Watching The Next Generation Utilizing Today's Technologies: Part I


I should start out by establishing from where my point of view is derived. Some of you will get this - perhaps with a twinkle in

your eye - while those that have no reference for life without Windows, the Internet, an email address, Twitter and Facebook might question the validity of my concerns.

It is said that Isaac Asimov stated that it is far better to teach children how to use calculators vs making them struggle through the rules of working out mathematics on paper. As argument I have put forth on more than one occasion. However, having had the chance to observe 3 nephews and 1 niece as they have utilized various types of handheld technology over the past 10 years, I find I have less appreciation for Isaac's assertion than I initially embraced.

By 1986 I was well on my way from the blinking cursor of the Commodore 64 to the world of what would eventually be known as the XT, then the AT (an XT with a hard drive - life changed when you no longer had to boot from a floppy!), and then from the 8088 to an entirely new plane of existence - the 80286 with the '386 right on its technological heals. All throughout this time of rapid growth one thing remain a constant : DOS! MS-DOS to be specific.

Sure, DOS had new versions, but regardless of what new stuff Microsoft may have included, there were things we could depend on. If we were fortunate to have our computer boot properly, we could expect Microsoft's copyright(s) at the top of the screen, and a few lines down our old blinking friend would stand at the ready. Those of us that were crafty enough to have mastered the autoexec.bat file might include a few commands such as setting the path, navigating to whatever initial directory we wanted to start off in ("folder" for you newbies) and perhaps even clear the screen just because we could.

For most, having to deal with DOS and its persistent blinking cursor was painful. There were some of us, though, that gave ourselves over to discovering what other commands we might play with beyond simple navigation. Before long, and sometimes by accident, we even got good at it. With enough repetition, initiating commands at the "DOS Prompt" would become second nature. Others watching over our shoulders felt a sense of loss and confusion as it became apparent that they were only able to watch this brave new world from the outside looking in.

As the years passed, DOS would no longer offer the satisfaction it once did. Sure, there were always those obscure commands tucked away to play with, but when all was said and done, more times than not we were dealing with navigation and occasionally setting permissions. Then, in the voice of Kevin Flynn as he declared to his son, "Then one day… I got in!", we started to explore this new thing called languages!

Beyond The BASICs

Of course, there was BASIC. Even with that, life changed the first time we entered in…

10 print "This is a test."

20 goto 10

We would discover that there were a number of languages that others before us had used to program these unimaginable things known as "main frames". For us just getting past DOS, though, names such as Pascal, C (then Turbo Pascal and C+) presented new worlds to brave. Shortly thereafter came the concept of keeping one's own database as introduced to us through dBase with my personal favorite, dBase III+ !

Before long, with these growing sets of skills, opportunities began to present themselves. When hearing of a problem some company was having with managing some type of data, we started to realize that we could actually provide a solution. About that time, it started to become quite evident that the individuals that were in need of a problem being solved WERE NOT going to learn how to make the computers that were becoming commonplace do what they need them to do. It was then that the "user interface" was born. A mask, of sorts. Something that offered the intended user clear and concise options while simultaneously protecting them from those cryptic symbols of what must certainly be voodoo and black magic! And it was there that the line of separation became clearly visible : those that explored what would become known as "source code", and those that did not.

Navigating The Digital Frontier

And now, here we are finally at my very real concern. By now we have all heard stories of how gifted someone's kids or grandchildren are with the technology that has become common place. Examples freely flow of the how "little Johnnie found my music files" or "little Suzie located the pictures I thought I had lost". From the 30,000 foot view, I am sure it looks absolutely amazing. Beyond doubt, such capabilities can be quite useful. And, when you think about it, even getting really good at saving the universe by way of whatever game is popular at the moment does seems to support various levels of hand/eye coordination development. But, at best, these seemingly awesome activities are nothing more than standing on the shoulders of giants. Saving grandma's files is usually nothing more than exercising a learned expectation of navigation.

I confess, I had no hand in writing DOS or dBase III+. Certainly, I could never have developed an "interpreter", much less, a "compiler". And I have yet to imagine all the magic behind the curtain of the list of programs I use from audio recording to graphical development. In that sense, I, too, am standing on the shoulders of giants. But, there is a vast difference between the levels of technology that we chose to interface with in the beginning of this "personal computer" stuff and the wide array of technologies that are now extensions of our self-identification.