Commercial Off-The-Shelf, Dad : Why My Dad Never Joined The Computer Revolution

(Feeling melancholy about my dad’s birthday today. Here’s an old (slightly reworked) story about his aversion to technology. First published October 13th, 2012,)

My brother Jeff and I loved computers as kids, and my dad supported that love as well as he possibly could.  He bought us a our first Atari 800 computer for Christmas 1983, a Gemini 10X printer and 850 interface for our birthday in 1984, a 300 bps Volksmodem for Christmas 1984.    He took us to a parking lot in 1987 to buy an Atari ST from Computer Games + in Orange, California and to buy a 24-pin printer for school in 1988. His efforts fueled our computer dreams, and I never forgot it.

In return, when Jeff and I were older with jobs and some cash, we tried to return that favor by buying him computers of his own.   We loved computers  so much, and we wanted to pass that love back to our dad.   All through the 90’s we bought him PCs , each more powerful than the last.  In 1994 we bought him a 386-DX, in 1997 a 486-DX 66, and 1999 a Pentium 2.   Each time we upgraded his computing power, we seeded the computer with games and apps we thought he would love: Chess programs,  word processing, databases, Motocross Madness, soccer games, etc.

When the world wide web was just getting some speed behind it, I was sure my dad would catch-on quickly.   He collected all sorts things (i.e Civil War artifacts, stamps), loved tracing his family history, and was a fan of conspiracy theories. I figured,   if he would have just logged on, he would have been in heaven.

But he never did.

No matter how many times we sat with him to show him how to use the computers be bought him, created written instructions for him, and tried anything we could fathom make it easier and easier for him, the computers sat unused in his room.  My dad never touched them. One day in the early 2000s, I went to visit him and I saw that the latest computer my brother I had provided for,  had been completely removed from his room.

“What happened to the computer, dad?” I asked him.

“Oh, it was making my room dusty, so I put in the garage” He told me.

The answer made no sense at all, but I had learned from experience to not question him very much.    This was just after 9-11, and my dad was a nervous wreck about the world. Most days he would lay under the covers of his bed, listening to poisonous voices of talk radio, scaring him into his little corner.   There were days that he never left his room.   The world was suddenly a much scarier place, and my dad unplugged from it.   Soon, his brain followed, unplugging from his healthy body, wasting away until the day I found him in 2011, completely stiff, sitting up slightly, staring into nothing, the heat of life draining away from him forever.

I had not thought about my dad and computers until last week.  I’ve been working on a less game-like, more “engineering” oriented project lately.  Something my dad would have done as a draftsman at Hughes Aircraft.  One of the aspects of this new project is a collection of COTS parts to help engineers create new system designs.  COTS parts mean “Commercial, Off The Shelf” parts.  Most engineering projects these days need to have a good percentage of COTS parts if they are going to be cost effective.  Having a bunch of COTS parts means you don’t need to engineer as many  specific components for a job, which in turn means the project is less costly to manufacture.   COTS parts are common place theses days, a situation that is helped by computer based CAD design programs and computerized manufacturing systems.

While working on the project, I thought about what my dad did at Hughes Aircraft in the 70’s and 80’s.  He was a draftsman, and he designed all sorts of small parts for military projects.   With a degree in fine art from Syracuse, he sat at a huge draftsman’s table and drew things on a daily basis.  My dad loved to draw, and even though the things he drew were probably not his ideal subjects, he still got do what he loved every day.   Many of the things he drew were connectors and fittings that would attach one huge, secret classified black box, to another huge, secret, classified black box.  He rarely drew what was inside the huge secret classified black box (or at least if he did, he could not tell us about it).  When he finished, he would take his drawings down to the basement where they would be test fabricated by hand, on the spot, by the wizards in the machine shop.  He often relayed to us stories about his friends in the machine shop, the stuff they made, the jokes they played on each other.  One of those guys even fabricated the frame for the bike my dad made for me when I was 8 years old. While it didn’t  sound like a perfect job, it certainly sounded like a great place to make a living with great people to do it with.

I recall that sometime in the mid-1980s, my dad came home with a computer manual from work.   Hughes was trying to train all of their draftsman to start using software-based CAD programs, and they asked him to take classes on using one.    He came home often, and complained that the computer he was using “did not have backspace.”    In fact, he repeated this so often, that I now think it was a proxy complaint for everything he hated about his job, or at least, how it was changing.  Hughes did not want him to draw on paper any longer.  Instead he had become a cyborg, augmented with a machine to help him do the job he had always been perfectly capable of doing on his own.   He took night classes to try to learn new things, but he was pushing 60 years old, and it was difficult for him to take it all in.

In 1990 my dad got the word that his “Golden Handshake” had come through, and he was eligible for “early retirement.”  At least, that is what he told us anyway.   By then, he was drafting exclusively on a computer.  He had long since stopped sending his designs to the machine shop for fabrication.   His old friends were long gone.  Along with computerized design came computerized testing that allowed him to test the parts he designed without the need to create a physical version of every iteration.   This meant the machine shop, and the guys in it, had become mostly obsolete.  However, something else was happening at the same time.   The parts and fittings my dad had designed for decades were becoming common-place.  Instead of customizing everything, project managers could find previously built parts to aid development.   Just like the guys in the machine shop, my dad’s skills were rendered obsolete too, replaced by commercial off the shelf software and commercial, off the shelf parts.    For all intents and purposes, he,  himself had become  “off the shelf”.  What once made him special was now easily replicated and replaceable.

However, to me,  my dad was anything but off-the-shelf.  He grew-up on an ultra-liberal “for the people” style farm boarding school,  his dad was a semi-famous illustrator, he ran track in high school, he lied about his age to join the Army in WWII, he worked in a coal-mine, he studied acting in San Francisco and New York and appeared in several television shows, he started racing motorcycles in the 70’s, he could fix anything, he took up soccer at the age of 50, and taught himself to coach his own boys, and played until he was 72,  he started collecting Civil War artifacts before it was in and out of vogue, and prospected for gold and hidden treasure, just to name the things I can recall off the top of my head. He also did not hold anything against his boys, even if they were so interested in the very same thing that ended his career: computers.

Far from being the stereotypical dad (the one that only exists in moves or TV shows I suppose) that would get drunk and rail against a world that had in turn turned against him, he was very quiet about it all.  He supported my brother and I in every way possible.   He was able to look past his own experiences and see that the way forward for us was to embrace the future, even if the future had left him behind.

However, he simply could not bring himself to enter our world.

The world of the 21st century, of computers, video games, and the internet.  He had no need for it.  He read books and newspapers, used the post office to mail letters, paid for everything with cash, and left the computers we gave to him, sitting unused in the corner of his room.   I suppose this was not because he hated technology, but because he passed the future on to his children.  He found joy in the success he made possible in them, even if it meant the end of his own.

In 2011, just weeks before my dad passed-away, my brother and I published or 2nd book,  HTML 5 Canvas.  We dedicated  it “To Flash”, which we thought, at the time,  was a an appropriate inside joke/salute to our favorite technology, Adobe Flash . It  was on the verge of being replaced by a new one, HTML5, the one we had written about.

Ha ha get it?  It was a salute as well as a little joke.  However, in the wake of my dad’s death it just felt callous and stupid: like a wasted opportunity

Soon after,  I got to thinking about the subject of this story, and published it on the date of my dad’s birthday, the first one without him around.   In the weeks and months that followed,  I never stopped thinking about it, and the more I pondered, the more the whole concept of “one technology making another obsolete, and thus making people obsolete” suddenly made sense to me.  I was living it.  I had spent 11 years basing my career on Adobe Flash, but the advent of iOS, mobile and HTML5  had made that mountain of work and experience mostly irrelevant.

I was becoming “off the shelf” myself and the original  “To Flash” dedication made more sense than I ever realized.

My dad’s lesson had sunk in.  In 2011, I was on the verge of becoming a “COTS” dad myself,  but his example worked.  I shifted, away from Adobe Flash to something totally new. The first edition of the HTML5 book led to a 2nd in 2013, and in that one, my brother and I properly saluted my father, for the support and lessons he taught us, by dedicating the book to him.

It read ” For Pop”

A technology book dedicated to a guy with an aversion to technology?   I guess that’s what being a “Commercial-Off-The-Shelf” dad is all about.

Today is my dad’s birthday.  He would have been  93 years old.

-Steve Fulton


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