A little while ago, I was reading about a young Guelph couple who decided to launch an experiment, and live for a year without the normal multitude of technological devices and tools at their disposal. They and their kids will try to live without computers, cellphones, the Internet, etc. — or, as they call it, like it’s 1986.
Why 1986? There were computers then; after all, Time magazine famously picked the personal computer as the Machine of the Year (rather than Man or Woman) of 1982. As it turns out, 1986 was the year that the couple, now the parents of two young children, were born.
I happened to own a personal computer in 1986 — in fact, my now-wife and I bought it that very year. It was an Epson Equity II, and for the time, it was pretty sleek. It had a clean, green screen, looked sharp and — to our amazement — could print what we wrote on a dot matrix printer. It had two drives: one for running a program on a floppy disk, and the other for storing what we created.
I’m not particularly old, but my adult life has dovetailed with the transition from analogue to digital. Being middle-aged (it’s hard to admit that, but I will), I’m now working with quite a few smart, talented and notably young professionals, who seem to shake their heads when they learn of how things were done just a few short years ago.
In my racket — journalism — almost every tool and workflow has changed, except for some basics, like the trusty notepad. But the main tool, for typing, is radically different. I learned to type on an electric typewriter that my mom, a professional writer, had in her home office, and while I didn’t love it at the time, I’ve always been grateful that she enrolled me in an evening typing course when I was in high school.
Being able to type was not just a competitive advantage; it saved me as a university student, when professors were spared my hideous handwriting.
My first news stories were pounded out on these beasts, including manuals like a few Underwoods that saw their fair share of combat at The Muse, the student newspaper at Memorial University. It was there I saw the then-future of technological innovation, and that was the computerized typesetter. This was a massive machine, picked up for quite a tidy price in 1982, and so large and so valuable it sat in a locked room to itself.
Every word in the paper had to be copy-edited by hand and then reset by a trained typesetter, using a screen that was not much bigger than a large index card; even the machine itself was as big as a loveseat. Before that, we sent our copy out to Robinson-Blackmore, and the typeset material would come back as strips of film. All of this typeset stuff had to be handled with great care while it was waxed, sliced, cut and carefully pasted up, on large sheets of thick paper called flats.
I worked at The Telegram in the summer of 1986, and at that time, the paper used IBM electric typewriters that were calibrated just so, meaning that sheets of copy could be fed into an optical-character recognition device, which in turn would pass its data on to a typesetter. The paper got a computerized system soon after, with terminals connected to a server. The Tely made a quantum leap in the ’90s when it bought a networked series of Macs by Apple.
I bought my first computer in 1985 — not for me, but for the small office where I worked, in Ottawa. This was a bit of an adventure at the time. We transformed from an office that typed and retyped copy to one that used a computer — just one, for the four of us — as well as a high-end (for the time) printer that emulated the clean type of a good electric.
I learned to type on an electric typewriter that my mom, a professional writer, had in her home office, and while I didn’t love it at the time, I’ve always been grateful that she enrolled me in an evening typing course when I was in high school.
The dot matrix we bought the next year for home was equally amazing, although I quickly grew to resent how quickly a ribbon can fade. (Isn’t that the way? This week’s miracle becomes next spring’s drudgery.)
Photography remained analogue for a comparatively longer time. In the ’80s, what amazed me most was watching the devices that professional photographers used, like the ones who came to St. John’s in 1983 for the Royal Visit, to transmit photos of Charles and Diana over a phone line. It took, in retrospect, forever for each image to move from that rotating device over the line, but I was transfixed as I watched it work.
Modems were still a novelty. I can remember being in Montreal as a friend showed me how the text of his story was being sent from a terminal to a typesetting machine in another building. The speed, as I recall, was about 300 bits per second, or around 30 characters of type in that time.
Cellphones were not available, and fax machines were just about to take off. I remember the arrival of the Interac-enabled bank machines in the mid-80s, and how grateful I was I didn’t have to find time in a busy reporting day to go line up at a bank before it closed!
In broadcast, the changes have been robust. As a freelancer in the ’80s and ’90s, I picked up a few rudimentary skills cutting tape for radio pieces; like others of a certain age, I still somewhere have a razor blade used for making a quick edit or two. Digital editing came to radio in the ’90s, and television much later.
When I started my first stint at CBC-TV in St. John’s 20 years ago, we shot everything on Beta videocassettes, which was the broadcast standard of the time. Learning how to manage what can quickly turn into several stacks of tapes became a challenge. A few years later, I was part of the unit that made East of Canada, a five-hour history of Newfoundland and Labrador that coincided with the Cabot 500th anniversary in 1997.
It was also the first production in the province to use the then-revolutionary Avid digital video editing system.
Quite a lot has changed since then. Reporters now can edit video on their desktop, and there are no tapes, period. At The Telegram, desktop publishing has been the norm for a full generation.
This has all required a fair bit of change and adaptation for people in my industry, just like any other, and not all of that adjustment has been pleasant for everyone, to be sure.
I don’t long to go back to the old ways. Cutting my finger with an
X-Acto knife, being unable to do a rapid audio edit in less than seconds, not being able to put my finger on precisely the image I want through a keyword search … I think I’d go mad.
Don’t get me wrong: I love an old Underwood as much as anyone. I just wouldn’t want to depend on it for my living.
John Gushue is a digital producer with CBC News in St. John’s. Twitter: @johngushue.