September 20, 2007

What's in a Laptop?

Here's my very first essay written for a class at MIT. Enjoy!

My first computer experience was quite traumatic. Windows had just been invented and I was five, the perfect age for the introduction of a new technology. My family decided it was time for a personal computer and ordered one to be shipped in a couple of weeks. The wait was quite easy to deal with because I could always find ways to amuse myself. Little did I know that these distractions would inevitably ruin my first run-in with a computer. The big day came and I headed off to school, knowing that when I got home I’d get to play on a computer. It also happened to be the day I decided to shove a business card into the school’s change machine, jamming it and preventing anybody else from buying lunch. A trip to the principal’s office and a phone call home later, I was still just an oblivious kid, ready to go home and play on the new computer. I reached home after what seemed like a long school day and ran towards the computer in the kitchen, only to find the kitchen door locked. The subsequent conversation with my dad crushed all hopes of ever getting to play with that computer, sentencing me to sit in the dining room and watch the Disney screensaver bounce around the screen. It was two days before I was allowed to play with that computer, and I’ve savored the PC ever since, despite a horrible first encounter.

The next thirteen years of my life were spent surfing the Internet, writing essays, playing games, and catching some of the worst viruses known to the world. Now, at the age of eighteen, I’ve gone through five computers, six monitors, two printers, eight mice, nine keyboards, and three changes in disk format. I’m the guy who people run to for computer help, the guy who always knows where the interesting tidbits on the Internet are, the guy with the typed homework, and the guy who was always in search of better technology to enhance his computing experience. With college approaching, it was time to add a page to my computer history by purchasing my very first laptop, a moment I had been waiting for since third grade. I always got jealous of the guys in airports surfing the Internet before their flight while I was forced to read a cheap comic book bought at Hudson News for $6.00. Now it was my turn, my turn to spend every cent I had on the perfect laptop, state-of-the art, a device capable of accomplishing any task. With my grandma willing to pay $1500 for it and I able to pay another thousand, the possibilities were near endless, and I began my search. For weeks the only thing I did at school was research laptops, learn what types of graphics cards were better than others, compare screen resolutions, battery life, RAM, and every one of the countless other features. In the end I had assembled an All Star list of attributes that would allow my computer to run graphic intensive programs, go six hours on a single charge, scan my fingerprint, run over fifty programs at once without slowing down, play and burn DVDs, and connect to the Internet at a push of a button. In short, my dream computer. In the days leading up to my purchasing the laptop I reconstructed it online obsessively, just to make sure that everything was perfect and the price hadn’t changed. The day had come to push the “Confirm Order” button, launching dozens of Dell factory workers into a frenzy to build the best computer they are likely to have ever seen.

Five short days later there was a Dell box on my doorstep containing the most beautiful piece of computing equipment I had ever laid eyes on. After running around hugging the box I settled down and plugged in its contents. Watching that screen glow to life, after a ten-year wait for a laptop, was one of the defining moments of my life. So many doors unlocked for me when that Windows logo appeared, nothing could stop me and my lappy. I computed for the rest of the night.

It’s been exactly three months since that day and my computer and I are tantamount to twins separated at birth and reacquainted. Over those months I’ve had a chance to truly realize the possibilities and capabilities of my laptop, everything from blogging, to video editing, to organizing my life, listening to music, and keeping in touch with my friends. How has this helped to develop my relationship with my laptop? When everything you do is dependent on a single piece of technology, it’s hard not to develop a binding relationship with it.

I’ve been recording all of the ridiculous “misadventures of me” in a blog for the last two years. With over a thousand hits a month, regular readers in several countries, and a myriad of insightful comments, it’s very important for me to frequently update and preserve the integrity of my blog, a task that was becoming difficult with my old computer. A dial-up connection and a hard drive filled to capacity simply didn’t accommodate the amount of media that I wanted to post. A solution was needed, which came in the form of a brand new laptop. Blogging has since become infinitely more convenient, easy, and efficient. While it used to take about an hour and a half to upload five photos and write a decent blog entry, the same task now takes about fifteen minutes. Posting videos used to be impossible unless I used a computer with broadband, and oftentimes if I posted content at a computer with broadband I wouldn’t be able to read my own posts at home. Changing the layout of my blog was a time-consuming adventure on my old computer, a task that’s been reduced to mere seconds with my laptop. Comment moderation was also an issue with my old computer. I monitor my blog for inappropriate and derogatory comments, deleting them as they arise. The best way to do this is to constantly monitor and quickly edit, but with dial-up that simply wasn’t possible. These days I delete inappropriate comments seconds after they’re posted, sparing my readers an unpleasant experience. My laptop has revolutionized my blog, keeping it more updated, more interesting, and cleaner in these three months than it has been in the last two years. Apart from recording day-to-day observations on my blog, my laptop allows me to preserve some of my favorite memories.

Noteworthy moments in life are often too important to rely simply on words. Preserving memories with a video camera allows for vivid recollections the instant it’s docked with my laptop, creating a more pleasing experience than a narration alone. My video camera records all of those “had to be there” moments and takes people there. As people have high enough standards to reject unedited home movies, I get to create small works of art with the footage I’ve captured. My old computer was notoriously unreliable in the video editing department. Frequent lockups, corrupted files, having to save every ten seconds, and endless editing sessions for a mere three minutes of video were enough to age me faster than is healthy. With my new laptop, video editing is an activity that I look forward to after shooting my footage. There are no constraints, I can do anything at whatever speed to my videos now. I add music, title overlays, transitions, flashing colors, and sound effects with ease. Finished videos are uploaded to YouTube and shared with the world. They’re a perfect way to keep friends and family up-to-date, get people to laugh, and show off impressive video editing skills. My laptop lets me share what really happened in a way that no other computer could. Computers shouldn’t only be used for entertainment, however.

Life used to be simple. I could remember exactly where I had to go, what I had to do, and who I was going with. Class schedules were easy to memorize, sports were always at the same time, and homework was due regularly. Everything was routine, orderly, and easily navigated. My life is no longer like that. My classes now are scattered throughout the week, sports practice is irregular, I have meetings and appointments randomly through the week, and I can’t remember when homework is due. For some people, a simple desktop calendar is the solution to this dilemma, but I’m not much for paper. Instead, everything I do, have done, and will do is catalogued in my computer’s calendar. Why is it important that this calendar is on my laptop? Paper calendars don’t beep at you when you need to remember something. Color coding paper calendars is much more difficult than a computer calendar. My illegible handwriting makes reading a paper calendar difficult, a problem that never arises on a computer. What if there is too much to write in that small square on the paper calendar. With an integrated to-do list, comments section, unlimited space, and the ability to keep track of exactly what times things are due, my laptop calendar is perfectly suited for my needs. It wakes me up, tells me when I can sleep, lets me know when to eat, and tells me how much homework I have coming up. Without it I’d be running around blindly, missing lectures, important appointments, and generally being in a confused state. With classes comes stress, which can be counterproductive to progress.


Sitting in my room at night, feverishly working to finish a problem set due in five hours, there is very little that will calm my nerves. One of the few things that does sooth me is music. While most teenagers abuse music by using it to shut out the rest of the world, I use it for good. Instead of mindless riffs and guitar parts that all sound the same, I grace my ears with intricate works of art. I’ve been involved in band and symphonic orchestra since the fifth grade, developing quite the repertoire of performed music. A recording of nearly every song I’ve ever played is on my laptop, allowing me to take nostalgic a trip to anytime in the last eight years. In addition to this music I have recordings of almost every symphony or band performance I’ve attended as a guest. Also included in my library are reminders of some of my favorite movies. Not simply a compilation of random songs by various artists: my soundtracks draw out emotions, induce focus, and can even elevate blood pressure. They’re by famous composers such as Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and Klaus Badelt. Without my laptop, none of these songs would have a home, a place where they could all be near each other and intermingle. Instead of dealing with huge binders of scratchable CDs, one piece of technology that manages to run most of my life conveniently stores all of my music. If I’m in a melancholy mood I play some Billy Joel; an epic mood, the soundtrack from “The Rock” or “Gladiator.” Goofy mood? The soundtrack from “The Simpsons.” Fortunately, my ability to feed my mood can be taken on the road. My laptop acts as the bridge connecting me to my iPod, which carries the soundtrack to my life no matter where I am. As much as I love my music, however, music wouldn’t be nearly as meaningful if I couldn’t share it with people.

Without people, people would be much less personable. Therefore, regular interaction with friends is crucial to a healthy lifestyle, but not always easy to achieve. When locked in a small room doing homework or separated from a friend by anywhere between one and three thousand miles, sometimes interaction just isn’t possible. That is, unless you have a laptop. Between e-mail, voice-over Internet protocol, instant messenger, and blogging, I stay connected with people whom I would ordinarily never see. Being able to type witty remarks, share pictures, and generally be a goof with somebody from the comforting silence of my own room is a luxury that I don’t take for granted. Telephones work to a certain extent, but nothing beats a nice long e-mail from that special someone or a surprise instant message from somebody you thought no longer cared. My laptop allows me to use small, generic, and emotional icons to give friends an idea of my facial expressions. Anything I could ever hope to share or show off can be put on the Internet, and nearly eliminated the need for human interaction altogether – but not quite.

Eliminating the need for human interaction is an extremely new concept. In the past, human development has relied on trade, cooperation, and understanding between people, cultures, and nations. Before long-distance communication methods, all of these important meetings were done in person, something that today is avoidable. Nearly every high school graduate that heads off to college is graced with some type of computer, steadily creating a generation of people with the ability to do everything via their computer. The art of making scrapbooks is falling to the wayside in lieu of online photo galleries. Talking on the telephone is being challenged by instant messenger, and video conferencing eliminates any need to ever see somebody in person ever again. Many teenagers and computer users are perfectly ok with this concept, arguing that everything is much more efficient when time isn’t spent trying to get in touch with somebody. Others, however, feel that the country will become a cold and heartless hell, inhabited by computer-loving hermits. Is it possible that by having a blog and talking to people online that I’m contributing to this unpleasant vision of the future? It seems hard to believe, but by changing the very way the world has conversed for millennia, this generation’s computer-loving teenagers may very well disrupt the social patterns of the entire country.

Although my computational beginnings were less than desirable, my love of all things computer fostered a desire to take advantage of the full capabilities of computational utilities. Settling for whatever computer my parents thought was good enough eventually became unthinkable, and I then undertook a search for the exact computer I wanted. Since its arrival, my laptop has become the key that locks my life together, combining my ability to express, organize, meditate, and communicate through one self-contained apparatus. Without it, I’d be floundering around without a well-established routine and with no direction. Will all of this lead to an apocalypse? Today’s generation certainly has the potential to change the very way people with each other, but whether they refuse to let go of the past or heartily embrace the ever-evolving technologies will decide the matter. As far as I’m concerned, my laptop makes everything make sense and always leaves me with something to fall back on, no matter the task at hand.


Anonymous said...

Ahh, the joy of computers. You wrote this for a class? Awesome! Was it a FAS? Or HASS class?

Isshak Ferdjani said...

same question, what was the class ?
by the way, I totally agree with your view : I NEED my laptop too !!!

Constantin said...

So... what's your position with regard to Linux and the Free Software world? Have you ever tried any Linux distribution?

Respectfully, a Windows Vista hater ;)

Anonymous said...