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Huddled together in front of Kenny's desk, we played games he'd bought for the Trash Eighty. The machine had no color, and the sound was lame; Kenny's games weren't impressive. Worse, his mother wouldn't buy him more games. She wanted him to use the computer for serious things like typing, math, and spelling. One afternoon when we were taking turns at a game Kenny's mom came into the room and said to Kenny, "How much longer are you going to sit in front of that thing? Why don't you go play outside?"
"Ma," Kenny said, "I'm busy."
"Oh!" his mom said, "too busy even to listen to your mother?"
Kenny kept playing.
"Look at me when I'm talking to you, young man! Too busy for your own mother?"
When Kenny's mom got mad her voice became very high, almost shouting. I started to squirm.
"I want you two to go outside and play. Now! Do you hear me?"
"Ma. LET ME FINISH MY GAME FIRST!"
Kenny's mom started to twitch like she was about to smack him. Uh-oh, I thought, starting to roll out of the way on my chair as his mom strode forward toward Kenny, and before I could duck she'd reached over and unplugged the computer.
"That's it," she said. "No more computer! You're grounded for a week."
"But Ma -- "
"You want two weeks? You want me to call your father?"
Here you could do more than just consume what adults passed down to you, cash registers ka-chinging in ecstasy. For every pocketful of quarters dumped into an arcade game and every preadolescent savings bond cashed in for a home computer, somewhere a kid programmer was writing code, making software, and passing it on to friends at school, or -- if the product was good enough -- getting it brokered through one of the grass-roots cooperatives formed to distribute software, later known as "shareware." An enterprising kid could write a program, give it to a co-op who would distribute it for free, and if so moved (as a kind of honor system) ask for $10 or $15 to be sent by mail. Two contradictory interpretations were made by the media, which looked at computer programming and video-game addiction with puzzlement. The first was one of initial protest -- kids were rotting their brains on mental junk food and becoming video-game truants; arcades were swamps of iniquity, breeding grounds for vandalism and nihilism. The second was a tale of superbrains, uberkids with great round glasses, faces basking in the late-night glow of a monitor, coding. Both tropes were linked to the same root: these kids were amoral addicts. Videojunkie just wants a fix and cares little about anything else -- except perhaps pizza. Superbrain's addiction is the thrill of power. Where Videojunkie thrives on a high score, Superbrain thrills at the idea of hacking into NORAD. He's unstoppable because grown-ups can't think like he does. We are at the mercy of his mood. Maybe he'll bring down the national telephone network today ... or not. Such images bore little resemblance to what many of us experienced -- the thrill of pioneering.
As computers entered our homes we were defining a new culture through gleeful experimentation, one that with the Internet in the 1990s would become dominant, capturing as much attention as did rebellion in the 1960s or jazz in the 1920s. Yet where the latter movements began from the top with supremely talented individuals and trickled down, digital culture began at the bottom and trickled up, starting in cramped bedrooms like Kenny's and moving upward from kid to kid until it colonized the outside world. Propelling its movement were two factors: the availability of new technology and our natural desire to grow up into men. For boys going through the transition from teenager to adult, we wanted what previous generations wanted -- to be different from our parents, to have separate identities. In the computer we found a devoted accomplice. We could help define it while it helped define us. For a generation in which everything seemed to have been done before, what was there left to do? Drugs were done, music was done, street revolution was done. Everything seemed old. Except this. Together, computer and kid co-existed in a golden age, a time when the machine was available to us unconcealed, stripped to its component parts, when adults barely understood what we were doing and the outside world did little to interfere with our probings and pokings. For the Atari generation the evolution of the machine briefly matched that of our adolescent selves, becoming a vessel and partner, a co-conspirator in our mutual coming of age.
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.