My little sister and I had an Apple II+ in the early '80s: games, mostly, but also goofing around with graphics and BASIC programming and such word processing as was necessary in junior high and high school (dot matrix printer). Our parents'
October 6, 2011

My little sister and I had an Apple II+ in the early '80s: games, mostly, but also goofing around with graphics and BASIC programming and such word processing as was necessary in junior high and high school (dot matrix printer).

Our parents' courier company in Milwaukee got a refrigerator-sized computer maybe five years before that, with disks the size of a 17-inch Macbook Pro (but rounder and thicker). There was a lot of data entry involved, as each driver would turn in a "tickets" for each delivery they made during the day, and clerks would type in the information on each, for monthly billing of customers, for keeping track of employees' work, and I suppose some statistical analysis. Each month the billing—miles of zig-zagged dot-matrix perforated sheets—had to be "de-collated," a numbing manual task akin to de-detasseling corn or running a stamping press in a factory: stripping off the accompanying miles of carbon paper.

It had a suite of "games," and they had a modem so they could work at home. If we wanted to have a family game night at home they had to go through a complicated production firing up the modem before they left work. I remember everyone gathering around the HAL-looking blue terminal at a party for my brother's bar mitzvah at our home in what had to have been late 1978. One of the games was blackjack. Another was a horseracing game where you bet on which cursor would cross the screen first. Another bizarre part of the program was that you could print out a giant life-sized banner of a pinup shot of Bridgette Bardot in ACII characters. It sounds like I'm making this up, but I'm not.

Entered college in 1988 with an electric typewriter with little screen where you could word-process a single line at a time. Next year started using the little Macintoshes in the dorm lab and at the library. First one on my own desk was inherited from Linda when she went on an internship in Europe, I think.

No Internet on that, though, not for me. I remember one day at the campus mailroom—an ancient institution, kids, where the sort of announcements you get in your email inbox every morning were placed, as fliers, in folders for each student—everyone was given some sort of code for their "account" on the campus system. I had no idea what it was and threw it out. Others, of course, were not so naive. They were mostly science students. They were the ones who were pioneering networked communication. It was part of their geek culture. One of them, I remember, a kid named Justin Boyan, was featured in Time magazine for writing software to help people "get online." What did that mean? I had no idea.

I went to graduate school in the humanities. My first semester, in our methods class, the force-marched us into this brave new world. And, for the first time, I had that head-swimming, Matrix-y feeling that there was a whole gargantuan universe out there parallel to the one we knew in the physical world. I suspect that all people of a certain age, if they thought about it, can tell you where they were when they first had that feeling. Would be interested to ask folks. What about you?

No web sites, though. Was it 1994 when I first became of those? Once again, it was one of my nerdier friends who lit the way. He started something called the "University of Chicago Philosophy Project," in which people "discussed"—what did it mean to "discuss" something on a computer? that was another new concept to wrap your mind around—philosophy papers they "posted" "online."

My friend also introduced me to another innovation with that site—introduced a lot of people, it turned out. He had some sort of primitive, prototype camera which projected real-time moving images of himself as he worked at his computer. A webcam. Where you could watch someone write philosophy papers. One day he got an "email"—still a strange new concept—from a very unusual source: the much-younger wife of comedian Rodney Dangerfield. Mrs. Dangerfield, apparently, was an early adopter of an eventually ubiquitous notion: the promotional website. She got in touch with my friend, whose name is Jon Cohn, because she wanted to hook up a webcam on the Rodney Dangerfield website too, and wanted to know how to do it.

Geek culture back in the day was like that: random, unexpected, curiously grassroots. I guess I was sort of witnessing history happening. Never quite thought about it that way before.

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