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"A rich, fantastic illusion"

In anticipation of my Bar Mitzvah in the spring of 1981 I studied the Torah and the back pages of the mail-order computer catalogues. Both evoked a strange new world of arcane symbols. Each offered the tantalizing possibility of uncovering knowledge buried behind a confusing new lexicon. Aleph, Bet, Gimmel. RAM, ROM, byte. The Torah is the heart of Judaism, our Hebrew teacher told our class of a dozen boys and girls as we slouched in our seats on a Sunday morning wishing we could be anywhere but here. It is the word of God, passed from generation to generation over several thousand years, that gave us our identity and religion. What is holy, above all, are the words, words that could be carried on paper or in our minds.

The Torah is our collective memory, the story of how Judaism came to be; it serves as shared software, booted up through study and reading. The Torah is an algorithm, code with specific instructions for living life. An operating system. So long as we copy the system uncorrupted, verbatim, and pass it

These machines weren't for work, they were for play, for exploration, for adventure. What they were for was not up to marketing experts and advertising agencies to decide; it was up to us.

forward through time we retain the core of Judaism. Studying the Torah, though, did not give me the same satisfaction as studying Antic, A.N.A.L.O.G., Softside, Compute!, Joystik, or Electronic Games -- magazines I gathered after school and laid about my bed. I read and reread which home computer did what, gleaning from these pages the outlines of hardware, software, programming, and another fantastic symbolic world waiting for exploration. My printed copy of the Torah, a small bound volume, was a chore to retrieve, and my memorization of Hebrew vocabulary words a calvary best done in haste in the back of the school bus at the end of the week. Discerning the relative benefits of the Apple II, Atari 400, Atari 800, TRS-80, and Commodore 64, comparing hi-res monochrome to lo-res color and floppy drive to tape drive was a pleasure, a joy. At stake here was the ultimate question: Which computer would I choose?

In 1981 there was a swarm of competing home computers, each incompatible with the others. Of these brands only four companies succeeded in attracting substantial numbers of followers; like new religions, each vied for dominance. Each came with its own code, a particular philosophy of computing. For those who lusted after one, the machine's style and substance were embraced as a reflection of ourselves. Just as kids two generations earlier had lusted after particular cars, each with its own internal logic of cool that said "this is who I am and what I stand for," and just as the generation after that had followed different musicians and sounds, so we followed different computer makers.

The four companies with substance and verve were Apple, Atari, Commodore, and Radio Shack. Boys who came to computers through electronics wanted an Apple. Boys who came to computers through video games wanted an Atari. Boys whose parents wanted them to have a "serious" computer got a Radio Shack TRS-80. The Commodore 64 was a graphics machine too, but I didn't know anyone who bought one. In the far distance was a new computer, the IBM-PC, released in April 1981. That machine was not for kids. It was for grown-ups, and none of us ever dreamed of owning one. There was a purity to the market, driven foremost by the exuberant joy of hobbyists and children. It was untamed, undisciplined by serious uses such as accounting and word processing. These machines weren't for work, they were for play, for exploration, for adventure. What they were for was not up to marketing experts and advertising agencies to decide; it was up to us -- the millions at home who took to programming, turning what once had been the arcane art of scientists and graduate students into a nationwide pastime.

By the end of seventh grade I'd made several new friends, kids whose sense of daring was winning at strategy and video games, or discussing the merits of different war movies, guns, and explosives. Most important, several of my new friends owned home computers. Kenny, Aaron, and Scott acquired machines in seventh grade. The TRS-80 for Kenny; the Apple II for Aaron, and an Atari 800 for Scott. As seventh grade waned I studied each machine judiciously, comparison shopping, feeling the energy, searching for the one that would match my own imagination.

The dream that lured me to computers was the fantasy of parallel universes, of an escape into a reality that could be animated and made real by a computer. I wanted one that could draw beautiful worlds, create vivid lands for me to explore. The ur-fantasy my friends and I shared came from science fiction: the scene in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca play chess as their spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, races toward the hidden rebel base. The chessboard is circular and the pieces are miniature three-dimensional holograms of monsters, walking, alive. Luke moves a piece to take Chewbacca's and it hops over an ugly orc or troll, landing in an enemy square and killing its opponent with one hard blow, blood lust on its face. That moment evoked the rich, fantastic illusion we so desperately dreamed our computers could craft. No such machine existed then (or now); but the desire to weave realistic illusions remained, sated by what we could have: 8-bit graphics, 255-bit monsters built of tiny two-dimensional rectangles, pixels on a screen.

I was a graphics junkie. What I cared about most were pictures, drawn fast and beautiful. I wanted a machine with color, sound, and speed. I wanted a machine whose graphics mesmerized. Graphics, like a book or film, created the illusion of another world. Well-done graphics, like a well-done book or movie, suspended disbelief and brought us out of our bodies into a new place. This was why I sought out my first computer. Which could make the best worlds? Which would take me there fastest?

Continued ... "The Trash Eighty had its charms"

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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