TATESJ: The Story of the Personal Computer Generation

Preparing to perform The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (TATESJ) has given Jason Compton a lot to think about. He shares his thoughts here, when he should be rehearsing…

When we started working on The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (TATESJ), I knew there were a lot of layers. I knew it dealt with the rise, fall, and rise of Steve Jobs. I knew that cycle was tied to Apple’s fortunes, and that TATESJ  connected both with the gritty realities of 21st century manufacturing. But I had no idea it was also an origin story—my origin story, and that of millions of others like me.

As I read and spoke Mike Daisey’s words about the galaxies of thought and expression he discovered in his beloved Apple IIc on a cold Maine night, I felt a shift. At some point, I wasn’t just imagining myself being Mike anymore. I was back in my childhood bedroom on a cold suburban Chicago night, sitting before my equally-beloved Commodore 64, having the exact same experiences he described. Being rewritten from the inside-out. Discovering new ways to express myself. Learning how to be a writer on a machine that would seem inaccessibly primitive to most 10-year olds today, but was among the best of its era.

The Commodore 64 was, to me, what the Apple was to Mike. That’s okay. I didn’t need to do any extra research to get where he was coming from. After all, I own an Apple IIc. It’s in my basement right now. I probably got it at some point in the mid or late 1990s, when 8-bit computer stuff was cheap. I bought a lot of “old” computers back then, stuff from the 1980s which was already thoroughly obsolete, before people understood that it might have collectible value, before the “eBay economy” took over classic computing.

I’ve fired it up a handful of times over those 20 years, booting up a disk or two that I “borrowed” from KC decades ago and never returned. So I can see and feel where Mike is coming from. (Well, everything except for the “beautiful off-white platinum finish” he fetishizes, because the Apple IIc wasn’t immune from the dread yellowing plastic that afflicts so many computers of the 1980s. Mine isn’t the worst in the world, but it’s definitely not mint.)

He experienced the IIc as an object of wonder, whereas to me it was just a nice computer I picked up for $40. But I get it. I could have been that kid, in an alternate timeline. I might have learned to type on the IIc’s nice Garamond keys instead of the slightly awkward and dubiously-angled keyboard on the C64 breadbox. I might have experienced the “satisfying chunk” of the IIc’s built-in floppy drive instead of the ridiculous banging noises of the Commodore 1541. But in a sense, the experiences were exactly the same.

Just as Mike can tell you everything about his Apple IIc, its monitor, and its hideous dot-matrix printer, so can I tell you everything about my 64, my 1541, the 1702 monitor, the equally hideous dot-matrix printer I started out with, and so on. The industrial design bona fides are perhaps not quite as strong as Apple’s, but the sentiment is the same.

It wasn’t until I read about Mike’s college experience that I fully realized what was happening—that this was my Grease, my American Graffiti, my Freaks and Geeks/Fast Times At Ridgemont High/Dazed and Confused etc. etc. That it was my origin story, and the origin story of so many of us who are “40 years old, give or take” today.

What was eerily spot-on familiar was Mike’s discovery of the pre-Web Internet, that wonderful, wild, text-heavy period of the early 1990s when a significant and growing number of business, university, and even personal computers were starting to join the permanent network we now recognize today. It was a time when, officially, using the Internet for commercial gain was forbidden. There were ways to pass images and graphical interfaces over the Internet, but for the most part, it’s easiest to think of it as being entirely about words.

Mike’s first fully networked computer was a Macintosh SE/30. It wasn’t his, it belonged to the office where he did work/study in college. He used it to telnet around the world, reaching a worldwide audience with ease that we take for granted today, but which was very difficult to explain to a layperson circa 1994, when inexpensive long-distance calling was still a pretty major innovation for most.

My first fully networked computer… was also a Mac SE/30. It wasn’t mine. It belonged to the office where I did work/study in college. And I used it to telnet around the world… and… wow.

Every generation and sub-generation and life has unique pivotal moments, when something changes in the world around them and they can say “I remember the world before, and I know the world that came after, and I understand on a deep level the rippling changes that occurred because of that one event.” For many of us born in the 1970s, the personal computer was that inflection point.

We spent some portion of our youths in a world where “computers” were a faraway abstraction that printed utility bills and had big spinny tapes. Then, almost overnight, computers were A Thing, they were A Thing You Could Own, and (for some of us) they were A Thing We Convinced Our Parents To Buy. (The more industrious of us saved up our money and bought our own, but neither Mike nor I are in that particularly accomplished category.)

And out of that subset of a subset some of us, like Mike and me and many of my closest friends, then and now, didn’t just acquire a computer. We embraced the computer. We oriented practically everything we did around that computer. It molded and shaped us and the way we approach the world, and on it we developed the skills and techniques that inform the way we live and play and make a living in adulthood.

Mike was (and, in an older, wiser, more melancholy way still is) an Apple fanboy. I was a Commodore diehard who died hard for my chosen platform. (There are still dark corners of the Internet where my name is still uttered as a curse. Well, okay, there’s more than one. But this one is one of the oldest!) But the brands aren’t what mattered. We were both there when the metaphor shifted and everything changed. And we rode the wave as far as it would take us. And so did millions of others, in ways that they probably have a hard time giving voice to.

Telling the story in TATESJ means telling the experiences of a generation that were turned on to technology and never wanted to leave it. TATESJ is the voice of that personal computer generation.

And that fact isn’t remotely the most surprising thing about the production.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, produced by Left of Left Center and directed by Jake Penner, opens August 31 at the Bartell Theatre.