I am very near the end of Wil Wheaton’s updated/annotated memoir Still Just a Geek, which I bought over the summer on a short family trip. I have lots of thoughts—most of them positive—about the memoir and may write a bit more about it once I finally finish. For now, though, since I wrote last week complaining about companies like Apple and ClassDojo restricting hardware and software to support their bottom line at the expense of users, I was struck by a short passage Wheaton included making a case for general purpose computing:
When I was ten or elevn, my parents bought our family a personal computer. It was an Atari 400. It connected to our television, used a membrane keyboard, and was outfitted with four kilobytes of RAM. As a simple point of comparison, the document I ended up with when I finished writing this talk was thirty-five kilobytes. Yes, a single word processing document was nearly nine times larger than the RAM that made our entire computer come to life.
But the thing about that computer is it would do whatever I told it to do. It was limited only by its memory and how clever I was as a young programmer. There wasn’t a marketing department locking down features so they could sell them to me as in-app purchases. There wasn’t a deliberate crippling of the computer’s inherent capabilities so the manufacturer could sell me additional features once I paid to have them unlocked. There wasn’t even an Internet to connect to, so the manufacturer couldn’t demand I connect to a server somewhere to authenticate some DRM scheme.
In other words, we owned that computer, in every sense of the word, and whether I wanted to copy a game program out of a magazine, create my own from scratch, or even play a cartridge-based game like Pac-Man (which was so much better on the 400 than the 2600), it did what I wanted it to do. My imagination was the only thing that limited me, because in those days it was a real challenge for a ten-year-old to max out 4K of RAM.
Wheaton is really channeling Cory Doctorow here; in fact, he namechecks him elsewhere in the speech this is taken from, and I now get why Wheaton has a cameo appearance in Doctorow’s Homeland. As I often do when I read Doctorow, I think we ought to acknowledge some practical limitations to this kind of boundless nostalgia for the past. I deeply respect Doctorow’s argument for why he’ll never use an iPad, but I think there’s room for a computer like an iPad in a world where 88-year old grandmothers are using those computers. To get everyone to be able to use computers like Doctorow and Wheaton do, we need to give people a lot more experience and education using full-control, general purpose computers. I’m not opposed to that education, but as computer science education stands now, it’s not about digital rights or user empowerment, it’s about producing a pipeline of tech workers for tech giants.
All of those hedges aside, I think we need to hear more voices like Wheaton’s and Doctorow’s. I think we need to empower computer users so that they don’t accept limited purpose computers. There’s value in this optimism, and there’s a lot of danger in not fighting for it everyday.
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