Requiem for the Computer Lab

Good old computer labs, sigh.Ever seen PCU?

It came out while I was still in college, and being of that vintage, I relate to it. Remember the scene where Tom runs through the computer lab, where scads of students are cranking away on year-end thesis papers and trips over the main plug that supplies power to all the computers?

Hilarity ensues.

Maybe not so much, but that scene was very common when I went to college. I’m willing to bet it was pretty common for most of you too. Several people I knew had computers, but not very many had laptops. Kids still wrote longhand in notebooks, and we all had lots of floppies, the 3.5 inch ones.

And even if you had your own computer, you more than likely still had to spend time in a computer lab, whether to print or complete an assignment that required a specific piece of software you couldn’t install on your computer.

Not surprisingly, today’s colleges are very different. Laptops prevail, due to their cheapness and obvious portability benefit. Some schools have taken note, and I read today that at least one school, UVA, is effectively shuttering its computer labs to save costs. This makes good sense, especially when 99% of incoming freshman own computers; only four in a class of 3,117 did not own a computer. I wonder what it would be like to be one of those four.

The same UVA study in 1997 showed that only 74% of incoming freshman had computers, which initially felt high to me, but then again, in the twilight of my college years, students with computers were becoming a lot more common, allowing me to spread my mooching across more victims.

Even so, I did spend a lot of time in one one of the half a dozen or so computer “clusters”, most frequently for computer science classes, but also for other classes too. Looking back, it feels like each year there were more computer-based assignments, which contributed to higher demand for the clusters and to more computers in each of them.

So, I have nostalgic memories of Mountain Dew and Jack in the Box consumed in the wee hours of the morning, debugging some game I’d written in Pascal, and it makes me a little sad that the labs will be transforming into co-working spaces.

But what choice do universities have? Ars quotes UVA vice president James Hilton from The Chronicle of Higher Education as saying that the labs cost the university $300,000 to run each year. Even though transforming the labs into other spaces won’t yield a $300,000 annual savings, it will help. At the very least, the university would save on bandwidth and support costs.

And now seems like a good time to find ways to save money.

Anyway, reading this made me sad for the old days. I’m sure many of you have fond memories of nights spent in computer labs.

Share them in comments. Oh, and if you have other thoughts, share those too.

And re/watch PCU. Jeremy Piven, David Spade, Jon Favreau, and P-Funk. Good times.




  1. My comment is going to sound like it came out of the Dark Ages, since I attended undergraduate college in 1979-1983.

    In those days, the computer lab was the ONLY place where you could do any computer work, and I literally knew of no one who had a personal computer. In those days, our computer was a DEC PDP-11/70 running UNIX with a beautiful textual interface (although we did have Tektronix monitors that were capable of plotting graphical information on the screen).

    Although I was as untrendy then as I am now, I did have the presence of mind to write my thesis on the computer, rather than typing (and re-typing) it on a typewriter. This involved the use of nroff with a special set of macros (I can't remember if I used the -mm or -ms macros for my thesis), and obviously required you to leave your dorm room and trudge to the computer lab to get your work done. (I still remember heading to the lab just after the final episode of M*A*S*H aired.)

    Within a few short years, the college would be wired for network connections, and you could actually compute from your dorm room. It's a different world today.

  2. Yeah, I remember waiting in line for the keypunch machine, 'cause it was quicker than waiting on keypunch operators…

  3. You guys are legit old school. I feel like a dinosaur because when we first got the magical Internet, it came through something called America On Line on someone's personal machine. Of course, we soon found the school's connection was way faster and better b/c it had Mosaic, then Netscape.

    I remember how frustrating it was to type “”. That still gets me.

  4. Ah, memories. I found a box of old 3.5″ floppies from university days while cleaning 2 weeks ago. Lacking both hardware to read them and confidence that the bits were intact anyway, I converted them to toddler toys. The labels sure took me back.

    I went to school at that awkward time where lots of people needed to use computers for their work, but not many had personal machines. Mid-term and finals weeks got pretty rough in the labs; classmates would email around when they found a lab that was miraculously uncrowded…what a game-changer an IM client or Twitter would've been for those situations.

    My wife is getting her PhD at my undergrad alma mater, so I get to tour through the ol' stomping grounds every now and then. One of the labs I frequented as a freshman has been bulldozed for a greenspace/parking lot combo, but many of the others are still humming along, complete with that only-in-the-lab muffled clackety-clack keyboard sound and the unique olfactory signature of the “unwashed masses.”

    And hey, waitaminnit: Mountain Dew and Jack in the Box? You didn't have a no food-n-drink policy in your labs? Our lab manager overlords could get pretty huffy about that stuff.

  5. I still spent many hours in computer labs, we had a lab full of Sun workstations, an Oracle Lab and a networking lab, which back then could not be replaced by a PC.

    I built my own PC for my final year (1996) and a lot of my computer science classmates got a PC about that time. I remember one or two laptops, but we all thought they were just being flash.

  6. I was thinking of replying to the /. article that the various computer majors ought to have to build their own computer, learn an assembler. Even though I haven't done any stuff like that for 25+ years (besides part-swapping), it has always helped me, especially trying to understand the more modern piles of… paradigms.

    Someone over there also pointed out there are still lots of things bigger than a PC us geeks need to play with.

  7. I distinctly remember downloading slackware linux onto something like 15 3.5″ floppies using a 28.8kbps modem over the course of a day or two (partly due to dropped connections). Before starting the download, I had to make room for the downloads on my hard drive (it might have been 200Mb or so…maybe less).

    I also remember using “talk” and “ntalk” to chat with friends online.

    Ahh…the good ol' days. Sad that my kids don't know what cassette tapes or VHS tapes are, let alone a world before computers when having an Apple IIgs with 1Mb of RAM meant you were *rich*.

  8. The thing I remember particularly fondly is coming in after coding all night and showing each other new tricks you had managed. This was especially true when tweaking assembler.

  9. I was at UVA in the early 70's. The computer lab (only one for the College of Arts and Sciences, probably one or two more in the School of Engineering) was filled with keypunch machines, and you would hand a pack of punch cards through a window to be run. Results in one or two hours – guaranteed, except at the end of the semester. Only people taking a programming class ever went there. Papers were written on a portable typewriter.

  10. He he. I remember having to do a C programming assignment, and sitting in the computer lab, feeling completely thick and stupid. Or doing SQL in the same lab, and feeling the same, and feeling the same when doing JavaScript. Hey, I spot a theme here.

    I remember in 1994, finding that you could use “newsgroups” on the PCs, using Nestcape, or something like that, and being very excited to find lots of people talking about the Beastie Boys and Doom2 cheats. What a cultured person I am. There were labs everywhere, when I was at Uni from 1992 – 1995, and again in 2000. Not sure what it'd be like now.

  11. I remember thinking how cool my resume would be if I could get a work-study job in a lab. What perspective…

    Speaking of tripping over a cord and unplugging computers, I was a consultant at a place that stuck 10 of us in a small conference room with rows of folding tables as desks. We had to shimmy between chairs and tables to get to our workstation and you guessed it, I tripped on one guy's power strip, it came unplugged, he lost everything he had worked on for a couple of hours. Still feel bad about that incident.

  12. We used to eat out on the patio right outside the lab in question. It was very close to a food court area and a parking lot, which made it more desirable for late night hacking (and junk food consumption). The other labs were too far inside the campus.

  13. Nice. I don't recall anything that big iron. We had boatloads of Macs, everywhere you went. I did some support on Win 3.11 in my senior year and remember wondering who used these things.

  14. Assembler tweaking was too advanced for me. I wrote games instead, but yeah, it did seem like a big deal. Not so much anymore I think.

  15. It's funny how fast technology moves. My freshman year, a couple people had those clunky word processors. By senior year, they had traded them in for desktops. A couple years after that, most freshmen were arriving with computers.

    Punch cards sound fun. I think someone should recreate that experience at a geek museum. I'd pay for that.

  16. We're the same vintage. Some friends and I found an character mode chat room world freshman year. We then proceeded to get booted over and over just for fun. We were the ex-Presidents.

    It was freaky odd when Mosaic/Netscape exposed a whole world of other people out there on the information superhighway.

    I've been waiting to drop that for weeks 🙂

  17. You can't be blamed for poor workspace design. Were those extra hours billable 🙂

    Sounds a bit depressing. I worked in a metal-sided construction office for months in urban Detroit. Consultants get some crappy workspaces.

  18. Nerds!

    All you are nerds I say.

    What was a computer lab? Oh wait, that's where the smart people went. I didn't visit…until my second go at college.

    Better yet, a PCU discussion.

    I used to watch that every time it came on Comedy Central in the late nineties (I think). Piven was hilarious. Gutter (Favreau)?

    Old Woman: Excuse me, but can you blow me where the pampers is?
    Gutter: What?
    Old Woman: Can you blow me where the pampers is?
    Gutter: What?
    Old Woman: Can you *show* me where the *campus* is?

    I've head days like that (wait, I still do).

    At first viewing I most related to Gutter. As I matured, Droz was the man.

  19. Remember debugging Scheme in a lab in my freshman year, and watching trains collide while trying to comprehend semaphores in parallel programming…

    I think CS students still use labs at least to some extent, as there are course environments and custom software to be used, and e.g. tunneling X windows over the network is still not as robust as using a local *nix box (or has there been some radical improvements in this area?).

    Then again, laptop usage *has* definitely increased so maybe labs will gradually fade away?

  20. Ah yes, spoken like a true B&S man. I had forgotten your background in athletics. I do find it hard to believe you didn't spend any time in a lab.

    We're not gonna protest. We're not gonna protest. Gutter is a tool.

  21. Aside from a CS lab, which still does have a place as a nerd sanctum (and a place for specialized software), all the other labs could be switched into co-working study spaces. Or other useful stuff.

    From what I've heard, colleges are going to need the space, since the next generation is even bigger than the Baby Boom.

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