Personal Computers

In the age of mobile, what is a personal computer?

I’ve been thinking about the term ‘personal computer’ lately, and I think I’ve come to a realization about what a personal computer can be, and (more specifically) what it means to me. 

As a child, I remember when we got our first PC. The year was 1995. My mother was in college, I was a mere 6 years old. The PC: a Packard Bell with a 65mhz Celeron processor, a 500MB Hard Disk Drive, a 9” CRT Monitor with built-in speakers, CD-ROM and 3.5” diskette, all running on glorious easy-to-use Windows 95. I took to the PC like a moth to flame. It was magical. I learned to type on this machine. I recall spending hours playing Troggle Trouble and Invention Studio. Even just basic usage and navigation of the PC was fascinating to me. I even got my first glimpses of the Internet on this PC (care of a dial-up internet connection supplied by the university). The Packard Bell never was my ‘personal’ computer though - it was my Mom’s computer. Ostensibly it was for her to do research and write papers on, truth be told, I probably used it more than she did, but that still didn’t make it ‘mine’. 

As an adult, a personal computer is still a wonderful and magical device to me. Like many of my generation, I consider myself digitally native - by the time I was born, computing technology was ubiquitous, and we were fast approaching a time where literally every household had a computer. To quote Steve Jobs, computers are ‘bicycles for our minds’. With a computer you can play, create, destroy, observe, learn, socialize, and find comfort in being alone in yourself. Computers facilitate the greatest opportunities for learning and development that the world has ever seen. 

The only thing more magical than a computer is a personal computer - a machine that is truly personal, the property and domain of one person. With your personal computer you have power over and knowledge of everything that machine is. It has the applications you choose, it is configured the way you like it, it has all of your data, organized the way that your mind works. A personal computer is (for me at least) the digital manifestation of everything I am interested in, everything I know, and the way that my particular mind works. A family computer can never be that, but a personal computer can

My first real personal computer came in 2003. I was 13, and had saved up over the summer working odd jobs for my Grandfather. I was able to buy a second-hand Gateway with a Pentium III, running Windows 98. It was on this machine that I realized what a personal computer could be. It was on this PC that I learned to tinker and explore all that a computer is - both in software and hardware. During the time that I owned that computer I completely took it apart and reassembled it, upgraded it multiple times. I first learned how to reinstall an operating system with this computer. First learned what all the individual components inside a tower were. It was the first time that I had unfettered access to just sit and browse the web. It was on this machine that I first learned to cobble bits of technology together (I recall installing two weirdo graphics cards into the machine so I could run dual monitors).

Following in the Gateway’s footsteps was a custom PC. I was 14 or 15, I’d learned everything the Gateway could teach me, and I had $1000 of saved-up money burning a hole in my pocket. This time I wasn’t using someone else’s second-hand anything - I chose every part of that machine and assembled it myself. It was magic. I felt like I had superpowers. 

After the custom PC was an HP laptop, wherein I learned that a computer could be MOBILE! Now I had a computer that was all mine, and I could take it ANYWHERE! Of course, it had a gigantic 15” display, was 3” thick, and weighed nearly 12lbs, but that didn’t stop be from finding an excuse to bring that laptop with me anywhere I could. 

By then it was 2006 or 2007, Apple was really starting to make a comeback. In my elementary years I’d hated Macs. I always despised the days that we went to the iMac labs instead of the Gateway labs. Around that time I received an iPod for Christmas, and it opened my eyes up to what Apple had become. I remember watching Steve Jobs’ keynote when the MacBook Pro was announced - I was OBSESSED. I HAD to have a Mac. 

Switching from a Windows PC to a Mac changed things for me. All the PCs that I’d used or owned prior to getting a Mac, had been merely objects. Not generic machines or something I despised, but they were mostly a means to an end - a computer was merely the doorway that led me to what I wanted - whether that was a game, or a video, or just a webpage. A computer was invaluable to me, but I never loved my computers. Without any doubt, I LOVED my first Mac. My Mac taught me how to love a computer. It may sound bizarre, but I feel like I developed my first personal and emotional relationship to a computer with my first Mac (a 13” MacBook Pro). My first Mac was a leap forward technologically, and for me, macOS clicked for me in a way that no other software or operating system did. Perhaps I loved my Mac because it was the first computer I used that worked the way my brain works. 

Not long after I got my first Mac, I got my first iPhone. Finally! A phone that just worked! A phone that had compromises (lol MMS, copy & paste), but finally a phone that was designed for people like me! At that point, I didn’t think of myself as a ‘technology guy’ or a ‘computer guy’ as much as I thought of myself as a ‘Mac/Apple’ guy. 

As I grew, matured, and became an adult, I got into working at Best Buy (selling the magic of technology to others) and my love for Macs, and especially for my Mac grew and grew. After Best Buy I pursued a career in working on computers. First at a small mom-and-pop shop that specialized in Macs, and later doing internal Desktop Support at an Enterprise business. 

My time doing repair and working in enterprise really changed how I viewed computers. At this time I can say that I’m at the apex of my computer knowledge. Working in enterprise IT has more or less forced me to become far more advanced and knowledgeable than I ever have been, but it changed my perspective on computers. Working in this job, I’m exposed to working on hundreds of workstations a month, and I use 4 different computers at work for my own tasks every day. I’ve come to see computers more as a TOOL by which I may wield power than as a device that I have an intimate relationship with. I have my main Mac workstation, a portable Mac (that gets used rarely), a Windows 7 box that mirrors most of our users’s workstations, and a portable Windows 10 machine. All of these devices have specific roles, specific tasks. I will actively move between them during the workday depending on the task at hand. They’re tools, and little more. I’m not hesitant to wipe and reimage any of these machines at any time. I could replace one of them at any time with newer, different equipment. 

The equipment I have at home isn’t so different. There is a standard desktop PC that I use as an enterprise-grade firewall/router, a Mac Pro that is my media server, and a 12” Macbook. Of all the computers I interact with on a daily basis, the 12” MacBook is probably the only one I’d call ‘mine’. But truth-be-told, most of the time I use the 12” MacBook for simple web browsing and using remote desktop to connect to my Mac Pro media server. The way this MacBook is set up more-or-less mirrors the way I set up my Mac workstation at work. It’s mine, but it doesn’t feel intimate, it doesn’t feel personal. The computer that is most mine is still just a tool.

I think I really realized that computers have become tools when I got the MacBook. Opening new Macs has always felt pretty magical to me. Peeling back the cellophane wrapping, slowly opening the box, pulling out the heavy milled aluminum machine within. When I opened my MacBook box, it was rote, no different from the hundreds of other computers I take out of boxes in a year.

The idea of a computer being a tool and not an intimate device isn’t so awful though. At times I feel that I am the grand director, the general, tasking these machines to do my will and bend the universe to what I want. 

This entire line of reasoning got me to a point. Through all my history with technology, computers, and with all I’ve done with computers in my life. Today, at this moment, the computer in my life that is TRULY personal. TRULY mine, is not a computer at all, really. It’s a phone. 

My phone hasn’t always been this way though. Since 2007 I’ve had nearly every single iPhone. Ten years ago an iPhone wasn’t much more than a glorified iPod. A decade later, it has matured in ways that 18 year-old me could have never imagined.

My iPhone is the sole device in my life that is completely and totally tailored for me. For personal tasks, I use my phone more than any other device in my life. It’s the single computing device that goes with me every place I go. Whether I am at work, or at home, or traveling, my iPhone is in my pocket, along for the ride. My iPhone has all my most pertinent data on it, it has my music, my contacts, my notes, reminders, it’s got access to my cloud storage and even my media library. Of that devices I own and use, it alone is the most - me. 

Is it the most powerful or capable device I own? Of course not. Throughout a day I may find myself fluidly moving among several devices, and whenever I have a large or complex task (such as writing this long blog post) I will inevitably use one of my more traditional computers - but the device I always reach to first, and more importantly most often, is my phone. For photos, I naturally reach for my phone, I’ll even do the vast majority of my photo editing on my phone, as a touch interface is more intuitive for editing (to me) than a desktop interface. If I’m going to catch up on twitter or Reddit, I’m far more likely to use my phone than my Mac(s). When I need to type out a note - I grab my phone. Even the majority of the web browsing I do at home is done on my phone.

My phone could not be nearly as useful to me as a personal computer if it weren’t for the other devices and cloud technology in my life. I make heavy usage of cloud storage, and have local copies of all my data on my home server - this technology allows all that data and everything I work on (no matter which device I use) to be accessible at my fingertips at all times everywhere I go. My phone is special, it is my digital life available in my hands - always.

This is my phone. It is my personal computer. There are many like it, but this one is mine.


Typed on White Alps64

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