u_topn picture
rub_dc picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

This excerpt appears in five parts. Click here to return to the first page.

More on Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound

Join the discussion in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
Continued from page four ...

"A different way of seeing"

In May I walked down the center aisle of the synagogue holding the Torah, wrapped in a linen shroud, and decorated with stars of David woven in gold thread. Together at the altar the rabbi and I unfurled the Torah

Computers do think a certain way, and exposure to the way computers think in turn changed the way we thought. They programmed us as much as we programmed them.

to the right passage, which I read out loud, using a silver pointer to trace the rhythm and flow of the Hebrew words. Aaron and Kenny were seated in the audience in rows of pews, along with my other new friends. Later that day we gorged ourselves on chocolate cake at my aunt's house and watched the movie M*A*S*H on television using my dad's VCR, which he'd brought over specially for the occasion.

My dad knew that I wanted the Atari 800 to play games. I consumed pocketloads of change every week. But he felt that was all right. Like me, my dad was into gadgets. He had a VCR in 1978, a monstrous steel box that weighed seventy pounds. He'd had cable TV in the sixties, when Manhattan was one of the first places in America to get wired. So when I asked for a computer, part of him instinctively loved the idea. A computer at home! He also intuitively grasped that computer games could serve as a gateway leading to something else: a productive fascination with mastery. My dad was smart that way. He wanted me to be good at something positive. He had no idea what form that would take or that I'd develop a code of my own, an unspoken set of Commandments brought out by exposure to computers.

Computers do think a certain way, and exposure to the way computers think in turn changed the way we thought. They programmed us as much as we programmed them, and thus a generation came of age experiencing not simply a new toy but a different way of seeing. These unspoken, unwritten values grew spontaneously. No one directed them. No one told Aaron, Scott, or me what they were. We just felt them. The First Commandment was that computers make the world a better place. Second, kids should have access to computers, and any grown-up who got in our way should be mistrusted. Third, kids were duty-bound to share computer information with other kids -- knowledge had to be passed on; computer secrets were a cardinal sin. Fourth, programs were owned by everyone and should be shared and improved by all. Fifth, all that mattered was your computer knowledge, not what you looked like or where you came from. Sixth, all exploration is good. If you believed in these Commandments you were part of a new tribe, what some would call hackers, others simply computer kids.

I waited four long months before the Atari came. My dad wanted to get the machine wholesale. For gadget lovers, part of the game is getting the gadget cheaper than anyone else. Paying full price is unacceptable. Thus the delay, as he worked the system. I survived. Summer intervened, and with it a return to camp, to Vermont, where away from video games my computer pangs subsided, ameliorated by the trunkload of books I brought with me and by the games we played outside in the sun. When I came home, my dad and I discussed drilling holes in my bookcase so that power cords could snake their way through and connect to the computer, which would lodge in a specially built area in the center of the bookshelf, waist-high so I could sit in front of it and play.

When the Atari 800 finally came in late September by mail, my dad and I tore open the package. Inside was a big white box. It had a plastic carrying handle on top and a picture of the Atari 800 on its side. Inside, wedged between Styrofoam pads, was the caramel-brown case of the Atari 800, with darker chocolate-brown keys and a row of orange and yellow buttons along its right side. My machine came with 48K and a few game cartridges that fit inside a specially designed panel that flipped open on the top of the computer. We snaked the cables through the shelves, lay the computer in its special spot, attached it to my color television, flipped the On switch in the back, and tuned the set to Channel 3.

The screen was blue, a rich bright blue. A phrase ran along the top in big, white uppercase letters easy to read on a screen:

I pressed the keys and letters appeared on my television set. The same letters I was typing. The Atari made a little synthesized clicking sound each time I hit a key. The Memo Pad program was etched in the Atari's ROM, firmware, proof that the machine was working. Running a game meant inserting a cartridge in the top slot and restarting the machine. Each cartridge contained a ROM of its own, and once in place the Atari would boot the program on the guest ROM, pushing the Memo Pad aside in favor of Pac Man or Combat, or whatever game cartridge was on hand. In back was a special port, a hole designed to accept a cable that connected to a disk drive. With a disk drive, an optional add-on, the Atari became more than a game machine -- it became a programmable computer. It opened a world of games, games that came on floppy disk. Games that could be saved and altered if you knew the codes. So I was doubly delighted when my dad showed me the disk drive he'd bought to go with the Atari: the one I wanted. The one I'd researched in the back pages of the computer magazines. The Percom. A heavy thing, far heavier than the computer, the Percom accepted two 5.25-inch floppy diskettes in parallel slots -- I could read from one and write to the other. Each disk stored 90K on a side for a total of 180K. We plugged the Percom in and booted up the disk marked ATARI DOS II.

An operating system.

There on my desk sat a full computer, a kind of machine that five years earlier hadn't existed. The Atari came with another cartridge labeled PROGRAMMING IN BASIC.

A programming environment.

I didn't know how to program, but I wanted to. In the magazines I read many of the games came as BASIC programs, typed directly as code onto pages and pages. Scott told me how he'd sit and type these programs into the Atari in BASIC, save them on the disk, and then have a game. He could even change the way the game looked and played by altering the code. He could give himself more missiles, extra lives, or make the aliens come down differently, changing their appearance. I wanted to do those things too; I wanted to see how games worked.

Holding my Atari instruction manual in one hand and my BASIC cartridge in the other, I was ready to begin.

Join the discussion in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound.

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.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search