Folderol | Apple iBook
It was during an NBC Must See TV commercial break in the autumn of 1998 when I first saw the Jeff Goldblum iMac ad. I looked up from my Packard Bell in mid-dial up connection to the America Online server and saw the dazzling Bondi blue monitor. I was smitten. As soon as my modem’s successful completion of crrrrrrrshes and pong-bings united the imitation Keith Haring figure with their on-line buddies, I could bypass the AOL mainframe to open an Internet Explorer browser and go to http:// whatever the apple store address was in 1998 dot com. I pulled up the product page to find the price tag exceeded my dinky credit card limit at the time and financing was not an option for impulsive 19-year-olds. I was gutted. Then I was distracted by NBC’s lineup of neurotics in vests gesticulating around NYC. I yearned for the colourful iMac for years but settled for accessing my favourite usenet groups and message boards on a series of cheap eMachines — which eventually totalled up to the cost of one iMac.
I didn’t grow up as a computer kid. I was a television kid. We didn’t need to compute things in my household as much as we needed to follow our televised serial broadcasts. If we had to type something, we sat down at the electric typewriter. If I wanted to play video games, my mother might let me go to the mall arcade. Computers were for business people or nerds. The closest thing we had to a computer was my Talking Computron toy from Sears. He was hi-tech Speak ’n’ Spell with a robotic Orson Welles timbre and a red LED screen that displayed words and numbers in the rudimentary digital font. Computron was loaded with a dozen or so educational games and with 6 “C” batteries, he would prompt me to “please choose an activity” and teach me multiplication, spelling, and the pronunciations of words like “biscuit,” “zebra,” and “handbag.” There were computers at the county courthouse where my mother worked on her real estate reports, and where I would sit quietly most days after school. Those machines were limited in their offerings to retrieving mortgage and tax information about local properties and property owners. The only game to play was plugging in the surnames of classmates to find out how many mortgages had been taken out on their parents’ houses. I learned about legit computers during one six-week term in first or second grade, when our class was marched along the breezeway out to the portable trailer that housed the computer lab. They must’ve taught us something worthwhile about computer commands and functions on the Apple ][e, but all I can recall is playing Word Munchers and trying to beat my classroom nemesis’ score. The goal of Word Munchers was to chomp up words with rhyming vowel sounds before getting chomped up by monster Troggles wandering onto the game board. Computron proved to be somewhat unreliable in preparing me for Word Munchers victory, but I managed to top the scoreboard a few times.
When we determined it was best — and certainly quieter and less messy — for me to identify as a Burgeoning Writer, my mother went to Sears and got me the Brother Writer Series word processor with built-in daisy wheel typewriter printer and MS-DOS compatible 3.5" disk drive. The keyboard folded up over the narrow screen and the one-piece unit was outfitted with a pull-out handle and a notch where the power cord could be wrapped and stowed, creating an illusion that the unwieldy beast could be considered portable. It sat on my desk for several years as I typed up derivative sketches about a 94-year-old woman and trite little articles for the high school newspaper. I would pretend I was the future Erma Bombeck as the chartreuse display illuminated my pudgy face in my darkened bedroom while I stayed up into the wee hours playing the monochrome version of Tetris that came preloaded on machine.
I wrote pedestrian critiques of light entertainment for the school paper long enough to get promoted to Editor. Being Editor meant consulting with the faculty advisor over which trite articles to print and then working for several weeks arranging the text around ads for churches and auto parts stores using Aldus Pagemaker on the school’s Macintosh IIx computer. Every term, I delivered the laser printed multi-page document to Lazer Copy to be mass printed by the hundreds. The staff spent a day half-heartedly peddling the paper for a quarter to students too immersed in their up-to-the-minute homeroom gossip sessions to mind about the recorded accountings of prior events. The fruits of our labour then chucked out by the hundreds, a few posterity copies shuffled off to the school library’s storage room with the rest of the great unread. Because I only had my basic word processor at home, I skipped out on many hours of classes my senior year to push pixels around on that small square screen, determined to become more proficient at computering while desperately trying to make the publication look less like the cheesy newsletter with no journalistic aspiration beyond “folks like to see their name in print” that it actually was. Despite my best intentions, The Lion’s Roar came out like more of a kitten’s yawn, but at least it inspired me to… be… something.
Then my life was ruined because of a boy. No. Let’s be fair to the boy — he could not know when he introduced me to the local dial-up BBS where he played text-based MORPGs and chatted with fellow nerds that it would unleash my inner insatiable data-consuming monster tormented by curiosity over content that was only accessible by modem. It wasn’t enough for me to watch over his shoulder while he saved text documents filled with lame dad jokes and used up his daily turns battling forest monsters in Legend of the Red Dragon. I needed to log on for myself and share obscure pop culture quotes using special characters and blinking text. So, back at Sears, I got a Brother Ensemble “personal color desktop publisher” with an external MO-700 data modem and built-in inkjet printer. In addition to dialling in to the monospaced social network, I could finally format my dreadful poetry and essays in other fonts and colours and create homemade cards and newsletters with garish clip art. That should’ve been enough to keep me occupied. The trouble was, the BBS connection tricked me into thinking I could have an audience for what I was passing off as cleverness in the mid-1990s. Who needs a newspaper humour column when the virtual message board is a squealing ping-bong away? So, did I impress strangers with breezy, pithy wordplay? Or did I resort to posting moody status updates and bitter song lyrics in my user profile as the relationship with the boy soured? Log off, you silly child!
My desktop publisher was soon replaced with a Packard Bell Multimedia computer running Windows 95. I’d naturally assumed I’d own an Apple computer. Macs were for creatives; PCs were for business and nerds. Was the universe trying to tell me I wasn’t creative or did they just not sell Macintosh computers at Sears? Whatever the case, I needed to investigate the world wide web and electronic mail and this would have to do. The BBS boy was long gone and I had no use for mediaeval door games, but was already chasing attention from strangers surfing the ’net for my brand of curmudgeonly observations and ill-informed musings. Oh, but if I could’ve just sat contentedly listening to the WAVs from the Monty Python’s Complete Waste of Time CD-ROMs. Why wasn’t that enough? Why did I have to hitch a ride on this information superhighway?
Me an’ Packy B spent countless hours — or whatever is 500 hours multiplied by the number of America Online CDs haphazardly stacked on my desk — perusing GeoCities web-sites and searching for half-remembered nostalgias from childhood on Yahoo. I lurked in newsgroups, A/S/L’d in chat rooms, ghosted IMs looking to cyber, and figuratively ROLF’d on AIM with users in my Buddy List. AOL had an assortment of general “channels” like Health and Entertainment and Sports to direct n00bs to content of interest, and within those channels were articles and chat rooms and message boards, some of which could be accessed directly via customized keywords. The Amazing Instant Novelist (keyword: NOVEL) was a community for hopeful writers to share their poems and short stories for generous feedback on message boards monitored by moderators who were also aspiring writers. Somehow I was entrusted with an official NOVL handle and assigned to moderate some of their message boards, making sure the prose complied with the TOS. I was logging in for a shift when I saw that first iMac commercial.
Four years elapsed between my clapping eyes on the computer of my dreams and settling for the next best thing in an eBay auction. I connected with an I.T. guy whose interests in LAN parties and MORPGs involved constant fiddling with PC guts. That meant mucking about with my own computer’s insides, tinkering with sound cards and logic boards, upgrading RAM, and adding new drives. Tons of tiny screws getting lost in the carpet and making disturbing tinkety-clanks as they passed through an unsuspecting vacuum cleaner. As fascinating as it was to sneak a peek into the nerdy world of computer gaming and marvelling at the limitless customization possibilities of tower cases, the whole thing wasn’t really my scene and I could not dig it. I ditched the monstrosity and started over with a fresh ’puter — which I still wound up cracking into and poking around with much frustration and little reward. Convinced I learned my lesson, I was seduced by the budget-friendly eMachine and its “never obsolete” pledge — an appealing lie with a built-in DVD drive. I’d gone through as many computers as there were seasons of NewsRadio in roughly as many years. Was I doomed to a lifetime of replacing my computer on a near-annual basis? Was the universe telling me to go back to word processors or just to log off completely? Perhaps I would’ve heeded the universe’s message had seeing Rory Gilmore’s iBook not reawakened my dormant desire, albeit slightly altered. I logged on to eBay and started bidding on my indigo blue clamshell iBook G3/300. The change of operating systems would determine whether I was serial computer killer and should embrace the life of a Luddite.
When the iBook arrived several weeks later, I was elated. Finally, I could access email the way Jeff Goldblum intended. This was not, of course, the Apple of Word Munchers yore or Macintosh of publishing past. The flat yet friendly interface to which I was accustomed was replaced with the slick Mac OS X, so hip at the time with its glossy Aqua user interface and boingy dock icons. The smooth rounded corners and dimensional graphics were far more aesthetic than the clunky, staid Windows GUI. The trade off for cool computing was its complete incompatibility with every piece of software I had running on Windows. However, I felt immensely relieved there wasn’t much one could customize; only the RAM and Airport card slots were easily accessible directly underneath the removable keyboard. Everything else was neatly arranged and secured within the lap part of the laptop. Expert repair guides show complex teardowns for the computer, showing the exact order the pieces must be removed and good luck fitting it all back in, amateur. The hard drive had been upgraded prior to my purchase, unofficially, by someone with a Torx screwdriver brave enough to lefty-loosey the 6-star screws and maneuver through the circuitry. I decided to leave well enough alone, content to once again coexist with the technology as it was presented to me. It was curtains for my Windows machine — almost.
I told myself I had to keep the PC desktop for graphic design, a hobby I stubbornly persisted in simply because I had the Windows version of industry standard software. Meanwhile, I did my work as a Proper Freelance Writer on my iBook. It felt right — the heft of the 6.7 pound laptop heating my thighs as I wrote long into the night about advertising and technology and cocktails, idly bouncing my fingers atop the flat white keys of the sproingy keyboard and fiddling with the keyboard release tabs while in deep thought about technosexuals and tropical analgesics. I cursed my coordination while navigating between apps using the trackpad and trying to align the pointer precisely to click on my selections. Predating the proliferation of downloadable apps and games, my iBook was sparsely loaded with software. No immersive games to tax the RAM and waste the day. Although, it could connect to the Internet via the internal modem and ethernet. Useful for researching topics and wasting precious hours on deadline looking at snarky weblogs devoted to television recaps and bizarre 20th century commercial art. I crammed the bulky clamshell laptop into my enormously dorky padded laptop backpack and hauled it with me on travels, desperately hoping the hotels had reliable Internet access via ethernet to check email for incoming assignments while on the road and get my fix of web comics, mutuals on my blogrolls and LiveJournal, and early forms of memes. At least I didn’t need to rack up long distance charges dialling into the old BBS.
The iBook was the snowball that started my personal Macintosh avalanche. Over the next twenty years, I accumulated an iPod shuffle, iPod Touches, iPads, a couple of iMacs, and an iPhone. My iBook fell into disuse circa 2007, when I had a greater need to do more *~∞~*graphic design*~∞~* and my boyfriend passed along his Power Mac G4 Quicksilver when he upgraded to his first iMac. I still took the iBook on trips and intended to use it for writing, but it was already creeping towards obsolescence, unable to upgrade the OS X beyond v.10.3.9 — codename Panther — and its battery barely able to hold a charge. Here in the early-mid 21st century, the iBook is almost entirely irrelevant. No webcam or microphone, no wireless Internet capability, no Bluetooth — booting it up feels like a sort of time travel. In fact, every time I start up the machine, a warning message pops up to tell me applications and files may not behave properly because its time and date is forever stuck at 7:01 PM on a Wednesday some time before March 24, 2001.
As the iBook shows physical signs of age — the plastic casing shows minor cracks, the CD-ROM bezel has fallen off and refuses to be reattached, the power cord roughened in spots from tiny kitty teeth — the urge bubbles up to tinker and mend. Replacement parts are difficult to come by. I suspect the kids working the Genius bar would be flummoxed to see such a relic in motion. So, I’ll apply another layer of double-sided tape to the bezel and hope it holds and transfer data with a barely compatible USB thumb drive. It’s still a fine little piece of technology. And at least it feels possible to repair. These new devices with their impossible to open cases and irreplaceable parts are a bane to those of a type who like to poke around inside their electronics. How nice it would be to replace a battery or add more memory to a doddering iPad? Or to be able to make a minor upgrade to an existing device so it can keep up with the iOS demands instead of buying a new one and chucking the old one in the household landfill drawer. The current system is not sustainable, coercing consumers to upgrade before its fiscally feasible because of obsolescence via software and the spooky waggling fingers warning of “this device will no longer be supported” for security purposes Some things should be easily addressed by the consumer instead of the slightest glitch triggering a panicked dash to the mall like a parent with their sneezing newborn. The steady march of progress is a full sprint, to no foreseeable end.
Maybe the end leads back to the beginning, small communities dusting off their mammoth desktop machines and dial-up modems to connect on local BBSes. Perhaps there’s a return to monospace displays where old folk can double-space after a period to the ghost of their typing teacher’s heart’s content. Or the rest of us will leave computing to the business nerds and breathe new life into printed ’zines and alternative weekly newspapers and chain letters sent through the post. Miles of fibre optic cables forgotten, left to disintegrate as metaphorical grass sprouts through the crumbling infrastructure of the poorly maintained information superhighway, which we’ll discover was just a tech magnate’s desire path loosely paved with America Online CD-ROMs. Instead of isolated influencers gabbing into selfie lenses, the attention-seekers unite at the public access television station. A new generation of neurotic middle-aged people discover their love of sweater vests.