And they all with one consent began to make excuse. The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.
Luke 14 18-20
I had my first computer when I was seven, before there were computers. There weren't even pocket calculators, which made it a cool toy.
It was a metal box, with a sharpened metal rod, like a lead-less pencil, attached to the side. Red and silver. Printed in columns on the front were the numbers from 0 to 9. Alongside these numbers was a sort of ratchet arrangement, a metal strip with teeth. You slotted the 'pencil' into the tooth alongside the number you wanted, and slid it down, and this would cause the number to be displayed in a row of windows at the top of the box. There were 5 windows, so you could display 5 digit numbers. By sliding and dragging in the correct way, it was possible to add and subtract five digit numbers; I think that multiplication could only be achieved by repeated addition. I was fascinated by the ingenuity of it and, of course, by the science-fiction veneer which hovered over all things mechanical.
My second computer was a real electronic pocket calculator. My Uncle Ted bought it for me as a birthday present; they were still curiosity items. Large bulky things with red LED numbers. There was no question of using it at school: this was the dark ages, when you spent summer play times re-learning your seven-times table. To this day, I can't remember what eleven twelves are, although, under the decimal system, this has not proved too much of a handicap. It did not occur to anyone that cheap adding machines might make mental arithmetic redundant: and even if it did, that made adding machines things to be feared, since they would make people mentally lazy. There are still a few mad people who feel this way. Some of them are ministers for education. So the calculator was purely a toy; a toy to while away the odd hour, calculating how many seconds there were in a century or how many copies of Spiderman you could buy for a million pounds. And people say that Gameboys make children waste their time. Towards the end of maths O level, we were taught how to use log tables. It is very hard to imagine what anyone though the point was.
Sometime after that, I saw my first real computer. Saw only, of course: it was so enormously powerful and sophisticated that you couldn't conceive of anyone actually owning such a thing. It was behind glass on the top floor of the Kensington Science Museum, the climax of a day of hands-on interactive displays about different types of combine harvester. The amazing thing was, it actually talked to you; or at any rate, if you typed in text, it printed a meaningful answer on the screen. Crowds of children hovered around it in awe and wonder, desperately hoping to interact with the technological marvel. It's interaction was limited to a game of Animal, Vegetable or Mineral, it only knew the names of six animals and it often produced gibberish; but that somehow added to the excitement.
By the time we arrived at the upper years of secondary school, the world had moved on and there was a computer, possibly a Spectrum, locked in a vault beneath the Maths room. I believe it also played 20 questions. I never found out. When filling out my subject-options for the fourth form I was told very clearly and in no uncertain terms that computer studies was not a real subject; it was like photography and cooking, intended for girls and people who weren't clever enough to do academic things like history and chemistry. So the whole "home computer" craze slightly passed me by.
Computer games spontaneously came into existence in the winter of 1976. In the summer of '76, the arcades of Clacton had still been full of mechanical slot machines: a Kentucky Derby where you wagered pennies on plastic horses; mechanical Duck Shooting games and thousands of one-armed bandits. By the next year, they had been swept away by wondrous electronic replacements with instructions in Japanese. There was a game in which you shot facsimiles of the starship enterprise, which concluded with the words "sensors detect another dime in your pocket, try again". There was a game in which two cowboys shot at each other with painfully slow bullets. There was a game in which you tried to land a teeny-tiny lunar module, and never succeeded. There was Space War and Asteroids. And then, surrounded by angelic choirs and celestial trumpets, came Space Invaders. The world was never the same again.
The next computer which I actually owned was one of those portable Brother printers, which printed illegible dot matrix text on shiny paper. The last nine letters you typed appeared on a little display, and when you printed the tenth, the ninth appeared on the paper. This meant it was just about possible to poof-read as you went. I typed with two fingers at the most, but it was infinitely more legible than my handwriting. All through college, I handed in essays on "Milton and the Impossibility of Christian Epic" and "Impersonality in Eliot and Keats" on smudgy shiny paper. I even produced the first issue of a fanzine on the little blighter. It caused a mutation in my mind. As I pecked out the letters, I began to learn to think with my fingers; a skill I have never unlearned. First drafts and streams of consciousness can only be achieved, for me, in conjunction with the tapping of a finger on a QWERTY keyboard.
Thus, it was inevitable that the Brother should be sent to microchip heaven and that I should obtain the ultimate, sophisticated piece of equipment--a green-screen Amstrad. This was at a point when everybody else thought the ultimate, sophisticated piece of equipment was an Amiga, so it looks like we were both wrong.
To have an Amstrad was to be initiated into a freemasonry of semi-professional wordsmiths; people for whom "Locospell" "Flipper" and "MicroDesign 4" were words of great power. Granted, it was possible to write software in the CPM operating system but basically Amstrads were green typewriters. Ergo, the only people who had Amstrads were freelance journalists; aspiring novelists; students and vicars. (Every village in the country has a church; every church in the country has a vicar; every vicar has a parish magazine and every parish magazine has an Amstrad. Small fortunes could therefore be made in the cottage industry which grew up around selling Amstrad discs with clip art of maps of the Holy Land and line drawings of Mother Theresa.) Similarly, the perpetrators of Microdesign 4, a rather natty but ludicrously slow DTP package were aware of the fact that the only people mad enough to be laying out magazines on an Amstrad were, yes, you guessed it, fanzine editors.
There were at least two glossy newstand magazines dedicated to Amstrad users; I think one of them may actually be still going. They were always a bit apologetic in tone, with monthly leading articles explaining that the Amstrad did what it did very well, that there was no real need to upgrade, and you needn't worry, it would probably still be supported for years to come. For a long while, I rather liked the slightly Luddite aura that the Amstrad bathed me in. But the day came when, with great sorrowing and beating of breast, I joined the twentieth century.
My 486 and I have been together ever since. When I bought it, 4 meg seemed like quite a lot and a CD ROM drive was an unnecessary extravagance. It changed, or possibly ruined, my life. I got the hang of desk top publishing, even to the point of knowing what kerning means. I used primitive Windows card index files to keep track of the two thousand and seventy six non-player characters in my Pendragon role-playing campaign. I customised the desktop. I decided that it would be hugely funny if Windows went "swoosh" like a Star Trek sliding door when I opened them. Two hours later, I decided it would be hugely irritating and switched them off again. I found that life could not be lived without virtual post-it notes. Having lost the ability to think without a QWERTY keyboard, I now found that I could not think without a Word 3 toolbar.
And I started to play computer games.
I had, and indeed have, a friend who occasionally asks me to provide constructive criticism of his short stories. On one occasion, I felt moved to say "I don't think you are present in your work. I think you are evading emotional reality. You have to face the difficult issues and write about them. Before now, I have got up from my computer with tears pouring down my face."
"Failing a mission at X-Wing isn't that terrible" he replied.
Yes, it is. And Sim City, Doom, Monkey Island, Wing Commander. I was unemployed; I should have been occupying my time in useful pursuits like watching daytime television.
My decent into cybermanhood was complete when I purchased a modem. I plugged it into my head, and for five years, I did nothing but contribute to rec.games.frp.misc. I emerged with a headache, a column in Arcane, and eventually a job in the computer games industry. I guess, on the whole, my 486 did me a lot of good.
Which brings us up to the present day.
My fifth computer is three weeks old. An outstanding tax bill paid, I blew the residue of a saving account on an all singing all dancing windows 1998 big brown box cables all round my room stereo speakers irritating little paper clip animation which goes "ping" Pentium 2.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is why there haven't been any articles in the last week or three.