Growing up, there was a book that first got me excited about computers. I’d never really forgotten it, but over the years it had faded deep into memory. And fond memories they were – the book was whimsical, full of strange artwork and far-out metaphors. It really helped me – a middle-school kid in the middle of nowhere trying desperately to think big – to see outside my small world and into a universe of infinite technological possibility. I was probably 12 or 13, just starting to tinker with TRS-80s and early Apples and really having my mind opened up by these strange little boxes.
A few months ago – for some reason – that book popped back into my mind. Who was that guy? What was that book? And off I went to figure it out.
The book was perfect for beginners – of course, almost everyone was a beginner to personal computing back then – but this guy’s way of narrating the strange world really opened it up for me. His language was so colorful, his explanations so accessible, that I found myself glued to the book and returning to it again and again. The pictures and jokes made me laugh, and his voice was so authentic that the book really touched and affected me. He turned me on to the idea of phone-connected “data banks” like CompuServe, and I started a BBS a few years later.
I knew this guy had played a pivotal role in my engagement with technology at such a young age. So, I decided I wanted to find him and reach out to him, see what he was up to, and send him a note of heartfelt thanks and gratitude.
I racked my brain for more clues, took to Google, and my research finally led me to Peter McWilliams. Turns out the book was the modestly-named Personal Computer Book and first went to print in September 1982. I ordered an old copy from a bookseller and spent some time with it this weekend.
I’m sorry to tell you that Peter is dead. And if he had to be dead, I wish I could tell you it was something vaguely sensible and worthy of this guy’s place in my heart, like a high speed car crash in a Bugatti or a heart attack while having sex with two Russian models. But on the contrary. Eight years ago, Peter choked to death on his own vomit on his bathroom floor, after a federal judge told him that he could no longer smoke marijuana to keep his nausea at bay long enough to keep down his AIDS medication. The judge (George King) even ordered Peter, as a condition of his freedom, to undergo mandatory urine testing to ensure his compliance. Who among us feels this is justice?
We are all guilty in his death. Some, of course, more than others. But these barbarian policies are upheld and enforced with our money, our assent, and our power. We could change them if we cared enough. To that end, when was the last time you contacted your Congressperson or state legislator and told them what you think about federal and state drug laws? When was the last time you contributed – time or money – to an organization committed to bringing an end to these draconian policies? This shit – and make no mistake about it, we are signing the checks and the death warrants – will continue until we choose to end it.
Initially I just wanted to tell him how he affected me and thank him. But now I want to say: thanks, Peter – you changed my life, and I’m dreadfully sorry about what we did to you.