Going to the computer lab
On Geriatric Millennials, the era of fast ocean liners, and how temporary scarcity shaped college
According to the Census Bureau, the median American was born around 1982. This means that anyone older than a "Geriatric Millennial" is now in the upper half of the age distribution. (Sympathies to Generation X.) With that realization occasionally comes the knowledge that one's lived experience is now history.
■ Among the most obvious of social changes from one generation to the next is the extent of consumer technology. Those who attended high school or college in the late 1980s, the 1990s, or the early 2000s didn't realize it at the time, but they occupied a brief and unique window of history when "media" wasn't social, but technology itself was.
■ Thanks to the overwhelming utility of Internet and database connections and to the obvious advantages of word processors and spreadsheets over typewriters and paper notepads, people of that early-computer generation had tremendous incentives to become early adopters of personal computers. But even the slow, under-powered desktops of those days were expensive. After tuition, room and board, and book fees, there wasn't always enough left over in the student budget for a modern computer.
■ And thus the campus computer lab emerged. Colleges (and some well-funded high schools) invested in hardware, installed the machines in centralized locations, and provided (usually) supervised sites for work. At the time, going to the computer lab was often a social occasion just as much as an academic one. It was, in its way, an early edition of the "co-work space". Everyone might have been working on something different from everyone else, but gathering around the technology was defined nearly as much by the gathering as by the devices.
■ The experience was, to a degree, an extension of (and an overlap with) the era of scheduling the use of a school's mainframe. That experience, though, tended to belong more to people in the STEM fields (before they were called that). The computer lab experience of the nascent Internet era was much more democratic: Everyone on campus had papers to write.
■ Computer labs may still exist, but the social aspect of making a pilgrimage to go to the technology is fading fast. The Northern Iowan, the student newspaper of the University of Northern Iowa, reports that on-campus computer labs are languishing because so many students now depend upon laptops and wireless network connections to get things done. The labs still exist, but increasingly their remit is to provide equity of access to students who don't have their own devices, or whose devices lack the expensive software needed to accomplish particular tasks.
■ Is something lost along the way? Yes and no. Generations of people attended higher education before computers became widespread, and they undoubtedly left feeling fulfilled. The computer lab experience was a consequence of scarcity, and that scarcity belongs more and more to historical memory as Moore's Law continues its march. But those who lived through it should know that what they experienced, much like trans-Atlantic crossings via fast ocean liners, airships, or the Concorde, was a rare moment in history.
■ It's rarely obvious at the time, but those moments belong to a different class than most histories. They often seem too unremarkable to record at the time, and often the only things left behind are tangential artifacts. They aren't worth resurrecting for their own sakes, but they are often worth documenting for the historical record and observing for what they might have to say about adaptation to change. Something, sometime, will become the new "going to the computer lab".
Dall-E’s vision of a computer lab