As a nerd born in the early 1970s, I grew up on personal computers like these. With extremely distinct, almost sculptural shapes, manufactured in various shades of beige and white, the Apples, Commodores, and Ataris of this era were irresistible. These machines had personality–something that today’s super-minimal computers lack. James Ball, the artist who goes by the pseudonym Docubyte, captures this lost age of PC design perfectly in his series I Am a Computer. “I’ve always been fascinated by that muted beige period of the late ’70s and early ’80s,” he says via email. “I was born in 1978, so I have kind of strange memories of it. I was just kind of only half aware of it–but it’s such a distinctive era of design.”
Ball is a designer, photographer, art director, and self-declared “ultimate nerd” whose obsession with tech shows through in his art, including the animations of his latest animated illustrations. “Computers weren’t huge back then,” Ball says. “They [fit] on your desktop but you couldn’t do that much with them. They were all united by the fact they were the same color, had a big clunky keyboard and a curvy CRT monitor, yet the shape was always different.” To him, these machines have an almost anthropomorphic quality, perhaps because of their oversized monitor “faces.” In a world of beige plastic, “manufacturers sought subtle distinction with both angular and sculptural forms, endeavoring to unify display and keyboard, resulting in playful, futuristic designs full of character and personality.”
Ball’s favorite? The original PET and the Holborn 6100 (pictured below). Only 200 Holborns were made, and its unusually organic design is “truly unique and really rare now.”
I Am a Computer celebrates the unique visual character of this lost era of design–and also provides a tacit answer to Apple’s 2017 commercial, What’s a computer?, which framed the PC as an almost-forgotten artifact of a bygone era. Is an iPad a computer? Of course it is. iPads and smartphones may even be the ultimate form of the personal computer, the final end product of decades of miniaturization. But the beige forms of the Commodore Pet, the Apple II, the Macintosh, or the IBM PC, as Ball says, embodied the idea of computing for a generation. It was the first time people could access the mighty power of electronics in a relatively small box in their own homes. Millions of people spent hours programming, playing, or working on these fantastic machines, which opened the door to a world that was entirely new to humanity.
Why do these computers–and Ball’s animated GIFs of them–have such a pull on me, decades later? Is it their iconic, sculptural design? Or is it the most powerful of drugs, nostalgia, felt by a generation of what Ball calls “xellenial nerds” who remember that period fondly? I think it’s a combination of the two. But ultimately, they’re a satisfying answer to Apple’s gen-Zer with an iPad Pro. What’s a computer, you say? I am, kid.