Hide the Geek
from Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace
The mainframe in the science center at Harvard filled a room three times larger than the old computer room at Horace Mann.
Through the glass I could see the elite users, the system managers, loading great spools of mag tape and tinkering with racks of modems. I stood in line with twenty other freshmen, idly watching as we waited our turn to take "the computer part" of our mandatory Quantitative Reasoning Analysis test, or QRA.
Like Horace Mann's administrators, who years earlier decided to invest in a computer curriculum, by 1986 Harvard administrators grudgingly acknowledged that knowing something about computers was now necessary for well-rounded graduates. In the 1980s algorithms, in simplest form, had joined Shakespeare as part of the canon. The QRA was Harvard's way of demonstrating this: by testing our ability to build a conditional loop using an IF-THEN statement and a GOTO statement in BASIC. I secretly was looking forward to this silly test. I hadn't programmed in almost a year and I found myself missing it. Even a little IF-THEN statement would be fun to write.
Sitting at the terminal, the familiar monochrome pulsating, the comfortable feel of a keyboard under my fingers, I started to code, following the simple questions on the paper beside me. In a few minutes I'd built all the loops they wanted and passed the test. I'd come to Harvard thinking of majoring in computer science. As I walked out of the room I decided to investigate the possibilities. Paul Hilal, my idol at Horace Mann, was now a junior at Harvard. I decided to call him up. The great gulf of two years in high school was foreshortened in college, and Paul felt more like an equal than an untouchable.
Over a beer the next day, seated in a dark pub filled with wooden booths, the tables gouged through years of students having carved their initials, we talked about old times. "I have my own company," Paul told me. "We design software for studying the effects of drugs on the nervous system." Paul worked with his brother, and their clients were mostly pharmacologists and neuroscientists. They were selling thousands of dollars' worth of software, but it was difficult. Paul worked insane hours, between his business and his classes. It seemed natural though -- that he would use his computer skills to build his own company. Paul was twenty, but already he had the wisdom of a seasoned businessman.
"You know," he said, "this is it. Everything is going to be computerized. The whole world is going to be using computers. We have something. We can get in now, and be part of this. I mean look at Bill Gates. He dropped out his sophomore year to start Microsoft. He found a niche. We can too."
"So what's going to happen with your company? Are you going to drop out of school to run it?"
"No. It's not the right kind of niche. It doesn't scale well."
I didn't understand what he meant.
"Medical equipment," he explained, "requires too much customization for each user. The more people buy my software, the more programming I have to do. What you want is a product that can work off the shelf, so as demand grows, all you have to do is ship, and ship, and ship more disks." We batted around ideas for software that would scale, and this led to a discussion about the future.
"One day," I said, "we're not going to have personal computers anymore. We're just going to have these fiber-optic networks, and everything is going to come through there. And we'll be able to broadcast too. It'll be like having as many television stations as there are phone numbers. We'll all become TV producers."
Paul told me about a program at MIT called the Media Lab that had begun thinking about this. He said that Amy Bruckman, the only girl Super User at Horace Mann, had gone to MIT. Maybe, I thought, I could do something like that at Harvard. Study culture, history, and computers all together, and build software related to that, whatever "that" is.
"You could try the history and science department," he said. "Maybe you could do some kind of independent study through them." Drinking my beer, I thought this sounded like a great idea. Study the best things in the world to study -- history and computers; why not?
"Computers are not a science," the department advisor said to me as I sat in her tiny office in the history and science department. "Computers are part of engineering, and engineering is not science. Science is physics and chemistry. And in some cases biology. Students in our department are expected to choose one of these three scientific areas."
"But can't we make an exception? I mean, computers are ultimately philosophical machines. They are based on logic. Isn't logic part of science? And math?" I suddenly realized that no one had ever asked this woman these questions.
She smiled, shifted around in her all-beige suit, and gave me a look that said "Freshman, you are not worthy."
It was like seventh grade all over again.
"Perhaps," she said, "You should go to MIT. There you can study computers the way we study science."
"But what about the history? MIT doesn't have the history departments Harvard has. The point is to integrate the two."
"Well, you can't do that here."
As I walked back to my dorm I thought about the second derivative and how all of this related to it. In calculus the derivative is a value that explains the rate of change of an object through time. For instance, a graph of a car accelerating from 25 miles an hour to 30 miles an hour has a derivative. The first derivative is the actual rate of acceleration -- how fast its speed is changing -- which helps us understand what the car's final speed will be. The second derivative, though, is much more interesting. It's the rate of acceleration of the rate of acceleration: the part that tells us whether the car's acceleration is about to change from, say, "fast" to "faster."
If computers colliding with culture was an idea accelerating into public consciousness, then my meeting with the advisor had been about whether we both agreed on the second derivative -- the hidden value that showed how fast computers were breaking out, leaping beyond the pond of engineering into the ocean of culture. There was no doubt in my mind that the second derivative was banking along an exponential growth curve, headed straight for infinity. In 1986 the symptoms of such change were far less perceptible than from today's vantage point. Computers had made a small leap, out of math into business, with a much-maligned detour into video games. These could easily be dismissed as "video nicotine" for the kiddies, craftily delivered to produce maximum addiction and idea-cancer in attention-deprived teenagers, whose emotional retardation is caused by lack of human contact.
For that woman in her cozy office, with her Harvard letterhead and stacks of typewritten letters, I was one of those video-game kids, washed up on the beach of the academy, disoriented, grappling for the familiar.
Despite my disappointment I could see telltale signs of a change ahead. At Harvard and other elite colleges kids were lining up to buy computers. Two years earlier Apple had released a new machine -- the Macintosh -- and at Harvard we all received flyers from the company offering a 30-percent discount on their machines. My class, the class of 1990, was the first to attain the stratospheric statistic of 90 percent: Ninety percent of our freshman rooming groups, the school newspaper reported, had at least one computer among them. Much of this had to do with the Macintosh, which like some fecund genus of plastic mushroom seemed to sprout up everywhere -- under piles of papers on messy desks, shoved beneath beds, between piles of dirty laundry, smeared with fingerprints, soda stains, and bumper stickers.
The Mac did what no computer had done before -- it made the artificial barrier between humanities and science disappear. It was all right for an English major to own a computer, if it was a Macintosh. That's because the Macintosh was designed for writing. And for the first time, kids who'd sneered at the geeks in the computer room, who'd looked down at computing as a vile nerd enterprise, lined up to get their 30-percent discounts. For weeks my roommate waited to get his Mac. The machines were oversubscribed and the dealer had run out. New orders took a long time to arrive, so that by the time my roommate came back carrying a big box with the word Macintosh on it we'd all become curious -- all five of us in our rooming group.
I'd seen Macs before in Manhattan computer stores, but I'd never had the chance to do that quiet, private thing with a new computer that I liked to do, when no one was looking. It's like heavy petting. Or an autopsy. I like to fondle a new machine, strip away its layers, get down to the core and see what's inside. Any computer will have its top level of operating system and user interface: seeing how that connected to the inside of the machine by taking the time to investigate, to probe, can't be done in the showroom of a Midtown store with sales clerks hovering and customers behind you, waiting their turn at the machine. When my roommate brought back his Macintosh we crowded around as he set up the machine, which wasn't difficult: all you had to do was plug it in and connect the keyboard and "mouse."
Where's the operating system? was the first thing I thought as I stared at the Macintosh's screen. Where is the system?
There's no operating system on the Mac. Then I understood, with a mixture of bliss and disgust, that the interface is the operating system! You can't "go" deeper. This machine wasn't built for programming. It was built for using programs. It was a weird, disorienting feeling, seeing a machine that's so beautiful yet so remote, so secretive, that I couldn't get inside it. Later that evening I sat down with my roommate's Mac when no one was there and played for a while. The "icons" were beautiful. The "mouse" was intriguing. The fonts, onscreen, were extraordinary. I could actually see what my paper would look like when it was printed.
But beneath these jewels lay a great gray void. Where the computer used to be, there was nothing. You could use this Macintosh -- no, you could master this Macintosh -- without having to understand how it worked. Magic, beauty, metaphor had replaced the tactile thing, the sinews of logic gates and charged electrons. I remembered the IMSAI 8080, with its front panel so deliciously close, and my Atari with its PEEK and POKE commands, thrusting me right into the stack, the very core of the machine. How far away and useless that knowledge seemed as I sat in front of the Mac.
On the surface the Macintosh appeared to represent the triumph of the ideals of a collaborative man-machine symbiosis that began in the 1960s, when computers created the first hacker cultures in universities. Here was a machine designed to "augment" our intellect through easy yet powerful software applications. Clumsy draftsmen now could draw perfect shapes with MacPaint. Poor typists could produce immaculate, professional-looking documents. Spreadsheets could transform even numberphobes into bean counters. The Mac widened access to computers by standardizing the operating system with a consistent visual look and feel, what people would come to call a graphical user interface.
There was something vaguely psychedelic about the machine, and New Agey. Advertisements for the Macintosh were illustrated with high-quality computer graphics and "bit-mapped" fonts that looked on screen similar to what they looked like on paper. The ads implied that Macintosh was a better tool, a sharper, finer instrument than an MS-DOS machine. Macintosh was about self-expression rather than brute force calculation, like the IBM-PC; it also was about individualism and self-discovery. Here was the shaman with a "happy Mac" face on the startup screen: guide to understanding, enabler of creative dreams.
Although at that time I couldn't put my finger on why I was so disappointed with the Macintosh, I later came to realize what was missing was symptomatic of personal computers: gone was the feeling I'd had of a shared social space around a computer. I didn't know other people who felt that way, but then few of my peers had grown up with hands-on access to a time-shared computer like the PDP. Personal computers were inward-looking machines, meant to be used solo. Ironically, though I did not know it at the time, the very thing that made the Macintosh so exciting for new users -- its graphical interface -- had first been invented through research on creating a nationwide computer network, a continental version of our little PDP.
The same division of the Defense Department, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which had funded the creation of the Internet, also funded the first graphical user interface; they were meant to be one. The network would connect the people, and the people would communicate through a new system of "icons" and "windows" using a "mouse," navigating through a primordial information space-cyberspace. The prototype of the system, called NLS, for oNLine System, was unveiled in the fall of 1968 in San Francisco by its creator, Douglas Engelbart, after five years of ARPA-funded research and development to an audience of 2,000 in the city's Civic Auditorium.
The audience watched in fascination as Engelbart clicked and moved through windows on the screen, his actions beamed to a wall-sized screen above, an astronaut from the future. Engelbart's interface was the gateway to the network, the visual metaphor that would turn an otherwise arcane breakthrough in wiring computers together into an information utility usable by all. Yet in 1986, nearly twenty years after the demonstration of NLS, such ideas seemed strange. Computer networks were kept separate from most people. Hobbyists and kids might use them to download software from bulletin boards, and corporations might use them for business, but the "ease of use" that would occur when the graphical interface met a nationwide network was still a dream.
The Macintosh marked the arrival of the Power User, the rise of the computer-literate autodidact who "knows" how computers work. It also changed the way people learned about computers. Where once learning meant teaching children how to program, the new breed of machine spawned a new curriculum that taught them how to use software. The Macintosh unleashed a torrent of product placements in the classroom, a fantastic boondoggle in which a new generation would grow up "learning" computers through a peculiar form of teaching: hands-on introduction to commercial software, during class time, at school. Lost was the idea of hands-on access to the way the machine worked and a curriculum rooted in collaborative programming. In our computer room, learning how to use software had always served as a gateway. First you play games, or produce hi-res images; later, if compelled, you can go below the surface, learning how these programs work. But in this new environment, encumbered by obstacles, students had less opportunity to take the next step.
At Harvard that freshman year I thought about how computers were supposed to catalyze a new culture, a new world. In a world built on information computers would devolve power, breaking hierarchies and hidebound institutions rather than further centralizing them, as had been imagined in the days when IBM mainframes ruled supreme. With cheap computers everywhere we'd all be citizen-hackers, each able to rip apart systems, understand their function, and build better ones if we chose. Systems built on lies would be harder to maintain and fooling people far more difficult.
But it all felt dreary and compromised that fall. Resistance was futile. The world would never change. Computers were merely being assimilated, becoming another part of the system. In the computer room or at home alone with the Atari, copying pages from ANTIC, creating code of my own, my friends and I had been citizen-kings of the digital world. We were building something. Where other kids were watching TV and seeing movies -- consuming media -- we were creating media. We'd broken the system, gotten around to the other side and become producers in a land where, more than ever, kids were expected to be consumers.
All this was lost on most grown-ups in the late 1970s and early 1980s; strangely, they saw computers as corrosive to our literacy, mere mental junk food rotting our synapses, leaving gaping cavities in our brains. Mr. Moran knew better. And so did my parents. They'd bought me my computer and always supported my love of the machine. They saw the tangible effect the computer had on my ambitions at school and how it enabled me to become a better student. This was the computer revolution as I knew it, and it was supposed to spread out, get bigger, touch everyone in the world. But by the late 1980s that world seemed to recede, fade, replaced by yet another permutation of one-way media: digital consumption, computers as collectibles. Computers had become fashionable, and it came to be said, "You can never be too thin, too rich, or have too much RAM."
Thwarted in my intention to study computer science and history at Harvard, I decided to major in history and literature. As a sophomore in the history and literature department I got to study systems the old-fashioned way -- through books and lectures. My fantasy from high school of World 2.0, with its spinning globe and embedded sets of data, came to seem nothing more than a vague metaphor, rarely contemplated. I didn't realize how much I'd buried and forgotten until one rainy afternoon as I wandered past a software store in Harvard Square a few blocks from my dormitory. Through the lines of water trickling down the store window I saw a poster: BEYOND ZORK -- the letters crashing through a brick wall, surrounded by a golden burst of light. Beyond Zork.
Zork was the name of the home computer version of Dungeon and the name of the long-gone empire whose ruins I'd quested through on the PDP. The misty rain clouded my glasses and dripped off my nose. But I didn't care. For a moment, the mailbox and the white house on the hill were there again; the heavy rug and the lantern, the twisty maze of passages all alike, and the magic password, xyzzy. Laden with books and notepads, homework and classes, my backpack over one shoulder, all I wanted to do was slip into the world of the white house, to go beyond Zork. I went into the store and bought the game.
My roommate Tom came home later that day. He was from Reno, Nevada, and had a garrulous, rambling charm that I imagined came from the great open spaces he'd grown up in. He was an actor, an English major, and an extraordinary flirt. Girls compared him to Sam Shepard. As I would soon discover, Tom and I shared a little secret.
I was at the far end of our living room, where we had two desks back to back, seated at my computer. He strode in, his cowboy boots tracking street dirt, and suddenly stopped. Frozen. He stared down at the coffee table. "Hey. I can't believe you got this," he said. He held the Beyond Zork box aloft.
"I was so into Zork," Tom said.
"You were?" I was surprised.
I understood then that he too had once been a computer geek. An Apple II kid. But he'd buried that uncool legacy so deep that it didn't unfurl, in its full splendor, until that day. Tom pulled a chair over to my desk. Six hours later we were still playing Beyond Zork. We had trouble with the organ grinder and his hurdy-gurdy. The sound was lethal. That was a tough puzzle, tougher still than the problem with the Mother Hungus.
MOTHER HUNGUS! MOTHER HUNGUS! MOTHER HUNGUS! Tom and I suddenly were jumping up and down, screaming "MOTHER HUNGUS! MOTHER HUNGUS!" Six hours of computer gaming could do that to you: "MOTHER HUNGUS! MOTHER HUNGUS!"
For three weeks Tom and I played Beyond Zork together every day. People playing together through a computer. That's fun. That's different. In college I'd become so accustomed to the computer as a solitary thing, a private place like a book, good for one reader at a time. But used to play a game with someone,the computer became something else: a communications device; a strange social glue. What if we could get hundreds of people playing Beyond Zork together at the same time, each of them in the game? Tom and I both were reading Neuromancer, a sci-fi book by William Gibson, who wrote about a fantastic hallucinatory future and a world whose people were connected by a network he called cyberspace.
In that book Gibson's network created beautiful visual reflections of the real world. The characters "jacked in" by linking to the network through their brains, experiencing an eerie feeling of leaving the body, flying, floating in another place built by binary data, digital representations of information that take on physical form. Beyond Zork is like that too, except words on a screen create the illusion of slipping through to another world. But the idea is the same; it's just low-res versus hi-fi. It was Gibson who made it clear, as I sat with Tom playing our game, that I'd been there. I'd been to cyberspace. That was our PDP. Me, Boz, and Misha. All those Super Users before us. We'd all come of age there, jacked-in through the text on the screen, synced up through our time-shared system.
Unable to find the right key for the scarecrow, Tom called the Beyond Zork Help line for us, pretending to be my dad. "I need a clue," he said into the phone. "My son is hyper because he can't get the key from the scarecrow" -- he paused while the voice on the line said something -- "I don't know what that means. But can you tell me how he can get the key from the scarecrow?" This was against the game maker's policy. You had to pay for clues by buying a special book with "InvisiClues" that were revealed by rubbing a special pen across the pages. Tom was such a good dad, though, that Technical Support caved and told him whatever we wanted to know. Muffling ourselves, biting our hands, the hardest part for Tom and me was not to laugh and give it all away.
Hide the Geek. That's what it was about. Adulthood was about hiding the geek. And reclaiming it. I'd been hiding it at Harvard. But in our room Tom and I could get it back. We finished Beyond Zork after finding a bug in the game that gave us unlimited gold coins so that we could buy all the best armor and win without solving all the clues. Then we got into SimCity after that and flight simulators. The point was to play together. That was the key thing. Together.
* * *
People using computers together as part of a network, rather than side by side at the same desk, was an image in the back of my mind two years later, in my senior year, when I had a job interview with Microsoft. When the big companies came to Harvard recruiting, I dutifully signed up for interviews with Morgan Stanley, McKinsey & Company, Goldman Sachs. Tick, tick, tick. I just checked off the boxes on the interview request sheet. Harvard assigned us each 1,000 "points" to bid on interviews. Going through the stack of companies, I saw one I recognized: Microsoft. I put 40 points on them. A few weeks later I received a letter with a list of companies that would interview me. Microsoft was on the list. So was Morgan Stanley and McKinsey. Microsoft was the only company not in banking or consulting.
"Harrowing," I told my dad on the pay phone on the second floor of the Harvard library, when he asked me how it was going. Next door, fifty seniors and recent graduates were playing musical chairs in a big room. They faced representatives from companies across America. It was depressing, I told him. I didn't know anything about Wall Street or "consulting" or banking or this thing called "marketing." I wasn't sure what I knew. A lot about history. How to cheat in Zork. Linked lists, packed arrays, RSTS/E, player-missile graphics. I had to hang up. My last interview was with Microsoft and I saw that it was time to go. Then I could go home and take off my suit.
* * *
"Why do you want to work at Microsoft?"
"It's all about fiber optics," I said, cryptically. On the other side of a thin plastic table with simulated wood grain, the man from Microsoft slouched in his metal chair. He wore a plain blue T-shirt. All around us I could hear the murmur of interviews at other tables. Everyone else, interviewee and interviewer, wore suits. It was five o'clock, and this was the last interview of the last day for both of us. Tomorrow he was going back to Seattle.
"Yes?" he said, unslouching from the chair. He seemed young, maybe mid-twenties, with tousled blond hair and the healthy shine that comes from not living in New England.
"Yeah. Think about it. The phone companies are laying all this digital fiber. It can carry audio, video, information -- it's all data. Once that's in place, the whole way we use computers is going to change. Software will change. It'll be about communicating, working in groups over long distances. New kinds of entertainment are going to emerge. It's going to be huge," my voice rose with excitement. "The hugest thing ever. What's Microsoft going to do about it?"
Microsoft. A joke really, I thought. This company makes MS-DOS and a word processor. They're not a game company. They don't have that intangible "it" quality of a hot software company. Bland is more like it. I felt reckless, and spieling about the future was a lot more fun than pretending to be interested in investment banking. The interviewer leaned toward me. "That's true," he agreed.
I stared back. Huh? What did he say?
"Computers are not going to stay the same forever," he went on. He asked why I thought being on networks would excite people, and all of a sudden I mentioned Zork. Zork! In an interview? It just came out, and I couldn't take it back.
"I loved that game," he said. "It was the game that made me want to understand computers." We started geeking out, together. He told me about a networked version called Adventure! I couldn't believe it. Why hadn't I heard about this before? Tom and I could have played against each other! The man from Microsoft knew about Neuromancer too. He gets it! I thought. We riffed on the future, imagining self-produced television shows, home-brew media.
"How would you like to come to Seattle?" he said, all of a sudden.
"Yes," I said. Yes.
THREE WEEKS LATER I was flying to Seattle. Here, looking down at grids made by country roads, highways, and rivers, it was easy to imagine the evanescent world of cyberspace. A power grid of information. I gave little thought to what Microsoft actually sold or what their core business in 1990 was -- selling MS-DOS, Windows, Word, and Excel.
Instead I fantasized about working in a tiny laboratory with artists and programmers, building experimental environments, sculpting the shape of tomorrow. As the plane descended toward the Pacific, the afterburn of the sunset spreading over Seattle, I stared out the window thinking how incredible it was that I'd found a place that understood the future. A company that knew that soon all our computers would be connected to one national, eventually global, universal network, and that in the process everything we assumed about personal computers would evaporate and be replaced by a new environment, a network that would provide the electronic earth for humanity to build the next iteration of civilization. The joy would come from working toward what we as a society would create.
And surely, I felt, it would lead to a better world, one where the tyranny of media monoliths and advertisers tweaking consumer impulses would no longer dominate the production and distribution of television, films, radio, and print, nor shape our perception of events. In a land where reality comes from television, high-speed computer networks would usher in a smarter, juster age. Because we would control the new media. Most important, in the process all of us would contribute to the construction of the latest stage of human culture, with all its attendant richness and complexity. Some would simply vote with their fingers, switching over to homebrew TV; others would produce the art filling the fiber. I assumed Microsoft was hatching an in-house project to probe these questions, and I paid no thought to how this might be profitable. The idea mesmerized me, and I anticipated what would happen, fantasizing about secret groups of programmers and artists working in consort to explore the twenty-first century.
"Sorry I'm late," Debbi said, shaking my hand. "Come on upstairs." Debbi was my handler. She would coordinate all my interviews. "I hope your flight went okay. Did you have any trouble getting here? You know the numbers on the buildings can get confusing for some people." I assured her that I wasn't one of those people. The Microsoft campus map was perfectly legible, and the numbered buildings were no problem, I said coolly. As we walked up a series of carpeted beige stairs, circling the open lobby with a reception desk at the center, I looked outside the big front glass wall and saw acres of green lawns and low buildings -- five or so floors -- draped entirely in glass and dented like origami to give each building maximum window surface area. It was logical. Smarts uber alles, a controlled environment built by and for computer programmers. A hacker homeland! Standing on the landing of the next floor, Debbi mentioned the free soda. Microsoft employees didn't have to pay for soda. "Would you like one?" she asked. I said yes.
I knew something was wrong when Debbi, sitting in her little office (no window, lots of filing cabinets, presumably stuffed with resumes like mine), told me my first meeting was with Ellen in "marketing." Debbi grinned -- as I did, to conceal my apprehension. Her frizzy black hair radiated a powerful scent of hair gel. It smells like Prell shampoo, I thought. "This is your schedule," she said, handing me a piece of paper. "My number is here. If you have any problems or questions you can call me. I know you won't get lost, but if you do, call me and I'll find you. It happens sometimes." The first interview, with Ellen, was in this building. On the same floor.
"Okay," I said. "Great. Thanks."
Shooting down the beige hall, following the numbers on the doors, it took a minute to reach Ellen's office. Ellen, clicking away at a keyboard and surrounded by product boxes for Microsoft Excel, stood to greet me. She loomed large, close to six feet, with an enormous black velour headband and huge round glasses. I felt the first of several tremors of anxiety. Ellen offered me a soda, which I accepted, and we moved to a conference room a few doors down. Minutes into our conversation I soon realized that not knowing what the word marketing meant was a major conversation stopper.
I'd never spent an instant in an economics class, rarely read the business pages of anything, and had had summer jobs where market as a verb never made its way into conversation. As she explained what this marketing involved, I recognized that a terrible mistake had been made. Where was that guy in the T-shirt? The one at Harvard. How could he do this to me? Ellen was interviewing me for a job as a foot soldier to sell, of all things, Microsoft Excel. Feeling my pupils contracting, I segued into my speech about the future of media. As I finished Ellen attacked the telephone, initiating a flurry of jabbing phone calls to set up a meeting with the "right person."
The right person was not available until the next day. Debbi arranged to extend my stay at the Holiday Inn, which I thought boded well. The right person turned out to be a chain-smoking Dutchman. There was a very un-West Coast air in his windowed office. It was covered with white boards, scrawled with C++ code and diagrams. He was one of the elite programmers who'd created the latest version of Excel, which he queried me on, after offering me a soda. What do I think about the features as they are now, what would I change or add?
Slightly befuddled, my drink untouched, unwilling to confess that the only Microsoft products I'd ever used were MS-DOS and their flight simulator game, I valiantly tried to play along until it finally became clear that I was not there because I wanted to program future versionsof Excel. "What do you want to do?" he asked. I told him. The word multimedia triggered a connection. A few phone calls later (less jabbing than Ellen, more languid), and Debbi, through his phone, announced that I should stay another day. Where I really ought to go, she said, is the experimental new media group. That, I thought, sounded right.
Day three began like the previous two -- a fine breakfast of extravagantly good, cheap, and plentiful pancakes, followed by loads of coffee and a quick drive to the euphemistically named "campus." In forty-eight hours there I'd learned that many Microsoft employees were shipped directly from college to the "campus" where, like hermetically sealed novices, they immediately set to work. But unlike the Harvard campus, this was a closed environment. As I'd started to sense, my conception of Microsoft as a company that made workaday software, the oatmeal of personal computing, had been initially correct. Why would they waste resources on an open, system-challenging research lab? Here the spirit of hacking was tamed, away from exploring systems to fine-tuning existing ones.
Debbi, I thought, had been assigned to me because she was Jewish and from Long Island. She took me out to dinner the night before and confessed how hard it sometimes was to be so far away from the East Coast. The Microsoft man at Harvard seemed more and more to have sprung from nowhere, a gremlin of my imagination. Maybe he'd had no understanding of what I'd been saying that afternoon and simply wanted to fill his quota of recruits to send West. I was tiring of the campus with its straggly disconnected architecture and rootless employees scurrying by in open-toe Birkenstock sandals from office to free-soda machine.
"Look," Debbi had said to me the day before, on our way to dinner, pointing with pride, "there are people having a meeting outside." Across the way, on a mound of grass between two polygonal buildings, were a cluster of people drawing diagrams with a portable whiteboard. "It's like having class outside," I said. "Exactly," Debbie replied, pleased that I saw the connection to the ethos of free-flowing, group exploration.
Mid-morning on day three I was brought to one of the older Microsoft buildings. Plainly rectangular, a relic from the pre-windows maximizing phase. There I was greeted by the first hacker I'd seen at Microsoft. He had a big, bushy mane of curly black hair, black jeans and T-shirt, basketball sneakers, and pitted skin. He said hi without looking at me and took me to his office, which looked and smelled like a cave. The lights were off, and several computers glowed in the gloom. Before allowing me to look, he asked if I knew about the free soda.
"Yes," I said.
"You want one?"
How much more Coke could I drink? It made me pee. The entire trip had been punctuated by bladder anxieties. Holding tight, waiting to get to the bathroom between interviews. But I couldn't insult my hosts by refusing their hospitality.
He escorted me to a familiar sight: a windowless room, fluorescent lights aglow, ringed with vending machines that distributed sugars and caffeine. After we popped open our Cokes he asked, "How would you redesign that machine?" pointing to the Coke machine. It was essentially a big fridge with a Coke ad, a lock, and a money receptacle. Perfect. Why would anyone want to change it? But he expected an answer, so I thought a minute and then told him I'd connect the machine to a telephone line so the vendor could tell when the stock was running low. Coke would never run out that way. Maximum sales.
"No," he said, "not the back end. The front end." I nodded. "How would you redesign it?" Suddenly I had visions of nightmare college interviews, where they ask, "If you could be a vegetable, what kind would you be, and why?" The Coke machine here probably delivered more Coke per day per person than any other Coke machine in the history of soda. Sales were maxed out. So who cared about the "front end"?
"I would put a flat-screen LCD panel on the front here," I said, pointing to the front of the machine, "and run ads for the sodas inside. I would run promotions based on volume. Say the Sprite wasn't selling; I would discount it. I would put a keyboard in, or a touch screen, and ask questions, have questionnaires built into the machine and if you took the time to answer them you could get a free soda or maybe a discount." That seemed right. Geek out! But the further I went with this the more impatient and disgusted he seemed. There was something I wasn't getting. Some Valhalla of geek logic that eluded me.
"Let's go inside," he said, nodding toward the door. Inside, I guessed, was where his office was. This room must be outside.
Back in his office, staring at three monitors side by side, I watched as he showed me the latest developments in the lab. This was the end of the line, the last possible place for me at Microsoft, and I was eager to see what projects he was working on.
"We put multimedia into the entire range of Microsoft products. Multimedia enhances the user's experience, and makes our products easier and more enjoyable to use." He took the mouse and clicked open a window in Microsoft Excel.
"See here," he said, indicating the monitor. I peered at it. The electronic buttons at the top of the screen seemed different. Rounded. Shadowed. Not flat and two-dimensional, as they usually were.
"Nice," I said.
He clicked on a button with his mouse; from two stereo speakers emanated a very satisfying metallic click.
"This is something we're working on now." He clicked on the scroll bar at the side of the spreadsheet window and slid it downward. As we moved down the spreadsheet, his stereo speakers made a deepening sound, like a note sliding down in octaves.
"We're going down," he said. "We're going up." As he slid up, the speakers ascended in octaves, getting brighter.
"Ahh," I said.
"Tactile feedback," he said.
Six hours until my plane took off. Maybe I'd have enough time to drive around Seattle in the afternoon. Suddenly I noticed the silence in the room. The speakers weren't whooshing anymore.
"That's great," I said, realizing he expected me to say something. I had to pee again. Maybe this would be a good time to ask to use the bathroom.
* * *
I never got to work with Microsoft. A few weeks after my return to New York I received a letter explaining that there was no suitable job for me. I'd been at a place dedicated to fine-tuning the surface of software. With their perpetual upgrades, each existing as a stratum of opaque sediment, further hiding the machine, burying it in ossified layers, there was little incentive to break out in a new direction. They were a short-term shop in a computer world where short -- three months -- seemed long to those mired in the latest code update. This wasn't evolution -- it was fossilization. The trip to Seattle had paid off, however, in a way I didn't expect.
It reawakened my excitement about computers. I realized that in four years of college I'd lost contact with something I knew and loved: programming. I took a freelance job writing databases, and when my stepfather retired and closed his advertising agency he gave me one of his old Macintoshes. At home, in my one-room apartment, paid for by my revivified skills at designing arrays and linked lists from the time of Cheese, I connected a modem to my computer and discovered an eerie parallel world to the PDP and RSTS/E called the Internet and UNIX. The first week I logged on to the Internet, using text-only commands and a program called Telnet, I felt I had arrived. Had come home to my familiar. The white mailbox at the foot of the hill was gone.
But now there were thousands -- maybe millions -- of people gathered, building, doing, creating something out there, wherever there was. A once secret, hidden universe, a kid's world -- a geek's world -- wasn't secret anymore. And as more people got into it, I could feel the system reaching out to the point where it would cross over and become a rich part of our culture, world culture, equal to andperhaps one day beyond television, film, books, magazines. A new media. The second derivative had become the first. Here is where it would happen -- not at Microsoft, or in some mysterious research lab. It would happen out here, built by us, for ourselves.
* * *
In the spring of 1996 I found a letter in my mailbox. The paper was thick bond, and my name was written by hand in big blocky letters. It looked like a kid's writing. I rarely get handwritten letters on paper; most of my mail is electronic. Pushing aside the usual incoming detritus of bills and catalogs, I sat down at my kitchen table and opened up the strange envelope. "Dear Mr. Bennahum," it began, "I am a seventh grader at Horace Mann and I would like to invite you to come to school and be interviewed for my seventh grade history project. We are interviewing alumni from the school who are doing things we are interested in. I am interested in computers and the Internet and would like to interview you about that." Enclosed was a second note, from his teacher, inviting me to call her if I had any questions. I phoned the teacher.
"Henry is a very shy boy," she told me. "He likes computers and he's very smart. It would be wonderful if you could come to school." School? The idea was delicious. Wake up at 6:30, get on the Number 1 train to the Bronx, walk up the hill. Why not? Maybe the pizza place would still be there. What video games would they have now? The PDP. Mr. Moran.
"Okay," I said. "I'll come up."
On the train I don't do math homework. I read the paper. But I ride in the first car, and the kids are still there. Doing their math homework. Playing around. To them I'm invisible, a grown-up. Just a guy reading the news. At 242nd Street I get out with the kids and head down the metal stairs to Broadway. The pizza place is still there. Inside I find games, and already some kids are there playing. Mortal Kombat, Pole Position. The walk up the hill takes five minutes. At the top it looks the same. The cafeteria, the main building, the football field. Slipping through columns of kids with schoolbags, I come to the seventh grade office to meet Henry. He's not there. I'm told to find his teacher. Maybe he's in class. His teacher is young, perhaps my age. To a kid, though, she'd seem old. I look through the window in the classroom door and she sees me. She tells the twenty students in her room to sit still for a moment, and as she comes outside to meet me I can see the kids leaning forward to look out the door, to see what is going on because classes are rarely interrupted.
"Henry is sick today," she explains, turning red. "I am so sorry. We didn't know until now. I am really sorry that you came all this way. Please accept our apologies." She is truly sorry. Like I'm out of sorts or something. Hardly. I am delighted to be here.
"It's okay, really it's okay. I've wanted to come up for a while anyway."
We agree that Henry will call me. We'll do it by phone.
"He'll be so disappointed," she tells me. "But you know, he is absentminded and I know how much this meant to him. So maybe this will teach him an important lesson about being responsible for things." She seems like a very good teacher. I am sure I would have had a crush on her in seventh grade, if she'd been my teacher.
Crossing the green toward the main building, I look up to the third floor. To the windows. That's where I want to go. To the computer room. Classes have started, so the halls are empty. On the third landing I make a left and follow the shiny wood floors to the door, with its chicken-wire crossed glass. Inside I see fifteen kids working on Macintosh computers. I twist my head. The system room is still there. But there's no PDP inside. No Mr. Moran either. Just offices. Teachers' offices. It's the computer department's office. No command-line interfaces in there. No time-shared operating system. No software to be handwritten by the kids from scratch for the rest of the room. Not all boys either. Girls are in the room too. I go inside. It's a lab period. The room is hooked up to the Internet. Mr. Kenner, the new computer room teacher, invites me to sit in his office, in the spot where magnetic tapes used to be stored. As I come in I realize this was the spot Boz had stood the day Mr. Moran told him he'd never be Super User.
We talk about the changes. How the PDP was eventually carted out and thrown away, an enormous piece of junk, too obsolete to be sold. I picture it rusting under a pile of trash somewhere in a vast garbage dump. Do they have Super Users anymore? No, Mr. Kenner explains, the system is too decentralized. There's no need for a Super User. What about Pascal; do they still learn Pascal? Only some kids, the ones who want to study AP computer science. I start telling Mr. Kenner stories, like the day Paul Haahr decompiled RSTS/E and figured out how the source code worked and then how he set out to write an operating system of his own.
"The kids who are like that now, they run our Web server. And they do UNIX."
"Don't you think something's changed?" I say. "If kids want to learn how computers work now, it's much more difficult. The system is too complex. You can't take it apart. You can't see it from the inside."
Mr. Kenner looks at me and smiles. "Some things can't be remembered forever," he says. "They're learning a lot of the same things though. Those who want to learn, can. They can still go deep. It's all part of a continuum." On my way out Mr. Kenner points to a file cabinet. Maybe I would like these? I open the drawer and pull out a pile of yellowed green-and-white computer paper. The big sprocketed 24-inch kind. I feel dizzy for a moment. It's Spy programs. Spy programs! I see Amy Bruckman's name. Joel Westheimer's. "I remember this program," I say, flabbergasted. "Mr. Moran held it up and showed it to us, saying it was the best one ever written." There is the grade Mr. Moran wrote in big letters across the top of Joel's program:
"You can have them," Mr. Kenner says. "I knew we were saving them for all these years for a reason." He digs deeper in the file and comes out with a stack of blue notebooks. I get very still. The air around me feels sharp. AP computer exam notebooks? Mr. Kenner puts them on the table. They're from 1985. My year. I see Boz's book. Misha's. Mine.
"Can I have that?"
Mr. Kenner hands me my book. Inside, with some trepidation, I see that the handwriting describes Pascal programs. I trace the outline of the algorithm instinctively, the world of pure forms suddenly real. As I look up at the kids in the room, watching them -- some are building Web sites, others are writing papers -- it all seems like so much collage. A world of cutting and pasting. A place where the amphetamine high of pure form has given way to the treacly rush of toyland. Where once a hard game of Tempest gave me deep satisfaction, I could see that surfing a well-done Web page or animation gave these kids the same kind of pleasure. But where to go next? Games were my bait, leading to a wonderful switch into a realm where ideals were not ideals but the actual, tangible motor behind the code I held in my hand in that little blue book layered with pencil scrawls. Where else did such a world exist?
The first generation to grow up on the Internet faces an all too similar danger. What first promises to be an extraordinary intellectual expansion is quickly, by virtue of its popularity, undermined by the market's inclination to reduce the sophisticated to the homogeneous. It took the home computer a good seven years to be reduced to an opaque "black box," gussied up with layers of "idiot proof" interfaces. The Net, born a clear glass box, offers the intrepid explorer a rational system, clearly visible, open to the probings of all comers. The Net, like our junkyard-bound PDP, offers a system run by the people. Programs written and distributed for free. It began as a system of communal programming where one could build on the previous author's work, a place where the purity of form was the prime measure of an idea's success. This virtuous circle marks theoriginal spirit of the Net and remains the soul of the network. But how long will this last? Already the forces of commercialization are threatening to choke off this primal source of inspiration.
The establishment of standards for future network services -- such as multimedia -- are fraught with discontent. There is a strong desire to own the patents and form the companies, which will in turn control the protocols and standards undergirding the Internet, thus ending nearly thirty years of shared group programming. The very quality that made the Internet alluring -- its ability to connect myriad computer systems, low cost, and barrier-free structure -- is at stake. Why should things be open or clear since private ownership, a killer-application of one's own, is the apotheosis of our age?
The Net, with its brief, brilliant promise of a new media freed from artificial monopolies -- a place where constraint and scarcity is replaced by abundance and liberty -- faces the prospect of mutating into just another form of television, where ideas, distribution, and manufacture are all owned, trademarked, patented, and squeezed into neat corrals of property, all the better to derive a fortune. Looking at the kids in that room building their sites, I could only wonder if their words, programs, and pages were one more step toward a new global culture, a place where people build media and connections and take responsibility for informing themselves, rather than passively awaiting the consensus of the nightly news -- or else a last gesture, from a time already past.
I knew that one of these kids, somewhere in the room, probing the sinews of code that make up the tissue of the Internet, would stumble upon an insight, a visceral apprehension of some deep truth, like the time I found infinity within a simple recursive loop. The benefit of our probings and self-teachings remains constant: to understand our symbiosis with machines. Our closeness to technology -- from the mundane answering machine to the hundreds of microprocessors in our cars -- will only increase, and the temptation to reduce its underlying complexity to glossy simplicity will increase along with it. Such camouflaged technology changes into wizardry or sorcery, becoming the alchemy of our time, and all the brilliant insight into the rational forms underneath will mean nothing, forgotten to all but the initiated, those who aren't dazzled by the surface, and the few magicians with the power to define what is and isn't possible. To know the machine as we did, so intimately, is to forever change the way we experience our machine-mediated world.
It began as a game, one smooth quarter after another. It ended as knowledge. Somewhere in that great ganglion of logic we found a truth so bright and passionate that all our adolescent selves trembled to it, and we were changed. Where others found meaning in the poetry of Rimbaud or the lyrics of Jim Morrison, we found it in the layers of code and the perfect matrix of machine memory. Walking back down the hill, my old exam in hand, I thought of my old Atari. It now sits in my room, a memento mori, a tangible link to a fleeting point in time when the computer's own childhood, with its 48K of gloriously accessible RAM, matched mine, a time when with wild exhilaration we discovered a place all our own.
Excerpt from Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace, Basic Books. Reprinted with permission.