Apr 10, 2023, 05:55AM

Four Computers and a Bubble Jet

My long and meandering way to the internet.

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I’ve had a computer since the late-1980s. My first was an Amstrad. It had two floppy disk drives, and no hard drive. It was exclusively used as a word processor. You couldn’t go online on it, play games, watch films, or do anything at all except word processing and spreadsheets and other simple office functions.

You’d load up the software by inserting a floppy disk into one of the disk drives. This would take several minutes. It had a green screen—green words on a black background—and it’d scroll through the program at an agonizingly slow pace. It would hum and fuss for a few minutes, these incomprehensible blocks of flickering text cutting across the screen, like patterns of light projected onto a wall through a windblown tree on a sunny day. Once the word processor program was loaded up, you’d insert the disk containing your work—it used three inch floppies instead of the three-and-a-half-inch format which became the standard later—and that would load up too. It’d take you to the beginning of the text, so the next thing you had to do was to work your way through it. If it was a large piece of work this would take several more minutes. You’d press “Ctrl” and “End” and the computer would scroll through the pages, pausing every so often and making a whirring noise. Sometimes this would take so long I’d go and put the kettle on and make a cup of tea while I waited.

The printer was a dot-matrix affair attached to a wedge of paper with holes and perforations which emerged from a cardboard box under the desk. It’d rattle and buzz and make clattering noises as it printed off the pages in a continuous scroll. It was very noisy and the resultant script was machine-like and inelegant. It looked like robot writing. You’d have to rip off the perforations and separate the pages before you sent them off. I had that computer for about five years and wrote my first published works on it.

Later my house was broken into and the computer stolen, along with all the floppy disks containing my work. Whoever took them must’ve thought they had something interesting on them, like computer games, or porn. Instead, all they got were the inanities of a middle-aged man going on at length about the meaning of life. The computer was given to me as a birthday present by a friend, and those floppy disks contained most of my earliest writings. They included several unfinished novels as well as the columns which were, by this time, being published in the Guardian.

God knows what the thieves must have thought. I imagine they sold it as a job lot. I doubt they even looked at what was on the disks. And whoever bought the machine probably would’ve erased the disks for their own purpose. But I have a vague hope that maybe some of those works were read by someone, or, if not, that whoever used the machine after me used it wisely and well, and that maybe they’ve written a book, and reflected upon their lives, as I’d done.

The computer was stolen while I was in London making a TV programme for the BBC. It was my only venture into the medium. As part of our filming we’d gone to visit a road protest site in Bath, and while the BBC production team were busy cutting and pasting the film into some kind of shape, I was writing a long article for the Guardian about my experiences on the road protest. That came out on June 4th 1994 and was called ‘Spirits in a material world.’ It was seen by the non-fiction editor at Faber & Faber who commissioned me to write a book.

The book took a year and was written on my next computer, which I bought second-hand from a friend. Again, it had no function beyond word processing. The work was saved onto floppies, although the computer was an IBM-based model this time and used the standard disks. I no longer have any of those disks, but some of the work was saved onto subsequent computers, so some still exists, in the form of primitive word files, on the computer I’m using now. Every time you buy a new computer you download all the files from the one you are replacing. So there’s a direct digital link between that machine and this.

I’ve particular memories of that machine. It was a sort of creamy gray plastic, yellowed from nicotine. I spent a lot of hours in front of it, smoking cigarettes in the hope they’d help me think. The screen came up blue. It was bulky and took up the whole back seat of my car. I drove it to mid-Wales once, where a friend had loaned me her cottage. Or rather, after I got to Wales (on the coast, not far from Aberystwyth) I realized that I couldn’t write without it, and drove back to Kent, and returned in the space of a day with the computer in the back. It took 16 hours altogether, and when I got out of the car—in some woods, to go for a pee, my legs were wobbling and I could hardly stand.

In those days I wrote by hand in an old diary, and then typed up what I’d written later. I referred to the computer as my “polishing tool.” Writing is like sculpture, I thought. You make the broad outline with a pen on paper. The pen’s like a chisel, chopping out your material to give it shape. Afterwards you polish it up as you’re typing, adding finer and finer detail as you go along, worrying about this word or that, polishing the grammar, adding tone and meaning with your choice of words.

This is what the computer’s good for. It allows you to continue refining the text without leaving smudge marks all over the page. Unlike a typewriter, where one mistake could ruin the page and have you blotting words out with correction fluid, the computer screen stays pristine no matter how many alterations you make. Maybe that alters the way you think. Maybe those of us who write on computers think differently than those who wrote before? Earlier writers had to be much clearer what they wanted to express before they started typing.

Does the tool you use alter the nature of the work? It does. The faster the tool, the finer the work. The more powerful the tool, the more work that can be achieved. But does it make you think differently too? Does it change your relationship to the world? This is something I’ve been thinking about: how this technology has altered us as humans; how it’s altered the way we relate to the world.

There were two more computers after that before I got on to the internet. That one died the minute I’d printed off the book and sent the manuscript to the publisher. I got up the following morning and it was completely dead. But it shows how naïve I was back then that I misspelled the word “computer” throughout the text. I wrote “computor.” That computer didn’t have spell-check whereas the one I’m working on now altered the spelling for me before I’d even noticed. I had to go back to change it again, after which it kind of shrugged and said, “oh go on then, spell it the wrong way if you think you know better.”

After that one died I bought a new computer as a present for my son and me. It was an IBM machine with an IBM operating system that was so clumsy and weird, I couldn’t make any sense of it. I always had the feeling that I was wandering around inside some vast alien cathedral whose architecture reached way beyond my sight. The instructions might’ve been written by Medieval theologians in Latin before being translated into Klingon. Finally I got a cracked copy of Windows and downloaded that instead. After that I was able to take my place in the modern world.

I had a Bubble Jet printer. That was, and remains, the best printer I’ve ever had. It only used black ink. It had a large ink container and the guy who sold it to me showed how I could refill the canister so I didn’t have to buy a new one. After it ran out I drilled a small hole in the outer casing using a screw, filled the canister with fresh ink using a plastic syringe, and then plugged the hole with a small rubber bung. It worked perfectly for the next 10 years.

So even as the technology was getting better, it was also getting worse. We all know what a con these printers are. The printers are cheap, but you have to buy brand new ink cartridges after they run out and they’re not only very expensive, they’re wasteful too. It’s not just plastic and cotton wool you’re throwing away, but a printed circuit, containing precious metals. Any ink cartridge could come pre-fitted with a little hole and a plug, like the one I’d made in my Bubble Jet, so it could be refilled with ink. In a sane world they would be. But we don’t live in a sane world.

I remember my computers better than I remember my cars or the flats I’ve lived in or even some of my friends. I remember a time when domestic computers didn’t exist, when our idea of a computer was a large room full of banks of machinery with mysterious winking lights which were programmed using punch cards by guys in white coats with clip-boards. Governments had computers. Spies had computers. Corporations had computers. Alien civilizations and people in future worlds had computers. Space ships had computers, but people like me didn’t. How things have changed. A friend refers to the world we live in now as “living in the future.” That’s where we are now, in a future world over which we have no control.

I’ve watched the growth of this technology. From BBC Basic to MS-DOS to Android Ice Cream Sandwich. From the tennis game we used to play on the machine in the student’s union when I was in college, to Space Invaders, to Grand Theft Auto. The tennis game consisted of two small flat bats, like vertical hyphens, either end of a black screen, and a square-shape which acted as the ball—actually a single pixel on this old-fashioned computer—which would bounce around making a blipping noise whenever it was hit. Space Invaders came in about 10 years later, in the form of a table which you could rest your beer on. I played both of those games, but Grand Theft Auto is beyond me.

In 1997 I moved to the West Midlands, taking my computer with me. Once again it filled up the entire back seat of my car. I had monthly columns in the Guardian, Mixmag, and the Big Issue. I had a book out. I was, briefly, a successful writer.

Later I was commissioned to write my second book. The book was about what had become of the hippies. At the same time my car needed an MOT and a new engine and I found myself temporarily homeless. The engine would’ve cost the better part of £1,000 to replace, so I bought an ambulance converted into a camper van instead, and had a place to live and a vehicle to get around in for the same money. There was only one problem: what to do about my book? I couldn’t very well take that great lump of a computer with me. But the solution was simple. I traded in my old computer for a new one, a laptop, from the “second user” shop down the road. It was small and gray, it had a black and white screen and I loved it.

The laptop was small enough to fit into a briefcase. I could carry it around with me. I could use it in pubs and cafes. It did everything my other computers had done—more in fact—but taking up barely an eighth of the space. It had Windows 95—my first legal copy—and it came with all the disks. You didn’t have to save onto disk because it had a hard drive. I’d entered the modern world at last. I was a fully paid-up member of the Windows club.

That was how my second book was written, on a small, gray laptop from the back of a converted ambulance. I drove all over the UK in that ambulance, from Derbyshire to Kent to Somerset and Avon. I stayed in lay-bys and in fields, along farm tracks and by busy main roads, in car parks and at festivals. I spent a week at the Glastonbury festival site, and another week at the Big Green Gathering. I stayed in an orchard, behind a farmhouse, on the Somerset levels. I was gathering apples as I wrote. Later I moved to a witch’s garden under Glastonbury Tor. When I wanted to submit a story I’d print it off and send it by post.

But the work was starting to dry up. One by one the magazines dropped my columns and I was in no position to replace them. I didn’t have a mobile phone so the only way people could contact me was by leaving a message with my Mum in Birmingham. I’d ring her up once a week to get my messages. Things got desperate around Christmas. I had no money coming in. I ended up eating at a soup kitchen. I was considering selling the Big Issue, the magazine sold by homeless people. I thought, “I used to write for the Big Issue, and now I’m going to sell it.”

My son had gone to live with his Mum in London, but he wasn’t happy either. He had a girlfriend in Kent. And me: I was homeless and jobless. I decided it was time to move back into a house and to bring my son with me. I got a job as a car park attendant. I got a monthly column with the Big Issue Cymru. I started to put my life back together again. I was waiting for my book to come out.

It was around this time that a friend suggested I should try the internet. Up till then people would pay a server for access, but there was this new service, called Freeserve. It cost nothing. It was Pay As You Go. You picked the disk up from a retailer. My friend came round to help set me up, and there I was, online at last.

I still have the first story I ever sent by email. It compared going on the internet for the first time to losing your virginity. It also described the sound it used to make when you dialled it up: “Like digital interference. Like the inane bickering of twittering little insect folk from outer-space. Like the hiss and the wash of the waves on some booming, unfathomable ocean.” You don’t hear that sound any more: that strange hissing and twittering noise which always gave me the impression that I was in communication with an alien life form.

This was in 1999. I would write off-line, and then hop online just long enough to send the story. It was like a guerrilla action. In and out; except in the evening, that is, when I could go online for up to an hour for the cost of a local phone call.

Here’s my description of what it felt like to be on the internet in those early days:

The world of books and newspapers and libraries—the world I'm used to—is like being on dry land. You know where you are. You pick up a book and read it. It starts at the beginning and it goes on to the end. Even if you put the book down to read another, you still know where you are. You can always pick the book up again. It's a fixed object in a fixed world. But the world of the Internet is really like being at sea. Everything shifts around in a kind of formless, heaving mass, tossing you about in an ocean of uncertainty. You think you know where you are, but then you click on this icon or that, and you're somewhere else entirely. And again, another icon, somewhere else, with strange messages blinking at you and strange ideologies bumping about in your brain pan, and strange pictures and strange meanings and strange encounters of the six millionth kind. “What's happening? Where am I? What's going on?”

That’s exactly what it felt like: like I was all at sea, a mariner of the airwaves but without maps or a compass or any idea how to navigate my way around this space. We’re so used to being online now that we’ve forgotten how it felt at first. In the early days it was like that: a sense of everything moving and shifting about, of not knowing where you were, of washing about from one website to another with no idea how you got here, of having waves of information crashing over you threatening to drown you in an ocean of weirdness.

—Follow Chris Stone on Twitter: @ChrisJamesStone


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