2011-10-05

The Future

In January of 1984, i was a third of the way into a BSc in computing science at Simon Fraser University and happily enmeshed in a world of command lines, MTS terminals, and the IBM PC taking over the world. Back home from the big city for a semester off, i was perusing a magazine rack at our local convenience store looking for the new Byte, when i saw something different instead. Macworld magazine number 1, with Steve Jobs on the cover showing off a computer like nothing i had ever seen before.

I had regretfully never owned an Apple II up to that point, largely because the small town i grew up in had no Apple dealer but did have a Radio Shack. (TRS-80 Model 1 ├╝ber alles!) However, i knew what Apple was about, and i knew something about Steve Jobs from a bit of a profile in National Geographic of all places a couple of years earlier. Looking forward in time from that moment at the magazine rack, most likely with a large slushie in hand, it would be over a year before i actually saw a Mac. It would be two years before i had a chance to use one; three years before i was working with one; five years before i bought my first Mac Plus. But that winter of 1984, reading that first issue of Macworld cover to cover a half-dozen times, i knew that i had seen the future.

At the risk of seeming melodramatic, it would be hard to overestimate the impact that Steve Jobs has had on my life. At the points in that life when i was doing computer work, i could make pretty much any box running any OS sit up and dance. That appalling-unworkable-in-hindsight TRS-80. NewDos80 and CP/M. MS-DOS, Windows (version 3 on), the Atari ST — i ran ’em all and made them my bitch. I used to be able to write dBase code in my sleep. I could repair a temperamental hard drive controller just by hitting it with a steely gaze. People i hadn’t worked with in years used to phone me up at insane hours to get my opinion on buying new hardware. I was, in short, one of those “computer guys” — and in all my years of being a computer guy, nothing came close to the experience of working on the Mac.

My love of the Mac and my ability to make that platform sing as i had all other platforms before it got me firmly entrenched in the publishing industry, back at the point when magazines began the switch from phototypesetting to desktop publishing and my odd combination of traditional computer skills, writing ability, and design sense combined to make me the most employable person in the world for a brief, glorious time. For a long number of years, i managed to stay very comfortably on the leading edge of a philosophy of computing that Steve Jobs had envisioned and let loose on the world in 1984. Every word i’ve written since 1989 has been written on a Mac. Most of the words i wrote before then were subsequently rewritten on a Mac. Every map i’ve ever made, every book cover mockup, every home movie, every bit of half-assed audio and video editing — every bit of my own peculiar creative focus has been shaped and honed by the experience of what the Mac is. And even if you’re running Windows or Linux, as good as those systems are as compared to what they once were, trust me — you have no sense of the experience of what the Mac is.

Though their number is obviously always small, plenty of people have the unique combination of drive, genius, and opportunity that lets them change the world. I can name some of them; there are plenty of others whose contributions most of us remain blissfully unaware of. But Steve Jobs is one of a small handful of those people that i not only know, but of whom i can honestly say, each and every day:

“If not for what this guy did, i have no idea who i would be.”

In the commencement address he gave at Stanford University in 2005, Jobs said a number of things that should be listened to and reflected on. But this is the one that i’m thinking most about right now. Jobs said:
You can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
In January of 1984, i had no reason to know or suspect that Macworld number 1 would mark a turning point in my life. But i felt it in my gut. Reading that issue cover to cover, recalling even now the names of the people in it telling the story of the Mac — Susan Kare, Burrell Smith, Andy Hertzfeld, all the rest — with Steve Jobs pulling that story together to show what the future was going to look like. I felt a sense of destiny, life, karma, whatever. More than just inadvertently keeping me employed for a good number of years, more than giving me access to tools that let me be creative in the broadest, most easily accessible ways, back in 1984 when i was a comp sci undergrad a year or two away from getting stuck firmly in the status quo of systems work and SQL and everything that every other person with my ambition and skill set was stuck in — Steve Jobs let me see the future.

For that most of all, I’m going to miss Steve Jobs. But as much as i or any other lesser person possibly can, i’ll try to always keep that future in sight.