twisted 8 1/2 (Jessica Zafra)

You may be wondering why the book is titled “Twisted 8 ½.” Well, it is because this is part of twisted 8 & a halfJessica Zafra’s Twisted series showcasing her essays and newspaper column articles. The first time I read books by Zafra was in college when my younger brother introduced me to her Book IV: Twisted Menace and Twisted V. Those were my first and last by Zafra. Then more than a decade later this, Twisted 8 ½ released in 2010 which I bought right off the bat after seeing it displayed in an optical shop at UP Shopping Center. That was, well, just this year.

I like Jessica Zafra. I learned some of my English vocabulary by simply reading her candid essays back in college days during my free time. I like candid writings, no pretentions, not highfalutin. My most favorite was her article on my favorite alternative rock band from Seattle, USA called Pearl Jam. They had a concert here in the Philippines in 1995. I never saw that concert. I was 16 and wasn’t a fan yet. It was in 1998, when in college, that I took Pearl Jam’s music as one of the soundtracks of my teenage life. And that article that she (Jessica) wrote describing what the concert was like, what Pearl Jam was like with Filipino concertgoers, what Eddie Vedder was like was really heartwarming and kilig to the bones that I wished I was there! (One day I will share it with you.)

In Twisted 8 ½, I still experienced that same candidness from Jessica Zafra. So candid that when you open the book, there is no more introduction or foreword, it goes straight to the point, to her first article.

Life Before Google
By Jessica Zafra

I wrote my college thesis on a typewriter. All 100-plus pages of it, with footnotes and endnotes, with telltale white spots where I’d covered up my typing errors. For my research, I consulted the UP Main Library’s card catalogue, a dusty cabinet of drawers containing yellowing index cards arranged in alphabetical order. I wrote the drafts on sheets of yellow legal pad, with a ballpoint pen. When I typed the final manuscript, I made a copy using carbon paper. I still have my college thesis in my files—in hard copy.

How difficult my school must seem to today’s wired students, how slow and antiquated. Go ahead, dust the gauze wrappings around my ancient analog bones. But what if all the computer networks of the world “woke up”, became conscious, and decided to overthrow the puny humans who depend on computers for everything, from running factories to paying their bills? What if these new digital overlords created indestructible androids to enslave the humans by force? How would you digital dependents survive, much less write your thesis? (Assuming the machines allow people to go to school.)

Seriously, when I was growing up in the Seventies, “computer” had a slightly sinister connotation. Computers were very large machines that occupied entire rooms if not buildings. Only the military-industrial complex had them, and at the time, they were engaged in the Cold War. Computers controlled the nuclear missiles that the superpowers had trained on each other: they held the power of life and death over our species.

The closest most of us ever got to computers were those punch cards our parents occasionally brought home from the office. What secret messages did these cards contain? In the absence of accurate facts, we looked to the movies and television for answers. These were benign, people-friendly computers in the Bat-cave, on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, and in the Hall of Justice of the Justice League of America. On the other hand, there was HAL, the evil computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In his stories, the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison described a future society in which intelligent machines subjugate homo sapiens. This sub-genre would lead to James Cameron’s Terminator movies.

Amid all this speculation the Internet was already being born, but we wouldn’t have access to it for two decades. The Internet was envisioned as a communications system that would survive a nuclear holocaust. I wonder if the pioneers saw that it would become (nearly) everything to everyone, or that people would spend hours each day “friending” each other and sending virtual pokes and drinks.

The early personal computers (PCs) were expensive and not very practical. One of my classmates in high school had a Radioshack unit that had all of 12 kilobytes of memory. By the time I was hammering away at my thesis, the PC had evolved into a sophisticated typewriter with a memory, on which you could play rudimentary games. Data was stored in floppy disks, so called because those thin plastic squares were literally floppy. PC keyboards did not require you to pound on the keys! Mistakes could be corrected by hitting a button! These machines were useful, convenient, but not indispensable.

A year or so after college, when I had started supporting myself by writing, I decided that a word processing program would make my life easier. So I bought my first computer. It was a cheap Taiwan-made clone that I acquired on installment from the friend of a friend who owned a store in Quad. It ran on DOS, the screen was black, and the blinking letters were green. This glorified typewriter and filing system served me well until I met my first Mac in 1993. My attitude towards computers changed radically: my Macs were not mere typewriters or machines, but extensions of myself.

In the mid-Nineties email arrived. Suddenly you could send out letters and they would reach their destinations instantaneously. We take email for granted now, but at the time it was nothing short of revolutionary. You could submit your column without having to appear at the office!

I don’t recall exactly how it happened—the last decade passed in a blur of technological change—but one day it seemed that everyone was on the World Wide Web. And I got an email from my friend Budjette, who asked the innocuous question: Have you tried google?

Googol? I replied. A number with a hundred zeroes?

How innocent we all were.

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