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Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
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Frederick Noronha on the Gigabyte march of technology

Aren, my 11-year-old stared in amazement when he saw a manual typewriter for the first time in his life the other day. What was this button, he wanted to know. And how did the paper move up? Or why did this strange device have a bell?

It suddenly struck me that what we took for granted growing up in the 1980s was new and unusual for the current generation of children. Typewriter mechanics from near the General Post Office area in Panjim have meanwhile gone quite out of business too.

A decade and a half ago, teaching aspiring journalists about computers or cameras could be a pain. They would fumble to switch on the comp. The hardware itself was often prone to failure. We ourselves would trip up on different versions of Windows or the latest virus that had hit those still-unconnected to- cyberspace machines.

Today, 20-year-olds can teach us a thing or two–in fact much more—about how to get the most of a computer. Even teenagers are familiar with mobiles and Facebook and have clearly outpaced us in understanding that brand of technology.

Around 1991, the newspaper in which I then worked for, Deccan Herald of Bangalore, decided that its correspondents should file their copy via modems. They gave us laptop computers, each costing around Rs 80,000 then. Quite a novelty. The modem was a slow and clunky device. It connected to a specific computer, and after ‘handshaking’, would share bauds of information if the phone line was clear.

Modem use in those days still needed permissions from the telecom authorities. But when one walked into the plush – by then standards — Mathias Plaza office of Goa Telecom, the general manager and his senior staff were quite at a loss to even understand what a modem actually was. “It’s like a fax,” they quickly concluded! In the confusion, they did not insist that I pay the Rs 3000 licensing fee for it!

Getting a telephone in those days was an aggravating business. The phone line was connected to an exchange over 3.5 kms away. If the line went dead, the staff had to search all along the route to zero in on the fault. Pagers came and quickly went by. The Punjabi operators of the Goa pager operations were located in a cramped office. Symbolising that technology perhaps, one needed to struggle up a steep staircase to get to them somewhere alongside Mascarenhas Building in the heart of town. To get a message across, anyone trying to contact you needed to phone the operator, who would key in an SMS-kind of message. Sometimes it came through almost garbled. But, for its time, it was quite an advance to catch up with people on the move.

I tried installing a fax card on my then computer. The hardware vendor, a close friend, struggled for a couple of days to set it up. We gave up the efforts, and he was kind enough to refund the Rs 7000 that the slow, internal fax card was priced at.

The situation was still confusing then. While the fax card was “Windows compatible”, the vendor installing it believed that it would come along with a free copy of Microsoft’s Windows! My first digital camera was a Kodak which clicked 1 MegaPixel photos. It was gifted to me by expat friends who appreciated the fact that we shared news from Goa. It had space for just 16 photographs, a reflection not on their generosity but on the technology of those times! The late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan, known to be a technology buff, was all in awe of this camera when he happened to see one at a function at Hotel Nova Goa.

My first 14.4 kbps modem cost me Rs 14,000–a princely sum of money then.

But the story which takes the cake was perhaps on the kind of computers we used with such great pride. A friend of a friend, who had just entered the hardware assembly business, sold such machines for Rs 22,000. It had no hard disk drive and instead had two slots for 5-1/2 inch floppies. One carried the software, the other had just about enough space to type a few files of Wordstar (the age-old word-processing program then popular across India) on it!

Today’s generation would not know what a diskette is, leave alone a floppy disk!

This article was first published in Timeline GOA Magazine: Issue 1 Vol. 1 (Page 63).

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