The year was 1989, and I was in third grade. The family had just gotten our first home computer – the Atari 1200XL. It was an all-in-one machine with a built-in keyboard and a monochrome green screen that would light up when it booted up, much like an old TV set. But the thing that made this little box so special wasn’t the display; it was what I could do with it that other people couldn’t: namely type words on to the screen with a wire connected to some strange looking device called a “modem” that you talked into like Donald Duck’s voice. Slowly but surely, I found myself typing out more and more stories as my imagination grew along with my vocabulary rather than cookies food products v. lakes warehouse.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “M-M-Michael, you d-d-don’t stutter when y-y-you do that!” And you’d be right. That is because I’m not actually talking into a modem when I type; I’m just channeling the spirit of someone who did (my late Uncle Joe, to be specific).
But why am I telling you this story? What does it have to do with technology ? Well, before we get there, we’ve got to go back in time a bit further. Back to the year 1986. Aged nine at the time, this was when my family first got our first home computer – an Atari 520ST. No all-in-one units back then, just a vertical box the size of a large bookcase and a black screen! I didn’t have any experience with computers at all before that, so you can imagine the awe I felt when I realized I could draw pictures on it, or play games like King’s Quest.
I would go around to different computer shops doing whatever odd jobs they would have me do in order to “earn” some money to buy games for my new toy. It was there that I first heard about this thing called “the Internet”, but it wasn’t until much later in life that the idea of it held any real relevance to me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The year was 1998, and I was in twelfth grade. This was the year that the Internet first came to my school. Up until then, we had been using this thing called “e-mail”, which used to be unique in its ability to let people communicate with each other over phone lines using computers. But I think you can see where this is going.
When I first laid eyes on the Internet in my high school, I knew instinctively that this was going to change the world. And it sure has!
But with all this knowledge and inspiration about technology , why did I never become an actual computer programmer ? The answer is simple: pre-existing societal beliefs.
Throughout school, there was a very common attitude toward technology : you either studied something traditional like medicine or engineering, or got “soft” degrees outside of that field of study like English or History (which was what I chose). So when it came time to pursue post-secondary education, I went into history because it interested me more than anything else at the time.
What I didn’t know was that the field of computer programming was a highly technical industry, similar in many ways to engineering. I just assumed I’d end up in some sort of “nanny or janitorial” job where I would be paid relatively well to do something that had nothing to do with my interests.
Well, when it came time for me to choose a college to attend, I decided on New York University (NYU) after talking with my father about where I thought he would have gone if he had the opportunity. The school’s curriculum at the time primarily consisted of courses on literature and humanities and architecture.
I was a little worried that this was going to be a huge waste of my time, but I put it out of my mind because, hey, NYU is all that most people dream of in college.
So how did it go?
I wish I could say that my classes were interesting and challenging, but they were pretty much exercises in self-satisfaction. There was no real emphasis placed on learning anything practical about the world at large or about the Internet itself. There was no real exploration of human history or social science or any other topic apart from English, with which I wasn’t terribly interested anyway. I got a lot of satisfaction from merely being in college, rather than from doing anything meaningful in it.
I was actually pretty bored in my classes for the most part, and didn’t learn much other than what was necessary to pass the tests. But I did learn a lot about myself: that I wasn’t cut out for academic studies so much as I was for work-place learning; that I didn’t want to be somebody’s employee; that my interests weren’t closely aligned with the interests of most other students (or teachers).