July 22, 2008

Reporting from the "First Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics"

Wonderful and prophetic flashback from Stewart Brand written in 1972:

S P A C E W A R
Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums
by Stewart Brand

Ready or not, computers are coming to the people.

That's good news, maybe the best since psychedelics. It's way off the track of the “Computers - Threat or menace? school of liberal criticism but surprisingly in line with the romantic fantasies of the forefathers of the science such as Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, J.C.R. Licklider, John von Neumann and Vannevar Bush.

The trend owes its health to an odd array of influences: The youthful fervor and firm dis-Establishmentarianism of the freaks who design computer science; an astonishingly enlightened research program from the very top of the Defense Department; an unexpected market-Banking movement by the manufacturers of small calculating machines, and an irrepressible midnight phenomenon known as Spacewar.

Reliably, at any nighttime moment (i.e. non-business hours) in North America hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-Death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friend and wasting their employers' valuable computer time. Something basic is going on.

An observation on Hackers (the good kind):

The Hackers
I'm guessing that Alan Kay at Xerox Research Center (more on them shortly) has a line on it, defining the standard Computer Bum: “About as straight as you'd expect hotrodders to look. It's that kind of fanaticism. A true hacker is not a group person. He's a person who loves to stay up all night, he and the machine in a love-hate relationship… They're kids who tended to be brilliant but not very interested in conventional goals. And computing is just a fabulous place for that, because it's a place where you don't have to be a Ph.D. or anything else. It's a place where you can still be an artisan. People are willing to pay you if you're any good at all, and you have plenty of time for screwing around.”

The hackers are the technicians of this science - “It's a term of derision and also the ultimate compliment.” They are the ones who translate human demands into code that the machines can understand and act on. They are legion. Fanatics with a potent new toy. A mobile new-found elite, with its own apparat, language and character, its own legends and humor. Those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology which has an odd softness to it; outlaw country, where rules are not decree or routine so much as the starker demands of what's possible.

A good insight into the culture of the time. A fun time — I was in Boston working several jobs, one of which was with a company called American Used Computers run by Sonny Monnison and Bill Grinker. They originally purchased out-of-lease IBM big iron and then turned around and sold them to companies that needed to expand their mainframe systems but who were abandoned by IBM who wanted them to upgrade to the latest and greatest. Great business plan and it made them a lot of money. They bought into the whole Microprocessor thing big-time and opened one of the first large personal computer stores int he Boston area. I worked there couple evenings/week (I was also working for a large public aquarium at the time).

Like I said, a fun time!

Posted by DaveH at July 22, 2008 09:20 PM | TrackBack
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