Think Retro: How the march of technology makes us forgetful

Remember when you had to run Norton Utilities every month or so for about a decade? Christopher Phin is right back there again.

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Using and writing about vintage technology, I am often reminded that much of the business of using a computer is meta, that much of what we do with computers aren’t the creative tasks we buy them for, but rather they’re metatasks, menial chores we do for and to the computer so it lets us do the fun and productive stuff. I am reminded of this because I find I’ve forgotten how to do the damned things.

The skills we acquire in the process of ministering to these machines may be vital at the time, but they fade from our repertoire as technology itself changes. We don’t really notice it happening because it happens so gradually, but since this column regularly catapults me back through time, I’m forced to realize that muscle memory which once seemed completely hardwired has atrophied through misuse.

I took the screenshots for this column on a PowerBook Duo 2300c, for example, which just happened to have the software I wanted running on it, and I had to remember how to network it with my PowerBook 1400c so I could copy the files to it, from there to a floppy disk, then to my 5K iMac using a USB floppy drive. Actions you might have done dozens of times a day in the past—turning on File Sharing, picking AppleShare from the Chooser, navigating the pre-Mac OS X directory structure—are suddenly no longer at your fingertips, and you spend ages remembering how to do the simplest things. (I need a serial cable! Do I mean serial cable? Is this a serial cable? Ace, that works. Wait, there’s no Disk Utility! How do I format this…? Ah, yeah—the Special menu! And so on.)

Similarly, techniques and software for troubleshooting that were once unequivocally vital parts of your toolkit pass from memory. Let me reintroduce you, then, to your old friend Peter Norton.

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You probably haven’t thought about Norton Utilities for at least 15 years, but for most of the ’90s, and for most Mac users, this was a suite of diagnostic and troubleshooting apps that you just didn’t do without.

At the heart of Norton Utilities—created and fronted by the eponymous Peter Norton—was Disk Doctor, an app that checked for bad sectors, corrupt directory structures and the like on storage media. If it found an error, you’d get a notification, explanation, and recommendation for action. (I wish Disk Utility in OS X would provide explanations of its disk housekeeping stuff to make its actions and output a little less inscrutable.)

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I can’t tell you how often I stared at Norton’s progress bars as it slowly, oh so slowly, looked through disks whose important contents were suddenly unreadable, or while it booted from the cherished and cosseted Emergency Disk (later CD-ROM) as I tried to will an internal hard disk back to life. Actually, if you were a Mac user in the ’90s, you don’t need me to tell you; you probably did exactly the same as me. And like me, you probably remember the little white-coated figure—intended to be Norton himself, presumably—and beautifully rendered little illustrations that accompanied each stage.

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I loved and love these illustrations, in part for their style and finish which evoke that era so strongly, but also because they were explanatory. Even if what they showed was merely an analogy for what was going on behind the scenes, it made me feel like I had a chance of understanding what was happening—even if I didn’t really. It literally humanized the process.

Of course, the screenshots above are missing something: the figures, you may remember, were actually animated. And so, lovingly re-created for you as a GIF, here’s the animation that ran during the segment that took the longest, the sector scan.

That jerky three-frame loop is hugely evocative for me, and if it’s the same for you, this next picture is going to smell like mom’s apple pie!

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That’s the Speed Disk module of Norton Utilities, and what you’re looking at is a color-coded map of everything that’s on my hard disk. What Speed Disk can do is defragment it—move all the related bits right next to each other—so that the read/write heads aren’t having to skitter all over the platters to piece files back together. I dread to think how many cumulative hours I spent watching little colored blocks shunt around this topography, especially on increasingly large disks that were already pretty full and so didn’t have much free space to move the data to as it was reorganized, a bit like those sliding tile games. (I wasn’t obligated to watch them; I just did. It’s the same impulse that had people watching washing machines when they first got one installed, or me watching my 3D printer slowly build up objects!)

You don’t have to defrag your hard disk these days since the OS takes care of it, and most of the stuff Norton Disk Doctor did—the main reason it was so vital—is now built into Disk Utility. Even the Unerase feature of Norton is mostly obsolete thanks to versioning and Time Machine. In other words, knowing you had to never mind knowing how to run Norton are things most everybody forgets today, even though it was something so many of us did a few times a month for essentially a decade.

What, I wonder, are the skills and apparently innate knowledge we use today in keeping our computers running smoothly that we’ll forget tomorrow?

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