Book Review: Michael Crichton's "Electronic Life"

Rating: 3 out of 5

Michael Crichton's Electronic Life is a non-fiction piece of work that aimed to educate people who were looking into buying a computer for the first time in 1983. Crichton talks about the practical matters when it comes to deciding what computer to buy in his discussion of everything from A (Afraid of Computers) to Z (Zenith: The Final Days).

An interesting piece of knowledge I picked up while reading this book is that the 1973 movie, Westworld, that Michael Crichton wrote and directed, was the first feature film to digitally process film. They obtained a sort of blocky, animated effect as the point-of-view for a robot.

I have taken a course about the history of computing, so I am familiar with all the technical advances that have happened over the years. But the books I had to read did not give a good first-hand view of computing. That is what this book did. It presented a first-hand view of the state of computing in 1983. Reading the book in 2007, there were a few pretty funny exerts:

Buying a Computer: Specifically, think carefully before you buy a machine that can't run under CP/M. -- Page 25

Memory: The earliest machines had only 4K; most machines are now sold with at least 16K, and many users feel unhappy without at least 64K. -- Page 93

Monitor: Color monitors are generally unsatisfactory for text displays. If you want to view both color graphics and text, you probably need two monitors. -- Page 99

Notebook: Keep a notebook for your machine. -- Page 101

Operating System: Some operating systems, such as CP/M, are referred to as "popular," as if the operating system were a thing to be embraced in its own right. -- Page 101

Even though Michael Crichton wrote Electronic Life almost 25 years ago, some points he makes do still apply to buying a machine today:

Debugging: Programs never work the first time. -- Page 50

Documentation: Many otherwise excellent programs have astoundingly bad instructions. -- Page 59

Parents: You've just bought a home computer, but before you've even figured out how to turn the damn thing on, your seven-year-old daughter starts banging away at it, making it do all kinds of tricks. -- Pages 104-105

Computer Widow: The little machines are incredibly compelling, and one can work them long into the night. [...] She's back in two hours, stamping her foot, insisting you come to bed. [...] She's a computer widow, and you have a problem. -- Pages 133-134

The first computer I remember growing up with was a Wang Labs computer running a 80386 processor and Windows 3.11. I can remember upgrading the memory, adding an external CD-ROM drive, and connecting to the "Internet" through a 14.4Kbps modem. And, throughout my life, I have worked on a few monochromatic monitors.

Electronic Life was a good nostalgic book to read. If you are interested in the state of computers in 1983, I suggest you read this book.