Living in the future: 15 ways the computer changed my life

Having worked with computers most of my life, I've witnessed first-hand the many changes that it has brought about to our lives. I thought it would interesting to pick the 15 computer-related innovations that have most changed my life.

1. Databases -- I once had a job summer filing inventory cards for Diebold. All day long, I'd drop 3" x 5" cards into their numerically proper place in file drawers. Want a snapshot of inventory? Pull out all the cards, record the total on each. Type it up. By the time you're done, the inventory has turned over twice. Databases drove the dramatic increase in efficiency of U.S. corporations, and they put money in all of our pockets.

2. Spreadsheets -- In the days before Excel and the like, "what if" planning was a laborious process that usually ended up based on guesstimates. Spreadsheets allowed us to explore the consequences of possible decisions, as well as making it easy to integrate financials and build checks into the system.

3. Word processing -- There was a time when a writer (me, that is) who found a wrong word on a page he had just typed would white it out, then attempt to find a replacement word with the same number of letters, so that there would be no gap on the page. With word processing, change became incredibly easy. Spell checking and grammar programs helped the clumsy turn in proficient copy. Everybody became a writer. Which is not altogether a good thing, IMHO.

4. E-mail -- Before e-mail, those working on a project together could either write a letter, have a meeting, or talk on the phone. The first was slow and laborious, the second vastly time-consuming, and the third demanded that the party being called drop whatever he was doing to answer the phone. E-mail provided written documentation, timeliness regardless of distance, and at the convenience of both parties. It was also a Godsend for the shy or tongue-tied.

5. The graphical interface -- Those old enough to remember the green screen of Microsoft's DOS system can appreciate the graphical interface, made popular by Apple (AAPL) and appropriated by Microsoft (MSFT). Here was a system designed for humans who couldn't remember hundreds of arcane commands, but could learn to point and click on menus, drilling down to the info they needed. In color, Windows and the like made us feel we had finally arrived in the future.

6. The internet -- As a child, I read every science fiction book I could get my hands on, and surprisingly, very few postulated anything like the internet. Neither did I, yet when I finally grasped the idea, it seemed so obvious, so exactly what human beings needed. In only a few years, I was able to look virtually anywhere in the world, 24/7, for the information I needed. Suddenly, national boundaries seemed much less meaningful. My smart-ass answer, when people asked me where I was from, became "Earth."

7. Google -- Without an effective index, the internet would be as useless as a library full of randomly shelved books without covers. While early search engines like Alta Vista did an OK job of finding content, Google was a quantum leap forward. It's notion of using page popularity to rank search responses rightly dominated the market overnight.

8. File sharing -- What began innocently with family photos sent back and forth has grown into a huge area of controversy. Nonetheless, the ability to share work documents, entertainment, and the product of our toils has been a great boon to business. The ability to share pirated movies and music has been a royal pain in the ass for the nation's performers, unfortunately.

9. Online gaming -- I don't have a dog in this hunt, but I'm aware that the leap from gaming on the home television to joining a worldwide gaming community via the xBox and other systems has enthralled whole generations. If it had existed when I was young, I'd have been addicted to it, I'm sure. I hope I would have had the sense to avoid internet gambling, though. That's an expensive addiction.

10. Instant messaging -- Before I began using instant messaging, or IM, I didn't understand how it differed from e-mail. Now I think I do. If e-mail is a postal letter, IM is a note passed from hand to hand behind the teacher's back. You e-mail your mom, IM your BFF. IM is social, e-mail is professional. IM is, well, instant. E-mail is like, whenever.

11. Online retailing -- In the aftermath of the dot-com disaster, pundits ridiculed the lack of profit of companies like Amazon (AMZN). Few of us foresaw just how much advantage online merchants would have, once they figured out logistics, database marketing, and the mechanics of the transaction. Today, I can buy a book for my Kindle with a couple of clicks of a button while soaking in my hot tub.

12. Streaming audio/video -- I love music, but I haven't bought a CD in a couple of years. For $12 and change, I belong to Rhapsody, from which I can select music from a huge catalog to stream to my PC. I'm listening to some old Neil Young at the moment. Yesterday I watched episodes of Southland and the Sunday Family Guy. Not on television, though, but online, from sites such as Hulu.com. I could choose when and where to watch them, and the commercial interruptions were much shorter. I'm living in the future again.

13. Wireless access -- My wife has a BlackBerry. Wherever she goes, she can receive calls, check e-mail, access the internet, listen to tunes, watch movies, read books, pull up maps, and more. The world is in the palm of her hand.

14. Social networking -- Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads -- suddenly I have hundreds of new friends and have reconnected with many more from the past. Borders don't matter, my income doesn't matter, my appearance doesn't matter, my age doesn't matter (much). I wonder if this is an evolutionary step in the chain that leads from family to tribe to town to region to nation. A human grouping for whom geographical proximity is irrelevant.

15. Transition of essential services -- I read the Wall Street Journal on my Kindle. I manage my bank accounts online. I voice my complaints to the city via the online form on the city's website. I check the state department of transportation's site for road construction hurdles. I use Google Earth to plan bicycle routes. The internet allows me to be ignored by businesses without the inconvenience of waiting on the telephone.

What are the biggest changes to your life brought about by the computer?


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