The Atari 400, Google, and What’s Next?

I was a nerd when I was a kid. Not only did I read science fiction and watch Star Trek, Star Wars, and everything in between, I read about science. Just off the top of my head, two of my favorite books growing up were Cosmos by Carl Sagan and Mathematics, by David Bergamini from the Life, Science Library. I discovered the one-sided Mobius strip in Mathematics and spent hours making them, drawing lines on them, and cutting them up. That’s what I was doing on Friday night! And who can forget James Burke’s fabulous BBC series, Connections. Probably the best science series of all time.

For Christmas one year, it must have been Christmas of 1981, I receive an Atari 400 as a gift from my parents. The computer revolution was just beginning. I mean,Wright Brothers, 100 foot-flight type of beginning. My school had purchased a few TRS-80′s and us nerds were learning to program them. I can still remember ‘peeking’ and ‘poking’ the memory registers to coax more performance out of the limited BASIC language. I managed to blend my appetite for mathematics and my interest in computers with that Atari 400 when I programmed it to graph functions. I spent Christmas break of that year glued to the TV set watching sine waves, exponentials, and parabolas materialize on the pixelated screen. Lord was that machine slow and I remember wishing that I didn’t have to edit the program to try a new function.

Things have come a long way since then and I have been in the middle of it, all along, working in the defense industry as a physicist. In college I learned to program on a good old VAX 11/785. My first high-end computer, which I bought in 1989, was a Mac SE/30 on which I did the research for and wrote my masters thesis. I remember the workstation craze of the ’90s with Sun and SGI. Then when they were replaced with inexpensive x86 PC’s. The debut of Windoze. And how the Internet emerged from the Bitnet. It’s been an enormous privilege and a humbling experience to have lived through the evolution of the information age and, indeed, been a part of it.

It all came full circle this morning when I typed “graph e^(x^2) from -2 to 2″ into the Google search bar. Almost instantly that wonderful, symmetric plot of the function with no closed-form integral appeared. I didn’t even know if Google would do that and was following a hunch from a totally unrelated conversation with a fellow writer and colleague, Terri-Lynne Smiles. But there it was, just as it had appeared on my parents TV set all those years ago. And while the curve hasn’t changed a bit, the technology has transformed the planet.

On my Atari, I had to edit the code to change functions. Google interpreted my query and did what I wanted. That’s Artificial Intelligence, my friends. My Atari did the calculations only a bit faster than I could have done them by hand. I have no idea where Google did the calculations but it was already displaying the plot by the time I got to the limits. My Atari was connected to my parent’s TV with an antenna cable. It wasn’t even a coax. I’m communicating with Google over an 802.11g wireless datalink to my router, which sends it back and forth through cyberspace and manages to get it right almost every time. My parent’s TV had the resolution of a Crayon, was three feet thick, and weighed about a hundred pounds. The screen on my MacBook Pro is less than a quarter of an inch and the entire computer weighs less than the brick-like remote that controlled that old Sears console. We used to heat the den with the power consumed by old-style televisions. The battery life on my Mac is hours, and hours, and hours.

I’m still a nerd. I still love science and mathematics. And I still love fiction. I even write fiction nowadays. And the fiction I write asks the same question James Burke and Carl Sagan used to ask. The questions that Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury used to ponder. Where are we going? We all knew that eventually a TV would fit on something the size of a watch – and now we’re all walking around with them in our pockets. But who saw texting coming? Twitter was an outgrowth of texting. Both are changing the way we view the world, and not always for the better. Consider the effect of Twitter on the recent political election in the U.S.A. The pace of innovation has left the rate of ethical evolution far behind. We’re in unknown waters. Here there be monsters. It’s an exciting time to be alive. It’s an exciting time to be an author. Because the big question isn’t “What’s next?” The big question is “What is it going to do to us?”

About John

American, husband, father, writer, rocket scientist, soccer player, motorcycle rider, Christian, and proud of it.
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3 Responses to The Atari 400, Google, and What’s Next?

  1. Terri-Lynne says:

    Connections was the best series, by far. I still miss it. And I, too, made paper mobius strips.

  2. The question is also, “How do I incorporate the high-tech world into my writing?” Nice article…

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