I took the old laptop out of its nifty leather case and stared. Was it always that clunky looking? So square? Like an old Volvo. Instead of a mouse, it has a marble-sized trackball. The screen is about the size of my Kindle screen. And what’s with the giant box with a little plug sticking out of it?
This thing doesn’t have a USB port, but it does have a place to plug in a telephone line for the modem. Suddenly the old backup computer has become an historic artifact. But it’s my only hope to find out what happened to Roberta and Frank.
I’ve been reading through short stories I wrote back in the late ‘90s. Some are so awful I’m relieved no one wanted to publish them. But some are still good, especially this one about Roberta and Frank, who run into trouble while traveling in their motorhome. I was thinking I should polish it and send it out. It’s not too out of date. Look, Roberta even has a cell phone. She doesn’t know how to use it, but I can fix that. I got to the end of page 5. The ambulance is coming and–where’s page 6? Where’s the rest of the story? I have a vague memory that Roberta stops being such a wuss and saves the day, but I don’t know the details anymore.
I have to leave for church in five minutes. I tear through my files. I sent it to literary journals back in the days before we submitted everything online. I have to have more paper copies of “Runaway Dream.”
I find maybe 50 short stories. Lord, I was prolific. But not that one.
Okay, look through the pile of CDs. Nope, too new. Where are those old 3.5-inch floppies? The only computer with a floppy drive that I still have would be that laptop I bought in 1993. There it is back behind the unsold books.
Epson ActionNote 700 CX. I plug it in. The poor thing is beat up, the F7 key coming off, the screen part separating from the keyboard part (unlike a lot of today’s laptops, it’s not supposed to). It turns on. Gray screen, words and numbers. DOS. Oh crap. Does anybody remember the DOS operating systems that preceded Windows?
Press F1. Okay. Setup failed. Press F12 for setup utility. I get a screen full of choices and no idea what button to push. The date shows Jan. 1, 1990. Memories of Y2K. Remember how we thought the world would fall apart because all our computers couldn’t make the leap to a new millennium? Most of them did but maybe not this one.
I decide to take pictures so I can show you all this historic computer. I close the top to shoot the outside. When I reopen it, all the words and numbers are gone. The computer doen’t even hum. When I push the power button, nothing happens. Old ActionNote seems to have passed away while I was trying to take its picture. But how does Roberta get off that deserted road? Does her husband get to the hospital in time?
Wait. Do I have another laptop, an interim between the Volvo and my current HP, a Honda maybe? Can’t find it, but I find some 5.25-inch floppy disks. Short Stories 1 and 2. Great! Oh. I have nothing that can read them. I have always backed up my files, carried copies in my car, and put them in the safe deposit box at the bank. It’s all useless nonrecyclable plastic now.
But wait, the Volvo didn’t die. The plug got super hot and the computer turned itself off. After it cools, I plug it in again. Green light. Must act quickly. Setup. Change the date. OMG. Windows 3.1. Insert disk. Horrible wailing noise. It can’t read the disk, can’t read any of my old disks, but hey, here on the hard drive is the old version of my novel Azorean Dreams. Hello, old friend.
“When the alarm shrilled at 7 a.m., Chelsea groaned and covered her eyes against the light pouring in the bedroom windows.” The whole book is there. Wow.
What else is on this thing? There’s the unfinished novel about a quadriplegic named Daniel. And something called deaderma.wps. Oh, I love that story. Reporter goes to do an interview and finds the subject dead in the rose bushes. Being a reporter, she gets nosy . . .
No Roberta and Frank. I created these people. I need to find out what happened to them, even if I have to retype every blinking word into the new (ish) computer.
I’m still looking. And no, I do not want to write a new ending. The moral of this tale. Print everything out. I still have poems, stories and essays I wrote on manual typewriters 50 years ago, but I can’t read what I entrusted to my computers in 1997. Even 2007 is iffy. Paper lasts longer than modern technology. We’re putting all of our information into machines that will be obsolete before I pay off my Visa bill. Is anybody thinking about that?
Do you have antique computers and antique media hanging around? Ever try to use them? What is going to happen to everything we have entrusted to our computers in five, 10, 20 or 30 years? Are writers the only ones who care?
I could tell you a whole other story about the days I spent last week sticking slides into the old slide projector. I thought I would get them digitized, but then I thought, why? Even my own slides bore me now. It’s been a dusty time in the Lick household lately as I try to sort things down to manageable levels. Within reason. Marie Kondo, queen of throwing away everything that doesn’t give you joy, can’t take my stories away. She’s not even getting the old laptop. Not yet.
Here are some interesting links to read about the history of laptops and the history of data storage.
A fun history of computers (if you mute the annoying music)
Check out this video on how to prevent “data rot” No music, cute guy, but skip the ad after he gets to the stone tablets
You might also want to mute the music on this history of data storage