Sixty-Four or One-Twenty-eight?

I read a few tech columns and blogs, but not enough so you would mistake me for a technology wiz, or even someone with more than basic knowledge of “How stuff works”.  Today, however, a headine in my reader caught my eye, and I didn’t mark the item as “read”, I actually read the darn thing.

Backing up a little, in the (shudder) ’70s we were a young family living from day to day, or hand to mouth,  as my Mom used to say.  I know you all had that period, right?  Sometime it lasts your whole life, or seems too.  Anyway, this is about dreams and ideas, not hands and mouths.

A lady at church belonged to something called “Consumer Mail Panel”, and told me the survey peddler was looking for a few good recruits with young families.  I guess the good old panel was still around in 1991, if you like almost historic newspaper articles.  I joined.  I burnt lots of time filling out surveys and receiving small products to test.  We got cereal in plain black and white boxes, canning salt in canning jars, and other unique, useful, borderline, useless, and just plain stupid things. I fed children the cereal and marked computer punch cards with their opinions.  I used the salt and told them I would NEVER pay more to get salt in a useful jar, when it currently came in a box I could use to start a fire in my cookstove.  We also got surveys which included ideas for consumer products.

The surveys themselves were obviously professionally constructed.  The described proposed or “new” products in detail and asked for reactions.  Many questions started with, “Think about how often you would use product A”, and then gave  columns headed by words ranging for always to never; and the poor confused consumer (me) would read down the questions and select a column to darken a computer dot in.  There was a lot of  “never” on my surveys.  I would never pay more for something which presumably had more value than a cheaper product, like the canning salt in the canning jar.

The came the survey about the new consumer product.  It was a home computer; and it was described in detail, a processor, a screen called a monitor, a tape drive to hold cassette tapes with programs, a keyboard.  I loved it sight unseen.  I was at the end of the driveway when Papa got home from work, excited to tell him about this new thing that would be available soon.  We discussed at dinner if such a thing was possible, and if we would be able to afford one. I declared we would have one.

Now that I’m around the barn, here is the Tech column that brought back the C-64; and it’s big, fancy, brother 128.  We got it.  We paid a bundle.  I loved it, and so did all our daughters.  There were fights for time, charts showing who used up our “online” time, and problems allocating the resoures. The C-64 is where our family tradition of setting the timer for each child’s turn began. Back in those days you paid for your online time by the minute, as I remember. D2 was part of a teen forum online and earned credits so she had more minutes to use later.  There was “chatting” with other participants and she helped moderate. She would remember more about how that worked, but I remember the impact.

Oh yes, the impact.  After D2 married, she and her husband made a trip to New York.  Thanks to her forum moderation days, she actually knew someone who lived in New York City.  This young man and his wife told D2 where to park in Jersey, met her and her husband, and toured them around New York.  Rural Michigan kids did not have contact with or knowledge of such a wide part of the world when I was a child; my daughters are the first generation to communicate with people from distant places regularly, and quickly.

We’ve moved on through many computers and electronic devices over the years, from  our first PC, an 8086  and right through the Pentium processors and who knows where next.  Today we have advanced computers and laptops, phones which send messages, advanced game consoles and other stuff.

The real gift of all that is the communication.  I communicate with family members, bluegrass music enthusiasts, genealogists, historians, and a diverse collection of  people across the globe.  I am able to hear  from the people themselves, not a newspaper, magazine or a TV show.  I can understand better, because I receive information from a source that is experiencing what they are talking about.

From the Consumer Mail Panel to online surveys, things have changed for the better.

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