Published on 2024-01-22

There was this guy I knew in elementary school. We'll call him Robert. There's a non-zero chance he'll stumble across this one day, however remote; he'll know who he is, I'm sure.

When I was in elementary school, Robert's family had emigrated from Greece. We were in the same grade, and he landed in my class. For some reason I can't even really remember, we'd stuck to one another, and for quite a while he was one of my closest friends.

I have one memory of Robert that sticks out more than any. One day, during a free period, he went on the computer connected to the projector in our classroom and he looked up the Gangnam Style music video. In what seemed like pure computer wizardry to me at the time, he announced that he was going to hack YouTube to the class and proceeded to change Gangnam Style, the most popular video on YouTube, to have zero views.

Needless to say, I was blown away.

A little while later, he was over at my house and offered to show me how to do it. I let him on my mother's old laptop (surprisingly, I remember this thing running Ubuntu at the time, though I think that was my father's doing), and he showed me how to use the inspect elements tab in my browser.

It's pretty silly in hindsight. This sort of thing is perennially a staple of cringe culture for software developers who got into the craft at a young age. But I think the reason why this memory sticks out to me the way it does is that it was in that moment that I first felt like Computers were an extension of my will--machines I could program to do anything I wanted. Before that, all the computer was to me was a glorified video game console, or an apparatus to watch trending videos on the Internet. Now, all of a sudden, they could do anything.

Robert taught me a bit more about computers. He was not the type to reveal everything, but he gave me just enough insight to take it upon myself to learn more. I religiously watched YouTube tutorials on how to do neat tricks in the Windows command line. I took up the Khan Academy series on programming with Processing.js. One day, I started taking on bigger projects. Lots of the material I was encountering seemed to assume I was using Linux, and so I started running up against the limitations of Windows as a platform for developers. The rest is history, I suppose.

Robert told me a lot about life in Greece--particularly, that it was a sort of futurist utopia. Basically, take any outlandish idea people have ever had about what the future will look like: flying cars, jet packs, gene editing, and that was like, normal in Greece. You know the picture from that meme that's like "society if [thing I like] was [outcome I want]"? Basically that. I told my family about it one day and they found this kind of funny, perhaps in a sad way: of course, Greece was suffering from a really intense economic recession at the time. I'm not entirely sure where these stories came from; maybe his brother liked messing with him, or maybe he came from a particularly wealthy echelon of Greek society and had an active imagination. But nonetheless, his stories gave me a lot of hope for the future, in what I suspect became very formative in my desire to learn more about how technology works.

Admittedly, this future of doing eugenics on babies and inducing demand for cars by putting them in the sky is pretty toxic, but it was generally what we were taught to think the utopia of the future ought to look like, and his stories gave me the sense that we could create the world we want if we tried hard enough.

When I landed in middle school, we ended up in different classes. We still hung out a bit, but we didn't see each other nearly as often. By the time we arrived in high school, we didn't see much of each other at all, but when we did, we still got along.

One day, Robert didn't show up in class. We checked social media and learned that his family had left the province. We were surprised; it seemed like nobody saw this coming. It was a strange feeling. Robert and I were good friends for a time. Even though we weren't very close at the time, losing Robert so suddenly was a strangely hauntological feeling.

There would be lots of that in the coming years.

I owe at least 40% of my personality today to Robert and his inspect elements shenanigans.

Thanks Robert.

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