In Which Technological Aptitude Becomes Relevant Again

In high school, I was pretty computer-literate, and proud of it. I invested a great deal of time and money restoring the old computers sitting around my family’s house, getting them running various flavors of Linux or FreeBSD or sometimes even an old version of Windows. I became competent, if not expert, at both the DOS and *nix command lines, and could easily use a system without a GUI for everyday tasks. I was taking AP computer science in school my last year of high school, which wasn’t much—just some Java programming—but I learned the basics of the concepts and language and structure of programming, and branched off from the Java to teach myself some C. I also became well-versed in ways to use up bandwidth, trawling the Internet for applications and movies and music to torrent—sometimes legally, sometimes illegally—and always trying out the latest open-source apps. There was even a brief period of time when I was knowledgeable enough that I was answering people’s questions on the Ubuntu Linux help forums.

That state of affairs changed considerably when I started college. Fall semester, I took a very basic computer science course for non-majors—it was fun, but it didn’t teach me anything new or challenge me, and I started to forget a lot of what I’d taught myself that I wasn’t using in class. Java and C aren’t too useful when the most taxing assignment is designing a basic HTML webpage that can run a Javascript number-guessing program. Second semester, my classes were all humanities-based, and I just didn’t have time anymore to take on side projects that weren’t directly related to my classes and my work and my writing; more so, my interests and priorities were shifting. The one completely frivolous project I undertook all school year was an attempt to teach myself Old English over intercession, which at least historically speaking was as far removed from programming as it gets. These days, I just use my MacBook for the same day-to-day stuff most people do, I think: checking email and Facebook and Twitter and the newspapers/blogs, keeping in touch with friends, writing papers, watching movies, keeping my life together in iCal. That sort of thing. The shortcut to the Mac command line sits in my Dock, but I can’t think when the last time I clicked on it was.

And so it’s rather odd to think that the past week has called upon more of my technological know-how than I’ve had to summon in months. In the first place, my job research-assisting a Princeton professor as he writes about American government (de)regulation has required me to exchange large (we’re talking multi-gigabyte) files with said professor online, and figuring out the best ways to do that these past couple days has made me aware of how rusty I am at solving computer-related problems. The kid who once had feet upon feet of CAT6 cables snaking around her room in order to connect three ten- or fifteen-year-old boxes to the Internet had to be reminded by said professor about the existence of the .rar archive as a way to split up large files for easy up-/downloading. That was a little embarrassing.

And then, today, my friend and I ran into technical difficulties trying to play Age of Empires against each other online (yeah, I know, we’re hopelessly nerdy), and as I chased around the Internet trying to figure out how to get multiplayer to work without the game DVD in my drive (a problem that still remains unsolved), I was reminded of how little I retained from my computer-nerd days. Asking for help from a high-school friend who programs for a living and has a good deal of knowledge of how to make things like this work, I listened to him give me advice I felt as if I would have been able to think of independently a year ago. I tried his suggestions and thanked him for his help, wondering what had ever possessed me to consider (however briefly) majoring in computer science in college. It was like how I feel when I don’t take a French class or speak the language for a while, then jump back into immersion. I know I should understand what’s being said, or be able to form sentences of my own, but the words are slow to come and I just can’t force myself to remember the vocabulary and the concepts.

That doesn’t happen to me as long as I’m working in English, though, and it doesn’t happen as long as I stick to the humanities—I think my analytical/critical thinking/reading and writing skills are much more innate than anything I may have memorized through picking up French or computer science, and so I’m probably picking the right major after all. But it does remind me, again, how little any of these disciplines exist in a vacuum unto themselves. Just as my close-reading abilities inform my study of historical documents, or my interpretation of a given historical narrative informs my interpretation of a given piece of writing, so too does the comp sci I was capable of a year ago come back to haunt me when doing research or having fun with a friend. Well, hey. I knew there was a reason I was getting a liberal arts education.

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