Generation byte

"Extra Life" recalls what growing up with computers once was like -- and complains about what it has become


Andrew Leonard
November 5, 1998 12:00PM (UTC)

To write a memoir at age 30 is an audacious act: Your average 30-year-old is rarely interesting enough to be worthy of a biography, let alone that most egotistical of all written works, the autobiography. That's not to say it doesn't happen often -- these days, professional athletes and rock stars seem to become memorialized as soon as they are out of diapers -- but it usually just doesn't work. To look back upon your life successfully, you need to have had a full one first.

David Bennahum escapes that trap in his new memoir, "Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace." It is difficult to argue with Bennahum's contention that he represents an intriguingly unique generation -- one whose coming of age coincided with the arrival of the computer into everyday life. To be a 12-year-old at the cusp of a revolution, and to be intimately infatuated with the gory details of that revolution, is a rare thing -- and not often repeated. As Bennahum writes, "growing up with computers when computers were still young was different."

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"You are the first children to grow up with computers," Bennahum's high school computer teacher, Mr. Moran, tells his class. And in Bennahum's case, that is undoubtedly the truth. Bennahum approaches the computer not as a journalist exploring an alien culture, but from the perspective of a hacker insider. Previous generations built model airplanes; Bennahum learned how to code. He hung out at the earliest iterations of "pirate" bulletin board systems, and knows what it was like to speed online when a 1200-baud modem was considered a Ferrari.

As a writer with impeccable geek credentials, Bennahum assays one of the most difficult tasks a hacker can ever set his mind to -- translating his passion for a landscape of silicon-chip logic gates and IF-THEN programming statements into poetry accessible to a general audience. Bennahum attacks his cause with Proustian intensity -- mesmerized by the thought of his long-mothballed Atari computer, seeing infinity in a recursion loop bug, realizing the nature of digital truth in a high school computer class:

"In other classes the search for truth felt abstract, but ironically, here in the symbolic world of bits, truth took on corporeal form. Here truth actually did something -- built a picture, ran a game, calculated a database. Truth felt authentic. The quest for it forged a sensation of intellectual honesty that I'd never known before."

This is ground that others have traveled, most notably, Ellen Ullman in "Close to the Machine" and Tracy Kidder in "The Soul of a New Machine." Bennahum's new twist is to lead us into the world of the computer through the eyes of a child progressing through adolescence, exploring the intimacy a computer offers to a kid with few social graces and loner tendencies.

Those of us who were with him on that journey into digital wonderland will find plenty of familiar, nostalgia-inducing moments. That first sight of "Pong"! The debut of "Space Invaders"! The amazing power inherent in writing a little BASIC program! Bennahum gives us an engaging look at the mind-set of an evolving hacker and captures a time and place that will never return.

But as Bennahum gets older and wiser and "Extra Life" reaches for a greater thesis, the book becomes progressively less satisfying. Bennahum tells us that "computers do think a certain way, and exposure to the way computers think in turn changed the way we thought. They programmed us as much as we programmed them, and thus a generation came of age experiencing not simply a new toy but a different way of seeing." These are provocative words, and they may well be true, but Bennahum doesn't give enough examples for us to chew on. Was digital magic really the reason he escaped the drugs and delinquency that beset his sister, and ended up as student body president of his elite private school before moving on to Harvard? The pieces never quite fall into place. Instead, lengthy meditations on the purity of the PASCAL computer language and the glories of the PDP-11 computer become inexorably less accessible.

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And a recurring theme of self-pity begins to become an irritant. Bennahum bemoans the transition from the bare-bones computers of his youth to the more user-friendly Macintoshes and IBM PCs that became widespread as he grew older. The generations that followed his, he observes, will never experience the same "thrill of pioneering" that his did, now that they are divorced from the innards of the computer, now that glossy graphic interfaces keep them at arm's length from raw code. "You couldn't learn how to write a spreadsheet by reading the VisiCalc program," Bennahum writes -- as if, somehow, this is a tragic thing. "But worst of all was the feeling of the fun disappearing ... No one talked much about computers as tools for creativity."

This view is in striking contrast to the more widely accepted notion that making computers easier to use makes them better tools for creativity. Most people don't want to program; they want to create. But for Bennahum, the transition from ones and zeros to icons and mouse clicks is the end of a happy era: "That original place beyond the screen, where we'd found so much extra life, appeared to shrink. The once exclusive shop had become a wide mall as millions of people discovered these machines. Our small culture had seeped into mass culture."

Some observers might see that culture seepage as a victory and not a defeat: The fun is spreading, not disappearing. But beyond that, it's just not true that the thrill is gone. Most kids today might be playing Quake, but there's always an avant-garde of youthful experimenters pushing at the edge of what is possible. Today it might be a Java applet or a Perl script; tomorrow it will be something else.

As Bennahum reiterates his theme -- the Internet, too, will be destroyed by its own popularity, commercialized beyond redemption -- his bittersweet coming-of-age tale begins to sound more selfish than celebratory. Yes, it is sad that the PDP-11 he cut his teeth on at the Horace Mann School has been thrown away as a pile of junk. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the students hunched over Macintoshes he observes on a visit back to the school are now consigned to live in "a place where the amphetamine of pure form has given way to the treacly rush of toyland." To think so is to strike a pose of pure elitism -- and scorn the power that the personal computer delivers to everyone.

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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