Entanglement with computers

At the risk of being hyperbolic OR merely obvious, I assert that, for our cohort generally and for me specifically, computers changed EVERYTHING. At some point you got on the moving belt (bought a computer, signed up for a Flickr account, got a smartphone), and at some point you will fall off (when it's just too difficult to grok the latest thing that everybody else seems to understand). In between, computers find their way into more and more corners of your life. You may elect passivity and simply consume, or you may choose active following of developments and engage with whatever is the frontier for your participation.

In Fall 1962 I answered an advertisement posted on a Peabody Museum bulletin board for a Research Assistant, and spent the ensuing two years working on Bob Textor's A Cross-Cultural Summary (HRAF 1967), a gargantuan collection of 2x2 tables summarizing data on 526 variables in 400 cultures. Betsy and I coded for keypunch input, used sorting and collating machines in Emerson Hall basement, hauled IBM cards to the Computer Center and collected mountains of fan-fold computer output, checked logic, and generally participated in every phase of preparing a unique project for publication. After that experience I was never afraid of large datasets or ambitious projects.

Betsy's graduate work in Communication Research led her to use computers in her PhD thesis research (Skill in Language: a Study of Information Processing in the Production of Speech, Stanford 1972). Other members of both of our families were more directly involved in computer development during the 1970s, and kept us informed about technical progress (the ARPA network, timesharing, the doings at Xerox PARC) so that we were both ready to explore further during the 1979-1980 sabbatical at Stanford. I used SYMAP to produce line printer maps of pre-WWI demography in Greater Hungary, and began to imagine other cartographic projects.

Soon after our return to Nova Scotia I bought a terminal and 300 baud modem so that I could communicate with Acadia's mainframe, but the next great leap came when microcomputers entered my life in 1984, with the purchase of a TI-Pro with digitizing tablet and plotter for making maps to support my teaching in Human Geography. I did a large project mapping Nova Scotia surname distributions, and started writing and producing the handout materials for my classes on the computer. As soon as Acadia established a computer room in the Arts Center, I began to teach several of my classes in the space, and I explored digital technologies as they came along --OCR, sound spectrograms, spreadsheets, hypertext-- for what they might do to augment my teaching. These pre-Internet applications were entirely desktop-bound.

Library school at Simmons opened a whole new world of computer possibilities, and telnet access to distant resources (library catalogs, the WELL) broadened what it was practical to do in the way of access. Creating, managing, and then distributing content to wider audiences came along in the early 1990s with Gopher and then the World Wide Web. I also did a lot of work with GIS, returning to my long-run interests in the possibilities of spatial data.

I did a summary of daybook extracts in 1999, sketching some of the details of 20 years of computing explorations, but there's more to say in a general way. Computers have always been affordances for my activities --communication and creation tools, via which I could write and distribute hypertexts, make maps, work with sound files and images, and manage collections of many sorts. I never got very far with making computers do stuff (programming, building tools, bending them to my will), nor have I ever found the worlds of gaming of any interest.

I've sketched my W&L computing work elsewhere. In retrospect, I note that I simply assumed that computers-in-libraries was at the core of what I was doing as a librarian, but I'm not sure that my library colleagues were quite ready for that. Certainly they were often bemused by my insistence that a glorious digital future was just over the horizon. I did have allies in University Computing and the Media Center, and we had a glorious time with projects in a virtual space I dubbed Atelier Mouffette and on an experimental server I named ODTAA (One Damned Thing After Another).

I wanted to implement blogging at W&L when I returned from sabbatical leave in 2003, but I lacked the necessary computing skills to set up the environment myself, and couldn't wrangle the necessary support from University Computing (nobody could see the point of blogging as a complement to pedagogy). It eventually became clear that the only way to proceed was to purchase my own domain, and build whatever I wanted in that space. I set up oook.info and soon after started oookblog, in Spring of 2004, once I'd figured out how to install Movable Type on my oook.info site.

In late May 2013 I switched everything over to WordPress, mostly because it was easier than updating the Movable Type software and associated database. There's a lot to learn about WP, and a lot of flexibility, and I'm pleased to find that I can figure stuff out and implement features I can imagine. Looking at the suite of blog-related tools I was using 10 years ago, I find that every one of them has been replaced (mostly because they've ceased to exist or been superceded by more powerful successors). This is hardly surprising, but it does underline the necessity to try to keep up with the rapidly changing landscape. Some innovations I've ignored (Facebook) or tried and found not interesting (Twitter).

My own blogging has waxed and waned over the last decade, and usually I've thought of the medium primarily as a way to keep track of my own wanderings, and only secondarily as a means to communicate with an audience. There may be a dozen or so people who read my postings with any regularity, but it really doesn't matter. What's important is having my own digital real estate, to populate as I see fit. Work I've done is out there, accessible via Google, backed up in archive.org's Wayback Machine.

And here's the takeaway: my web presence is my own summary of things I've learned, paths I've followed, stuff I've found interesting and useful. I can construct whatever I please, and send links to anybody who might be interested. My education continues.