A Look Backward at Personal Computers


I grew up on a farm that grew apples and peaches. From working on an apple farm, a farmboy, or a farmer for that matter, picks up how you can handle an apple pretty casually and never do any damage to it. There develops an offhand familiarity with the product that comes from growing up with it.


Later on in life I came to have some experience with a different kind of apple, the ones from Apple Computer in Cupertino. I grew up with them, too; they were born, and grew up, in about the same span of time as it took me to grow up, right around twenty years, roughly 1980 or so until roughly 2000 or so. It's not the same thing, of course, growing up with something versus having something grow up around you. It does tend to impart a certain familiarity though. I was born around 1950, so it was a different twenty years, too, something like thirty years later. I'm sure you get the idea.


I had started a computer rental company in 1983, in Berkeley. The rental business right from the beginning rented out every brand of computer on the market, of which there weren't very many but more were coming all the time. IBM was out there by then, and Kaypro had just gone from selling ten million dollars worth in one year to selling a hundred million dollars worth the next year (and thence to going out of business the year after that); and there were already a few clones, and of course there was Apple. The Apple II (pronounced apple two) had been the first, in 1978. Those Apple II computers were actually not bad. The IBM and the Kaypro were okay too, if you just wanted to do some word processing.


The funny thing was that there wasn't a whole lot of hype about any of these machines or about what they could do. If you went to a store that sold the machines, there was a raft of bullshit you would be subjected to, but that was because the men who gravitated toward the salesmen's jobs in those stores were pretty much a bunch of larcenous bastards anyway, the kind who take advantage of neophytes to make a quick buck. Suede shoe operators, always put you on to the latest thing. Put it this way: It wasn't until 1984, with Apple's introduction of the Macintosh, that we heard computer hype. Or saw it. That hammerthrowing ad was relentlessly visual.


I first saw a Mac, physically, in 1984 at the Coconut Grove ballroom on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk; it was amazing what that machine could do. I bought a couple for the rental biz, and it was equally amazing how little those machines could do that was useful. Mostly what they did was sit there and ask you to insert a disk. Generally, it was asking for the same disk, over and over again, the kind of behavior you get from a baby. What a piece of useless crap! Elegant, though. That was a Macintosh 128. The Macintosh 512, same thing: Useless. The MacPlus, with one megabyte of RAM, could in fact keep enough information in its head to do a few limited tasks, word processing, in fact. Finally, years later, Apple made a MacPlus that could accomodate a hard disk, and then a user could actually do the kinds of things that I had seen at the Coconut Grove.


That was a while ago, and now .... well, you've heard all the computer palaver about how much power we've got now and how far we've progressed blah blah blah. Hell, you own one.


Here's what bugs me, though: How come we were so dumb that we bought into the whole Personal Computer Revolution fairy tale? For all those years?


Let me give a short answer to that: The guys we listened to, like Steve Jobs, I don't think they knew a whole lot about bigtime computing in businesses and at the universities. Maybe they did, and they were just rebellious, like the Marlon Brando character in the 1954 biker movie The Wild One. Brando plays the leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club; when one of the townspeople asks him, "Hey, Johnny, what is it you're rebellin' against?" Brando just stares back at him, insolently, and says "Whaddaya got?" These guys were rebelling for the sake of rebelling, riding a big bike on weekends and terrorizing one-horse country towns; great stuff, good thing to do after a war.*


So rebellious young Steve and his wizard friend the Woz had put together the first personal computer, the Apple; and Steve assembled a crew and put together the Macintosh, somewhat later; and somehow they, and we, missed the boat about why one would want to do all this. Why, or rather, why in the fuck, didn't they have standardization to the point where you could actually network these things effortlessly? Why would they let you personalize, or customize, your own machine so that it wouldn't hook up to the other machines?


Oh, boy, is this guy naive! you are saying to yourself.


No arguments here; not because I don't want to discuss computer "systems" or architecture or whatever, over the years, but because I'm just telling you what happened. These guys told you that you wanted a Personal Computer. Well, all this time what you REALLY wanted was a Network Computer; you know, a networked computer. On your own, you never really created much; on a network, well hell, it's amazing. They told you, or showed you in the ad, that if you networked the computer, you know, if you tied it to a mainframe, you'd be like the audience in the Mac ad in 1984, a cringing drone. What bullshit! On our little Personal Computers, we were pathetic. A few of us did pretty good, did some cool stuff, made big powerful spreadsheets or cool Photoshop things, not me particularly; and I gotta admit, it was pretty neat how even a dumb little personal computer running a dumbass database program could totally emulate a department store when somebody who knew a little bit about it schlepped one in to the school's auction night. Hell, it'd even print up receipts, besides keeping track of all the stuff. I know all about this subject; all kinds of people rented all kinds of machines for all kinds of purposes, including producing feature films and university research and big law firms and you name it. For years. And I want to tell you, that Personal Computer myth, it just got in the way of where we needed to go with this.


Put it this way: Generally, citizens of the United States don't try to be a hundred percent individualistic. Look at Levittown, after the War: Levittown set a new standard for standard issue stuff -- houses! But after only a few years, even Levittown didn't look like Levittown, because all the Americans who bought the cookie cutter houses in Levittown customized them. They're Americans. But they're still in Levittown. Or some town. Everybody is part of some town, and in whatever town they are in, they fit in enough to get along. They always have done that and always will. You can be as much of an individual as you want; you don't have to be like anybody else, really; but you have to -- you want to -- fit in enough to get along.


At the very least, maybe you just have to say hello, and vote, and pay your taxes if any, and ... it ain't much. And go fight the bad guys, every once in a while, and die for democracy maybe; that's sad, but true. But you get the idea.


So do you get the point, with these morons and their Personal Computer Personal Computer Revolution? I think we're pretty much over it now, thank God, but for the longest time it was just such misguided bullshit . And I don't have to get all huffy and sanctimonious and credentialistic about what I have to say about it; hell, I grew up with it.


Richard Katz





*Cheerfully plagiarized from Bob Dylan, "... in my Cadillac; good car to drive, after a war." And by the way, Brando was riding a Triumph, not a Harley-Davidson. It was Lee Marvin and his crew who rode into town later on Harleys.