When I was in sixth grade (in a Catholic mission school in east India around 1986), an older student who had just failed his high school exam for maybe the fifth time and also broken up with his maybe seventh girlfriend told a group of credulous sixth graders a fantastic story about the computer.
Interestingly, this “true story” was as much about love as about the computer, maybe more! He said that a year or two ago, a hundred or so scientists of the world had gathered in New Delhi to learn more about the universe, the organisms, the society, and so on—from the computer! None of us had actually seen or knew much about the computer till that time, except for the one chapter at the end of our math book that described how the computer uses some common mathematical logic in the form of computing loops.
So all these bald headed men, he said, gathered around the computer and started asking questions which were as yet unanswered. The computer took only miliseconds to answer questions about the stars, the microbes, the oceans, and what not. Then the poet, our narrator raised his finger and lowered his voice, asked the computer the most puzzling question that humanity has ever asked: “What is love?” Our narrator looked around, saw us all dumb and silent, then added: “The computer said nothing, the scientists looked at one another, and several minutes passed. Then, to their astonishment, they saw some smoke coming out of the back of the computer. Before they were able to respond, it burst into flames—boom, like that.” We completely believed that this had actually happened, and throughout the lunch break that day we all shared our dreams with one another that we might live to see the computer one day—hoping that scientists would build others in the future.
Ten years from then, I was sitting in front of a Pentium II computer in a computer training center back home in my country Nepal (in Butwal), using my newly gained typing pride of 45 wpm. I had understood that the computer would not answer questions about love, unless the answers were already programmed into it. And yet, I was fascinated to see the range of things the computer could do: word processing, saving and retrieving information, creating work spaces, programming, emailing, playing music, and playing video games with me!
I have been lucky that within ten more years I got numerous opportunities to learn a lot of different skills including spreadsheet, slide presentation, web design, video and sound editing, social networking, learning management systems, content management systems, and many web 2.0 technologies. This summer I am going to Ohio State University for a prestigious program called the Digital media and Composition. Last year I got the chance to attend a training called Digital Storytelling with another prestigious organization named the Center for Digital Storytelling. It has been 23 years since I first heard (that apocryphal but fascinating story) about the computer, and 23 years is a lot of time; but compared to the way life, communication, and society worked when I was a kid, in societies that are still relatively low tech, I am amazed by how digital technology has transformed the lives of the more fortunate people like me at home and abroad. I now know that computers don’t do magic, that they further reinforce the division of societies by multiplying the capacity of a small number of people in the world to own most of the planet’s means of living, and I know that technology shouldn’t be imposed uncritically on anyone… but as for myself, the semi-rational fascination about the computer that I had when I first heard about or used the computer makes me refuse to take what I find or any new digital development for granted. In particular, an odd naivete about how the world’s minds can now come together to improve and innovate ideas and things at a baffling speed today prevents me from leaving technology alone. I guess that the challenge is to tame and appropriate the monster of new technology in the service of people who are less privileged than us—and it is significant that in that pursuit we can use the power of technology in ways that in ten years down the road we have something to look back with satisfaction.
What is your story of the computer like?