A Writer’s Salute to Mr. Macintosh

Mac Plus

I still remember the clackety-clack of the high keys of my Mac Plus

This is a cobbling of a couple of things I wrote a while back, wrapped in the unfurled flag of Steve Jobs’ stepping down from Apple yesterday. As a writer with handwriting so tortured it screams in unintelligibility, any medium that offered the least friction between getting the words from brain to screen was a welcome one. For more than 25 years, my medium has been a Mac.

In 1986, I was hired by Borland, then a fairly big player in the software industry, to be a copyeditor. They plunked me down in front of what I was told was a smoking machine, a new, zippy IBM XT. Not having much computer experience, I plinked and poked my way around DOS, getting used to command-line instructions to open, save and find files. Some geekasauri from other departments came around, whinging because our department had given an upscale machine to the new doofus copyeditor, who didn’t know just how glorious 640k of internal memory was. I didn’t know memory from moonbeams, so I could only shrug.

Then my Mac Plus arrived. Lookee here—a mouse to move that cursor across the screen! A program you can draw with. A selection of typefaces. A graphical interface that quickly communicated the notion of file storage and retrieval. And something else: a sparkle, a design distinction, that holy integration of form and function. This was something else again, and I liked it, immediately.

The Contagion Spreads
A new copyeditor was hired. She was given a new Mac Plus. She’d only used PCs until then—revelation. A tribe of two. Our direct boss, who worked out of the office, got one too. Once a tribe, twice a tribe, thrice a tribe. Then, a goodly portion of the marketing department got them too. PageMaker 1.0 on the Mac—wow. People succumbed to the ease, the allure of the new, and again, that somewhat intangible design/desire glimmer.

But Borland’s bottom line was based on selling inexpensive (revolutionary, at the time) development tools for programmers. The geeks did not speak Mac, and in the office the machines were often derided as toys. But of course, that scorn only enhanced the “we’re unique, we use Macs” sense of narrow community within the tribe, which unfortunately could come off as “we’re better.” To my mind then, both machines got your letters written, your sheets spread, your data based, and your computations computed, but only one machine did all that with something extra—personality expressed through design. And a sense of play. (And anyway, whoever really thought a toy was a bad thing?)

Serious Play
I won’t cite boring statistical studies of the creative aspects of play, and the means by which this kind of play leads to discovery and tangible insight, but the studies are there. The Macintosh provided for millions of people the pleasurable pursuit of their own empowerment; and so many surfable waves followed, from the rising tide of desktop publishing to multimedia breakers to floods of creative connectivity today. Sure, Macs, PCs, Linux machines, just tools after all, but how Macs work has always made more sense to me. It’s personal—not like the zealot fanboy who flames any questioner of the Macintosh Creed—but personal in the sense that I do get where the fanatics are coming from.

Thus, I felt a pang yesterday after the Jobs announcement, because creative geniuses that make a real-world impact are few and far between. His and Apple’s work had a lasting impact on me and on my writing.

Godspeed, Mr. Jobs.

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4 thoughts on “A Writer’s Salute to Mr. Macintosh

  1. The irony: Macs helped free so many from those once-powerful gatekeepers of information, by allowing us to readily create rather than only consume. And yet, iTunes and iPads and so many things “i” are about restricting things back again. So many devices, so few USB ports…

    On balance, a net gain, though. Certainly a net gain. And, yes, thank you, Mr. Jobs, for caring about Design.

  2. Hey Rick, it is true that Apple has been pretty canny (if not ruthless) about closing its systems and products so that it’s all Apple, all the time, and that’s not always good for the consumer. And they can be crazy about suing and protecting their intellectual property.

    But for the most part, they’ve gotten it right, and they’ve done some world-changing along the way.

  3. Tom, have you stumbled across Mr. Macintosh’s “How to live before you die” commencement speech at Stanford? If not, it’s easy to find on the TED site. I’m not sure how I would have taken in the speech when I was a graduating college student (what 21-year-old on that day wants to think about the iconic Steve Jobs—let alone, herself—shuffling off this mortal coil?), but as an old lady (and ardent late adopter of Mac) I was moved and inspired by his story telling.

    And sorry if this is a spoiler, but I liked how he closed with the Whole Earth Catalog’s sage advice to “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

    (I don’t know about you, but in the decades since MY college graduation, I’ve definitely perfected 50% of the formula.)

  4. Death is rather a stiff shot to the psyche, isn’t it? That’s why my thoughts always center around peonies, bunnies and comfy socks. But it’s good to get a reminder of the inevitable gong sounding (though I can hear the gonger warming up when I look in a mirror).

    Hungrily foolish, T.

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