A Tale of Two Computers

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Had a major nostalgia kick (the funeral of Margaret Thatcher maybe?, the new Liberace biopic on HBO?) and ordered a Commodore VIC-20 on eBay. That’s right, the 5K RAM superstar that introduced millions of kids in the early 1980s to PEEKs, POKEs, GOTOs, and the rest of the colorful verbal arsenal of the BASIC programming language. I could have gotten a Commodore 64, but Bill Gates apparently said at the time I’d never need that much memory.

Fast forward thirty years later to a world in which your thermostat has more computing power than the space shuttle did back then (at least apocryphically). On the one hand, the change is staggering, on the other hand, we are still, broadly speaking, in many of the same user experience metaphors and input conventions that existed in the early days of home computing–except now you don’t have to generate that experience yourself and the input is virtual. To be sure, UI has proceeded to the point where there is no ‘programming’ at all, compared to the arduous run lines that probably appealed to much the same crowd that liked to draw dungeons on graph paper:

Poking away in my VIC-20 user guide.
Poking away in my VIC-20 user guide.

A Theological History of User Experience
Remember Umberto Eco’s famous quote on the difference between Macs vs. PC from the early 1990s? Today it’s more of a historical summary of the evolution of user experience:

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the kingdom of Heaven — the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.
DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.
You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It’s true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions: When it comes down to it, you can decide to ordain women and gays if you want to.

And machine code, which lies beneath and decides the destiny of both systems (or environments, if you prefer)? Ah, that belongs to the Old Testament, and is talmudic and cabalistic.

Still the best expression of what life was like in the PC/BASIC days. I’d better check my GOTO lines again.

Sean Ketchem Avatar

About the author

I’m Sean Ketchem, living in Berlin with two passports, two cats, and a fascination for history and culture.

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