Date unknown: Fred Barrie and Steven Foster launch Veronica, a tool for searching Gopher (an early online document system).
Three weeks after my college graduation, I faced the first big decision of my working life: of the two computers I found at the desk of my new job, which was I going to use?
I had already navigated a couple of equally tough choices to get to that moment. Follow my college boyfriend to DC, or hope that he would follow me to Toronto? Toronto won, thanks in large part to the possibility of working on the political staff of the provincial government. I had started volunteering for the New Democratic Party in 1984, never imagining that it would become the governing party of my own province. By the time they won the 1990 election, I had spent a string of summers working for the party in Toronto and in Ottawa, including a summer working for Bob Rae. When Rae became Premier I set my sights on working in his government, which I did the summer before graduation.
Next choice: follow through on my plan to spend the summer after graduation travelling in Europe, or tear up my plane ticket so that I could accept a great job opportunity to work in the office of the Minister of Housing? I tore up my plane ticket to take a job as the Executive Assistant to the Minister’s Parliamentary Assistant, a job that combined policy responsibilities for the Minister with political management responsibilities for the Parliamentary Assistant, herself an MPP (Member of Provincial Parliament).
So there I was, at the desk of my new grown-up job, with a decision that reflected its dual nature. My role in the Minister’s office required a PC, which connected to the ministry’s computer system. It ran Windows, and connected to the ministry’s intranet. If I need to get a briefing note or arrange a meeting with a civil servant, the PC and the ministry network were the tools for the job.
Beside the Windows box sat a Mac. The Mac connected to the network of political staff: the NDPers who had been hired specifically by the Rae government, and who would last only as long as the NDP was in power. If I need to run something past the Premier’s office, or find out about the next meeting of my fellow EAs to PAs (Executive Assistants to Parliamentary Assistants), the Mac was my hotline.
Until that moment I had lived my life as an MS-DOS girl. My family got its first computer (a Zenith) in 1986, and I took my very own svelte, 14-pound Zenith SuperSport off to college. I was no programmer, but I loved working on the computer and felt comfortable dealing with the MS-DOS command line. In fact I I was so partial to my Zenith that I rarely touched my college’s computer room VAX machines, so by the time I graduated I barely knew my way around email. I had some clue about the power of online information: my senior thesis was based in large part on searching the US Congressional Record on a Lexis-Nexis terminal, looking for clues about the identity of women politicians by looking at how Congresswomen used the phrases “as a woman” or “as a mother”. Beyond Lexis-Nexis, the occasional e-mail, and a few boring experiences checking out the odd BBS, I’d had little need for network connectivity.
My new job changed all of that. Suddenly, I was part of two networks that had different purposes and different members, differences made tangible by the physical presence of the two separate machines on my desk. And the machines themselves could not have been more different. Today, it’s easy to describe the Mac and Windows interfaces as roughly comparable, though you can count any Mac aficionado to attack the idea that Windows is just as good.
In 1992, when I found myself staring at those two machines, the differences were much more stark. Windows was just finding its way into the land of GUI, while the Mac interface was well-established and thus, more polished. I soon discovered that being pretty good with a PC, as I was, translated into being a powerhouse with a Mac. While my job involved me using each computer at least a little, the lion’s share of my work (drafting documents, writing newsletters, taking care of scheduling) could be done on the machine of my choice. Very quickly, my choice became clear: despite years as a PC user, it only took a couple of weeks to establish a newfound and permanent affinity for the Mac. Who wouldn’t prefer Mac to Windows, especially Windows 3x?
And yet I’m not so sure usability was the decisive factor. When I think back to the three years I spent working first at Housing, and then in the Premier’s Office, I barely remember the work I did on my computer each day. What I remember are the network encounters: the hours that junior and mid-level political staff spent on our internal chat network, trading rumours about impending policy changes or griping about higher-ups. I remember when the custom email template I made for my then-boyfriend ( “A Message from Your QuickMail Love Bunny”, illustrated with a rabbit) turned up in the Toronto Sun because one of my boyfriend’s colleagues had used it to circulate a fundraising appeal on the political staff network. (A verboten use of government resources.) I remember co-authoring elaborate novellas with a colleague, trading imagined dialogue via chat message. I remember jumping into a chat one day with that same colleague, who introduced me to a fellow chatter…who is now my husband.
The Mac-based political staff network spread out from the Premier’s Office to the Caucus Office, out to MPPs and through each ministry: it was the lifeline that made our work possible, not only logistically but intellectually and emotionally. We were a group of novices, thrust into positions of authority when a group of longtime sacrificial candidates suddenly found themselves in elected office. The government was under continual criticism, sharper than is even usual for governments, and especially demoralizing for a group of lefties who had idealistic hopes for what they might achieve in power. Faced with media and public scrutiny, every political staffer was all-too-aware of how careful we had to be in talking about our doubts — or even our banal, day-at-the-office bitching — with anyone who wasn’t part of that staff.
But we had each other. We turned to each other for advice on how to handle each crisis, for copy editing, for the inside scoop on the latest rumour. We turned to each other for distraction during the day, for after-work drinks, for parties on the weekend. We cried on each other’s shoulders about political disillusionment, hostile bureaucrats and inexperienced bosses; once in the habit, we cried on each other’s shoulders about boyfriends and breakups, too. And of course, we turned to each other for sex: Rob and I are far from the only marriage among former Rae government staffers.
I often think that this network of battle-tested progressives was the real legacy of the Rae government, after its conservative successors came in and dismantled many of its legislative accomplishments in a matter of months. Some of those staffers still work for the NDP; others have drifted away, refocused their work or changed their party affiliation (as Rae did himself). As former staff spread across the country into a wide range of non-profit, social justice and environmental organizations, they brought with them a new set of strategic insights and tactical lessons gained from working in Canada’s largest-ever progressive government. You fight for policy change differently once you know what it takes to run the legislative and bureaucratic gauntlet, and you approach political engagement differently once you’ve discovered that winning an election isn’t the same as achieving your goals.
The political skills honed, the friendships formed, the romances ignited: I could never have anticipated the legacies of that political staff network. It would be months or years before its members became my best friends, my lovers, my allies. All I knew, in those early weeks of work, was that the political staff felt like my people. And so the machine that connected me to them felt like my computer.
Our best technology decisions are always those that connect us to the people who nourish our minds and hearts. It’s easy to get caught up by the latest smartphone, the latest social networking platform, the new and cool online. But if it’s not the tool or community that lets you find your most adored friends or most inspiring colleagues — whether those you already know, or those you have yet to meet — then it’s not the right choice.
I might have seen that 1992 choice of computers as a choice of Mac vs. PC. But the real choice was between people, not platforms. I’d choose that same group of people again in a heartbeat, even if I had to use Windows to do it.