Growing up brown and nerdy in the South.
I wasn’t quite a geek in high school, but on some level it’s always been part of me. Danny and I couldn’t have been more than nine when we started trying to make our own computer games in BASIC because our parents wouldn’t buy us the ones we wanted, and waking up at 5:30am to ride our bikes down to the soccer fields because he had a model rocket with a built in camera that would snap a photo at its apex and we thought it would be cool to catch the sunrise with it. Most of the time the lens ended up pointed in the wrong direction, though.
My family was pretty poor, but my parents had somehow fallen into owning an old Mac during their academic pursuits. When we first got it, I was really excited: it was a great platform for precisely the sorts of things children enjoy about computers, like text adventure games and Lemmings and Prince of Persia and whatever was installed on the university’s bulletin boards. I remember once crying myself to sleep after another player killed my character and stole all my gems.
I was also really fond of a graphics program called Kid Pix — essentially a simplified version of Photoshop that felt like the reckless finger-painting I did at summer camp. But whenever I felt like I’d started to make something worthwhile, I’d switch to the pencil tool. Freehand drawing with a mouse is a nightmare even today, but with the pencil tool you could max out the window zoom and the pixels would become huge, and then clicks would toggle them on and off. You could make really detailed pictures this way!
Many years later, in my high school art classes, I would learn that when done in ink this technique is called “stippling,” and I even did a couple pieces that way, although it never really clicked for me as a medium or whatever. Takes a lot more patience to do it digitally, though, because a marker will always be much faster than a mouse.
The control panel for earlier generations of the Mac OS — System 7, maybe? — included the option to draw your own image in a minuscule 8x8 pixel bitmap grid which would then seamlessly tile across the entire screen. In between games I’d taken it upon myself to make a whole slate of new images there, mostly mediocre fractal-like patterns which used the tiling effect to seem larger than they actually were. I loved aimless tweaking; I had also deleted all the default notification sounds and replaced them with my own little recordings, made with the built-in microphone, which would sound as alerts whenever my parents did something wrong, which I assumed was a frequent occurrence. I’d change them around from time to time and delete the old ones, but at least one of them always consisted of me shouting my favorite vulgarity. I got in trouble for those occasionally.
So by the time I moved from games to tinkering with the operating system, I’d developed the patience and precision required to make moderately elaborate graphics one pixel at a time. I still kind of hesitate to call it pixel “art” since that feels pretty high and mighty for something I never even bothered to save. But sure, why not? Actually the main reason I never saved any of them is because I was totally confident in my ability to make any and all of them again from scratch if I really wanted them later. Also, storage space on floppy disks was really valuable back then.
We kept that Mac for… I don’t know, something like seven years? By the end it was all but unusable; we finally got a new computer when it became apparent that I’d have no way to work on college applications. At that point I insisted on a PC, since that’s the platform that had all the games. We couldn’t really afford any games, though.
Actually, I guess I was losing interest in games, because once we had that PC, oh man, I was glued to it anyway. In particular, I’d spend hours talking to friends on AOL Instant Messenger. I was the only one among us who knew that you could set up audio alerts which would sound when your friends’ computers had new keyboard and mouse activity — the equivalent of the “so-and-so is typing” notifications you see in Gchat today — so I used to freak my friends out by always sending them messages as soon as they sat down.
Another thing I liked to do in AIM was inspired by the “head-swap” technique that I’d read about in video game reviews. Game developers used it to save resources when generating characters, mostly in fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Basically, you take an existing body and add a new face, maybe change a couple colors around on the body sprite, and presto! Ryu has turned into Ken! Scorpion has turned into Sub-Zero!
The reviewers decried it as a cop out, but I saw potential — I decided to use this same technique with a pixel drawing. One evening I drew a rough self-portrait in like half an hour, and then throughout the following year I repeatedly head-swapped that image a zillion times into all sorts of weird permutations. At one point I also had less kooky versions in which the heads were surrounded by all my favorite shirts at the time, and I’d change them out in AIM every day so the icons always matched what I was actually wearing. My friends thought I had completely lost my mind, but it was actually really easy; when I tried to explain it to them they never seemed to understand.
HEY GUESS WHAT? After we got the PC, I became pretty diligent about backing up my files. So I still have them. Here are a few:
The first one was the crowd favorite by far, but I also really like the last one because I made it right before a particularly scandalous trip to the beach. If you zoom wayyyyy in the eyes are all googly because he’s supposed to be drunk.
Within the eight pixels in the system settings grid, if you were very careful and used only one pixel for the border, you could just barely fit a tiny little smiley face. I started fiddling with the operating system configurations around middle school; by that point in my life I already sort of identified as a visual artist, though I hadn’t really taken any art classes nor discovered stippling. Being able to accurately capture recognizable iconography within those very limited boundaries made me feel like I really knew how to work with a visual space. Haha, shut up, those genuinely felt like deep and important thoughts to a twelve year old! Also, watching smiley faces explode across your entire screen was actually pretty funny. Easily my favorite bitmap.
This might not be apparent at the moment — apologies — but I was once also competent as a writer, like way back when I was in eighth grade. I can’t remember exactly what the assignment was, but in English class they sent four of us into the little alcove at the back of the room to type it up on the four little Macs they had back there. I finished mine pretty quickly, and then I got bored.
When I sat back down at my desk, the two teachers stormed over almost immediately. They were very angry; I was totally confused. They took me back into the alcove — which by now had been emptied of other kids — and started interrogating me. I was already sensitive to the fact that teachers in the late 90s were not especially technically adept, but I literally had no idea what they were yelling at me about because they could not sufficiently articulate it. After much back and forth I finally realized that they’d noticed that I’d changed the desktop wallpaper to smiley faces after finishing my assignment. I sighed in relief, and I showed them the grid in the system preferences.
“Ted Kaczynski thought he could get away with it too,” sneered the more awful of the two.
Those were her exact words, and I also still clearly remember her inflections. So they thought I was a 13-year-old cyberterrorist out to take down a rural middle school’s computer infrastructure using a smiley face desktop wallpaper virus?
I was sent down to the principal’s office. I can’t remember what happened down there, but I do remember that I was prohibited from using the school’s computers in any capacity whatsoever. For the most part this was manageable: when it came to homework or whatever, we had that old Mac back at home, and I could always stop in at the campus library if I really needed something better.
But we also had a major project looming which had to be assembled using HyperCard. I was told I would simply be given a failing grade. My family was poor enough that although we had the Mac, one hundred dollars for a copy of HyperCard was absolutely out of the question; I don’t think I even bothered to ask. (Also, I didn’t want to bring it up because I didn’t want to get in more trouble at home!)
The computers at the library on my way home didn’t have HyperCard either, and the only university computer lab that had it was on the farthest side of campus. Since it was such a hassle to get there, I procrastinated until the last couple weeks, and then I was there every day after school, scrambling to finish my project. When the lab finally closed at 10pm, I’d walk home alone.
Danny showed me how to make animations in HyperCard — you’d just set up a sequence of cards that auto-advanced and then change the image slightly from one card to the next. He also showed me how to make invisible buttons that triggered actions and could be hidden anywhere. So when I turned in my final project, it was crammed full of of easter eggs! They were mostly the kinds of things that are always flopping around inside those goofy brains kids have; some of them were things like drawings of my friends which I’d animated, but some were about what had happened with my teachers. One of those was an audio recording from the built-in mic of me giggling and saying I was the Unabomber. I can’t remember any of the others. I felt pretty confident that neither of my teachers knew how to look at the size of the project file, so I could bury anything I wanted in there if it made me feel better.
I don’t actually remember what my final grade for the project was, but I want to say I got an A? That makes for the ideal narrative structure here, of course, but also I got A’s on pretty much everything back then.
At least I wasn’t carted off in handcuffs like Ahmed Mohamed, the ninth grade robotics enthusiast from Irving, Texas who built a homemade digital clock on Sunday and took it to school to show to his engineering teacher. The teacher praised his work, after which he was immediately arrested by five local police officers who were called in by the school administration and repeatedly insisted it was a “hoax bomb.” Then he was suspended by the principal. He was wearing a NASA shirt at the time.
He’s vowed never to take an invention to school again — The Dallas Morning News
This is your education system, America. You’ve been doing this to minority kids forever; it’s not Islamophobia fueled by September 11th, it’s just how things are, and have always been. This is your America, America.
If the cruelty does not abate, we’ll need to rewire our understanding of the universe. Broadly speaking, we understand it all as a sequence of hierarchies, all the way down to particles so small that their physics can be only theoretical at best. Images are made from colored pixels. We build our countries from our children, and we build our children from days like the one Ahmed just suffered through.
These kids are every bit as American as you are; if you don’t agree, then you don’t quite understand what this place is supposed to be about. They literally recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. You won’t turn them into terrorist sympathizers with even your most spectacularly idiotic bigotry, because they have no capacity for violence. That won’t change no matter how badly they are mistreated — so please just stop— because kids are more resilient than adults, and they will always be better than you at love and loyalty. There’s no question as to how American they are; this shit just makes America less American. Maybe it has always been.