Reality Distorted

I had just gotten home from work on Wednesday night, when I read this tweet from my friend and fellow Apple fan Andrew. It was certainly a surprise, to the point where I initially doubted it (or perhaps hoped it wasn’t true), but the stream of traffic from my tech-oriented Twitter feed made it fairly clear that Steve Jobs had died. This news affected me more than I expected.

Initial Reaction

I was sitting at my early-2007 Mac Pro, Targ, ready to start my cs281 homework, and I just didn’t want to think about probability theory. My first response was to join in the collective mourning on Twitter (“twourning”?), joining in on the #RIPSteveJobs hashtag, simply tweeting the Apple logo character U+F8FF, and reading and retweeting a few of the early responses to his death.

Even though publicly we’d known about Steve’s cancer diagnosis for several years, and the various medical leaves culminating in his recent departure as CEO, it had never really sunk in for me that his career as a designer, visionary, cultural icon, and much more, would likely not last into old age. At 56, Steve was within a year in age of both of my parental units, so perhaps there’s an indirect confrontation with their mortality wrapped up in my response. I’d never met Steve Jobs, though I would have loved to hear him speak. Possibly my sadness at his passing was also in part a missed opportunity.

I think though, more than anything, even before I really understood who he was, his work and his products have a front-row seat to my home, school, and work lives, and were very influential in me growing up as a computer geek.

A Brief History

For many who know me, Macs are fairly integral to my geek identity, but that wasn’t always the case. Our first home computer, in 1987, was an IBM PC XT (the model without a hard drive but with two floppy drives). I have fond memories of playing the DOS port of Tetris, and learning to program BASIC with the help of a Biblically-themed book of tutorials.

At school, of course, we had various generations of Apple IIs, so I used a few IIgses in the library when I was in 1st grade (color!), while it was mostly IIes elsewhere. When I was in 3rd grade, our school got a big donation of Macintosh LCIIs from Medtronic, which was a pretty amazing leap. We started word processing in The Writing Center, playing Oregon Trail and Number Munchers (damn you MECC!), and in 4th grade we even had a recurring science project using Hypercard. Since my dad started teaching at the school around the same time, I spent a fair bit of time after school in either the computer lab or his classroom, mostly playing games, although I was also fond of creating custom tessellating desktop patterns in System 7.

While my brain was slowly being warped by post-Steve Apple products at school, our XT was still going strong, so there was little point in replacing it, even as school switched to Macs and many friends had either Macs or Windows PCs at home. My first all-nighter was playing the original Civilization on an LCIII at my friend (and this year, Best Man) Gus’ 10th birthday party, after everyone else had gone to sleep. Around then I also remember being embarassed turning in a paper in 6th grade English that was printed at home on dot-matrix, when almost everyone else had inkjets or was bringing in 3.5″ disks to school to print on their laserjets.

This all changed that year, Christmas 1994, when we upgraded to a Performa 6115 CD. I caught a peek of its box that morning at my grandma’s house, walking to breakfast, and I assumed that it was intended as either a home computer for my grandma (she didn’t have one at that time), or an upgrade for my cousins. As it turned out, my parents had a family friend who was also driving from Minneapolis to Sioux Falls deliver it for them. My sister and I were naturally very excited: it would be easier for us to bring homework to the computers at school, and we could listen to music and play recent games. It was also our first step online, as it came with a 14.4 modem and a free trial of Apple’s abortive eWorld online service.

In addition to being a leap into then-modern computing and multimedia, it came with two free issues of MacAddict magazine. I subscribed, and it was within its pages that I first learned who Steve Jobs was, what a Reality Distortion Field was, and cemented my love for the Mac. I definitely remember having arguments with people about the Megahertz Myth, desktop interfaces, and the like, while they pointed out that I couldn’t play “any” games. My friend Joe, a fellow gamer, liked asking me how I liked the new Reader Rabbit.

I don’t have a picture from that Christmas, but a few years later, my uncle Mike gave me a Zip Drive (SCSI, naturally). I think this image captures my excitement about new technology products:

100 MB was a big deal in 1996. I was excited.

I should add that throughout this period, I owned a couple of shares of Apple stock. I certainly have impressive on-paper earnings, but at this point I don’t imagine myself selling. It’s a vote of confidence that dates back to when few people believed in Apple and the company’s survival hinged on an influx of cash from of all places Microsoft.

I won’t review my complete Mac history (there are a number of computers and devices in there leading up to my new iPhone 4S which I just preordered), but my interest in the company and the platform has only grown. I followed the Second Coming of The Steve in MacAddict, and started watching the keynotes online. The switch to OS X on the laptop I got for college in 2001 prepared me for using various Unix flavors at school (in both engineering and computer science courses), including developing some of the programming and system administration skills that help me daily in my job.

In more recent years, between the iPhone and the iPad, Steve’s vision of the future have more or less made my childhood Star Trek fantasies a reality. It’s striking the ways in which science fiction and technology feedback on one another. In some senses even TNG seems a bit dated now, because the characters generally aren’t portrayed using computer networks, and yet thanks to Steve most people above a certain income threshold can get online from anywhere, in 2011, not 2361.

Reactions Around the Web

I didn’t really choke up until I started reading and hearing personal stories from people who either knew Steve personally, or worked even more closely with his creative output. I must admit I can’t entirely explain it; I remember scoffing at people mourning the deaths of other celebrities, like Michael Jackson. There weren’t tears, but I definitely felt a strong albeit impersonal connection to Steve, as a geek who likes to make quality things.

Here are a few of my favorites:

And, of course, we can’t forget The Onion honoring Steve in their own way. I would also recommend checking out Devour’s collection of Stevenotes, including his Stanford commencement speech, as well as this unaired Think Different ad narrated by Steve.

We’ll miss you Steve. Thanks for everything.

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  1. [...] more philosophical than technical: “The job of art is to chase ugliness away.”. As in my initial reaction to his death, I think Steve clearly achieved that. No Comments Tagged apple, book, [...]

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Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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