For my Composition I classes, my students are working on technology autobiographies about the role technology plays or has played in their life. It’s a modification of the assignment designed by Richard Selfe, which I hope will yield more interesting results than those in Writing: A Manual for the Digital Age. I have faith in my students. To aid them in this process, I wrote my own technology autobiography, which centers around the purchase of my first computer.
This is a little more low-tech and mono-modal than I like being in this blog, but it isn’t fair to bring in other, shinier tools in a model essay. Though I am more than a little in love with a screencast version of this assignment I discovered on Youtube:
Okay, here is my textual version of the assignment:
The Return on my IBM Stock
My parents rarely buy anything full price– in fact, I credit all my mathematical skills to the bargain shopping days of my youth. I can quickly calculate percentages off and understand how to calculate what size product is the best value when a coupon variable is added. My family never went to Disney World or even to the movie theater. Our vacations were as value packed as our grocery shopping carts. We took educational tours of the country in our Ecoline Van, back in the days of 99 cent gas — taking in the Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone National Park, Gettysburg, Washington, D.C., etc. This is why when my dad brought home an IBM computer — I knew it was because he believed in its value.
Computers were still rare commodities, straight out of sci-fi fantasy books in the late 80s , early 90s. Instead of the vivid blue graphical interface of today’s Microsoft Windows (version 17 or whatever), our IBM ran through DOS prompt commands. At the age of 10 I was typing out elaborate lines of code to eek out line drawings and shapes that were reminiscent of Spirograph creations, and I loved every minute. As the youngest child in my family, I had been waiting years to be given a command prompt. During high school, I used the computer to practice my typing skills and to type my first research paper, which was on martial arts, a love I can probably tie to hours of playing the clunky, pixelated fantasy game Shogun.
My parents never reaped the rewards from the computer. Their technological prowess peaked with the VCR and even then their knowledge was limited. To this day, I am the one that programs their cell phones and accesses information from the Internet for them. My father, who operates high-tech farm machinery, cannot master home electronics.
Still, it was money not wasted. Like few children of my generation, I had the opportunity to grow up with computers and, therefore, had a natural affinity for them. The very first computer I bought at age 19 cost $3,000, more money than many of my friends at the time spent on their first vehicles. I built my first website on this computer, discovered alternative music before Napster became illegal, typed the first of pages of the novel which would later become my master’s thesis in fiction writing, and kept in touch with friends via email (there was no Facebook at the time). A few years later, I would built my own computer from scratch with the help of some computer engineering friends. It made me feel like a feminist to construct and operate technology as well as my male counterparts.
The most important skill I learned from my technological endeavors is discovery through play. I became a graphic designer mostly through hands-on, trial and error training — much like those early days of writing code under a dos prompt. I remember the first week of my internship at a newspaper, trying to figure out the logic of QuarkXpress. In my interview, I said I could do page layouts. However, my only experience was with a much simpler program. Someone in the classifieds department took pity on me and gave me a few pride-saving tips. Three years later I was the periodicals editor at a liberal arts college, overseeing all the publications and running my own freelance graphic design business on the side.
Even after I abandoned graphic design to become a graduate student in English, I still found value in my technical skills. As I moved from my master’s in fiction writing to my doctorate in rhetoric, I found myself continuously drawn to new media ecologies. I became fascinated by cultural ramifications of search engine algorithms, the phenomenon of “going viral,” and the potential for online activism. These explorations of the relationship between composition, rhetoric, and technology are what gave me an edge when it came to job applications. It also led to the completion of my Ph.D.
For me, few dollars have ever been as well spent as those that went towards my first computers. When my father brought that IBM home, he knew computers would be a significant part of the future. However, he couldn’t have foreseen how significant they would be in my future in particular.