By Michael W. Harris
I always love seeing the looks I get when I tell people that I have schoolwork COMPUTER files dating back to sixth grade. Now, for some that would not be that remarkable, but for me, sixth grade was 1992-93. The first web browser only went public in 1991. The first version of Windows was released in 1985. And the ubiquitous Apple IIe that was the first computer in my elementary school lab was released in 1983.
These files of mine are not things I created at school, though. They are Word and Excel documents I made at home for school projects. Papers, reports, etc. The odd personal or Boy Scouts project files are also included, but most are school reports. More importantly, though, is that they are still saved and with a little work could be made accessible again (currently the file formats are no longer readable with the newest versions of Office, but there are ways of migrating them). And this is not theoretical. The files are not stored on obsolete media. Yes, they were first saved on 3 ½ inch floppies, but from there they were first migrated en masse to a 100MB (mega…not giga) Zip Disk in 1999 and from there ported to a 128MB jump drive in the early 2000s. And today these files live both on my 200GB microSD card that is my main data archive, with a back-up stored on a 5TB external hard drive (these drives are named “The Library” and “The Matrix of Gallifrey” respectively).
I go into this lengthy preamble (for a second week in a row, mind you!!) to make sure to properly orient myself and my childhood vis-à-vis technology. I am part of that weird micro-generation between the Gen Xers and Millennials who literally grew up as the technology grew up. Sometimes called the “Xennials” (stupid name), I prefer “The Oregon Trail Generation,” as it really captures the defining characteristic for me of MY generation, defined by a game we played mostly in schools on computers with green tinted screens. This moniker is usually given to children born from about 1977 to 1985. We have a little bit of the Gen X cynicism (especially now as most of us hit the job market either as the Dot Com bubble burst in 2001 or when the entire system crashed in 2007), though by growing up and learning technology as it hit the market, we believe in the promise of the future and still have some awe and wonder left for it.
However, this is also tempered with out relation to screens as we did not grow up with them in our pockets. We might have still run around outside, played in the dirt, and then come inside for some Mario and Sonic before dinner. We hit our adolescence as 24-hour news become a thing, only to have stories like the Waco Siege, Oklahoma City Bombing, and Columbine be seared into our collective memory. This is to say nothing of Wolf Blitzer’s coverage of what we must now call the First Gulf War.
I always knew something bad had happened that day if I came home from school and CNN was on. Though I learned about Columbine from surfing “the net” on a classroom computer over my lunch period…because that was what I did.
And then came 9/11 (no hyperlink necessary). Right as many of those in my generation were preparing for or graduating college (I was in my third year of undergrad), Americans lost our collective capacity for reason and ushered in the world whose consequences are meanings we still wrestle with.
My generation’s relationship with technology and screens is fraught with these memories. So many things happened that define our modern world, from school shootings to global terrorism, which occurred in the era before push notifications. We learned of these things from talking heads on screens, but in a time when those heads could be journalists first and didn’t have to compete with pundits and blowhards who let speculation run roughshod over reason in a mad dash to be “FIRST.” There was no Facebook or Twitter, and the Internet had yet to become a troll infested swamp.
What I am trying to say here, in a very roundabout way by diving deep into the psyche and events that shaped the childhoods and adolescence of my generation, is that we have an ever evolving relationship with technology. It was a tool that, for most of our first two decades on this planet, was not something we used everyday beyond TV and maybe video games. PCs were still very expensive, my family was lucky and could afford one, and most kids and teens did not regularly use them in schoolwork. Laptops were rare in college classrooms for our undergrads. Even when I got to campus in 1999 they were uncommon. So when I talk about analog workflows, it is not a new concept to me. I’ve rarely taken notes on a computer. As a teen and 20 something, I would routinely write poems and short stories out long hand, and I always have scratch paper nearby to jot down ideas.
The “Oregon Trail Generation,” myself including, are the Middle Children of technology. Old enough to remember the world before ubiquitous screens and media saturation, but young enough that we can still be seen as “digital natives.”
And like all good middle children, it’s given us a bit of a complex.
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I sometimes joke that the fact that I am part of this in-between generation combined with being a cusp baby in terms of astrology (caught between Leo and Virgo) is why I suffer from so many identity and existential crises. That I keep going from one career path to another because neither my generation not my astrology gives me a defined identity.
And while I say all this in good fun (and astrology is a load of BS to begin with), deep down I can’t help but wonder: could there be something to it? More likely I am just looking for external causes to inner dilemmas, but I have always felt like I was a bit out of time. Either as a digital kid living in a still analog world, and now as a more analog adult living in a digital world. My childhood, adolescence, and 20s were spent on the edge of tech: PCs, home theatre, digital projectors, DVDs, Blu-rays, HDCD, DVD-A, SACD, mp3s, FLAC, Ethernet, WiFi…but somewhere in my 20s I allowed tech to pass me by.
First, it was in the realm of Video Game consoles, then computers, and finally scaling back my home theatre system. I lost interest in keeping up with formats. I stopped keeping up with technology. Maybe it is because it is a young person’s game and, low and behold (and to my amazement), I was no longer a young person…I was rapidly reaching middle age! Maybe it was that it no longer posed an interesting challenge to me. Or maybe it was because I, after spending a significant amount of time living in Colorado, had finally found a place and people that I felt comfortable around and no long felt as “out of place” as I once did.
Yes, I still struggle with “identity,” we should always feel like we are exploring ourselves, I think, but I didn’t feel as uncomfortable as I had, say, back in high school. To be certain, my first six months in Virginia threw all that into chaos, but I have got that mostly sorted and have hopefully built some new systems in my life to buffer myself from such effects when I make my next move…soon?
Yet, I remain a middle child, comfortable in both the digital and analog worlds. In some ways I remain steadfast in resisting parts of digital convenience. I save almost nothing to “The Cloud.” This is how so much of my work has survived for well over 25 (!!!!!) years—I was always a closet archivist. I trust no one’s data protection plan but my own. As I learned in library school: LOCKSS. Lots Of Copies Keeps Shit Safe. And with that comes an old fashioned approach to doing things for yourself. Be it in the analog or digital world. And this sort of attitude has remained for many in my generation…hell, it is probably normal and just seems odd to me because I was for so long at the bleeding edge that now that I am behind the crowd it all seems different.
Guess I’ll never be “normal” and I am okay with that.
I used to be the home theatre and computer guy, and now I’ll be the analog guy.
In the words of John Oliver (technically a member of my generation)…