I have no idea how computers work. I’ve been using them since the early Eighties, and my understanding of their inner workings has increased only slightly since I started word processing and social networking. I am adept at making computers do stuff, but it’s like driving a car powered only by rice balls. I do not understand the mechanism.
I’ve never written any kind of code. I know that it’s all based on an improbable number of 1’s and 0’s, but that’s about as far I get. It’s digital because it…involves digits? I’ll be here all week.
I’m too old to have had computer classes, so I bash around at random, largely depending on the kindness of strangers whose tolerance I have learned not to test. My computer knowledge is like an old quilt, patched and repatched, filled with holes, with a command line mnemonic overlapping a clever Twitter shortcut I learned yesterday.
I came to the computer culture early. I’ve written about this before, and I do it again not for nostalgia’s sake (although that’s pretty fun), but because my experience might be useful in thinking about more modern issues.
For reasons having mostly to do with luck, I came to The Well in 1987; I had no idea what it was, and neither (it turned out) did the people who invented it. It was a place, they thought, where people could discuss ideas — and they did, a lot. But it was also a place that encouraged, even demanded, the formation of community. For many people, that community became as important as the one people had spent years cultivating in meatspace.
“Meatspace” is one of the words I learned on the Well. It means the space where meat meets, meat like you and me and all those living beings in the real world. The earliest print mention of the word, sez the Wiki, was in the Austin Cyberspace Journal in 1993, but I’m pretty sure I learned in 1989. Everyone on the Well was more computer literate than I was, and I had to learn the acronyms (Remember IMHO? Or its more confident cousin IMNSHO? Has YMMV died a terrible death?), I had to note its revered artifacts (Moore’s Law, Repo Man, “Visual Display of Quantitative Information”) and its instantly appearing memes.
It was an autodidact’s carnival. I was unaware that other people were learning the culture as well, and they, like me, were also creating the culture. There was a lot of looking around and saying “what the hell are we doing?” People thought maybe it was a grand adventure, unless it was some adolescent acting-out fantasy. It was of course both.
And all this energy inevitably spilled over into, you know, meatspace. There were parties, fabulous collections of freaks and geeks and musicians and futurists and many people working in what would come to be called Silicon Valley. A lot of them were hackers, and an understanding attitude towards various forms of benign lawbreaking was central to the culture.
And stuff got real too. Someone was hospitalized for tests, and someone else fell off a boat, and then someone had cancer and someone else was in rehab and then people died, as people will. There was an extremely troubling on-line suicide. And then, well, bi-polar, or poverty, or crippling anxiety; people whose only community was this one.
A lot of people got laid because of the Well, and some got married, and others threw elaborate parties. But the center of the community was still on line. It was the truest expression; not in real life, but in this other equally real life. People say oh, it’s an addiction, but no, it’s actually a rich emotional environment. It’s people coming together voluntarily to be people coming together.
I hear a lot of complaining about phones these days. People with their noses in their phones all the time. “Carl, I see them at the cafes, all these kids staring blankly like goddam zombies, Carl, at their phones, like goddam zombies. Why aren’t they out killing foxes?” Or whatever.
But I know that they’re not getting zombified; they’re getting socialized in a whole new way. I’ve been there; I’ve done that; it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t interfere with your grasp of reality. It’s a culture. It feels distinct from other cultures, the way (say) Mexican culture feels different than U.S. culture. Facebook feels different than Twitter, and I assume Snapchat feels different from both. You can feel it in the interaction, in the odd moments of art, in the native dialect.
From my point of view, the current problem is that community is monetized, the way marriage has been monetized, the way death has been monetized. But I suspect that The Young have found a way around that. Group texting is unmediated and without advertising; I imagine that there any number of wormholes and playgrounds somewhere in there. Indeed, there’s evidence on the Internet that this is true, but The Young don’t talk about it much because it’s technically illegal. Which would be in the grand tradition of the hackers I met 25 years ago.
The battle between man and computer will be long and bloody. It’s doubly complicated because we’re also going to have to fight the robots. But I have confidence: We can colonize them before they colonize us. As Faulkner remarked on getting the Nobel Prize, “It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.”
Photography by Tracy Johnston
Effective cheering by Michelle Mizera