The autodidact’s carnival

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.

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Meatspace: an example

“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.

Flying in space: A metaphor

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.”

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Humans unaware that they are outdated


Photography by Tracy Johnston

Effective cheering by Michelle Mizera


27 thoughts on “The autodidact’s carnival

  1. I remember when CB radio was the Social Media of it’s day.

    What I noticed was that: “Nobody had anything to say, and they were all dying to say it.”

    The InterWebs have broader horizons and one doesn’t need to queue up behind a “breaker-breaker” so it may have pockets of richness somewhere among the pictures of breakfasts.

    I hope there is room for both curated and uncurated content.

    We are not reading this blog by chance.

    (A hidden “computer thingie” is the little mandala next to our name. I suspect it is the result of an algorithm processing something or other. Computers! Gosh…)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I can’t help suggesting that it was Unix that drove early Well people out into meatspace.

    Online communities are so great for people with disabilities and/or anxiety disorders. They are also the only way to have an active global community. My little online community always talks about getting together but few of us have met more than a few, if any, of the others because we live on different continents or in different hemispheres. And it’s the BEST way to socialize with Aussies since you don’t have to travel for days or hear their accents.


  3. I’m probably an old fart, but I’m not sure about phones not interfering with reality. I was at the beach the other day and the pre-phone kids were having a grand old time frolicking in the surf, while the teens were standing still ankle-deep in the water and staring at their phones. I would say the youngsters were more in touch with reality.


  4. Thanks for addressing this, Jon. The time when this …whatever this is…was more Social than Media was a very good time for many of us. I had many friends who were terrified of the faceless people they might find “out there”, but, as a writer with a lot of chatty Gemini, I came right on board. Hooked immediately.
    In 1996, I was one of those half million people who had WebTv, which was early technology allowing you to have a computer on your TV. We were a firewalled community. We could surf the net, but others could not come into WebTv groups, etc. No advertising either!
    As with Meatspace, the relationships were as real as virtual relationships can be. The newsgroups were lively and like a daily meeting place, a virtual coffee shop, where everyone would meet up every day, posting our comments on bulletin boards. A precursor to My Space and Facebook.
    I am happy to say that there are still 8 friends from the now defunct WebTv who still meet up every day in another land, called Quick Topic…altho most of us also meet on FB now too. We’ve all known each other virtually for 20 years! That’s amazing, I think.
    We had one marriage with 2 kids come out of this old newsgroup called “Cuckoo”. The kids are in their teens now.
    There have been 3 deaths…and believe me, the tears I cried were not virtual. We miss them very much.
    We can hide a lot from each other online (I think some suspect that I am 600 pounds, stuck in a trailer) but daily contact with people can often be a safer space than the real world…And turn virtual strangers into real friends.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. My relationship to the computer is nearly identical to yours, even the “starting” date, though you know far more about the Well than I do, But we share, I believe, a commitment to clear, honest, meaningful (and funny) communication.

    Your Faulkner quotation intrigued me, and I looked it up. Alas, I think your use of it, though witty, is almost opposite to what he meant. He says next:

    “I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

    He goes on, and while, had he lived until now, he might have stopped where you did, I suspect he would not have. And, though with different language, I think you speak to the same place in us, which is part of why I appreciate you so much. But please, don’t shortchange Faulkner. I — we — need you both!


      1. Regarding YMMV and other acronyms, I coined “#####” to denote sarcasm, since it is hard to transmit through text. . . I still see it pop up here and there on occasion . . .


      2. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think the thing is that I don’t agree with Faulkner; I don’t like the idea of man “prevailing,” and I don’t think he will. But we’ll still be indomitable, even if occasionally dominated.


  6. Members of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in San Francisco can now follow the 13th-century liturgy on their phones and tablets. This pretty much leaves me (a member) speechless.


  7. Just today I had lunch with a WELL friend I hadn’t seen f2f in 16 years (though we live less than an hour’s drive from each other). It was lovely.

    But what is this Twitter shortcut of which you speak? I probably shouldn’t ask, because then I’d have to think of something to Tweet, which is always a challenge. Well, wait. If you could describe the shortcut and also include some Twitterable musings, that would be great, thanks.


  8. >>(A hidden “computer thingie” is the little mandala next to our name. I suspect it is the result of an algorithm processing something or other. Computers! Gosh…)

    I can walk you through personalising that if you want, Allan.


    1. Thanks Susan, if I can’t, I’ll contact…

      The main delight to me is that the mandala is mine, always the same.

      I didn’t make it, it found me and stuck!

      My mandala recognizes me and puts itself by my name!

      It came from Gravatar but the creation specifics are a mystery worthy of mystic wonder.


  9. Must we use the word “meatspace”? I don’t know if anyone else does or not, but it sets my teeth on edge every time I encounter it. Gross, puerile, uncouth and utterly inadequate as a descriptor, seems to me. No offense intended, just had to get that off my chest.


  10. Arrrrgh this makes me sad cause you tried to get me to participate in the Well all those years ago and I didn’t do it. My big loss. xo



  11. Regarding YMMV and other acronyms, I coined “#####” to denote sarcasm, since it is hard to transmit through text. . . I still see it pop up here and there on occasion . . .


  12. Participating in an extended digital community is one thing, but retreating from the real world is another. Most of us are accustomed to passing a few minutes staring into our cell phones while waiting for a waiter, the entree, or a tardy dining companion, but on my daily late afternoon walks, I see so many people, mostly young, eyes glued to that little cell phone screen as they walk their dogs. Here it is, a beautiful spring day, the warm sun beaming down from a clear blue sky, the jacaranda trees and bougainvillea bursting out in riotous color… and these kids are missing it all. A previous comment mentioned seeing youngsters at the beach, knee-deep in the tidal flow, lost in their cell phones.

    This, I’ll never understand. They’re not remotely present in the real, non-digital moment.

    Well, young people have always been experts at befuddling their elders, and I suppose it’s their choice. But when they wander across a busy street while transfixed on that cell phone — or worse, when behind the wheel — this digital obsession can result in a lot of bloody collateral damage in the meatspace world.

    Moderation in all things, the ancient Greeks teach us, and that should extend to the digital world. Alas, moderation remains in short supply among the young, which — having been young myself, long ago — is one thing I really do understand…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Ahh… back when being a hooker was a good thing… And lunch! At that ancient Chinese hole in the wall. Then the final devolution to Earthlink.


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