Websites to Spent Countless Hours On: folklore.org

01.02.2020

In 2004 Andy Hertzfeld created folklore.org as a place for “collective historical storytelling”. He started with the plan to add histories for different topics, but the only notes that gained traction were the ones that he had written himself. And so over the years the website became a collection of more than 100 fun little anecdotes and personal stories about the creation of the original Macintosh, mostly told from Hertzfeld’s perspective.

A recent article by Mel Magazine was titled “The Teens Who Listen to ‘Mallwave’ Are Nostalgic For an Experience They’ve Never Had”. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows Another website to spent countless hours on! coined the term “anemoia” for this feeling: “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known”. It always seemed like a ridiculous idea to me, but in recent months I have come to understand it.

Last year I read The Dream Machine, where M. Mitchell Waldrop tells the complete history of computing as seen from the perspective of using computers to “augment human intellect” — what would later become “personal computing”. The book is written so minutely and vividly, that at times it made me quiver of excitement about these unbelievable intellectual breakthroughs. And, because its story always follows its characters so closely and describes the spirit and atmosphere of their communities in colorful detail, it made me wish to be able to travel back in time and listen and take part in all those conversations and conventions. I am not sure you can read the book without feeling that way. And you should read it, if you haven’t yet!

A bit later I watched the newly released documentary General Magic, about the company with the same name. This company basically invented the modern smartphone, but failed because it was 15 years ahead of its time. Andy Hertzfeld was one of General Magic’s founders, along with Bill Atkinson and Marc Porat. The documentary is made up mostly from footage taken at General Magic during its most active years and does a great job of capturing the team’s spirit and energy. I then read Insanely Great by Steven Levy. The book, written ten years after the fact, tells the story of how the original Macintosh came to be. It’s told from an outsiders perspective, but based on many interviews with the team. Needless to say, neither the movie nor the book helped to make my case of anemoia any less severe.

So now I have been hooked on “principled people building amazing tools”-lore for a while. Though I wasn’t even born during the time that these products were created, I feel a kind of nostalgia for it. It feels so different from todays world of VC-backed and exit-focused products that are always obsessively peering at “the market” without any vision or firm ideas. Worst of all, they are celebrated for being “minimally viable” and rarely get out of this state; instead they end up being A/B-tested to death. I am fully aware that this is a very naive perspective, and yet I can’t help it — an interaction designer can dream! Isn’t oversimplifying a complex past the whole point of nostalgia?

Imagine the challenge: designing and implementing a brand new, graphical user interface, operating system, and core applications for a small personal computer to compete with the IBM PC. That’s what we were going to do with the Macintosh. Bruce Horn in “The Grand Unified Model”

And so I remembered a website that I stumbled on some years ago and was able to track it down fairly quickly: folklore.org, created by Andy Hertzfeld himself. It’s a treasure trove of short tales, mostly from the time between 1979 and 1984, that when looked at together describe the inner workings of the Macintosh project.

What I love about this site, is the way these stories are written. They genuinely feel like their only purpose is to conserve a memory of a situation, without any ulterior motives. Many of them are open ended or don’t really have a specific point they are trying to make. They are, and don’t claim to be anything but, personal recollections — something that the web seems to have been lacking in recent years. They manage to impart convictions without becoming arguments.

The attitudes, values and personalities of the designers are reflected in the thousands of subtle choices that they make in the course of their design, coalescing into a spirit or feeling imparted to its users. Andy Hertzfeld in “The Macintosh Spirit”

My favorite stories

The website

folklore.org — The Original Macintosh: Anecdotes about the development of Apple’s original Macintosh, and the people who made it (122 stories)

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