On my modern MacBook Pro, a million things are happening at once. Mail retrieves email, sounding regular dings as it arrives. Dispatches fire off, too, in Messages, in Skype, in Slack. Attention-seeking ads flash in the background of web pages, while nagging reminders of Microsoft Office updates bounce in the dock. News notifications spurt out from the screen’s edge, along with every other manner of notices about what’s happening on and off the machine. Computing is a Times Square of urge and stimulus.
By contrast, the Macintosh SE just can’t do much. It boots to a simple file manager, where I face but a few windows and menu options. I can manage files, configure the interface, or run programs. It feels quiet here, despite the whirring noise. At least it’s literal noise, in the ears, instead of the ethereal kind that bombards my faculties on the MacBook Pro.
There aren’t many programs worth running on this old machine, anyway. I installed Pyro, a popular screen saver of the era, and Klondike solitaire, as if I couldn’t distract myself with my iPhone instead. Even within the programs that made people spend money on computers, simplicity reigns. I’m writing in Microsoft Word 4.0, which was released for this platform in 1990. More sophisticated than MacWrite, Apple’s word processor, the program is still extremely basic—the only reason I chose Word was so I could open the file on my modern Mac to edit and file it.
There’s not much to report; it’s a word processor. A window displays the text I am typing, whose fonts and paragraphs I can style in a manner that was still novel in the 1980s. Footnotes, tables, and graphics are possible, but all I really need to do is produce words in order, a cruel reality that has plagued writers for millennia. Any program of this era would have afforded me the important changes computers added: moving an insertion point with the mouse, and seeing the text on-screen in a manner reasonably commensurate with how it would appear in print or online.
In fact, the only feature that’s missing, from a contemporary writer’s perspective, is the capacity to add hyperlinks. That idea had been around for a couple of decades by the time the Macintosh SE came out, but Tim Berners-Lee wouldn’t develop the first web browser until 1989, a year after this computer was manufactured and a year before this copy of Word was released. Of course, it doesn’t matter much, since I can’t go online with this machine (at least, not without adding a modem, and software that wouldn’t become available for another half decade or so).
The many writing tools that today promise to encourage focus and attention are just racing to catch up with a past three decades gone. Programs like WriteRoom and OmmWriter promise a spartan, distraction-free brand of productivity that was just the standard way to write on computers in 1989. Even the keyboard that came with this machine leaves out the extras: No function keys or other extras adorn its surface, which only exists for inputting text. The primitive screen also makes a difference. Today’s internet addicts sometimes set their devices to monochrome to make it less tempting to pick them up. But this Macintosh screen is already black and white, which solidifies its role as a tool for me to use rather than a sink for all my time and attention.
Via The Morning News