I was in elementary school in the 1980s. Our grade 4-7 school had about 70 kids, no gymnasium and a tiny library. We were asked one day if we thought having a computer in the school would be a good idea. I had no idea what a computer was, I thought it was what you played video games on, like the arcade games at the mall and couldn’t figure out how that belonged in a school.
A little while later, a screen encased in a wooden kiosk appeared in our school hallway. None of us had any idea what to do with it and none of the teachers did either. Every so often we’d make unsuccessful attempts to figure it out, and try to make the turtle move by blindly pressing keys.
A while later, our little school shifted to primary only and we were shipped off to a larger school with a gym, and a bigger library that housed a computer, complete with Oregon Trail. By this time at least one fortunate student in our class had a home computer and knew how to turn the thing on and access the programs. We played Oregon Trail for hours, losing our oxen in pixelated rivers, and repeatedly dying of dysentery.
In grade 7 a portable computer lab appeared on the muddy bit of dirt behind the parking lot and the gym. I can still remember the bright whiteness of the place and the smell of plastic and vinyl off-gassing. It was wonderful and it was filled with enough Apple II’s to accommodate our entire class. Just as important, we had a teacher (Mr. Graham) who understood the potential for the little machines (as well as how to fix the weird formatting errors in our text files). We left Oregon Trail behind for Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and the ability to type up our reports and creative writing stories and print them out on reams of perforated paper.
Those little computers, loaded with our floppies that we carefully printed our names on in felt pen and stored in the cupboard in the back of the trailer, also had colour screens and a basic paint program. I spend hours drawing colourful scenes: dragons crossing rivers, trees with bright fruit, clouds…
High school, for me, was completely devoid of computers. There was an elective computer programming class which I did not take, and two units hooked up to the internet (whatever that was), where one could get information from newspapers, apparently, to help flesh out reports and essays. They sat, largely ignored, across from the librarian’s desk.
In the first year of the design & illustration program at Capilano College we were taught ‘wrist skills’ – drawing by hand and design thinking without the aid and distraction of a computer program (a very useful skill). But in truth, there were just way too few computers to go around. When our class of 28 was unleashed upon the 10 macs in the library it wasn’t pretty. We carried our work around with us on zip disks, 100MB each. Of the 10 library computers, only two had zip drives – which meant we had to upload our work through one of the two to a central server and then download it to our machine and that took ages. We watched the class ahead of us, a naturally combative group driven further mad by deadlines & lack of sleep and pushed over the limit by slow upload and download times, physically fight over machines.
Motivated mostly by the desire for convenience, and with a bit of room in my student loan, I enlisted the assistance of a classmate to help me cut through all the computer jargon, and I bought my first computer, a PowerMacintosh 8500. I knew nothing about it or computers in general; I was completely ignorant, my last contact with a computer being with an Apple II in grade 7. I had no idea what RAM was or how much it was or what it did. I only knew the capacity of a zip disk and I just knew the thing needed a zip drive.
The machine was massive and so was the monitor. Another classmate helped me load and unload it from my car. But I loved it. It meant freedom. It meant I no longer needed to get up at the crack of dawn to get to the college library before the doors open so I could be at the front of the line for a machine. It meant I could pull all-nighters in the comfort of my home. It meant I had time and space to blindly stab at it and figure out the programs. I have no idea where I’d be if I hadn’t made that purchase of my first mac. I was just ignorant enough at that age to buy a thing I had no idea how to use, and then figure out how to use it. In my first year out of college, I illustrated my first published book cover on it in Photoshop 4.0.
It’s mind boggling how completely Apple technology and devices are now integrated into my workflow and my life and the studio I share with my partner. Sure, for design work it makes sense, but I also use it when I’m painting, I use it for illustration work. I use it for entertainment and for education. I use it to be social and I use it to organise my business. I carry a laptop with me that has 6 times the memory of my first computer and is a fraction of the size. I’ve produce huge pieces of artwork on a machine I can carry under my arm. It has given me freedom, it has expanded my career options and my creativity. And it is a beautifully designed (not over-designed), piece of technology and a joy to use.
I was unprepared by how profoundly I could feel the loss of a man I have never met. But at the same time, I am completely unsurprised by the emotion. And the first thing I thought about when I heard the news of his passing, was my first interaction with an Apple computer in that fluorescent-lit computer lab, in grade 7 in 1989, drawing pixelated dragons.