Friday, June 03, 2011

Soliloquys of a Digital Immigrant....

Have a look at this post on Digital Immigrants, written by a blogger friend.

Unlike the introduction described above , where the company gives a laptop and says "Play around" , my immigration to a digital life, has more in common with the manner in which old immigrants from my native place, Kokan, made their way to Mumbai, the then magic city.

Nobody gave them a ticket, or a ride to the nearest bus stop. (In fact they had no roads, buses or busstops. Just a forest path.) They simply walked and trudged away, keeping away from wild animals, resting under trees, eating tiffins filled with food that would last for a while, with no means of communication to folks back home. Then it was a crowd on a deck of a smelly ship sailing to Mumbai, and a wide eyed arrival at the docks in Mumbai, and being dwarfed by the regality of the buildings in South Mumbai.Then began the slogging, apprenticeships, and evening schools, and an eventual settling down .

My immigration to the digital life began with machines that were taller and wider than me, communicated with a teletype racket, and took their feeds in the form of punched paper cards, which were arranged in a particular order; each one an instruction. A lot of my early digital life was spent carrying boxes of 2000 cards around. Nothing was spiffy and simple. And nothing fitted in my palm or pocket. Tape Drives were housed in what looked like almirahs, discs were in another metal cupboard just around the corner, there were huge consoles that reminded you of control rooms in movies, and line printers clanged away, making so much noise, which everyone tolerated, else you didn't get results to show someone.

By and by PC's happened. Today's kids may not know that we had PC's , PC-XT's , and PC-AT's. All quite bulky compared to today's sleekness and style stuff, but we were eventually terribly delighted to have a keyboard to ourselves :-)

Hardware is easy to get used to; as folks might tell you, as they migrate from wind-up 33 rpm LP record players (with detachable "needles" ) to MP3 players that you wear like a garland. Its the software that became smarter and smarter. Along with it came jargon, acronyms, and random names that had no connection with the contraption. (I remember an HTML editor called Coffee Cup.)

I was once asked (in my working life), to organize and give a bunch of lectures introducing computers to folks who actually ran the nitty gritty stuff on the organization : administration, accounts, security, audit etc. They would be slowly shifting to customized software , but were wary and unaccustomed to thinking machines. The entire thing consisted of a morning set of introductory lectures , and afternoon hands on practice.

They asked questions like "what is this business of "booting" the computer ? Why isn't it as simple as switching on a light ? Booting was explained and taught to us as a bootstrapping methodology that enables us to get the system operational. Try explaining bootstrapping to folks who thought boots were misplaced in the first place, and had no business being connected to computers.

And so , one ended up explaining to folks , that it was much like "kicking" a scooter to start it and get it idling. Just like the scooter kick, aided by fuel air mixtures and a decently adjusted carburettor etc got the scooter idling, offering you chances to decide what you wanted to do (shut it off, put in gear, accelerate in place, etc), you "booted " a computer, so pre programmed compulsory jobs like checking memory , etc could be done, perfect initial conditions could be confirmed, and the computer would reach an "idling" stage, where it waited for instructions from you (the DOS prompt, probably not a favourite of the windowfied folks). This they understood very well, as most folks then commuted by scooter.

Then came the floppy discs. ( I actually wonder if today's digital natives are conversant with what they were , as a matter of digital history.)

After describing "floppy discs" (cupboards with a key to what is where) and directories ( dedicated shelves in the cupboards), some smart folks asked about some errors they had heard people talk about, like "Bad sectors ", on disk. And so you ended up explaining, that just like addresses indicated destinations to postmen, the key of the cupboard(disc) indicated what to look for where. And just like an envelope with an address smudged by rains was difficult to decipher, sometimes the access to the part of the disc that you were looking for couldn't be reached or found. Hence, bad sector.

Then there was the fun during afternoon practicals. Old style officers, heads of sections, all came for it. They had to go through a game where the system asked for your name, and then you had to enter a list of things you wanted to buy from some shop. The concept of hitting "Enter" after typing in something was confusing. So we explained how it was similar to explaining something to someone and asking "Samjha Kya ? (~ Understood ?)" with a tap on the head each time.

There were exclamations when the system wished them "good afternoon" etc by name. The best one was when someone called out and asked me , hesitantly (at least 3 times), whether they should hit "Enter", and we asked them to try it and see. Nothing would burst into flames, nothing would stall, and chances are the computer would detect a mistake , if one existed. What happened in the end was that people played more than their share of practicals, it was fun to see stuffy officer types smiling and grinning like children.

I don't know how much of a use this was in their eventual education and expertise. But today, more than 27 years later their offices are all computerised and young folks are competently performing various office activities .

The Internet happened n the middle of all this. I remember accessing the Internet in Unix using something called Lynx. There wasn't much of a Graphical User Interface (GUI) anywhere, "Windows" was just on the horizon , and a mouse was then what ran surreptitiously below the floor trying to chew up the network wiring. I went through a phase of looking disdainfully down on "Windows" as we continued to use Unix.

Those were not the days of Dreamweavers and stuff. I remember creating my thyroid website coding the html from first principles, with what I called the donkey method, bothering every geek within a radius of 10 feet and more in the office.

Too many things happening now. Between slimline flat monitors, everything and its friend that is connectible via USB, so many operating system versions and flavors, numerous browsers, their versions on cellphones, webcams, skype, and alarming nomenclatures like bluetooth,apple, ipads, notebooks, GPRS, malware, adware,packet collisions, pinging, spamming, buzzing, twittering and so on, it has all started resembling the chaos on the streets of Mumbai.

But unlike those for whom cars always came with AC, and power everything, automatic opening, closing, not to mention, locking, I still look upon in nostalgia at the times, when you breezed through on the Western Express Highway , windows down, on your way to south Mumbai and didn't get into a mental agony over lack of parking, cheating mechanics, motorcycles weaving in and out in lanes, avoiding collisions by sheer luck, someone banging your car etc etc.

And so my immigration to these Digital times, was much like my ancestors to Mumbai. Slow, filled with leaps and falls, trials and fun, a sudden feeling of being advanced, and then a feeling of being terribly grounded.

There are guys mentioned in the earlier aforementioned post, who describe Digital Immigrants as those "who were born before the existence of digital technology and adopted it to some extent later in their life. {and then a cartoon shows a mother explaining to her son that he was 'born' and not 'downloaded!' }...

Well, I was there at the very beginning of digital technology. I was born before it was. It improved and enhanced its qualities in a continuous fashion, and allowed me to grow with it.

Only trouble is, I age, and it doesn't. And unlike me , it gets presumably smarter as it ages.

But I do not know whether it realizes where it is going. And whether it remembers where it came from.

I know where I came from.

And I certainly know where I am going....

(To publish this on my blog :-))) HA ! Ha! )

No, seriously, we need to start a "Daughter of the Digital Technology" Campaign. All Sons, whether of the Soil , Technology, or of Digitally Native / Immigrant mothers, most welcome......


  1. HAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! this was so much fun to go through :D :D thank you!

  2. Your post took me to seventies when I saw a mainframe computer for the first time. There were some hilarious moments in managing operators who worked there.

    In one company a settlement with union gave 'Terminal Allowance' to those who worked in Computer section.

    Some called the mainframe 'Dinosaurs' and in eighties it vanished just like Dinosaurses vanished without a trace suddenly.

    Along with 'Booting' and 'Enter' we also had 'dedicated computers'; till then we never thought machines can be dedicated.

    Enjoyed reading,


  3. have tagged you :)

  4. I took to the computer much later than you but I do feel amazed at the way it has become part of one's life. The days of letter writing is over and instant messaging via mobile phones is the current style.I don't wish to go into what was wrong and what was not but every era has a flavor that remains. I was in Mumbai in the 50s and what a different place it was. Makes me nostalgic.

  5. I remember - even kept one floppy for antique/novelty value to the next generation! Once they figure it out and give me the 'oh, ma!' look! :-D

    I am very thrilled to know the expansion of GUI - the extent of my knowledge!

  6. Really really good post. I wd love it if you were to write a guest post on my blog as well, on any topic of your choice. Also, if you permit, can i post a link to this post -- it's very insightful and a lot of my readers wd also benefit from it. :)))