When I heard that Steve Jobs died today, I thought back to my first encounter with the Mac. As a relatively new faculty member at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay I was chosen to participate in a faculty workshop in January 1984. The purpose of the workshop was to get faculty acquainted with computers in higher education (yes, there was a time when professors didn’t have computers). We worked on Apple II computers learning how to program in Basic. That was also the January when Apple Computers introduced the Macintosh. As an aside, on one afternoon, one of math faculty brought in his newly purchased Mac to give us a demonstration of this new machine.
I was dumbstruck. This was what a computer should be! For most of the workshop we had been struggling with learning the ins and outs of a computer language, trying to accomplish relatively simple tasks like sorting a list of names. But here, in the Mac, was a tool that you could just pick up and use. All the programing was behind the screen. What the user was engaged in was not programing but work useful to his or her own needs. And, as an artist, I loved that it was visually based. You could see what you were doing. No arcane code – just click on what you wanted and start to work.
At the end of the workshop we were each asked to give some brief comments on how we thought we would integrate what we had learned into our teaching or research. I remember making the following analogy (and I think ruffling a few feathers among the workshop presenters).
What I need is a tool. A simple tool that I can pick up and use for my own purpose. What computers were at that time was a process. You had to learn how the computer worked in order to get much meaningful use out of it. If I had to learn about metallurgy and woodworking to make the head and handle of a hammer in order to use the hammer I probably wouldn’t bother. When I want to pick up a hammer and hit a nail, I don’t need to know how ash trees grow, are harvested and formed into hammer handles. I don’t need to know how iron ore is mined, smelted and forged into a hammer head. I don’t need to know the physics of angular momentum. It’s a pretty simple tool and it’s pretty intuitive which end of the hammer to pick up and what to do with it.
The Mac gave me a tool to use, not a process to learn, and I have been a Mac user ever since.
Thank you Steve Jobs (and Steve Wozniak too).