Today marks the intriguing juxtaposition of two anniversaries. On this day in 1981, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report reported a puzzling case of 5 young men, previously healthy, who were diagnosed with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), a very rare disease usually only seen in people with severely compromised immune systems. The young men were gay.
It was the first official notice of the disease that would become known as AIDS. For the story from the point of view of someone who was there at every step, this Washington Post story by Dr. Anthony Fauci offers fascinating insights.
It's also the anniversary of the first personal computer hitting the market; on this day in 1977, the Apple II went on sale. The Writer's Almanac post for today says, "It came standard with 4 kilobytes of memory, game paddles, and a demo cassette with some programs on it. Most people used their televisions as monitors. The Apple II sold for about $1,300; today that same money will buy you an iMac, with 4 gigabytes — one million times the original amount — of memory, a sleek backlit 21-inch monitor, and a 2.7 gigahertz processor."
To me, these 2 developments have shaped my life like perhaps no other (although I could make a strong, similar case for birth control pills or penicillin). On this day in 1981, I was 6 weeks away from my 16th birthday. To be honest, on June 5, 1981, most of us wouldn't have heard the news about the new disease. I heard murmurings in the subsequent year or two, but I don't remember really being cognizant of the disease for a few more years. And then, it seemed impossible to think about anything else until we knew more about how the disease was transmitted. It was terrifying to see healthy young men felled so quickly.
What scared me more, AIDS or nuclear annihilation? I had more bad dreams about that mushroom cloud. But in terms of an insidious threat that always seemed to whisper at my consciousness, AIDS would take that trophy.
Much like nuclear annihilation, AIDS too may seem to be vanquished, only to come back again in a scarier form. Those of us with health insurance may have the luxury of seeing AIDS as a chronic condition, but diseases morph and change.
So do computers. It's amazing to think of the limited power of those early computers and what they can do now. I was always aware of the power of computers, since my dad was a computer programmer. I came in 3rd place in my 8th grade science fair with my project that showed the progress from the vacuum tube to the transistor to the computer chip. I even had a computer chip that my dad procured for me. In 7th grade, my school had a computer on site (it was the size of a refrigerator lying on its side). A group of us learned BASIC and tried to write programs. I made the computer play Hangman--it was one of my prouder 7th grade moments.
Do you still see the potential in the computer or do you see it as a plague? There are days that I'm tired of all the electronics that demand my attention. But for more days, I'm thrilled with what I'm able to do with very little money. I can make a movie and edit it. I can create a CD of music and sell it far and wide. Once upon a time, I couldn't store my whole dissertation on the hard drive of my computer and still have room for the programs that made the computer run. Now I can store novel after novel, along with complete music libraries, every photo I've ever taken . . . the list goes on. If I was willing to buy more electronics and gadgets, all that data would be more portable than I could have ever dreamed.
I like to think that I'm the master of my machines, and some days that's true. Other days, I worry where this technological trail is leading us. But one thing history teaches us is that we can't go back.
Can we learn from history? I hope so. The AIDS pandemic has taught us much about disease management and the changing climate will unfortunately give us many chances to use those lessons. One of the things that gives me hope is that so many of us have access to information, thanks to our computers. Maybe when the next plague sweeps the planet, we'll be ready to respond more effectively.
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