The mechanics of living

Last week I was having lunch with a dear friend I hadn't seen for awhile. When I asked about his family, we started talking about his father, who is in his 90s and who used to have his own small appliance repair business.

When you talk about someone who has lived for nine decades — one short of a century — the conversation often raises questions about what it must be like for someone who has lived through so many changes in technology in such a short time.

One of the things that is true for many of us older folk is that computers aren't like the machines we grew up with. Machines have visible, moving parts that can be located, repaired, removed or replaced. Computers have, what? Zeroes and ones travelling invisibly and very quickly down paths made of sophisticatedly transformed sand.

How does that happen? I don't know, but most kids do. That's why they can pick up any cell phone and use it without reading the instructions. And the same is true of DVD players and cameras and car radios and all sorts of devices that don't have visible, moving parts that can be located, repaired, removed or replaced.

It wasn't that long ago when cars started incorporating computers under the hood and complicating what used to be a fascinating mechanical device that young people used to know how to fix. I have no idea how to fix a computer because I have no idea what's going on under its "hood."

Computers still use words that come from the physical world to describe activities they are performing. This is meant to give you the impression that some familiar task from the noisy material world is being carried out in the silent world of cyberspace, like "cut and paste," "clear desk top," "delete," and "send to trash."

My computer actually makes the sound of a piece of paper being crunched up into a ball and tossed into the trash can to make you think something is actually happening. It also makes an airplane sound when I send an e-mail. Some cell phones even have the capacity to replicate the sound of the bells ringing on an old-fashioned phone.

One of the many things computers do that would have seemed unheard of only decades ago is to make it possible for you to chose whatever type style you would like to use when you're writing.

In the not-too-distant past, this task was a skilled trade known as typesetting. In the early days of printing, each letter of type was set by hand into a holder that would eventually be inked and pressed onto a page and thereby print the text. This meant that each word had to be set backwards so that it would read correctly when printed.

This was how newspapers, books, and posters were printed, along with everything else. The typesetter would have a choice of styles (fonts) available. Extra spaces in the text were filled in with blank pieces of lead, the same metal used for each letter, That is why the space between lines is still called "leading."

It was a major advance when the typewriter was invented. You didn't have to write a document by hand or set type. Each letter was on a key and when you pressed the key, the letter struck an inked ribbon in front of a blank piece of paper which printed or typed that letter onto the page.


When IBM introduced the Selectric typewriter, we all thought we'd seen everything. It used a ball instead of keys to print, and you could control the leading. The ball was removable and came in different fonts. Imagine the possibilities.

Well, try to find a typewriter anywhere these days, Selectric or otherwise. Nowadays when we write, we use a computer program that performs some sort of magic that is called "word processing." Processing is what happens to your documents in a bureaucracy. It's what we do to make cheese or have our credit card scanned in the grocery store. It doesn't sound like the mental and physical labor of word crafting or writing a composition.

With a word processing program, you can simply select a font and there it is, right on the page. Change your mind, pick another one. There are hundreds, maybe thousands to chose from. Make the letters as big or as small as you like. They don't exist inside the computer on shelves like they did in a typesetter's shop.

You can even type a letter to someone on your cell phone. It's called "text messaging" and it happens in an instant. Unlike all the work it takes living 90 long years.

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