Thinking Allowed

A blog to detail my work at QU.

Expanding My Network Over Time

Posted By admin on September 7, 2009

I started my undergraduate degree in 1988, well before computers were common household items and a few years before the internet was accessible to the public. If wanted to share a document with another person, I had to type out a hard copy or perhaps save it to a floppy disk at the university’s computer lab. Today if I want to do the same, I can email it from my personal laptop, save it to a shared drive, or even ftp the information to the other party. The ability for different computers to speak with each other, whether that is over the internet or through a network is invaluable to work flow, project collaboration, and file sharing.

While watching the 1968 video of Doug Engelbart’s “The Demo” in which he and his colleagues from Stanford Research Institute demonstrated some basic computer functions and their computer network, I realized that many of the tools used then – the mouse, touchpad, and keyboard – function the same as the redesigned ones of today. However, the way the computer was networked seemed bulky by today’s standards. In the demonstration, Engelbart explained how high resolution tv cameras were focused on cathode ray tubes (CRT) to generate the text visually from one console to another. Today, sharing information over the internet is much easier.

Another thing I found interesting about the video was the text program Engelbart demonstrated. It reminded me of the functionality found today in programs like Microsoft Word or Excel which allow you to cut, paste, and correct typed documents as well as search, sort, and catalogue information. Clearly while the programs might be more advanced and numerous today, basic needs of the computer users have apparently remain consistent.

My First College “Computer”

When I entered college I didn’t have a computer, but rather used an electronic typewriter to write my papers. My typewriter, similar the one pictured on Amazon.com, had an internal memory, spell check, and a small display. Proofreading a document was challenging since you had to read the paper while scrolling through a 16 character display window. Another flaw with this typewriter was that I could not share the information electronically with others, but rather needed to type the text on paper in order to share it with the world.

A better option was to write my paper at the university’s computer lab where they had dozens of work stations connected to a mainframe computer. At times it was hard to find a machine free and I also had to be very careful to save my work onto a floppy disk if I didn’t finish it in one sitting, wanted to change computers, or wanted to share the information electronically with others. When discussing early computer networks, J.C.R. Licklidder in his 1968 article “Computer as a Communication Device (pdf)” published in Science and Technology, wrote “… the interconnected computers are not interactive, general-purpose, multi-access machines…”

That was true with our computer labs in the late 1980s. While all the workstations were connected to the mainframe computer, the computers did not speak with each other. If we wanted to collaborate with other students on a written project, we needed to hover over a single computer. The development of the internet for the masses helped solve that problem.

According to computerhistory.org, the World Wide Web was first available to the public in 1991, when the first server and browser, designed by researcher Tim Berners-Lee, were launched. He also developed the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) which created the basic structure for the internet pages. This allowed computers to read the code from the internet and display it locally on your computer.

Bringing the Classroom into my Computer

With the internet so prevalent in society, developers continue to design tools to make connectivity to computers more portable. For instance, I recently purchased a Livescribe smartpen to help connect my written notes with class lectures. The pen uses a digital voice recorder, a small camera, and special paper to connect sections of the audio with the written word. Once the pen has the information recorded I can either just tap my pen to the paper to hear that section of the lecture, or download the information to my computer to access the written notes and audio online. This is the first generation of this pen, and so far I am pleased with it. It definitely has taken the computer, audio recording, and note taking to the next level.

In conclusion, new technologies are continually redefining how interactive communication works. These latest tools are making it easier for devices to connect with our personal computers and the computers of our peers. All one can do is try to stay ahead of the curve and learn to use these new tools to their fullest ability. As Vannevar Bush stated in his 1945 article, “As We May Think,” printed in the Atlantic Monthly, “The World has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.”


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