Computers In A Time Continuum and Also My Awkward Middle School Years

I’ll start this out with this picture that doesn’t serve any purpose but to remind me of days gone past.

Madden 2011 is coming out. The last time I cared about Madden was 2001, when Eddie George, the guy in that picture, was on the cover of the game. I was in 8th grade at the time, and when you’re that age video games are the greatest thing around. Actually, electronics were pretty much the greatest thing around, too. Throughout seventh and eighth grade I was obsessed with computers. I got my first computer, a laptop running Windows 3.1, in 1999 and we were pretty much inseparable. My life goal at the time was to have a printer in my room (sadly this never happened).

That laptop didn’t have a CD-ROM drive, so I played Madden on my dad’s desktop. My parents were pretty strict about computer usage, limiting my access to an hour a day. This was before I we had the Internet at home, so pretty much the only thing to do on the computer was play games. I spent countless hours in front of the screen playing Madden, making sure that I had all the top players in order to have a guaranteed win at the virtual Super Bowl. (It actually was even less of a deal then it seems, because if I lost I would just not save and restart until I won.)

Madden (and my laptop) started a trend of sorts - one in which I valued gaming and technology more than learning and studying. I was never a big fan of schoolwork in high school, which is something I attribute to my middle school habits. School wasn’t cool or attractive, and technology was. If a school assignment couldn’t be done on a computer, is was by definition less important. I went out of my way to use computers to complete projects even if it was easier to do it without one. This is probably the main reason why I have terrible handwriting now as an adult.

But back to school itself. It wasn’t that I didn’t like learning - in fact, I don’t think anyone dislikes learning - only that I didn’t like or wasn’t good at school. The cool subjects to study in school were binary subjects like math and science. It was easy to compete with classmates there - you either got the answer right or you didn’t. I liked competing, but I wasn’t very good at math and science. The other subjects, particularly English, were ones that I was better at but didn’t really like. I could write and spell and identify parts of speech and prepositional phrases, but where did that get you in school? Also, literary criticism? Boooooriiinng. So I went through school not good at the stuff I wanted to like and ignoring the stuff that I was good at.

My way to psychologically get around this was to choose style over substance and use a computer for everything. This was how I got through my eighth grade science project. I chose magic squares for my project- a topic I and no one I knew had any clue about. My entire project was research and presentation - I made no hypotheses, did no experiments, and produced zero original material. But it did use computers! When the fair date came around I dutifully set up my presentation about a part of recreational mathematics that had no real-world applications. The guy kitty-corner from me had built his own wind tunnel. I stood there in my sweater and tried to forget that middle school was not a great time in my life.

In high school I tried to do as little work as possible in my classes and usually pulled Bs. The science and math homework was done at the minimum; sometimes copied. The English work was done at the last minute because I could easily hammer out a paper or two. All of my papers were typed, all of my images harvested from the web, and all of my tables and graphs done in Excel. When I got to senior year I dropped math and science all together. I had earned a D in pre-calc the year before and wanted nothing more to do with math. I remember sitting down to my first class of physics my senior year and getting a homework assignment of all the odd problems on a worksheet. I looked at the paper on my desk and thought, “I hate lists of problems. And I am not spending my year doing work that I hate.” That was that, and I dropped physics. All that stuff about wave dynamics and planetary gears and the square root of the length of a pendulum being proportional to its period and what not, who needs it? I decided to take Yearbook, because then I could sit in my corner in front of a screen and work on layouts.

Computers, on the whole, probably made me a worse student. I don’t regret the skills I learned from all the time spent with a computer (after all, I do spend a few hours every day using one), but I do regret thinking that computers would solve all of my problems. They don’t, and they never will. I used them as a substitute for effort, and that was wrong. In this age where “efficient use of technology and information are going to be of paramount importance as we move forward to cure the ills in our present world,” the microchip is hailed as the universal band-aid; the zenith of human achievement. But let’s not fool ourselves; cavemen probably said the same thing about hammers and axes. Agrarian man hailed the plow and the windmill. Then came electricity and vaccines. The car. Nuclear power. Computers are part of a grand continuum of human self-delusion. I was obsessed with Madden for a short time, years ago. We as a culture have been obsessed with our own grand progress for much longer than that.


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