The Homebrew Computer Club where the Apple I got its start is deservedly famous—but it’s far from tech history’s only community gathering centered on CPUs. Throughout the 70s and into the 90s, groups around the world helped hapless users figure out their computer systems, learn about technology trends, and discover the latest whiz-bang applications. And these groups didn’t stick to Slacks, email threads, or forums; the meetings often happened IRL.
But to my dismay, many young technically-inclined whippersnappers are completely unaware of computer user groups’ existence and their importance in the personal computer’s development. That’s a damned shame. Our current reality may largely be isolated to screens, but these organizations helped countless enthusiasts find community because of them. Computer groups celebrated the industry’s fundamental values: a delight in technology’s capabilities, a willingness to share knowledge, and a tacit understanding that we’re all here to help one another.
And gosh, they were fun.
I wonder if we’ll ever see a rebound, the pendulum swinging back, where people who grew up in the screen age long for more personal contact and reignite the interest in these old-fashioned user groups. After the current crisis is over, of course.
Hacker Spaces are an attempt to recreate the same in-person vibe, but a bigger problem IMO is the fact that most people’s interest in computers these days is driven by money and not curiosity. This really changes the nature of the personal relationships that develop in the community and makes people more competitive, more private, and less cooperative about their innovations.
The Apple I is a perfect example. When they completed it, they showed it to their club. If it had happened today, the first instinct would be to file patents and demonstrate the finished product to potential investors.
Of course, the curiosity-driven computers enthusiasts still exists. You just have to work harder to find them.
Linux user groups and their install parties are probably the nearest thing that comes to my mind.