Saturday, February 04, 2012

Personal computing -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in July 2007. RIP, John.)

I'm always running a book or two behind with John Updike, so it is only now that I'm getting to Villages, his 2004 novel. It's more of the same, of course. Owen Mackenzie, the protagonist of Villages, is Rabbit redux, and his Middle Falls,Connecticut, is the Tarbox of Couples. But we read, because Updike is such a fine stylist and endlessly inventive master of metaphor.

Owen might as easily have been a used-car salesman or a minister, but this time around he is a computer nerd, an MIT electrical engineering grad who in the late-1950s launches his skiff of a career on the rising tide of digital computation, so the novel is not only a compendium of his sexual peccadilloes (and more weighty, skiff-sinking transgressions), it is also a neat half-century history of computers.

It would have been fun if Updike had turned his sly wit to a nonfiction meditation on the parallels between computing and sex that he hints at in the novel. For those of us who embarked on these activities in the 1950s, programming was a prerequisite and there was lots of down time. DO LOOPs, GO TOs, IF-THENs: Everything was in code and one needed to know a bit from a byte. There were no Undos. Then came the Sexual Revolution with its Graphical User Interface, and everything got rather GUI, both more and less complicated. Drop down menus. Point and click. Cut and paste. No need to know what went on inside the box.

And now, for the younger generation, it seems that sex and computing have merged. Facebook, MySpace, IM, Second Life, chat rooms: it's hard to know where the real world ends and the virtual world begins. A tectonic shift has taken place, from hardware to software. Me, I still have a sneaking nostalgia for those bulky soldered circuits in their agitated ANDs, ORs, and NOTs, those racks of magnetic cores threaded with fine wires remembering data with the same tactile finesse as tingly skin, the chill of holding a thick deck of punch cards in your hands and the fear that if you dropped them you'd never get them back in order again, and, of course, the thrill of taking the back panel off the cabinet and seeing all those vacuum tubes glowing red hot.