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The author was 5 when he met his first love, the seminal home-computer game Pong. Bennahum later moved on to games like Space Invaders and Dungeons and Dragons, before "morph[ing] under the hothouse energy of pixels" into a "bad boy" of the video arcade.
Bennahum's coming of age really began in the eighth grade at Horace Mann High School in the Bronx when he received an Atari 800 computer for his bar mitzvah. What follows is a sometimes overly detailed account of the author's relationships with his peers, his computer teacher and his programming.
Lines of code break up the narrative, bringing to life the young boy's passions. The book does not teach any lessons, nor is it a poignant memoir of a well-known individual. Extra Life is, however, an enjoyable read for everyone who remembers being starry-eyed the first time a computer did what they told it to do.
Bennahum, a contributing editor to Wired and Lingua Franca, digs through his memories of being an outsider throughout childhood, and details a fascination that began with his first Atari computer. The reflections are vivid and often provide cultural commentary on how the computer boom of the '80s shaped a generation, and how kids' games like Space Invaders and Merlin broke the ground for today's Internet age. Above all, Bennahum is an accomplished writer, both down-to-earth and inspiring, whether he's describing the processes of a modem or the beguiling possibilities a child sees in an expansive white carpeted room. He consistently reaches into two of the most incomprehensible worlds (the mind of a computer and the mind of a little boy) and pulls out understandable and identifiable experiences. Bennahum is a storyteller for the kids who were born in the '70s and grew up in the '80s—the Atari generation. Adults nearing their 30s now who spent hours bootlegging software from BBSs, playing Pong and Breakout and comparing the merits of a Commodore 64 and a TRS-80 will find justification for and rejuvenation of their childhood fascination with those old boxy machines. Those who grew up alongside them will be rewarded with an insight into a cultural world view that went largely unrecognized (and certainly unaccepted) because it belonged to kids, freethinkers, and crazy engineers. Just the sort of people Apple computers is applauding in their commercials today.
|Prologue: Pirate's Cove||1|
|11||Hide the Geek||205|
My electronic seduction began in 1973 in the bar of a French hotel. The year before, when I was four and a half years old, my family--mom, dad, little sister, and I--had moved from Manhattan to Paris. We stayed five years. Although today I regret none of it, glad to have learned to speak a second language and know another culture, at the time it was a nightmare. To this American boy, the City of Lights was little more than a drab, dark, miserable place. I spent that first year grappling with a new language, starting school, and embarking on what would become a familiar cycle for me--new school, isolation, the first flowering of a friendship or two, then the inevitable breakup as the cycle repeated and I found myself in the next new school.
Close the door, take off, and leave your world behind. We'd done that in 1972. Planes were both fantastic and frightening to me. Fantastic for their size and power and the excitement that came when the machine lifted off the ground. Frightening because they were the engines of separation. One day in October we packed our things, got on a plane, and moved thousands of miles from our home in Manhattan, sent away by a force my dad called "business." My grandfather had died earlier that year, and my dad at thirty-two suddenly and unexpectedly inherited his father's connections built over years of investments, loans put together to finance projects in faraway countries such as Algeria and Iran. My dad, a young investment banker, was expected to build where his father left off. In my four-year-old mind this was all inexplicably cruel, beyond understanding. By age twelve I'd already attended five different schools, having moved from America to France and back again.
Those first school days in a strange land among the proudly xenophobic Parisians set me on my course as a professional outsider. In preschool I learned that the world was divided into two groups: popular children and those on the fringes. I wanted to be popular, one of the group, liked if not loved. None of this happened. Instead, I attracted trouble. I was a foreigner with thick glasses, crossed eyes, and terrible coordination caused by my lack of binocular vision. On my first day of class I was the butt of jokes that quickly escalated to blows. In the concrete courtyard of my small French school during recess I'd accidentally broken another kid's plastic toy car. Other kids circled around. One stepped forward, and before I knew what happened I felt a sharp pain in my cheek. When I touched my face I felt sticky blood. As I cried and felt the sting of a deep scratch the boys scattered. When a teacher came by I could feel her disapproval; surely I, an unknown kid, was to blame.
I started to spend more and more time in worlds of my own. I began to daydream, and over months I began to read. Owing to my double vision I had trouble making out words on paper; letters moved, words ran together. Reading felt hard, but slowly, under the guidance of a special reading teacher I saw every day after school, words, sentences, and eventually whole paragraphs came into focus. One day when I was seven I found myself lost in a book, the words making a world so real that I forgot where I was. I'd reached a point where reading had become intensely pleasurable, and I discovered books without pictures; these were science-fiction novels my dad bought for himself, in our family's bookcase.
I read the great classics of space exploration--books by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury--and they filled my mind with escapist fantasies as I rode the bus to school or flopped on my bed after school, lying on my side reading, refusing to move until the cramp in a tingling arm or leg became so intense that I had to leave that world and roll over to get the circulation flowing. Here were stories of nomads traveling through deep space, alien ships crash-landing on Earth, lonely astronauts and their families wandering the bleak surface of Mars. Looking back on these books, all written in the 1950s and '60s, I see that what's most striking is the near absence of computers; if they were foretelling the future, they missed an important part of it.
By third grade school got marginally better. As my French improved I no longer made embarrassing mistakes, mis-using similar-sounding words. I discovered that among the bigger kids and popular kids were other kids like me. We reached out. One in particular, Jean-Baptiste, was the smallest kid in school. We made an odd couple. I was taller than most; he was tiny. He was nimble and fast in sports. I was not. Yet together we found common escape, swapping French comic books or playing complex games with glass marbles in the paths of a nearby park. When my books or Jean-Baptiste were not around I immersed myself in an addictive game of "let's pretend" that lasted until fifth grade.
The game was simple: I was in fact not human; I'd been sent to Earth to investigate the nature of Homo sapiens. My plan made sense. What better way to learn about this strange species than through the eyes of a child, one who could "grow up," go through the entire cycle of human life, and report back with authoritative inside information? My parents were not my parents at all; they were just the target family selected. Through a highly sophisticated process, the details of which I hadn't exactly worked out, my identity was inserted in vitro into the fetus that came to be named David.
There were great advantages to this identity. I could stand at a clinical distance whenever anyone spoke to me, especially when they were angry. An adult shout became an act to be studied. As angry words cascaded around my ears I took careful notice of the reddening faces, tics, and other physical symptoms displayed by the speakers. The content of their communication was lost, erased. Only the process was observed and preserved. At school, my special mission helped me forget the need to be liked; I could navigate more safely through the halls.
In fact, isolation became a particularly good means of studying the worst in people--sparing me pain as I stored up valuable information for my report to my own race. Every now and then I would question my alien identity, sometimes looking in the mirror after brushing my teeth at night, challenging myself to do something inhuman to prove the story was real.
I knew of a spaceship concealed on the roof of our apartment building to be used only in the gravest emergency. Shaped like a small flying saucer, it had two gull-wing doors that raised themselves to allow entry. Inside were two seats and the simplest of controls. By sitting down I could speak to the ship and navigate with my voice. Inside I imagined a supercomputer like HAL in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, an intelligent machine to do my bidding. I could ask it anything, to fly me off to anywhere. I'd fantasize about taking this ship around the world or through time, visiting and exploring other eras or planets.
The French obsession with cinema greatly helped these fantasies. Paris had dozens of revival houses playing old movies. In the 1970s, when French television consisted of two state-owned channels broadcasting nonstop boredom to a nation of millions, children rarely associated the box with entertainment. When I wanted to see something interesting, I went to the movies.
Every Sunday afternoon a dilapidated tiny theater off the Place de L'Odeon in the then-seedy Left Bank offered a celluloid brew of Tom and Jerry cartoons followed by Stanley Kubrick's millennial masterpiece. As a seven-year-old I went as often as my mom and Samantha, my little sister who was barely four, could stand taking me, certainly more than two dozen times. Seeing that film so regularly became a kind of mystical education for me, the way some children commit to memory verses of the Bible or the Koran.
"Open the pod bay-doors, HAL."
"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
This was the film's exquisite moment for me, when the astronaut named after me faces the full implications of a conscious computer that has knowingly chosen to kill him--the now-familiar threat that an intelligent machine, no longer needing its creator, might decide like Frankenstein's monster to turn on him and his race. Indeed, in the brave new world of computers it seemed that the creation process is not complete until the machine is capable of destroying its creator.
The sparse dialogue and obtuse story line could have bored me, as it bored many adults who saw it; but at age seven I barely heard the words, so drawn was I to the special effects that created a future world, one for which I was better suited than the school yard. Every time I saw the film it reinforced my obsession with outer space and confirmed that one day I would travel there. I was certain that my destiny, and the destiny of all human beings, involved leaving Earth.
My parents tell me that when Nell Armstrong landed on the Moon they woke me up and sat me down in front of the television set; at eighteen months I wasn't interested. Another eighteen months would pass before I knew what the Moon was, what spaceships were, and that people were going up into space all the time, boosted by multistage rockets. I have faint memories of my parents showing me a copy of the New York Times with a blurry photograph of a space capsule orbiting the Moon taken by an astronaut through the porthole of his moon lander.
While that picture was an early confirmation that I'd go to space one day, it was 2001 that showed me what my future in space would look like: the space station, the moon base, the long, long Jupiter-bound spaceship with its nuclear-powered engines at one end and bulbous sphere at the other, where the astronauts rested in cryogenic sleep.
In Paris I was comforted by the prospect that such a world would one day exist. Now I know better. When I watch the film these days what strikes me is its loneliness: A crew of two manned the ship, or rather watched as HAL manned the ship, arranging for their food to be processed and their communications sent to Earth. The astronauts were left to jog round and round the white ship or play chess with HAL, who was programmed to lose 50 percent of the time. The environment is desiccated, a machine-mediated universe where each astronaut lives alone, separated from others by layers of technology that stifle direct human contact.
Back then the computer HAL seemed infinitely more interesting than the human protagonists, more interesting even than space itself, that void through which the doomed crew traveled; and so I thought nothing of the loneliness of the astronauts. I probably thought loneliness was a natural part of life. It was for me.
Christmas 1973 we went to the French Alps for a family ski trip in a part of the country that catered to the functionaries, civil servants, and middle management of France. Rarely visited by foreigners, these resort towns had few of the trappings of European luxury. France as a nation has strong socialist tendencies, and these holidays were meant to be communal experiences; all meals and ski lessons were taken together, without class distinctions in either.
We stayed in a huge hotel called Hotel de France, a wall of windows facing the mountains with a dining room where hundreds ate at long tables, soup was ladled out from communal bowls, and everyone nibbled on the same kind of bread. I loved this part of France because it allowed for safety in anonymity. That holiday in ski school I fumbled on the slopes. I was a first-level novice, which entitled me to a small metal snowflake that I could pin to my ski jacket. Fascinated, I listened as my father explained that when I moved to the next level I would get a pin with two snowflakes, then three, followed by whole new shapes--stars, camels, and for the best skiers, rockets. As I slid awkwardly down the mountain, thinking of becoming the best skier in the world, Samantha took to the slopes with ease on tiny foot-long skis. We fought most of the time, vying for our parent's attention. Because she was younger and the jump from English less jarring, she spoke better French. Born with better eyes, she read and wrote better than I did at her age. At her small school Samantha won a prize for being the best student. She seemed more French than the French. Her success translated into less attention at home: my parents--especially my mother--paid less attention to her and more to me. Every day after school my mother took me to a special reading tutor. My sister was left at home with a baby-sitter.
On our holiday my dad skied with the grown-ups, and my mom--who didn't ski at all--watched us from the valley below. One afternoon I came crashing down the slopes and tumbled into a heap of snow a few feet from where she stood; terrified that I'd broken my leg, my mom called the ski patrol. Basking in all the attention, I decided that accidents were exciting. A few X rays revealed nothing more than a sprained ankle. I was bandaged, given little crutches, and my dreams of two snowflakes and a golden rocket pin were banished to fantasy. Left to wander the hotel during the day and watch people swimming in the bizarre outdoor pool, hot water producing billows of steam in the Alpine air, I discovered something fantastic.
Outside the dining room was a bar decorated in the sparkling, smoky-mirrored chrome that presaged the coming disco era. One afternoon I wandered in. I made my way past the bartender, drawn toward a machine at the far end against the wall. It looked like a television set running a cartoon. I wondered which show was on. As I got closer something seemed strange; I'd never seen a cartoon like this one before. I'd never seen a TV like this before. Where was the channel dial? What lame cartoon is this? I wondered, staring at the almost blank monotone screen. I stood watching the "show"--two rectangles batting a square between them--bonk ... bonk ... bonk went the machine. And then it all became clear. This wasn't a television show; this wasn't a television. It was a machine playing some sort of game with itself! It was showing off, to me. It wanted me to play with it. I grabbed the knobs and spun them around, noticing the coin slot. Back and forth went the blur, jumping across the screen in rapid, barely visible increments, eminently familiar yet totally strange.
Like a Three-Card Monte player, the machine lured me into a familiar game, but one played on its own terms. It invited me to join in. Setting my crutches aside, I balanced on one leg, suddenly coordinated enough to stand without tipping over. Digging through my pockets I found some change my mom had given me for snacks and dropped a coin in the slot. The screen refreshed itself. Holding the knob, I watched as my electronic paddle followed the movement of my hand. Bonk. I hit the luminescent ball. Bonk. It came back. Bonk. Faster now. Bonk. Too fast! It shot by. Several rounds later the game was over. I could lose privately. No one to laugh or yell at me for missing.
I found another coin and played another game, my crutches, my silver snowflake, my sister the better skier, school--gone. This was bliss. Here was something I'd been looking for without knowing it. If I had one of these, life would be better; life would be great. There was nowhere else I'd rather be. The sounds of the grown-ups in the hall and the bartender flipping his paper faded away until all that remained was the bonk bonk bonk and that silver square traversing the black screen, from paddle to paddle, left to right and right to left, following a clear but barely comprehensible logic. Who or what controlled my opponent's movements? What were the rules governing the flight of that square shuttlecock? Staring at the plastic console with the words AVOID MISSING BALL FOR HIGH SCORE written on it in English, I knew this was going to be a great trip after all.