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Previously in Digital Culture:

"Portable Musings," by Sven Birkerts (September 10, 1998)
The book is the network, the network is knowledge, and soon you'll be able to curl up in bed with all of it. This calls for some serious rumination.

"The Invisible World Order," by Andrew Piper (July 29, 1998)
If digital technology is to serve humanity (and not the other way around), we'll have to come to terms with the database and all that it implies.

"The Right Mix," by Ralph Lombreglia (June 4, 1998)
Digital technology has made the private recording studio itself into a new kind of musical instrument.

"A Function Specific to Joy," by Harvey Blume (April 29, 1998)
Are we ready for computers that know how we feel?

For more, see the complete Digital Culture Index


Join the discussion in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
October 28, 1998

In the bedrooms, the arcades, and the high school computer rooms of the 1980s, kids of the Atari generation invented today's digital culture. An excerpt from the forthcoming memoir, Extra Life, by David S. Bennahum



Coming of Age in Cyberspace
THE FIRST COMPUTER I EVER OWNED sat in a brown box for ten years. In 1986, just before my high school graduation -- after a test of wills that failed to end my mother's marriage -- I walked out on her and my stepfather and went to live with my dad. When it became clear I wouldn't be coming back, my mom packed up all my possessions and placed them in a warehouse just about a mile from the Queens side of the 59th Street Bridge, creating a time capsule, a snapshot of my life. There they stayed, left to face the extremes of heat and cold, until one April morning in 1996 when I crossed the East River to reclaim them.

It was a clear day and the halls of the warehouse were dim. Silent rows of metal containers stood side by side, padlocked -- a halfway house for cast-off treasures no longer a part of their owners' lives, yet with too much history to be consigned directly to the curb as worthless trash. It was a place frozen in time, where children come to find their parents' things and parents come to leave their children's things.

My computer should have been trash, thrown into the dustbin of technological history like any other electronic appliance unable to compete with the latest upgrade, but putting it out with the garbage would have been like putting an old pet to sleep. Yet I had done just this, abandoning my old companion to fate along with the rest of my belongings.

As my mom led me down the hall of the warehouse looking for container 10C4, I wondered, Will it still work? Will the floppy disks still be readable? Will the disk drives turn on, will the computer's silicon microprocessor carry electricity from one logic gate to the next? Or will the printed circuits and solder have degraded by now, destroyed by time and the vagaries of chance -- of hot summers and cold winters expanding and contracting one vital part or another, pushing one piece beyond its limit and rendering the machine a useless heap of junk?

My mom stood before the metal door, key in hand, and unlocked the container. The door swung outward and weak light from the hallway crept in. I felt like an archaeologist poised at the edge of an ancient tomb. Motes of dust glittered in the air. I flipped on our old flashlight and an intimidating wall of boxes came into view. One by one we pulled them out, navigating among cast-off bed frames, tabletops, filing cabinets, and unidentifiable pieces of pieces, until finally we found the four boxes containing the components that formed my first computer

Holding the computer in my hands, it felt light, its design quaint -- with big keys for a child's hands and color-coded buttons. Digital watches and pagers now have more memory, more processing power, than this machine.

system. As we dragged them into the hallway, cardboard scraping along the concrete floor, I had the sensation one gets seeing something long out of mind but never forgotten. A familiar smell wafted out of one box, and even before my eyes confirmed it I knew what it was. Here was my computer, still wrapped in its old dustcover, a cheap piece of vinyl dyed a walnut brown.

Out of another box came a hinged case made of black translucent plastic and decorated with an elephant head. The day I carefully glued on that sticker with the words Elephant Memory Systems was sharp as ever. As I lifted the case it swung open and dozens of floppy disks -- large flat black things with donutlike holes in the center -- broke loose and fell out, sliding onto the floor. Each was labeled in the blocky writing I recognized as my own: Starcross, Astrochase, Sector Copier, Basic A+, Assembler, Amodem.
Related links:

The MAME Project
Old video games never die. The MAME project is "a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the history of arcade videogames via emulation." A MAME, or Multi-Arcade Machine Emulator, allows you to run the original program code of an arcade game on your own computer. This page lists links to homepages for all of the different MAME versions (DOS, Windows95, Macintosh, Unix, etc.), as well as links to MAME "fan pages," and a slew of other related sites.

Emulation.net
A site devoted to emulators developed specifically for the Macintosh. Here you can download emulation programs for a number of obsolete computer operating systems, including those mentioned in this excerpt from Extra Life.

Game Theory (FEED, July 1997)
An online discussion of "videogame culture," featuring commentary by Mark Dery, Theresa Duncan, Douglas Rushkoff, and J.C. Herz.

As I bent down to collect the spill of memories I remembered a long-ago time when I'd carefully packed this same case into my bookbag to take to Roger's house at the outer edge of Queens, an hour's subway ride on a line I'd never traveled before. There we spent an entire Saturday afternoon -- two twelve-year-olds pirating software, dual drives churning, cables connected, kilobytes of games traveling over telephone wires, through the modem and onto our disks, with Roger's mom occasionally picking up the phone, bewildered, hearing the warbling screeches and beeps of bits through the receiver and from our room, Roger's wailing "Mom!" and a whispered "fuck" from me. Redial and hope that the pirate board won't be busy, its four 300-baud modems jammed up by kids with speed dialers and a hunger for free software.

qbert picture In the days when modems cost $600 and had to be hand-programmed I'd scored a 1,200-baud modem -- four times faster than the usual modems -- from my father's office in Manhattan (where he worked building tax shelters). Most of the pirate boards had nothing to match the speed of my modem, which forced me to slow it down to 300. This was the modem I brought to Roger's. His parents, both recent immigrants, were suspicious of what we were doing, but couldn't quite identify what it was or why it was wrong; all they could be sure of was that we were maddeningly intent over some nefarious enterprise, a quiet but clearly conspiratorial look about us.

Every time Roger's father came into the tiny room we leaned in toward the small television set, its blue screen and lines of code littered with the verbs PEEK and POKE -- commands to examine the contents of the machine's dynamic memory (PEEK) or place a new value in the electric matrix that formed the abstract metaphor of machine memory (POKE). The states of these holes in memory controlled the modem and guided the incoming bits into the magnetic floppy drive, where a double rack of read-write heads were working overtime, grinding back and forth, making sounds like a cartoon kitchen appliance about to explode.

pacman picture Scattered across the floor were plastic floppies, either blank (ready for formatting, the means by which the computer neatly metamorphoses the magnetic sheet at the heart of the floppy into a meaningful array of storage locations for incoming bits) or jammed with fresh copies of the latest games. Roger's father gazed at this chaos in dismay. There was his son, hunched over the computer he'd bought because he thought it would make his son smarter, a better student, a winner in America. Now he wondered if he had done the right thing sending Roger into uncharted waters. Was this what a computer was for, to turn his son into an unruly recluse?

The grown-ups couldn't get this any more than grown-ups of other generations could get rock 'n' roll or tongue piercing or pot. We were doing our thing, hacking, and the rest of the world didn't matter. Anyway, how could parents -- or any grown-up for that matter -- ever understand something that had not been invented in those ancient times when they were young?

spaceinv picture That day I walked out of Roger's house fully loaded, two dozen double-sided disks neatly labeled, and headed for the F train, happy as hell. With floppy drives, disks, and modem snugly on my back, I was heading home to my computer to plug everything in and indulge. Here were days, maybe weeks, of new things to explore, a treasure trove courtesy of a nascent phenomenon, the Pirate Bulletin Board: usually one modem, one computer, and another kid with an extra phone line, his computer on twenty-four hours a day and a bank of disk drives ready to deal out the latest cracked software, copy protection broken -- any program ripe for infinite duplication. We did it because it could be done, and we were among the few who knew how.

These bulletin boards popped up and disappeared from day to day while others sprung up in their place. Phone numbers passed from friend to friend were posted on other boards with names like Aladdin's, Rainbow, Pat100, Spider's Web, Pirate's Cove. These boards would last until parents figured out what was going on and shut them down, or until their operators got bored or distracted by the fresh call of puberty leading them to glossy magazines with centerfolds that told of a next stage of life.

Later that night I called Roger, wanting to know if he'd tried the software: What was good, what was sick, what hadn't been worth our time and trouble? Roger couldn't come to the phone, his father said. When I saw Roger in school on Monday, he told me his father had taken away his computer. It was distracting him from schoolwork. There was more. I couldn't ever come back, his father said. I never did.

As I stood next to my mom it was strange to think of that time after so many years. Holding the computer in my hands, it felt light, its design quaint -- with big keys for a child's hands and color-coded buttons. Digital watches and pagers now have more memory, more processing power, than this machine. Yet I'd spent hundreds of nights exploring what seemed a wide world of bits; I'd lived a thousand lives, died a thousand deaths, had been both God and acolyte inside a 2-D world all my own, a 48K universe that exists today in $39 disposable gadgets. How huge that world had seemed! Cheap and omnipresent machines, so easy to slip into; they seduced us -- me and so many of my friends. We just disappeared one day, stepped into the arcades and vanished, reemerging years later as adults.

Continued ... "A rich, fantastic illusion"


David S. Bennahum is a contributing editor at Wired, Spin, I.D., and Lingua Franca. His memoir, Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace, from which this excerpt is drawn, will be published by Basic Books in November.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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