March 31, 2023

It’s so hard to remember a previous part of my life, in particular the first decade, when there was no screen in the house. If you wanted to make a phone call, you went out into the street to the nearest working phone box with enough coins to complete the call.

If you wanted to take a photograph, you needed a camera, some film, and basically hope for the best. When, and only when, your film was all used up, you took it to a developer, waited a few days, and only then could you see the results; the whole process was slow and ponderous.

If you needed to write to somebody, you completed your message by hand, put the letter into an envelope, buy a stamp at the post office, affix the stamp to the envelope, and post it into a letterbox. Who knows when you would receive a reply, but many hours of my childhood and indeed teenage years were spent waiting for the postman to come down the garden path……I could go on and on.

So no, it was not better than now, not in any way, but it was different, and of course we didn’t know how things would change in the future. Today, I am not sure it’s always a better time either; it’s purely what you make it, as it’s always been, but my God, it does make several aspects of life so much easier.

A couple of examples.

Back in 1991, I was asked to musically direct the show “My Fair Lady” at the Jersey Opera House. With a huge caveat. Because it is a show that is extremely complex to stage, I was asked if I could generate a full orchestra using the latest computer technology available, so that the orchestra pit could be covered up and used for staging instead. 10 years previously, it simply would not have been possible to replace 20 musicians in such a way. (And of course, a legitimate argument to say you shouldn’t replace live musicians with technology). Anyway, I said yes. Today, I wouldn’t have the nerve to even attempt it.

Atari ST1040

My computer was an Atari ST1040, with its memory enlarged to a magnificent 4MB. Yes, MB, not GB! My programme was Steinberg 24, essentially one of the first digital 24-track studios. The hardware was a small, rack-mounted unit called an Emulator, which contained digital samples of all the instruments in the modern orchestra.

It allowed me, note by note, to record the entire score of the musical, from the double basses right up to the piccolos. It took months. The play-out during performances involved using eight floppy disks, each one jam-packed with data, each one having to be loaded up during the libretto, or talking bits during the show. I used 96 per cent of the available memory, and in a three week run, it never failed once. Not once. Extraordinary.

And lately, something most of us are finding invaluable using computer technology – being able to communicate with family and friends around the world, and see grandchildren and great-grandchildren growing up before our very eyes, despite being unable to travel, in some cases thousands of kilometres, to be with them in these crazy, crazy times in which we live.

Better before computers? I think not.

Were we better off before computers? 

I think this is easy: computers are not the criteria. They only make things look faster.

I only remember the early 80s, the TVs we had back then; watching the USSR-Canada, Cup of Canada’81 fierce hockey battles broadcast from the other side of the world.

We didn’t have computers in the USSR but I suspect there were plenty of them elsewhere.

In the 80s there was a very sudden flood of computers in Soviet schools. This was connected with the Gorbachevian era modernity. Then we got the internet. Then cells phones. Everything. The new times had come.

But was I better off before the age of computers? Being a kid back then, it is hard to deliver any message worth of listening.

But there’s only thing that I know: we’ve become faster with computers.

Strange, but with the beginning of the computer epoch the Soviet Union soon came crushing down. It did come as good news to me. The then new generation didn’t feel anything to cry about. I was 16 and we were listening to Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’, back in December 1991.

With the USSR gone, we’ve slowly been getting better off. I can certify it.

Who knows, it might finally be the computers to change the tune and bring the wind of change to my country… 

But Mom, ALL the kids have iPhones!

Old age blows. You end up looking like a zombie from Walking Dead: body parts fall off and dogs follow you down the street. I find myself talking about these damn kids today.

For example, when I was a young’un we didn’t have no stinkin’ phones. The phone hung on the wall and you didn’t know who was calling before you answered. Hello? “Sir, is your refrigerator running?” “You better catch it!” SLAM – down went the receiver! My Mother must have been so proud.

I remember my first personal computer: an Apple IIe, the Mac had not been invented yet. This screaming monster had 3 Mb of ram. I got a card and upgraded to eight! Homie don’t play. OK, I did play: remember Oregon Trail? Bad assed… 8 bits = 64 colors.

Regular readers know that I was in Broadcasting when I was young. I remember when computers first came to radio. In broadcasting, traffic refers to the placement of commercials on the log, not cars on the street. Computers were supposed to make traffic faster and improve billing over paper logs. I’m not sure that was ever the case.

I think the primary benefit of computers in business has been to allow management to access information. Back in the day, if a Sales Manager wanted to know how many accounts were sixty days out, the list would come back later that afternoon. Now the answer is only a click away.

Computers have resulted in millions of jobs being eliminated around the world. Now we have computer-mechanical hybrids, called robots and we can destroy ever more families by laying-off breadwinners. As computers become more powerful, we will no longer need people for most jobs.

I choke at the thought of paying $600 for a phone. Yes, I have had an iPhone but I currently have a cheap Samsung piece of garbage. I don’t know if I’m old or wise with age, but I can’t wrap my head around buying an eight year old an iPhone. Maybe I am getting too old, I don’t know.

As a child I played outside, like in the street, you know, where the cars go. We would grab the ball and get in the grass when a car came by. We were also expert at the construction of forts.

I do know that leaders around the world seem not to understand that computers will destroy Adam Smith style Capitalism. They believe because the one-percent are currently making big money that all is well. Of course, once computers replace enough people, there will not be enough parents with jobs to buy their eight year old kids iPhones. Then, of course, there will be a big crisis.

In the meantime, the former middle class becomes more angry and the world produces more Yellow Vest & Donald Trumps. You can be forgiven for assuming that the smart people can connect the dots but no – all is well and quarterly dividends are up.

From the above, you would think I believe life was better before computers; not at all. It’s just the next thirty years are going to be hard. We don’t have leaders who want to look at the important issues and it’s easy to make no plans for the future.

This Genie is not going back in the bottle. I think the rise of computers will be good for our Grandchildren but unfortunately, bad for us. Because our leaders, who are also members of the one-percent, have a vested interest in not seeing the world around them, there will be no changes until the West has a serious convulsion.

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