December: Altair 8800 make-your-own-computer kits go on sale.
For people who don’t like waiting, 1974 was a very good year. It was the year that Ed Roberts released the Altair 8800, a kit that let you build your own personal computer. And it was the year that the users of the Michigan Terminal System (MTS) held their first workshop, just up the road from me at the University of British Columbia.
The MTS was one of the first time-sharing systems, a computer that made it possible for people to share a mainframe computer instead of waiting around for it to finish one job so they could get the next turn. And as the first commercially successful personal computer, the Altair was the harbinger of an era in which you wouldn’t have to go out and get access to a mainframe at all.
If 1974 marked the beginning of the end of the “waiting around for a mainframe” lifestyle, it was nowhere close to the end of waiting online. I may not be old enough to remember the Altair, but I’m old enough to remember the days when using a computer felt like a process of waiting, punctuated by occasional keystrokes. We waited for a dial-up modem to connect, we waited for a web page to download, we waited for a program to launch. Here are some of my memories of waiting online:
Those days aren’t so long ago: it was only with the arrival of 8GB of RAM that I stopped experiencing wait times as part of a regular part of my Mac-using experience. Now, multitasking capability means I can flip over to another program while I wait for a new one to launch, or revert to another brower tab while I wait for my latest YouTube video to download.
Technology has spilled over into my offline waiting too. I’m never far from my iPad or iPhone, so I never have the experience of waiting as staring into empty space and wondering how that yellow stain got on the wall, anyhow. The space formerly occupied by waiting is now productive time sent e-mailing, recreation time spent gaming or I’m-not-sure-which-category time spent on Twitter.
The lack of vacant waiting time is why I bumped myself up to that 8GB of RAM and why I’m now infatuated with the idea of buying a MacBook Pro with a solid-state drive. (Plus a second, massive magnetic drive for my data, which I’ll install by swapping out the optical drive.) It’s why I literally never go anywhere without my iPhone. It’s why I pay for an insanely fast Internet connection.
Waiting is far from something I miss: it’s something I go to great lengths to avoid. But now that I’ve successfully eliminated waiting — pure, tedious, endless waiting — from my life, I realize I’ve lost something else too. I don’t notice it much, because getting rid of waiting means getting rid of noticing absence: with every moment full, I can whirl with such constant activity that there’s no space to notice what might be missed.
But once in a while, I get in bed before I’m 110% exhausted, or turn off the last of the screens before they’ve lulled me to sleep. Then I get to visit waiting once again, and I’m surprised by what I find there: me. That single inner voice that doesn’t come out at parties or write blog posts or even tweet. Just that tiny shred of me that is just purely for itself, purely in my own head.
For a long while I found it delightful and calming whenever we met up: whenever I had that moment of calm to notice, oh yeah, here I am. But now those moments are so exceedingly rare that when I have one, I’m spooked: has it really been days, or even weeks, since I was quietly inside my own head? The answer, more and more often, is yes.
I have no doubt that the quiet inside space is there to be found, with a meditation practice or a walk or even just a trip to the gym. But these days I talk on the phone when I’m on a walk, or read on my iPad while I’m at the gym. It takes a conscious decision to switch off and make time for nothing, and I have an incredibly hard time finding that discipline.
So here’s what I want to try instead: waiting. Waiting is the way the world focuses us to take micro-moments of quiet, or maybe not so micro if we’re waiting in the proverbial line at the DMV. You can reclaim those moments by removing some RAM from your computer (sounds crazy, but it’s going to give you some clarifying moments of beachball contemplation) or leaving your iPhone at home one day a week or trying to watch YouTube videos over a really slow Internet connection. It won’t win you a place in the spiritual 100, but if it’s only the way you can actually re-introduce some empty space into your life, it’s well worth trying.
The 1974 MTS workshop might well have been amazed at the prospect of a world in which computer power was so cheap and abundant that there was no longer any reason to wait. We know that world now, and we can see that waiting might be among the treasures it has lost.First posted on March 29,2011