My “portable computer” weighed 30 pounds

By Loren Swartzendruber | January 13th, 2015

In the mid-1980s, when Pat and I were executives in the denominational offices of the Mennonite Church, this advisory was issued about computers in our offices: “We do not anticipate any time in the future when having several computer workstations throughout the building will not be sufficient.” It was assumed that personnel could reserve a specific time slot to work at one of the publicly available stations. Administrators should almost never need to have access to a computer.

Within a year or two I was provided my first “personal” computer. It operated with “floppy” disks, its screen was about 5 inches wide, and it weighed more than 30 pounds. It was called a portable computer. Dutifully, most evenings I zipped it into a suitcase-sized cover and lugged it home.

Each of us, whether computer literate or not, are dependent on technology in all areas of our lives and on the skills of competent professionals who design systems, install networks, research hardware and software, and repair failures. Much of their work is behind the scenes (if not behind a firewall!) and we think of them when something does not work correctly. On the rare occasion of a malfunction we hardly know how to engage our routines.

As is the case for all universities these days, apart from institutional financial aid, our technology expenditures represent the single largest line item in EMU’s budget. Fortunately, many of the costs on a “per unit” basis have been declining even as total demands keep climbing. That first “portable” computer provided to me 30 years ago would cost more than $2000 in today’s dollars, but had less functionality than my iPod, which weighs about 3 ounces and fits into my pocket.

To be sure, there are serious spiritual, philosophical and psychological challenges to be pondered with the ubiquitous presence of technology in our society. During this academic year our “common read” book at EMU is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Some of us have advocated taking a weekly “sabbatical” from email and the Internet!

This issue of Crossroads centers on the contributions of more than 200 EMU alumni who are IT (information technology) professionals. We can be quite certain that their undergraduate preparation in the liberal arts at EMU provided them with a framework for addressing exactly these questions.

Loren Swartzendruber, President