Growing Up Geek: Paul Miller

Welcome to Growing Up Geek, a new feature where we take a look back at our youth, and tell stories of growing up to be the nerds that we are. This week, we have our very own Senior Associate Editor, Paul Miller.

I remember my family's first computer vividly: it was an Apple Macintosh IIci. My dad was at work when we took the delivery, so my brothers and I ripped open the box and set it up the best we could. I'm not sure exactly what we actually did to mess up the machine, but I remember believing at that age that we had "deleted the hard drive," and it took a visit from my dad's IT guy before we were back up and running. The very first thing we did once we had a working machine was plug in the color scanner and suck an image of a bright red magazine Ferrari bit by bit over the SCSI connection. Sure, there's very little "cred" to the experience -- my first computing experience was in full color, with a windowed GUI and the imaging tools of a professional -- but it was also an incredible way to start a digital life in its own right.

I never thought of myself as "well off" growing up, in the sense that I wore hand-me-down clothes, rode a hand-me-down bike, and didn't have cable TV. But of course I was taking for granted the incredible luxury that was the hand-me-down computer. My dad worked in graphic design, and whenever his shop would get a new computer, the top designer would get that machine, and each subsequently ranked designer would bump up, leaving some slightly dated but fairly professional Apple hardware at the end of the chain for me to mess with at home.

The most memorable of these machines was the Power Mac 6100/66AV. With its video input and an early copy of Adobe Premiere, I was editing video on a computer (mostly stop motion movies) while most of my friends were still mulling over an upgrade to Windows 95. Of course, while they were all, you know, getting smart and computer savvy, I was pretty much just dragging and dropping and double clicking. I always saw the computer first and foremost as a tool for creation, and a fairly blunt one at that. There wasn't much to hack or fiddle with, it either worked or it didn't (the classic method of AppleTalk troubleshooting is unplugging and replugging the network cable), and games were always few and far between.

I had to bike down the street to the PC-filled lair of my best friend to get my game on. There we spent hours devouring shareware DOS games, with me looking on in awe as he launched programs from a command line. Sure, I could edutain myself at home with my copies of Sim City, Math Blaster, Kid Pix, and Carmen Sandiego, but in DOS land I could make stuff explode. With the marvelous power of MegaZeux you could create your own games! With emulators you could play console games you didn't even own! I obtained most of my geek affectations sitting under this friend's patient tutelage.

That was good, because in my other life I was hardly a geek, or at least in denial. To me the Mac kids would always be cooler than the PC kids. The Inner Party to the PC user's Outer Party. Everything we drew would always be more beautiful and our poems would always be more true. I was an athlete, a musician, a graphic designer, a Lego architect, and a filmmaker. Unlike those dweebs with their DOS prompt and anime and lack of fashion sense. And while I insulted my buddy's paltry quantity of RAM and even questioned the very moral fiber of his x86 architecture, I'm pretty sure I was mostly just jealous.

I wouldn't be the first the first to fall victim to this reductive exclusivity of the fanboy wars. It was only until after high school, when I was forced to buy my own PC to fill in for an ailing PowerBook that I was able to get over my bigotry. My first band recorded an EP using that PC. The large hard drive played host to a vast iTunes library that I somehow still enjoyed despite my newfound allegiance. I upgraded the graphics card and played Unreal Tournament to my heart's content. Still, as much as a tried to make up for lost time on the dark side, the PC never really clicked with me. I never figured out DOS, and I realized most of those nerdy affectations I had found myself secretly jealous of in my friend's basement weren't quite as fun when I was by myself. But I did learn something valuable about how we're Really Not That Different After All and so forth.

In the end, much like Hannah Montana, I ended up in-between worlds, living a double life: the nerdiest guy on the football field or a school play, or the pretentious kid at the sleepover who thought he was playing Pokémon ironically. (I wasn't). When I asked my mom for photos from my childhood to illustrate this piece, she made sure to point out to me that I was never a nerd, merely a cool, well-rounded guy who likes gadgets. She means it as a compliment, but I can't help taking it partly as a challenge to my very identity as a geek. I guess my question is this: does wishing you were more of a geek make you less or more of one?

Paul Miller, a self-confessed Pixel Density Enthusiast, has been writing for Engadget for almost five years. He lives in New York with his skateboard and a dead house plant. He goes by @futurepaul on Twitter.