My first computer

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

by Virginia Heffernan

Picture your first computer. I can see mine. Clunky gray-beige box, the size of a person in child’s pose.

It was a Zenith Z-19. No disk drive. No hard drive. No working brain. An empty vessel, rather, for onrushing data, which it erratically sucked up through the phone lines. I’d jam the receiver of our family phone into a coupler, which coupled that “dumb” terminal with a rhino-sized mainframe, which in turn shook and rattled and heaved in a glass cage two miles away at the local college. The year was 1979.

Your first computer, or so I have been hypothesizing, determines your entire approach to digital life. It sets your course. If you lose the straight path on the Internet—if OKCupid breaks your heart, or Pandora doesn’t surface your favorite songs—you can remind yourself of what you’re doing in the Internet wilderness by simply picturing your first computer. Then find your prime directive in that.

Me, in my first computer I saw a game. I know I asked my parents for that computer, begged for it, because I’d finally outgrown Merlin and Simon and an obscure “electronic game” from the Sears catalog called T.E.A.M.M.A.T.E.. I told my parents I wanted to try making my own games in BASIC, the computer language that was the pride of my New Hampshire town, and of course playing Zork, a brilliantly cryptic early computer game. For those enterprises (and eventually for the primitive but thrilling social networking games of the 1980s) I’d need a terminal and a mainframe and an Internet, which conveniently was just kind of being invented.

The game model stuck with me. A few years ago, when writers were panicking about the Internet stealing our brains, I realized I was always going to see computers as a game. I couldn’t see them as a scourge, or a weapon, or a tool of bullies or terrorists, or an extension of the government panoptica. To me computers are fundamentally “ludic,” in the words of Johan Huizinga, a Dutch anthropologist, who conceived of man in relation to the culture around him as “homo ludens”—the playing man.

If being at the computer is “playing” the computer (“Stop playing the computer!” my mother used to shout as I bonded for hours with that Z-19) then networked computers seem to comprise a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. We play our Foursquare role; our Goodreads role; our Twitter role. We win, we lose. And then we rest. A game.

If I had used computers first at the RAND corporation I’d probably see computers as intelligence-gathering instruments. If I had started using computers to gather data, do my taxes, or police my children, I’d have other idées fixes.

Lately I’ve been talking to people about their first computers, and my mind’s been blown. I spoke first to John Perry Barlow, the cyberlibertarian, Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the digital-rights group, Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“How to use all 20 megabytes?!”

“My first computer was a Compaq ‘luggable.’ 1985,” Barlow told me by email.

“Looked kind of like an oversized Elna sewing machine. It weighed about 25 pounds and had a 9" green screen. I believe it had 640k of memory, I bought a 20 megabyte ‘hard disk on a card’ for it which ran me $1250. I thought it was a bargain and couldn't imagine filling it. I got it in a nondescript computer store in Salt Lake City, UT.”

Barlow, who is from Wyoming, was a rancher at the time. His politics might be best characterized as “rugged.”

“I thought about getting an Apple, but they seemed toy-like and user-promiscuous. The Compaq was a Man's Computer. Besides, you could get a printer for it that created output that appeared to have been typed by an IBM Selectric.”

A Man’s Computer that printed like a Man’s Secretary. Barlow was sold. He has seen computers as an extension of his libertarian manliness ever since.

I also asked John Podhoretz, a Twitter virtuoso and editor of Commentary, the neoconservative Jewish magazine, about how he came to computing.

“They delivered their articles to the copy-boy”

“My first computer wasn't mine at all,” he wrote in an email. “I used a manual typewriter until I became a reporter-researcher at Time Magazine right out of college in 1982. Time used a system called Atex. There was one machine for each section. Most writers still wrote on typewriters and delivered their articles to a copy boy to be brought to a copy desk to be typed into Atex, and no one wanted to use the terminal on the World section corridor.”

I was instantly reminded of shared Nexis terminals at my first magazine job, ten years later. I could almost feel the semi-embarrassment of stepping up to that computer, for which the magazine paid larcenous subscription rates, while everyone waited for you to do your business.

“I wrote a short story and a couple of freelance articles on it during fallow periods of the week. It was the feel of the keyboard that changed everything; for while I had never gotten comfortable with the weird spring-less-ness of an electronic typewriter, the click that greeted the touch of the finger was more satisfying than the banging one would do on a manual. They would print out on yellow paper, each line having a number beside it. Those manuscripts are long since lost, because of course there was no provision made to make digital copies of them. That year, Time made the personal computer the Man of the Year, and I thought the choice was preposterous.”

“I didn't own my own PC until 1986, because my next employer installed a remote terminal for its system in my home and gave me the fabled Radio Shack TRS-80 (trash 80, with its one-line, 40-character screen) to do work remotely. I still remember the anxiety provoked by the C:/ prompt whenever I had to execute anything other than the simplest command. The birth of Windows changed everything, and I became a very early user of what we'd now call the Internet--Compuserve and Prodigy, before AOL came along and blew them out of the water.”

Like Barlow who dabbled in direct-mail marketing, Podhoretz was excited by the prospect of reaching hundreds of people at once. He seems to have seen the Internet as a tool of influence; no wonder he’s taken to Twitter with gusto.

“Only when I started a newsletter business in 1993 did I first get a Mac because we had to use QuarkExpress, and once I went Mac, I never went back.”

Finally, I consulted Bedonna Smith, a digital-media auteur who has produced emerging-everything for Weiden + Kennedy, @Radical Media, Anonymous, the Oscars and Stand Up To Cancer. Her work is playful, so I thought she might have been an adventure-game buff like I was. Instead. . .

“I used them for AOL, who are we kidding?”

“A bunch of colleagues from the early 90s will all remember those cube Macintoshes on our desks,” she wrote me. “Were they Apple 2? Apple 2e? We used them for QuickMail. The QuickMail chime always perked one up to something exciting and funny coming across. QuickMail was more for comedy and gossip than business.”

Aha! A comedy person!

“By the time I started 'loving' computers it was a Sony Vaio that I had purchased. Later, I fell for the mini Vaio. I loved them both because they were trendy, cute, I thought. . .and of course, I used them for AOL, who are we kidding?”

“Today I like instant research. I'd love to see my friends' iPhone search histories across the day parts. I laugh at my own. On a good day one's searches are not too hypochondriacal. The drunk-dial of yore has given way to late night malady research.”

“I like following the Tweets of humorists @pattonoswalt and @stevemartintogo (ha) and also @campsucks @mindykaling and the rest of the pop culture in-crowd. It seems that the digital discourse has amped the caliber and quantity of the comedy we get on all levels; it's an instance of celebrity culture organically sharing their talents, and as a fan I really appreciate it all.”

So I see the Internet as a game. Barlow sees it as frontier. Podhoretz sees it as a publishing house. And Smith sees it as a joke.

How about you? How about your first computer? Squint your eyes. Envision it—a massive mainframe? A Dell laptop? What did you like, what did you hate, what did you think?

And then let me know—or let me have it, anyway—in the comments section. You know you have a story.


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