Are Computer Clubs Dead?

Are computer clubs dead? The answer depends on what you mean by a computer club. I can only speak of my own experiences. Maybe you have different observations. If so, please let us know. But skipping to the final point right now: isn’t LockerGnome a type of computer club? Chris also supports traditional computer clubs — check out this video from 2007.

Just as the hardware and software have evolved, clubs devoted to sharing an interest in computers have evolved. I predict physical (i.e. compared to online) computer clubs will be with us for a long time just as there are active VW owner clubs still in existence. Most people now understand a VW club to emphasize classic Beetles, not Jettas or new Beetles. Would a VW owner from the sixties recognize a modern club? Functions have changed. In the same way, the functions of computer clubs have changed with the evolution of hardware, operating systems, and software (particularly gaming).

The first computer club I attended was interested primarily in hardware. We sometimes made things on jury-rigged breadboards with wire wrap technology (wire wrap was once king — now it is probably filed next to buggy whips). Data input for advanced machines was via an audio cassette tape. Later clubs became concerned with various ways of making commercially available computers useful. Interpretive languages such Basic and Forth were popular. Hardware tweaks such as adding true descenders to an Apple ][ were common, but things had changed and it was easier to buy a ready-made computer than make one from scratch.

Are Computer Clubs Dead?This was before bit-mapped displays. Who can forget hours of exploring Adventure and what the snake was afraid of? We formed informal sub-groups to compare notes on various text-based games. Digital Dungeons & Dragons bookkeeping was useful and the basis of other groups. VisiCalc quickly became a vehicle for Conway’s Game of Life.

Time passed and clubs morphed further from hardware geek meetings to user-oriented meetings with tutorials on applications and the latest operating systems. Gaming changed with the introduction of graphics. Those who still built computers became a decided minority. In the clubs I attended, this change was accompanied with a steep decline in attendance. (Some spurts in popularity came with the advent of netbooks and tablets.) I think this decline in interest is a natural outcome of the maturation of computing in general.

Professional societies are closely related to clubs in function. Certainly, meetings of some user groups of the IEEE resemble (on a more professional level) the activities of an advanced computer club. For years, I attended meetings of SigGraph and thought it was like a big club with a helping of paranoia thrown in because of the competition in a rapidly changing market.

Interestingly, the clubs I still attend tend to not emphasize social media. They do not ignore it, but there does not seem to be much interest. This is likely because many of the functions of early clubs have been taken over by Internet-based groups such as LockerGnome. We no longer need physical presence to share interests and pass around tips. I have friends online whom I seldom see in real space, but the social interaction of actually meeting in a physical room and putting hands on hardware is a different experience, which will keep clubs operating as long as there are new things to explore — and who knows, maybe someone in your club will have the idea for the next Facebook or Google.

Are computer clubs dead? No, definitely not, but they have changed. What we now call a computer club is radically different from those of 10 years ago, but the prime function remains the same: sharing information and learning about new developments. Modern computer clubs are more oriented toward mutual tutoring rather than building. But as long as people are interested in a subject, there will be some type of club to service their needs. Try searching for “ham radio clubs.” Smartphones and Skype have not killed ham radio, and computer clubs are not dead.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image: Electronics Club 1986 by Extra Ketchup