The 1984 film Terminator, and its subsequent sequels, explores a dystopian world in which the machines have become our masters. Sadly, that world is no longer one of science fiction. While the nightmarish scenario of a single-minded T-800 Terminator cyborg relentlessly pursuing its pre-programmed prey (Sarah Connor? I’ll be back) has thankfully not come to fruition, we have indeed become slaves to our machines in many ways.
When I come into work each morning I pass row upon row of cubicle-confined coworkers with their zombie-like dead eyes glowing in the soft blue light of their computer screens. Hunched over, fingers pecking away at keyboards, or slouched backward lazily right-clicking and scrolling with a mouse; each of them is fixated solely on the device in front of them. When I ride the train home from work these same robotic slaves take their digital addiction with them in the portable form of smartphones or tablets, numbly matching rows of jewels for some intangible prize.
Which all recently prompted me to ask myself, “what did we do all day before we had computers?” I’m just old enough to remember having jobs that didn’t involve computers. My first job, as a shelf-stocker for Wal-Mart at the tender age of 16, involved nothing more complicated than opening boxes of goods in the store room and stocking them on shelves. Toilet paper, bleach, dog food, the various and sundry items of a five and dime store. Naturally, being a teenager, most of my time was spent goofing off as much as possible. The actual work was menial and dull and bored me to no end. But hanging out in the store room talking with my coworkers about girls, cars, music; that was the cool part. All for a princely $3.85 per hour. There was no computerized tracking system of inventory. Someone counted the number of boxes of toilet paper in the store room and ordered more if they thought we needed more.
What did people in an office setting do in the days before everyone had a computer attached to his desk? Did they stare at typewriters all day? Spend hours typing elaborate faxes? I learned to type on a manual typewriter. Proper use of carbon paper was part of the curriculum. Yes, I’m that old. But the point is, I know how tedious and time-consuming it was to do something as simple as typing a memo. It wasn’t the 30-second firing off of an email that we have become accustomed to. And typing was a specialized skillset that only a few talented people possessed. Most bosses never typed their own letters. So what did those bosses actually do all day before their was Facebook and Instagram to consume all their time? I can’t believe that everyone existed in a Mad Men universe of three-martini lunches and afternoon sexual liaisons with secretaries, but maybe they did. If so, we can surely lament the loss of those times.
Coming back from this huge digression, I return to my original point, which is that computers have become essential parts of our lives. Imagine your day without one. When was the last time most of you wrote a hand-written letter to someone on paper? With a pen? In cursive? Try it sometime. See if you can still remember those intricate curlicue letters you learned in second grade. See if you can remember how to spell without a squiggly red line flagging your mistakes. It’s a dying art.
But I’m not judging. I’m typing this on my laptop, as much a slave to my computer as everyone else. I can’t let my smartphone out of my sight without feeling anxiety that I’m missing something important. I can’t let any random question exist in my mind without immediately Googling the answer, seeking instant gratification. I can’t really even remember the days of having to physically trek to a library and look up an answer in an encyclopedia or dictionary. In many ways this information age has made our lives easier. We probably have more spare time now. If we could just find something more interesting to do with it than crush imaginary pieces of candy.