Some of my friends were shocked a couple years ago when I told them I was going to open shop as a social media consultant. Maybe shocked is not the right word: they were outwardly calm and accepting, but inwardly they sidled away as though I might be contagious.
“What does this have to do with dreams?” they asked. “I didn’t know you knew about that stuff,” they said, while smiling. Talking about my work taught me just how many people still think the internet is a little too “newfangled,” and those who work with it somehow untrustworthy.
To be honest, at first I shared their sense of alarm. I felt the thrill of transgression as I started speaking about digital publishing. Why wasn’t I content to sit around and talk about dreams and feelings? What did I care about the latest technology anyway?
But then odd memories from childhood came floating to the surface, and before long I realized something about my life: I have always been a techie. So in the interest of helping others who may be carrying a similar, unspoken burden, here is the backstory on why you can sometimes find me talking to large rooms about Twitter.
Some of you may be too young to know the thrill I experienced in second grade, when our classrooms went from showing silent educational filmstrips to filmstrips with a companion LP! All our teacher had to do was put the record on, start the filmstrip, and advance the strip every time there was a “ding” in the narration.
It was a glorious new world, except for one thing: our teacher never seemed to advance the filmstrip at the right pace. Either she would get ahead of the narrator, or she’d miss a ding and we would be stuck in the past while the person on the record was talking about something else entirely!
This was my first lesson in the headaches of being an early adopter. I turned out to be one of the kids who reliably knew how many frames we were ahead or behind, so while trying to keep my voice low (can’t risk alienating the boys!) I’d tell my teacher, “go back two frames.” She learned to trust my comments, and I learned to never bring it up on the playground.
The AV Guys
Back then, the A/V Club was an exclusive cadre of boys who were the only ones in the school authorized to set up film projectors in our classrooms. I watched them mount the reel and thread the film through the machine, wind the tail end onto the second reel, and slap the little side door shut.
Sometimes they just left the machine there for the teacher to set up, and inevitably something wouldn’t work right. I was too intimidated to help with the machine, though I really wanted to. Instead, I focused on telling her when she got the focus right—a minor detail, perhaps, but so important to the end-user experience.
Sometime before we were born, my dad had built a stereo receiver, turntable, and two speakers from a Heath Kit. I still remember the black turntable in its black hardwood box, with little bristles sticking out from one end of the tone arm. The needle towed a payload of fuzz behind it by the time it reached the end of the record, and if you weren’t careful it would make a terrible sound when you plucked it off.
Whenever a new Heath Kit catalog arrived, I pored over it for hours. Along with all the radios and weather stations you could make an actual calculator, and even a very mysterious-sounding computer terminal. I had no idea what it did, but I wanted to build one so badly that I risked bugging my dad about it until he simply stopped responding. Perhaps he, too, was wary of being an early adopter. More likely, he preferred the privacy of his own thoughts when constructing something in the garage. I’ll bet he would’ve done it if I’d been a boy, though.
Control Data Institute
I still remember the commercials, which aired frequently during afternoon cartoon hours. A row of serious-looking men and women, all typing on terminals connected to giant mainframe computers. Control Data Institute was the place where you, too, could stop watching Dialing for Dollars and start a new career in data entry.
The place looked like Oz to me. I fantasized about dropping out of school to enroll. How difficult could that be? I could learn to do what they were doing. Maybe my grandparents would let me stay with them downtown while I took classes. The thought of having to finish junior high before I could do anything interesting was such a thorn in my side!
Digitizing Card Catalogs
While researching metadata and ebooks recently, I realized that my first on-campus job at Berkeley fits into this closet techie narrative, too. The summer before my freshman year, I was hired by a forward-thinking librarian at Doe Library to hand-enter card catalog information into their new computerized system. There we would sit for hours a day, at desks just large enough to hold a card catalog drawer, a computer terminal, and a keyboard. If I craned my neck I could see out the large upper story windows of the library onto the bustling campus below. I was in heaven.
It only lasted for the summer, but this was the perfect job for me, combining my love of books with my fascination for computers. The librarian took pride in the fact that she had hired young women as well as men, and I was thrilled that I hadn’t needed to go to Control Data Institute after all!
UNIX vs. DOS
Eventually I transferred to UC Santa Cruz, where every student had an account on the school’s UNIX system. You could go at all hours to any of the dimly-lit basement computer labs on campus, and either do weird programming things like the guys there were doing, or use the text editor to write your papers—and print them out on dot matrix printers!
I decided to give it a try, so went down and logged on. So far, so good. There were some printed instructions on mimeographed sheets, but try as I might I couldn’t quite grasp the concept of a “shell,” and half the time I got lost in the UNIX labyrinth trying to find the text editing program. The whole thing was a bit intimidating, and yet I never went to a tutorial session. I had lots of problems back then, but somehow I knew that learning UNIX would not solve any of them.
Fortunately, around that time my roommate came home with a DOS desktop computer. At last, a machine that did what I wanted it to do—and was fun to use! From then on, there was no turning back. I wrote everything I could on that DOS machine, where I could easily find my way into and out of the word processing program, and the lighting was so much better.
The Final Proof
During the time my kids were growing up, I was the family IT person. There was nothing I enjoyed more than leaving the kitchen to troubleshoot a connectivity problem, or solve an extension conflict in whatever Mac machine we were currently using.
But the moment I treasure most was during Jojo’s sophomore year in high school. She and a friend had to do a video project for one of their classes, and they were on the phone trying to figure out how to download footage from her friend’s video camera onto either of their computers. Finally, I overheard Jojo say to her friend, “We either need to ask a boy, or we need Anne.” And with that, she put down the phone and asked me for advice. I had arrived.