Primitive Communication

Primitive CommunicationI've always been intrigued by communication for its own sake; if something imparts information, I probably like it. I got my first desktop computer in 1985, and had already been through a couple "pocket computers" by that time. It took a fairly large pocket to accommodate those early models—a Sharp 1500, and then an HP-71B—but that's what they were called at the time. Before that, programmable calculators were at the pinnacle of portable computing, and I had a few of those, too. By about 1990, I had one of the first Toshiba notebook computers. There was no such thing as a color LCD at the time and disk capacity was a whopping 60 megabytes, but I was in portable-computer heaven. I could run the preeminent word processor of the day—WordPerfect—on that machine, and using the equally preeminent communication software—ProComm—I had everything I needed. Best of all, I could easily take everything with me. Although that's the normal state of affairs now, those were coveted advantages in those days.

For the average consumer in the early nineties, useful wireless communication still belonged to the future. Analog cell-phones were available, but they didn’t have text capability, and cost was a limiting factor; per-minute airtime rates were high, and the phones themselves were expensive. Computers had no wireless abilities at all. But pagers were beginning to morph from numeric to text-capable devices; they weren't Blackberries by a long shot, but they had autonomous e-mail addresses, which made it possible to receive text messages from computers. Although the Web didn't yet exist, large networks such as CompuServe allowed information retrieval from the Internet, as well as a variety of private databases. Since the ProComm software provided the ability to automate—assuming you didn’t mind writing your own scripts—everything from network log-on to the selective retrieval and forwarding of information, I had all the tools I needed to stay attached to the information stream, even while driving or otherwise away from any wired connection. Cell-sites were still far and few between but the paging networks were well established, so in many ways a text pager in the pocket was a better solution; you didn't need an assistant or colleague to relay information over the phone, and like computers, pagers require little sleep.

One of my favorite applications for that primitive communication technology came into being—as is so often the case—through immediate necessity. My daughter was returning from a trip, but the exact time of her plane's arrival was something of a mystery; there had been delays and schedule changes for a number of reasons. I had access to real-time flight information via CompuServe, but since my drive to the airport would take nearly an hour and there were other things to do in the meantime, I couldn't sit at the computer waiting for an ETA. But I had built a formidable collection of scripts by that time so it didn't take much to modify an existing one for the task at hand, and before long I was driving away with my pager, which was receiving continuous updates on my daughter's flight status. When her plane's tires touched the tarmac, I was just pulling in at the airport.

Today, information—and communication—is rarely more than a few keystrokes away, and it's available on demand, virtually anywhere. But sometimes when I see high-school students tapping out messages on their tiny phones, or surfing the Web at the coffee house, I have to smile. This, too, will be primitive.


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