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                                                 New Fellow at the Office

By William Haskell

COLEBROOK, Conn.

from Hill Country Essays, by William Haskell

Copyright by William Haskell, July 28, 1978 and January 2nd, 2018

     I HAVE SEEN the future and it works, after a fashion. We might even say pretty well. The future I have in mind here is ‘the one that will bring the computer into our lives as constant companions, work savers, and perhaps even friends.

     While I personally have developed no particular affection for my computer (at this point, I am about neutral), I have already seen others here on the staff of the ,paper give theirs a tender pat. * * * * We have them here at the paper, obviously, and we have what appears to be _almost the whole kit of the new news- paper technology. A brief description is perhaps appropriate at this point. The first thing you might want to know is that manual typewriters at a growing number of newspaper offices are long gone. As I recall, ours were shipped out about eight months ago.

     They were replaced by rather handsome, dark beige, IBM electric typewriters. Stories written on them - in a certain manner could be “read” by a machine called a scanner. But no sooner had we learned to meet the persnickety demands of the scanner (it is a dark blue box that looks like a miniature hay baler without wheels) than it became obsolete, or at least secondary. It was pushed to the side by the big gun in newspaper production these days — the . . . (dum, de, dum, dum) VDT.

   The initials 'VDT' stand for “video display terminal.” These things look like a type- writer keyboard with a television tube attached to the top.

   On the VDT, you can write a story, edit it, order how wide you want the column to be, order whether it will be in regular type or boldface or italic and a few dozen other things. When you have the story just the way you want it, you press a little button marked “assign.” Practically before you can walk the 10 or 15 paces back to the composing room, the story is sitting there, in type, on a strip of paper almost ready to be put in the newspaper. A few months ago, it was fantastic. Now it's routine. At least for me; maybe the computer breathes heavily every time it does it. It doesn’t say, although it, does let us know when it is overloaded or when it has an upset digester.

   As to personality, the VDT is a pretty nice guy. He is very quiet, for example. None of the clackety-clack or the old manual typewriters or the thuck-thuck of the IBMs. All you hear with our new boys is a light clickety click, clickety click. It is very soothing. And he is quite accommodating.

   When we first got him, it looked like he might be a little abrasive, maybe even hostile. Whenever you made a mistake stroking him, he would flash up “SYN- TAX ERROR.” But he got over that and while “SYNTAX ERROR” occasionally pops up, he will take it away quickly if you do the right thing, even on top of an initial error. No hard feelings about it, either.

   Of course, he has a tremendous memory. I don’t believe any of us here have ever caught him forgetting anything we told him, even days or weeks before. And, just to list a few other virtues: He is quick, obedient, helpful (with his help, you can move whole paragraphs around in a twinkling of an eye) and easy to keep. All he asks for is a steady diet of electricity.

   Perhaps the one serious question I have about him is his physical makeup. He doesn’t look strong to me. With a good typewriter, you knew you could pound it all day and all night, for that matter, and it would stand up to the punishment. VeeDee seems to have a much frailer constitution. Of course, we don’t hit him as hard as we used to hit the manuals and perhaps that’s the explanation.

   Another point that some of the old-timers miss is the deeply physical relationship you could have with a typewriter and paper. You could hit it, as we’ve mentioned, lie across it, put your feet up on it and, of course, rip the paper out of the roller and make a very satisfying noise, and then you could crumple up the paper and throw it across the room. VeeDee doesn’t put up with that kind of childish behavior; won’t even allow it.

   But maybe he’ll loosen up in a while, after we get to know one another better. I’m hoping so. When I think of that tremendous memory of his, I can just imagine the great store of jokes he has in there and he’ll have every punch line down cold, unlike some people I know.