My kids had unlimited access to computers from before they could walk. I made sure of it. If there was an educational program I bought it. If I found an interesting game I taught them to play it with their friends. When they started school Janet and I took every opportunity to work the computer into their education.
All three enjoyed computers but I don’t think they ever saw them as anything magical. They were children of software engineers. Computers, scanners, printers and modems lay strewn about the house like any other tool or toy. I imagine a carpenter’s children feel the same way about power saws, air-hammers and drill presses. They could fire up the computer, TV, stereo, or microwave with equal facility when appropriate. I held on to my old computers and disks for years thinking one day I’d teach them my history and they’d feel all the magic and wonder that I did.
That day never came. They simply weren’t captivated by what had been. Like me, they were obsessed with everything shiny and new. They were little technologists not historians. Why play Bug Attack when there was Sonic the Hedgehog. Why diddle in 2D when you could be immersed in 3D.
I remember my dad showing me his college slide rule. He explained in detail how it got him through an engineering degree without a single battery. My most vivid recollection of the moment was wondering why he’d kept it so long after he’d gotten his first calculator. I see now, I am my father’s son.
My parents divorced in the late seventies and my dad moved into an apartment a few miles away. My two brothers and I would spend every other weekend there with him. To compensate for our missing friends and other traditional activities, my father bought an early VHS video recorder and tethered video camera. VCRs were expensive and rare at the time, so it helped draw friends to the otherwise boring apartment.
We’d occasionally get out the camera and shoot a few of my brothers’ antics, but mostly we recorded movies from TV. Each of us took turns with the clicker carefully pausing the recording during commercials. We slowly built a small library of commercial free flicks that we’d watch over and over again. It became a big hit with our friends.
We didn’t feel like pirates. It just seemed like we were using the expensive device as designed. These movies were broadcast freely and intended for as many people as possible to tune in and watch. We were just helping that process along. The truth be known, we quickly learned to hate making these recordings. Inevitably, we would either forget to pause at the start of a commercial or to restart at the end. We rarely got through a two hour movie without a blemish. We begged my father to buy more pre-recorded movies, but at $80-$100 each they were few and far between.
It seemed stupid and pointless when I heard the movie industry was suing to stop VCR manufacturers. They didn’t want us to record movies from TV, but they didn’t seem to want us to buy them either. They just wanted our fun to go away.
A surprising number of people passed judgement on our purported movie piracy. It wasn’t that they held well thought out opinions. They were just compelled to repeat what they’d read. “…our activities were likely illegal and certainly immoral…” Most never even attempted to have a conversation. Like mindless human VCRs playing back industry PSAs, they just wanted to quickly terminate any discussion of our anti-social ideas. Oh well, no movie nights for them. Arg!
Much to my surprise, one weekend, out of the blue, my dad came home with a brand new shrink wrapped movie labeled “Oh, God!” It was shocking not because it sounded like porn, but because none of us had ever seen it. “What if we don’t like it?” I asked. “Won’t it be a waste of $80?” He said it didn’t matter because after we watched the movie we were going to return it back to the store. Wow, this felt even dirtier than porn! It was a shocking turn of events for my scoutmaster dad.
No, he explained, we’re not going to rip off the store. It’s a new type of movie club. “I bought this movie for $80,” he said “but Sav-on Drugs will let us return it in exchange for another movie for only $1 more!” That movie was exchangeable for a dollar too. Turns out for three months we could swap as often as we liked. At the end we’d keep the final movie and dad could buy another to start over.
“How can that be legal?” I asked. “Won’t the movie companies sue over this too?” “They’ll probably hate it,” he explained “But they can’t sue because we buy and own each movie. Once the movie is ours we can do anything with it we want. We can give it away, trade it or sell it. Just like with toys, food or books. It’s all our property.”
I’d heard of try before you buy programs, but this was the reverse. A buy before you try program with ownership making all the difference in the world. “Oh, God!” was indeed a miracle movie and Dad, my hero, had found a way to save me from a life of piracy.
Henry Ford realized that if he payed his workers enough, they’d buy cars and he’d get a big chunk of the money back. Working in the computer industry felt the same. It brought knowledge of the latest tech and a salary to purchase all the hardware and software I’d ever want.
I never felt like I was over indulging but over the years hardware accumulated. Apple IIs, Macintoshes, PC desktops and laptops, Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Dreamcast, VHS, CD, DVD players… The list went on and on. Along with hardware, raising three children brought an almost insatiable need for all types of media. Movies, music, console games, computer games, educational programs and productivity software. I bought piles of shrink wrapped software sight unseen just like my father had. I shopped sales when I could but most of it was purchased at full retail price. I often longed for the days of the pirate group. But, No! Not a chance. The war was behind me.
I kept every disk and manual neatly in its original box, each displayed prominently as others would do with bowling trophies. I’m not sure why I felt pride in the collection of cardboard. The clutter drove my wife crazy. But to me each box felt like a thumb in the eye to anyone who’d called me an evil pirate. It was my personal way of saying, “This is what I’ve done for the software industry! What have you done?”
The boxes filled several long bookshelves. The lower shelves were filled with Game cartridges, VHS movies and later by DVDs. Two decent salaries didn’t even come close to covering all the movies to be watched or games to be played. Fortunately there was Blockbuster.
Seven years and three major lawsuits after the Sav-on Drugs movie club it was settled. Dad and I were declared non-pirates by the Supreme Court. A second battle took movie rentals from an aberration to the norm. Legislation trashed music and software rentals, but a third lawsuit excluded console games from the prohibition. Two industries had fought tooth and nail against us non-pirates and renters. They lost.
In the end, like Bill Gates, they turned out to be wrong. We didn’t kill their industries. We made them very, very rich. I remember asking Blockbuster if their computer kept track of how much money I’d spent renting movies and video games. The girl behind the counter said it only went back three months but I’d spent $438.56 in that quarter alone! I’d been a member for ten years. I shudder to do the math.
I never totaled what I’d spent purchasing hardware and software, but Henry Ford himself would have been envious. When we moved houses I sold a minivan load of neatly boxed software back to Half-Priced Books. Janet auctioned a stack of old books and manuals on eBay and we donated seven computers to Goodwill. That way I only had to pack and move the four computers left.
I regret some of my disposal choices but each was my own. Ownership makes all the difference.