Forgotten Knowledge

A friend of mine asked me to conjure up a working Windows 98 computer for her daughter to use to play some old school edutainment games (y’know…from the good ol’ days where you bought the game on a CD-ROM and that was that, rather than getting nagged to purchase ‘lives’ or ‘coins’ or whatever). I managed to come up with a basically-working one that just needed a bit of work to get prepped for the task, namely, upgrading the hard disk. When I did this, the 200GB drive only detected the first 2GB. I remembered that this computer was from the era when it was required to manually tell the motherboard how much storage space the hard disk would be able to handle…but not in GB’s, in Cylinder/Head/Sector (CHS) format. To further complicate things, the computer only allowed me to reference the first 64GB of the drive, because the motherboard couldn’t address any more than that. Even so, a 64GB hard disk in the Windows 98 era is a bottomless well; I edited video on a tenth of that.

The process of doing all of this dug into the deepest recesses of my memory. This was especially challenging because most of the support information for computers of this era predates Google, and thus, most web pages that Google scours – though notably the Google Groups archive of Usenet was particularly helpful for searching purposes. Other things, I either guessed, simply remembered, was able to piece together, or called my friend Bob who described his 58-year-old self as ‘ancient’, especially when I brought up fixing an issue by “performing a text edit on autoexec.bat”. Ultimately, things are going smoothly; I look forward to completing my work on this machine.

The Washington Post published an article last year about disruptive technologies and how they changed our society. While we tend to think of ‘the internet’ as disruptive (and indeed it was/is), the argument the article makes is that the even more disruptive 20th century technology was the refrigerator. Pre-refrigeration households spent approximately 58 hours a week on housework, in the 1990’s, that was down to 19, for houses that were, on average, about twice the size. More relevant to the point, things like pickling, meat curing, canning, cheese making, and other forms of food preservation were things that were generally part and parcel with cooking, that relatively few people in the western world today need to do – and even those that do (professional meat curers and cheese makers aside), are usually doing so due to personal desire, rather than a requirement to prevent food spoilage.

I haven’t thought about cylinders, heads, and sectors in years. I’m *just* young enough to remember seeing CHS figures on the labels appended to hard disks, but too young to have actually had to configure a BIOS with one. I remember running into a SCSI controller once, and hearing that it was quite the project to set up even a relatively simple SCSI controller with a RAID array, but I’ve never made one – setting up a RAID array with SATA drives and modern controllers is a breeze by contrast. Network cards that used to have their modes and parameters set by DIP switches are now configured entirely in software. I don’t remember the last time I had to manually determine IRQs for my hardware, I’ve never set up a network that used coaxial cabling, I never had to manually install a TCP/IP stack into a computer in order to get it on the internet, and I only barely remember the ire that was “changing the font” within Wordperfect 5.1, especially if you didn’t have a mouse.

How much knowledge has been removed from the general societal consciousness due to its need being abstracted away through technological advancement? What else has been lost because it was “common knowledge” until it wasn’t? It’s amazing how even the banal, everyday things that nobody notices now are noticed later – like the number of people smoking indoors in this gallery of shopping malls from 1989.

Perhaps the fact that I’m less than 30 days from turning 30 has something to do with my pondering about the passage of time. For the first time in my life, I’m seeing a clear delineation between the ‘present’ and the ‘past’. I’m starting to see knowledge I gained become obsolete.


Life itself looks different.

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