Capitol Ideas

Twits, Twitter, and Tweets

Falling behind the hi-tech curve.

By From the October 2009 issue

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I've been thinking about the huge hi-tech changes that have taken place since I first wrote for The American Spectator. That was in, oh, 1976. Very few people at the time realized just how far reaching the transformation would be-although I suspect that George Gilder did. We still don't know how disruptive the changes will be because they haven't stopped yet. But one indicator is that major news institutions like the New York Times are in jeopardy. The digital revolution is like an express train taking us to an unknown destination.

I hate to use the much overused word revolutionary, but as applied to the new technology  it is appropriate. Its impact on society may well be comparable to that of the printing press, or the Industrial Revolution.

It was in the early 1980s that everyone you knew began talking about word processors. "What program do you use?" Names like WordStar and WordPerfect filled the air. How great it was, people said. You could rearrange the order of your paragraphs. I refused to join the crowd, smugly replying that paragraphs were rightly ordered the first time. Then in 1987 I started to use a computer myself. The Hoover Institution, which I have been fortunate enough to visit over the years, had a mainframe system. It was swept away years ago and may already be in a museum. But it was a revelation to me. Overnight, rewriting became not just easier but an actual pleasure.

You still had to print out the copy and send it by Federal Express. There was no fax or Internet yet. Once or twice, I recall, a messenger even came by my apartment building in Washington, D.C., to pick up my article. Then it would have to be re-set in type. Today, we writers do double duty, working both as authors and typesetters. It also means that we now effectively have our own (unpaid) secretaries.

The first computer I bought was a laptop from Radio Shack, a Tandy 200. It cost about $600, and fully loaded it had 72 kilobytes of memory-enough for two or (max) three of my articles. For a while it was a favorite of journalists, but Radio Shack went out of the computer business long ago.

It's amazing to realize that the fax machine, considered a great innovation at the time, both came and went in the relatively short time span that I am discussing. I hear that for legal reasons some documents are still faxed, but my guess is that the fax will disappear.

E-mail was certainly a great invention. I rate it far more highly than the cell phone, which I dislike. (But I finally acquired the simplest possible variety a year ago.) A reliably late adopter, I sent my first email in 1993. Today, however, life would be unthinkable without it. Then came the Internet. It was the summer of 1996 that suddenly everyone was talking about the Internet, just as fifteen years earlier it was MS-DOS. I remember Tim Ferguson of Forbes referred to the web as "the world wide wait," and I wondered how long you had to wait. Anyway, it soon speeded up.

Next came "search." A friend of mine worked for a search engine company in Palo Alto-not Google, alas. So his group was soon overrun. He moved to the D.C. suburbs, went to work for Time, and told me some good stories about how Time's CEO, Jerry Levin, made one of the great business goofs of all time, buying AOL at about ten times its real value. It was a case where the digital promise overpowered business judgment. Today one wonders: will Time itself survive? Newsweek certainly looks doomed.

Incidentally, I have a search question, and it will show how shallow my knowledge is. How come it's easier to find something on the world wide web than in my own computer? Sometimes I can't find something in my computer when I know it's there. It's actually easier to find it by going back and googling it all over again. You will say that I don't have the right program and I'm sure you're right. I never became one of those Mac nuts, so maybe Bill Gates can help.

Then again, I had a bad experience with the latest Microsoft manifestation. I bought a new laptop at Best Buy in 2007. It had something called Vista installed and I found I couldn't figure it out. I was still within the Best Buy grace period so they took it back, no questions asked. Then they told me that all their laptops have Vista installed. Meanwhile I have kept going with XP, but I worry that I may soon find myself stranded.

In other words, I am beginning to fall way behind the hi-tech curve. There are other telltale signs. During the recent uprising in Iran, there was a lot of stuff in the papers about Twitter. I didn't know what it was, and I regret to say I still don't. Something about sending short messages over the Internet? But how does this differ from e-mail? I have asked several people, but I forget every time they tell me. "Kid's Post," a useful Washington Post feature (sometimes I read it-surreptitiously), is no help because of course young people already know about twits, Twitter and tweets.

Recently, I read an item about how iPhones have a tendency to explode. "Reports are coming in from France, the Netherlands and the UK of iPhones blowing up in people's faces," said Yahoo! It didn't bother me because I don't have one. I'm not sure that I even know what an iPhone is. Here's a question that will show up the duffers like myself: What's the difference between an iPhone and an iPod? Got me.

While I'm at it, what about these TV remotes? Recently we had to switch over from analog to digital transmission and at home we found ourselves needing three of them. "I've managed to get it down to two," my wife told me the other day, in a tone of triumph. (She knows far more about these things than I do.) Each has about 50 buttons, and when I'm on my own it's hit or miss whether I can even change the channel. (First issue: Which remote to use?) Remember the old TVs with a pushpull knob and a rotary dial to change channels? I wonder if it's beyond the powers of Silicon Valley to come up with something as simple as that.

Recently I bought a digital recorder from Sony. It's amazingly small and inexpensive. I was encouraged to see that it only had about seven or eight buttons. But when I got it home, and cut away with a carving knife the incredibly tough clear plastic package, I found a forty-page instruction booklet in small type. By trial and error, however, I was able to make it work. I remember George Gilder telling me ten years ago that he bought one of the first digital recorders, went all the way to Colorado to interview a hi-tech VIP, and on his way back accidentally touched the wrong button and erased the whole thing. All lost! So I have been worried about that. I haven't erased anything yet but when I put it in my bag the other day I found that it was playing something of its own accord when I began to walk. Something was accidentally touched and now I hardly dare try it.

Big final question: Will digital wipe out Gutenberg? I guess Kindle will be the test. Needless to say I don't have a Kindle machine yet and don't plan to get one. But over the past thirty years the Luddite mentality has been proved wrong every time. So it may indeed come to pass that we will all end up reading books on portable screens. I hope not. Anyway, it's comforting to know that physical books will outlast my time...won't they?

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).