An Ode to the Family Computer

I’m glad I grew up before smartphones took over.

Old Computer


Nearly everyone has a computer today. Most of us have a tiny one in our pocket, and perhaps another on our wrist, maybe even one at work and a couple more at home. But that wasn’t always the case. I remember a time—a long time—when our digital hankerings could only be filled by the single computer in the home. In the days of the family computer, the family actually shared one computer. While it was a nuisance by today’s standards of connectivity and convenience, in retrospect, it was also a beautiful time.

“I need to check my email!”
“But I’m playing
The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis!”
“You’ve been playing for hours, I want to get on AIM!”
“Can you look up something on Alta Vista for me?”

Yes, that kind of bickering and cross-house bellowing is beautiful in my mind, because it’s something lost in today’s home atmosphere. The family computer demanded cooperation, respect, and patience. If what you needed to do on the computer only took a few minutes, that’s how long you’d take before getting up and letting someone else have a turn. And if you wanted to spend hours glued to the screen, you had to compromise with the other members of the household: You had to let them take a turn at the things they needed to accomplish, too.

Critics of millennials like to say that we’re “gimme gimme gimme” and focused on instant gratification. But growing up, those at the older edge of the demographic certainly knew about waiting and sharing our technology in a different and perhaps more collaborative way than our parents’ generation did when television sets first entered the household. We all valued the utility and capabilities of the machine in our home, but you also had to be efficient and respectful with the time you spent on it, because that time was precious and finite—and even if you may have thrown a fit at the time, you still learned the lesson.

But like plopping in front of the TV, getting on the computer was an act in itself, disparate from the other things you’d do during your day. It was a far cry from the experience today, where you can flit in and out of the digital world with a scan of your face on your iPhone X. Where you can play a game or check messages in the quiet in-between moments of your day and stay constantly connected with alerts and push notifications. Today, computers are completely integrated into our day-to-day experiences, and because of that, some of the magic and appreciation of that technology gets lost.

In my family, having a shared computer also meant spending more time together. If you wanted to hop on the computer after mom, you’d better hang out in or near “the computer room.” This meant (gasp) actually talking with your parents and siblings. And if one person was playing a game, you could pull up a chair alongside them and share the experience—or even take turns at the helm. Back then, the computer brought the family together. It’s a shame that today’s flavor of personal computing is so isolating.

Of course, there were negatives in the days of the family computer. Privacy? Only guaranteed if you were the only one home—but even then you probably didn’t know how to cover up your browser tracks. If one person accidentally downloaded a virus, everyone suffered. Then there’s the aforementioned bickering about who gets to do what on the computer when. I suppose there’s more peace if everyone gets to do what they want on their phone or tablet. The family computer situation nowadays would also be considered a huge burden for families with students: Many assignments must be conducted or submitted online. With more than one or two kids vying for computer time, that becomes a hindrance to education.

Still, I’m happy to have grown up in the age of the family computer. Where today everyone’s on their own to learn the ins and outs of a new smartphone or laptop, it was a collaborative journey back then, and we were all on the same page. I learned the value of instant access to information and connection to friends without it taking over my life. And since we’ve evolved from the “computer room” era, I appreciate the freedom and flexibility of today’s mobile computing environment. I can also appreciate my favorite old computer games in smartphone form, and that’s pretty sweet too.