Lenten reflections 2020–33: The long arc of technology

I started writing this lying on a couch with a mobile phone in my hand. The idea I’d pondered for today wasn’t gelling. Then the obvious hit me: 40 years ago I couldn’t have done what I’m doing now. So, here’s the resulting new idea.

I started writing on slate at school in Jamaica, then paper and pencil and pen through my school years in England, towards some sort of electronic devices–not portable–into the late-1970s.

My first portable computer was an Compaq portable (aka ‘luggable’); the specs indicate it was almost 35 pounds, and I can attest to that, having to lug it from the Bank to my home many nights, and being totally exhausted as I climbed up the not-so-steep hill from the station. Current information indicates it cost about US$3000 in the mid-1980s, which would be about US$7000 now. By contrast, my mobile weighs a few ounces and cost about US$1000. I was working on the 1980s Latin American debt crisis and having to do lots of number-crunching and writing of reports on the state of individual countries.

What is modern technology came into my life at university when I had to make use of the mainframe computer to run regressions, and spent hours coding punch cards and submitting my ‘jobs’ to be run overnight.

Somewhere in a box, my thesis punch cards must be building up dust 🙂

It was always touch and go whether the job ran and if there were no errors in the punch cards.

The speed with which computer technology from the late-1970s into the 1980s was phenomenal.

But, in my Bank career, I got to be at what was then the forefront. We moved from documents prepared on electric typewriters to the first versions of word-processing. WordPerfect was the dominant software in the mid-1980s. I remember an visiting economist from the New York Federal Reserve bringing with him WordStar, which had ‘WYSIWIG’ (what you see is what you get), with editing that resembled how the document would be printed. It was a time of major adjustment as secretarial staff had to move from typing handwritten or dictated material into a machine, for review and finalization, to the next step of being largely redundant as analytical staff could create electronic documents themselves.

With the advent of e-mail, we quickly moved away from documents being moved around in paper form and seeing them on a screen. That, and the advent of the Internet in the work place all seemed to happen in a flash, certainly in terms of document production and sharing.

The next steps, of the Internet as repository of knowledge and go-to place for research didn’t hit me till into the 1990s. But, it’s good to look back to days when research meant hours pouring over text in a library, making notes, index cards, etc. Most things involved bulk.

Now, we’re a few key strokes away from any answer, even though we may less sure about the viability of our sources.

That we can use the same device to write, take photos, record sound, send and receive messages, store data, was unimaginable 40 years ago.

I’m no forecaster so wont try to guess where we’ll be in 40 years, let alone 10.

While, I’m writing this, I’m reading things on another device and watching video content on yet another. 🙂

These are amazing times, if we only think about them.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)