, you need a laptop or desktop computer, or even a much more powerful computer. You can do many of these things on a phone or tablet, but it’s harder.

But for most things, you can get by with a smartphone. Videos and books are better on a tablet, but the phone is the crucial item. There’s a reason why the mobile phone — so much more than a phone — is the one device that’s becoming ubiquitous worldwide, even in countries where ordinary people lack other necessities.

Even when I bought the Kaypro, I couldn’t conceive of where all these things were headed. I’m sure there were people working on the Internet and programming who saw some of it, but I bet even most of them didn’t see that they’d be carrying a powerful computer around in their pocket. I read and wrote science fiction back then, but science fiction is about possibilities, not about prediction.

It’s popular to complain about this world, to point out the problems caused by our high tech obsession, to whine about how things are better with books. Sometimes I feel that way, too.

But not today. Today I’m just marveling at what we’ve got.



Writing Tools and the March of Technology — 7 Comments

  1. And this makes it so hard for the SF writer. How can we keep up, if reality zooms ahead like this? I’ve had to move the tech orthogonally in fiction, to make it sffy enough.

  2. Remember when Star Trek had unreachable tech? Guess what, we have surpassed Classic Trek in everything but warp drive and transporters. And we are closing in on that. In some ways Roddenberry is responsible for the tech revolution. Will he be canonized in a future generation?

    • I always say we’re living in the Golden Age, as envisioned by the SF writers of the so-called Golden Age.

      And the warp drive and transporters can’t come too soon for me. Especially the transporters. I don’t envision a chance to travel to other parts of the universe, but I’d really like to get around this world without being crammed into an airplane. (Which is, when you remember that the airplane has only been with us for a little over 100 years, an example of how SF has raised our expectations.)

  3. Of course, the other issue thing your post brings to mind is: What’s being invented now that will transform our future? And will each of us be able to keep up, or even want to? I watch my mother, who is 86, and she is completely disconnected and uninterested and generally unable to participate in the digital revolution. The concept of a smartphone appalls her, largely because it would make life too complicated. Recently, I went on a lengthy search to find the simplest cell phone I could for her, and trust me, it took awhile to find something that would work. I wonder what’s in store for us?

    • I was thinking about that the other night. I can still keep up, even if I’m far from the cutting edge, but how much longer will that happen? Will all the forms I need to fill out for Medicare be on some new device I can’t figure out? Will there be something worse than voice mail jail when I need to call my doctor?

      But I’m still in a cheerful mood about tech today. When I bought the Kaypro II, it was the state the art personal computer.

  4. I am already totally unable to handle my TV, DVD player, cable, etc. I have to get my son to handle it. OTOH I have hundreds of songs on my Ipod…