Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Typing to Learn: A Technobiography

My mother is a something of a Jill-of-all-trades. She teaches piano lessons, does occasional work for a friend in real estate, and runs the books for an automotive shop. She also rides a Harley and plays in two rock bands, but that’s another story. She trained as an accountant in college, and for as long as I can remember she has done freelance CPA work, which means she’s had an office in the house. When I was little, the office was equipped with a desktop computer and one of those printers that printed on that fabulous green-white-green-white lined paper. I used to sit on the floor and peel off the perforated edges. 

As often as I could possibly manage, I would retrieve a hot-pink floppy disk from the filing cabinet and climb into Mama’s deep purple, faux-leather office chair. Concentration. I loved that game. It was memory and wheel-of-fortune all at once – you had to remember what pictures were on the other sides of the cards you’d already selected and when you found a match they disappeared, revealing a series of images that represented syllables and inevitably included an awl. The goal was to guess the phrase before you made all the cards disappear. 

There were disks with other games, too. Bubba enjoyed Oregon Trail, and I guess I did at first, but I always wound up dead from dysentery and I came to take it as a personal offense. Mama also bought us a learning game called Treehouse – I remember her being so pleased to have presented her children with such a technologically advanced educational activity. I enjoyed the speed typing games and vocabulary builders, but I was inevitably drawn back to that hot-pink floppy. 

Of course Mama’s desktop wasn’t the only technology in my childhood. We had two televisions, one in the living room and one in Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. When one of those got turned on, it was an event. Every Tuesday night, Daddy and Bubba would watch “SeaQuest” while Mama and I watched “Murder, She Wrote.” On Sunday nights we watched whatever made-for-TV movie was on the basic network (we never had cable). Commercials were spent running around to get a snack or go to the restroom, and someone would holler “SHOW” real loud when it came back on and we’d scurry to our seats. Not having cable never seemed to be an issue at the time, but as I got older I realized that I missed out on some cultural references that are still a big part of my friends’ lives today.  

We moved to a suburb when I was in fourth grade (1994), and that’s the first time I remember technology in school. We had typing class once a week in the computer lab, and I took a lot of pride in getting high-speed scores. Beyond that, though, I don’t recall using computers as part of my elementary education.

By the time I was in middle school we obtained a “family computer” that took up residence in the kitchen, I assume because Bubba and I needed it for homework. I don’t recall typing up assignments or conducting internet research, but I think it must have happened. I remember writing a paper about alpha-male gorillas, and I’m not sure how else I would have learned about them. (I also got “gorilla” and “armadillo” confused and thought gorillas were living under the house for a while.)

What I remember using that computer for was chatting with friends on AOL. I would sit for hours and chat—I was right at the age when girls stereotypically become big phone-talkers, but synchronous chat completely replaced the telephone. For whatever reason, I never ventured into other online communities like chat rooms, though I knew they existed. 

As I got older, technology became an increasingly central part of my life.  My parents bought me a cell phone when I was 16, and I have had one ever since (I have never owned landline). I continue my parents’ tradition of avoiding cable, but I have always owned a TV and I frequently watch shows through Hulu and Netflix. Facebook made its entrée into society my freshman year of college, and it quickly replaced AIM as my way of communicating with friends. I have moved around a lot since then, and Facebook has become a crucial part of maintaining distance relationships.

The ways in which I use technology for entertainment and communication feel completely natural, but even more natural is the way I use computers as tools for writing. My early enthusiasm with typing class and speed-typing games seems to have established a connection between writing and the computer that is irreversible. I rarely write by hand, and in fact feel uncomfortable doing so for anything longer than a grocery list. But something even stranger has happened—I feel as though I think best when I am typing. I nearly transcribe interesting meetings or classes, and I always “type through” ideas in a freewrite style. It is as though my learning style is tied to typing—instead of being a visual or auditory learner, I am a textual one, but not in the sense that I need to read to learn. I need to produce words to learn. And whether it is a symbol that represents a word or letters pressed by my fingers, to me, words exist on the screen.

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