A friend once told me of his older cousin who, for the freakish act of installing a computer in his college dorm room, found himself immediately and irrevocably dubbed “computer Jon.” This happened in the early 1980s, and boy, have times changed. They’d even changed by the late 1980s, by which time Apple’s college marketing efforts had become sufficiently advanced to require the talents of Matt Groening, best known as the man who created The Simpsons. But that prime-time animated sitcom wouldn’t begin its record-breaking run (still without an end in sight) until Christmas 1989, while the Groening-illustrated Who Needs a Computer Anyway? (which you can flip through above) appeared earlier that year. Back then, readers might well have known him first and foremost as the creator of the satirical alternative-weekly comic strip Life in Hell, which had debuted in 1977. One of its stars, the hapless but good-hearted young one-eared rabbit Bongo, even made his way to Apple brochure’s cover. Though computers themselves had long since come to dominate America’s campuses by the time I entered college, he and Groening’s other now-lesser-known characters did do their part to prepare me for academia.
I refer, of course, to School is Hell, his 1987 Life in Hell book offering sardonic primers on each and every phase of modern education from kindergarten to grad school (“when you haven’t had enough punishment”). Groening’s pages in Who Needs a Computer Anyway? read like a less sharp-edged version of those cartoons, following Life in Hell’s signature “The 9 Types of…” format to present the reader with their nine types of future college classmates, from “the stressed” to “the technoid” to “the unemployed.” Between these, you can read Apple’s pitch for why you’ll find a piece of equipment still somewhat outlandish and expensive so essential to every aspect of your college career. Though dated technically — the text mentions nothing of the internet, for instance, which this generation of college students would sooner drop out than do without — it nevertheless underscores the design virtues of Apple computers — an intuitive interface, application interoperability, “everything you need in one small, transportable case” — that remain design virtues today. It also displays an impressive prescience of the personal computer’s coming indispensability, a confident prediction that, if not for the slacker’s levity lent by Groening’s hand, might, at the time, actually have sounded implausible.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.