An Ode to Retro Computing
I grew up building computers with my Dad. One of the first models we worked with had the
Intel 80286 processor. I remember using WordPerfect in DOS, then moving on to Windows 3.11, and ultimately Windows 95, 98, NT, etc.
Those days of computing felt wild and free. We would get bootlegged versions of Sierra Interactive games on floppy disks and there was always lots of graphic card hacking and modding to get things to work. There was the constant peak/trough journey of failure to success trying to get games or apps to load and run. Nothing felt better than getting a favorite new game to launch.
Once gaming and apps were fully running everything felt so fun and magical. Over time as Windows 9x became ubiquitious, the infamous Blue Screen of Death (BSoD) was a reality you just had to deal with. Sometimes multiple times a day.
After college my gravitation toward design and visual arts led me converting to the Dark Side (as a PC guy this was always how I thought about ). My first Apple computer was an aluminum MacBook Pro. It was a beautiful marriage of hardware and software. I remember using SubEthaEdit to code my first HTML websites that I mocked up in bootlegged versions of Adobe CS.
This ushered in a whole new era of wild and free computing for me (more shiny than the homegrown computers of my youth). I traded graphics card / SCUSI port hacking for hacking graphics, text, HTML, and CSS straight to Dreamhost via Cyberduck FTP and Transmit.
A new kind of magic began to emerge. Instead of tinkering with hardware/software the Mac largely offered hardware stability with a really solid set of tools to build software.
Also it helped that my journey had largely shifted from computing as a gateway to gaming to computing as a gateway to making.
Back to the image above. The image where clever designers covertly decided to poke fun at the infamous BSoD. Cheeky as it was at the time, I find something slightly sinister lurking within it. Perhaps its the omission of UNIX's own version of the BSoD. The dreaded
This omission obscures something that is universal when it comes to computing. Things often go badly. Sometimes fantastically so. And this is true whether you are using Windows, Linux, macOS, iOS, or Android. For a time I was blinded by enjoyment of all things Apple and I refused to acknowledge this universal reality.
My years as an avid Apple user grew in parallel with my nuance as a designer. Over time my frustrations with Apple’s sprawling computing platforms grew proportionally. I still enjoy computers and what they can do but I now find myself in a different kind of plateau (our mountain meadow if that’s your vibe).
I still enjoy computers and technology and design and all that but I'm more cynical about the ways and degrees to which we entrust ourselves and the future of humanity to them. James Bridle:
Computational thinking is an extension of what others have called solution is: the belief that any given problem can be solved by the application of computation. Whatever the practical or social problem we face, there is an app for it.
There are many sci-fi parables and tropes about the dystopian trajectory of computers and humans that usually end in some iconoclastic Armageddon. And yet... I'm still optimistic about technology. I'm a futurist, with reservations.
Kevin Kelly helped by defining technology as “tools” or in McLuhan's language “extensions of man”. Technology is not going away. Humans have wielded tools since the dawn of time. It's important to shift the conversation from the simplistic “technology is bad” toward thinking about how we shape our tools and concurrently how they shape us.
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