Printed: 2019-09-21

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





IEET Link: https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/corwin20070905

Of Functionality and “Forgotten” Machines

Anne Corwin


Existence is Wonderful


http://rationallongevity.blogspot.com/2007/09/of-functionality-and-forgotten-machines.html

September 05, 2007

I’ve been using a portable word processor (a Laser PC6) for about two weeks now, and I absolutely love it.  My only question is: Where has it been all my life?



I started thinking about portable word-processors seriously after attending the Longevity Future Salon meeting recently.  I brought my regular laptop to that meeting—the same laptop I’d also brought an artificial intelligence meeting a few months back.  I was excited (okay, gleeful) at the Future Salon event to be able to take pictures, upload them into the computer, and post them online via the local wi-fi connection in real-time, but the fact that the battery crapped out after only about an hour and a half of normal use sort of soured me on the whole “bringing the laptop to seminars” thing.  Lugging around an extra 6 pounds or so just isn’t worth it when you only get about 90 minutes of use out of the thing you’re lugging. 

Upon reflection following the Future Salon, I determined that the only computing feature I really cared about for seminars and such was the ability to type stuff.  Hence, no need for a fully-loaded laptop chock-full of power-sucking bells and whistles.  I needed something more like a typewriter—something with the basic functionality of a really old laptop, but with better battery life.  I didn’t even know if such a thing existed.

Enter Google (or, as we’ve been calling it in my household for a while now, “The Oracle”).  I searched for “portable word processor”, and was set upon with a dazzling array of options, from the clunky to the sublime and streamlined.  Prices ranged wildly, especially when I figured the various findings on auction sites into the mix.  Most of the sites I ended up at which discussed portable word-processors were education-oriented; this makes sense when you consider how expensive it can be to supply computers to an entire classroom full of kids. A lower-cost dedicated word processor (or computer with very minimal functionality) can enable schools to purchase more units for use by more children, and I’m sure some teachers consider it a feature rather than a defect if said computers don’t allow Web access or games. 

(I guess I went to school prior to the cheapie word-processor revolution, because I don’t remember seeing anything like the PC6 or Alphasmart when I was in school; instead, we had large rooms full of chunky green-monochrome Apple IIe machines, on which we wrote simple BASIC routines and played “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?.)

I also came across a lot of sites devoted to “assitive technology” in my search for a light, portable, power-thrifty word processor.  Leaving aside for the moment the fact that all technology is assistive technology, and the fact that some doubt the meaningfulness of “technology” as a term to begin with, it also makes sense to find word processors in this market. Students who have extreme difficulty with handwriting, or who benefit from such things as real-time spell checking while doing their classwork, are sometimes assigned portable word-processors as part of their Individualized Education Plan. 

Additionally, some word processors (such as the PC6, the Alphasmart 2000/3000 with AffordaSpeech add-on speaker, and the Alphasmart Dana) provide text-to-speech capability or at least the potential for it. TTS can be used to support communication for people who type more effectively than they can speak, and to provide auditory feedback for people who listen more effectively than they can read (you can’t really go wrong with a feature like that—anything that helps people with drastically different communicative modes understand each other is a wonderful thing in my book. Plus, it’s fun to make the robot voice.). 

And finally, I found sites and articles authored by people who were either reporters or busy executive-types writing about how lovely it was to be able to bring something that had all the computer capability they needed practically everywhere, without having to worry so much about battery life.  I saw no reason to hesitate further, and simply hung around eBay until I saw someone selling a PC6 for a reasonable price.  The rest is (near-term) history.



So far, I’ve found my word processor to be a wonderful, wonderful thing. I’ve been taking better notes at work, and doing it a lot faster than when I was trying to hand-write everything.  I’ve also been able to augment my communicative abilities to some extent by storing important conversation points and phrases in the device prior to entering a meeting or discussion (this is something I’ve been doing for ages anyway, either via use of a paper notebook, or via composing words in my mind and rigorously memorizing them in advance of an interaction, so the word processor simply makes this necessary activity a lot more streamlined).  Additionally, the device has basic spreadsheet capability, as well as a scientific calculator and various other built-in programs. 

Overall, the device is a bit like some kind of odd (yet attractive) hybrid between a regular laptop computer and a personal digital assistant.  I was prepared for that, since that’s about what the device sounded like in all the descriptions I’d read.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the reaction the device would get.  I honestly expected to just be able to, you know, use it the same way I have been using inconspicuous paper notebooks for years (with just as negligible a reaction from those around me).  Contrary to what my elementary-school teachers thought, I am not much for deliberate attention-seeking; I just do what makes sense to me, and I am usually genuinely shocked at the kinds of things other people end up noticing.  Hence, I did not expect to be greeted with the phrase, “What is THAT thing?” by almost everyone I encountered the first day I used the device.  I got asked this question so much that I typed up a small description of the device and my reasons for using it and stored it in the machine’s memory.  While I don’t mind sharing information about whatever interesting electronic gadgets I find and decide to carry around, I was taken aback by the responses people had to the mere presence of my PC6. 

Judging from recent observations, it seems that the portable word-processor is something of a “forgotten machine”.  That is, it is something extremely useful that has been around for years, but remains relatively unknown outside a few specialized demographics.  When looking at what people tend to consider “progress”, I’ve noticed that they often tend to think in terms of the addition of more Shiny Features—e.g., laptops with faster processors and higher-resolution screens, PDAs with built-in cellular phone and digital camera, etc. 

I’m not saying that Shiny Features are useless or bad—this isn’t some kind of random departure to Luddism or anything like that.  I am extremely fond of my desktop PC with its super-duper 3D graphics card and 2 GB RAM, and I openly admit to having gazed longingly at heavily-modded computer cases equipped with blue LEDs and clear panels that allow you to see the fans spinning (sigh).  Rather, I just think it’s interesting how some extremely useful devices and features sometimes end up falling almost completely off the cultural radar, where they remain in obscurity unless one happens to discover them by chance. 

It also bothers me a bit how, in the drive for Bigger Better Faster Shinier, some very cool and functional features end up all but disappearing.  I remember first noticing this phenomenon when my dad upgraded the family computer sometime in the early 1990s; all the games I’d loved playing up until that point now ran so fast that they were impossible to actually play.  Yes, I eventually discovered other games I liked, but I didn’t want the new games to replace the old ones; I wanted them to add to the Total Pool of Possible Sources of Fun available in the world.  (And apparently, given the popularity of vintage game emulation, I am not the only one who feels this way!)

The same goes for non-entertainment features; while I certainly appreciate lots of what newer machines can offer, I don’t want cool, useful old capabilities to fall by the wayside as if they can’t somehow coexist with the new.  The fact that my PC6 will hold up to 20+ hours of continuous use on one set of batteries is a pretty darn impressive feature—one that most modern laptops can’t even begin to match.  The fact that many portable word-processors are extremely light (mine weighs perhaps 2 pounds) is another nice feature. 

Perhaps someday we will have uber-laptops with wi-fi and 3D acceleration and toaster ovens and other morsels of featurey goodness that last 10x as long as the PC6 on a single battery charge, but for now, power management remains a pervasive bugbear for computer designers.

Now, I realize that it’s entirely possible that my recent fascination with cheapie keyboarding devices is one of those things that is just going to make people go, “huh?”.  But if you are curious about word processors, apparently, the Laser PC6 is still being manufactured (I purchased mine from an eBay surplus vendor for an extremely low price, and was very surprised to find afterward that these devices are still in production).  Other portable word processors still being sold include the Alphasmart and the QuickPad; these can generally found used, new, or nearly-new online, with only a minimal amount of searching.


Anne Corwin was an IEET intern 2006-2007, and is an engineer and technoprogressive activist in California. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Humanity Plus, and is active in the longevity movement through the Methuselah Foundation and in the neurodiversity movement addressing issues along the autism spectrum. Ms. Corwin writes the blog Existence is Wonderful and produces a related podcast.

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