218. It Couldn’t Last

I normally avoid long quotations, but  I have to share this one from the novel Cinnamon Skin, written by John D. MacDonald in 1982. The technicalities of this seem a little dated, but his understanding of human reality is still spot on.

Walking back through the mall to the exit nearest our part of the parking lot, we passed one shop which sold computers, printers, software, and games. It was packed with teenagers, the kind who wear wire rims and know what the new world is about. The clerks were indulgent, letting them program the computers. Two hundred yards away, near the six movie houses, a different kind of teenager shoved quarters into the space-war games, tensing over the triggers, releasing the eerie sounds of extraterrestrial combat. Any kid back in the computer store could have told the combatants that because there is no atmosphere in space, there is absolutely no sound at all. Perfect distribution: the future managers and the future managed ones. twenty in the computer store, two hundred in the arcade.

When MacDonald wrote this, I was facing the reality that I wasn’t going to make a living with my writing, and considering options for a day job. Two years later, Apple introduced the Mac. Two years after that, I was teaching middle school and had accumulated enough money to buy my first computer, a Mac SE. It was a joy to use. SuperPaint by Silicon Beach had both dot matrix and vector graphics in one program. I’ve used more sophisticated graphics programs since, but I’ve never used a better one. Microsoft Word for Mac was lean and fast, nothing like the slow, bloated, obese monster it would soon become. HyperCard showed what hypertext could do, long before the internet made it the center of everything. We became masters of our lives, makers instead of consumers, with a powerful tool that answered our commands seamlessly.

If you are reading this, you are probably under forty. If I could take you back to that golden age, you would hate it. It would seem like nothing to you. It would be like trying to imagine what it felt like to ride the first tractor, instead of walking behind a horse, avoiding the semi-solid horse exhaust. Or trying to imagine how empowering it was to shoot the first bow and arrow, instead of throwing rocks at your food.

It couldn’t last. I saw the handwriting on the wall a few years later when Apple came out with its first oversized laptop. For the first time, there was room for more than a minimal keyboard, and laptops could finally handle the third element. The keyboard handled words, the mouse handled graphics, but there was no proper input for numbers. Scientists and businessmen alike needed the ten-key function that was (in those days) on every keyboard of every full size computer. I was sure it would be added, but when I saw the rollout, the keyboard was still minimal. Instead there were a pair of oversized speakers so games would sound better.

It was all over. From that time on, Apple catered to consumers instead of creators. When Steve Jobs came back from Pixar to save Apple, and created an I-Mac that looked suspiciously like the Pixar logo, I knew it was really all over.

The change from creator culture to consumer culture happened in three stages: first the pre-Windows IBM computer was so hard to use that all your effort went into mastering it, not using it. Then the Mac and the mouse made the machine transparent, and you could make things you never dreamed possible. Then came a day when all you had to do was push a button and the finished product appeared, with none of your input and none of your personality.

Life happens. Progress happens. But I liked stage two the best.

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