An Ode to Computer Shopper

The Vogue for nerds at the beginning of the personal computing era.
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Harry McCracken, a tech writer with a memory, brings word that PCWorld, his long time employer, has exited the print magazine business, leading him to declare "the era of computer magazines ends."

If that's true, and I think it is, then I must offer a few words on behalf of my personal favorite from the era: Computer Shopper.

Computer Shopper was like Vogue or Vanity Fair for nerds: You read it for the ads. Which it was filled with. Come to think of it, I'm sure they ran articles, but I don't think I ever read one. And yet it was thick, like a phone book, and you could find a whole world of PCs and components inside. 

If you never saw it, you probably can't imagine the number of advertisements for every single computer thingie that appeared between its covers. The magazine, more than any article could manage, showed you the crazy sprawling world of personal computing. For a kid like me out in Washington, it meant that I wasn't alone in my fascination with the falling price of RAM. The names of the companies from back then are like the scent of a grandma's pie for somebody else. I know Micron remains a real company, but for me, the name is charged with the lightness of my youth, and the mystery and contingency of all that came after. The quarter-page ad, the desire for a new CPU fan, PE, the smell of a gym, Muggsy Bogues, hemp necklaces, my Doc Martens and jean shorts, the wonder of making out against the brick wall behind Mr. Bennet's class. (See: Micron! That takes me back.)

Without even noticing, pulling that tome onto my lap over the years, I started to acquire the feel for Moore's Law, which says that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double every year and a half or two. In that formulation, it's hard to wrap your head around the implications, but as a kid, when you have very little disposable income, it meant that everything got cheap quickly. What was hopelessly out of reach when the school year began might be something you could buy by Christmas break or summer. Looking around, this was not happening with toy prices or (later) car prices. Computers were special this way.

The other thing I used to do back then was wander the aisles at CompUSA at the agglomallation of big box stores in Jantzen Beach, Oregon (yes, I made that word up). Inside every box was a new capability. I distinctly remember the photo-editing tools you could buy to warp and distort photographs. One made all pixels manipulable like thick oil paint. Computers could take things that were rigid and make them viscous, wobbly.

Of course, this was all before I had any real sense of technology as an object of study, or the ideas that could be smuggled inside these machines. It was a time of pure enjoyment, thinking how I had as much computational power as the people who sent men to the moon, if only I could learn to use it.

I'm sure kids nowadays have similar experiences. But I suspect they are different in two key ways. One, I grew up in a mixed analog-digital time, part of a transitional generation. I took film photographs and scanned them. I dialed in to local BBSs because of long-distance telephone call costs. I mean, I read print magazines about computer parts. The digital world was in the process of being created right inside and on top of the preceding analog infrastructure. Recall the modem noises of yore: "What you're hearing is the way 20th century technology tunneled through a 19th century network."

Two, while communication was a part of my teenage years, standalone computing formed the core of my computer experience. The fundamental thing was what you could get *your computer* to do. The computing world of my youth was not about making the world more open and connected. Sharing was tertiary. Computing was a solitary, painfully nerdy experience, even in the early days of the Internet. Getting two or three non-spam emails in a day about some project you'd been working on for months? That was huge!

Now, one's friends are everywhere one looks. People don't talk about transistor counts doubling, but user counts doubling. It's a different kind of digital nativism, if that term was ever really worth anything.

So, goodbye PCWorld, goodbye Computer Shopper. May dissertations be written about you some day.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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