Rebecca Murphey

Last updated

Girls and computers

After a week that seemed just chock full of people being stupid about women in technology, I just found myself thinking back on how it was that I ended up doing this whole computer thing in the first place. I recorded a video a while back for the High Visibility Project, but that really just told the story of how I ended up doing web development. The story of how I got into computers begain when I was unequivocally a girl. It was 1982.

Back then, my dad made eyeglasses. My mom stayed at home with me and my year-old sister -- which she'd continue to do til I was a teenager, when my brother finally entered kindergarten eight years later. Their mortgage was $79 -- about $190 in today's dollars -- which is a good thing because my dad made about $13,000 a year. We lived in Weedsport, New York, a small town just outside of Syracuse. We walked to the post office to get our mail. The farmers who lived just outside town were the rich people. In the winters the fire department filled a small depression behind the elementary school with water for a tiny skating rink. There were dish-to-pass suppers in the gym at church.

In 1982, Timex came out with the Timex Sinclair TS-1000, selling 500,000 of them in just six months. The computer, a few times thicker than the original iPad but with about the same footprint, cost $99.95 -- more than that mortgage payment. When everyone else in town was getting cable, my parents decided that three channels were good enough for them -- it's possible they still had a black-and-white TV -- and bought a computer instead.

I remember tiny snippets of that time -- playing kickball in my best friend Beth's yard, getting in trouble for tricking my mother into giving us milk that we used to make mud pies, throwing sand in the face of my friend Nathan because I didn't yet appreciate that it really sucks to get sand thrown in your face -- but I vividly remember sitting in the living room of our house on Horton Street with my father, playing with the computer.

A cassette player was our disk drive, and we had to set the volume just right in order to read anything off a tape -- there was actually some semblance of a flight simulator program that we'd play, after listening to the tape player screech for minutes on end. Eventually we upgraded the computer with a fist-sized brick of RAM that we plugged into the back of the computer, bumping our total capacity from 2K to 34K. I wrote programs in BASIC, though for the life of me I can't remember what any of them did. The programs that were the most fun, though, were the ones whose assembly I painstakingly transcribed, with my five-year-old fingers, from the back of magazines -- pages and pages of letters and numbers I didn't understand on any level, and yet they made magic happen if I got every single one right.

A string of computers followed. My parents bought a Coleco Adam when we moved to Horseheads, New York -- apparently the computer came with a certificate redeemable for $500 upon my graduation from high school, but Coleco folded long before they could cash it in. I made my first real money by typing a crazy lady's crazy manuscript about crazy food into an Apple IIe that we had plugged into our TV, and my uncle and I spent almost the entirety of his visit from Oklahoma writing a game of Yahtzee! on that computer, again in BASIC.

In middle school, I started a school newspaper, and I think we used some prehistoric version of PageMaker to lay it out. When high school rolled around, I toiled through hand-crafting the perfect letters and lines and arrows in Technical Drawing so I could take CAD and CAM classes and make the computer draw letters and lines and arrows for me, and quickly proceeded to school just about every boy in the class. In my senior year of high school, I oversaw the school yearbook's transition from laying out pages on paper to laying out pages with computers, this time the vaguely portable (it had a handle on the back!) Mac Classic. We used PageMaker again; the screen was black and white and 9", diagonally.

It was around then that a friend gave me a modem and -- to his eventual chagrin, when he got the bill -- access to his Delphi account, giving me my first taste of the whole Internet thing in the form of telnet, gopher, and IRC. When I went to college the following year, I took with me a computer with perhaps a 10MB hard drive, and no mouse.

Once again I found myself poring over magazines to discover URIs and, eventually, URLs that I could type to discover a whole new world of information. In 1995, I spent the summer making my college newspaper's web site, previewing it in Lynx -- it felt like there wasn't much to learn when there was so little difference between the markup and what I saw on the screen. I would go to the computer lab to use NCSA's Mosaic on the powerful RISC 6000 workstations, because they had a mouse. Yahoo! was about one year old. My friend Dave, who lived down the street, installed Windows 95 that summer and invited me over to show me. It was amazing. We were living in the future.

My early years with computers seem pretty tame -- I wasn't tearing them apart or building my own or doing anything particularly interesting with them, but I was using them, I was telling them what to do and they were mostly listening, and it never made me feel like I was weird. To the contrary, it made me feel powerful and empowered. I felt like a part of this ever-growing community of people who understood, eventually, that computers were going to change the world. It was the people who didn't understand this who were weird and beneath us. It was the people who understood computers better than me of whom I stood in awe.

I can barely remember a time when computers weren't a part of my life, and yet when they first entered my life, their presence was incredibly exceptional. These days, of course, computers are ubiquitous, but interaction with them at the copy-assembly-from-the-back-of-a-magazine level is almost nonexistent. Parents who can approach a computer with the same awe and wonder and determination as a child -- as I must imagine that my dad did in 1982 -- are likely equally rare.

In some ways, it is like the very ubiquity of technology has led us back to a world where socially normative gender roles take hold all over again, and the effort we're going to need to put into overcoming that feels overwhelming sometimes. Words can't express my gratitude for the parents I have, for that $99.95 investment they made in me, and for fact that I was lucky enough to be 5 and full of wonder in 1982.

Read more posts in the archive.