The Computer

August 2nd, 2014

Columnist Randy Fitzgerald on our dependence on technology

A very elderly friend of mine who died last year told me a few months earlier how happy he was that he had lived to see the computer age. He had been a professor and a writer, and the research that had to be done for both roles had taken up far too much of his early life. Once he had a computer, he was delighted to see that he could find out anything in a matter of minutes.

So he loaded up his IBM self-correcting typewriter and his fine set of encyclopedias and took them to Goodwill, and until he died at 92, he loved his computer like a friend. Two weeks before he died, he was teaching himself Spanish, on the computer.


I got my first computer at work in 1986. My boss at the University of Richmond decided I needed it, and she and I went to Charlottesville for some reason to shop for one. It was soon delivered, only to sit on the corner of my desk for three or four months before one day, totally overwhelmed by my workload, I thought, “Maybe I should give this thing a try to see if it really will make things easier.”

Did it ever! Love at first use. It was an Apple, and I liked it so much I went back to Charlottesville and bought one exactly like it to use at home. Today that archaic vertical monitor still sits on a desk in my living room, along with a box camera, a Polaroid and an old Underwood typewriter. The object once so revolutionary to my work and in my life has many times been updated and replaced, like so many of the great inventions that came before it. Nowadays I do my writing on a laptop.

Over the years I’ve owned a number of computers, trying to keep up as they changed and improved and reinvented themselves. A worktable in my basement is full up with processors with hard drives, alongside monitors, old keyboards and mouses (mice?) — some of them mine and Barb’s but a fair number left behind by our kids as well. I’m waiting for the next time UR or VCU has a roundup of old hard drives, to take them off our hands.


But I have to say I’m sentimental about them — lots of old columns buried away in there — and on one of them are the very good first chapters of a novel. Barb started it years ago, never made a hard copy, never got back to it, and now we have no idea where it is or which hard drive it’s on. There are thousands of emails lost in those computers, too — correspondence with friends and family members that constitute today’s equivalent of the handwritten letters of previous generations.

Genealogists treasure those, but our generations will not be passing much on since most of them inevitably end up in the ether or the dump. Neither will the scholar be able to track the poet’s progress in creating his masterpiece, or follow the different versions of the latest Great American Novel through its development. And what constraints will the computer put upon the biographer or historian?

I celebrate the computer for the marvel that it is, but I bemoan the loss of the hard- copy letter that has, over the centuries, preserved family, personal, national, corporate and institutional memories, worldwide. That’s a loss. My parents are deceased, but I have scores of letters from my mother and a few from my dad, some chatty and loving and others of great consequence — all something tangible of Beth and Charles to pass on to the next generation. My children have only emails from me.

It’s ironic that the invention that allows us to so easily capture and record every moment, every thought, every professional and personal transaction … should also render those efforts totally expendable, transient and therefore unimportant.


Randy Fitzgerald was a longtime public relations director at the University of Richmond and columnist for The Richmond News Leader and later the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He then taught modern American literature at Virginia Union University until retiring in 2012.


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