FOR L=54272 TO 54296: POKE L,0: NEXT

This post has nothing to do with the Middle Ages, but I hope my regular readers will indulge me as I join CNN in celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Commodore 64. So many readers responded to their story that the network published a follow-up article full of fond remembrances from the era of frizzy hair and stonewashed denim jackets.

I’m amused, but hardly surprised, to see that many of those readers cite the C-64 as their initiation into the life of the techie. Most of my computer-owning friends did go on to prosper as engineers and programmers, but let me raise a minority voice: for some of us, that computer was also our gateway to the humanities.

Oh, it would be easy for me to cite the influence of computerized fantasy games, or the ways that programming made me appreciate the versatile applications of symbolic logic, or the software-pirate friend whose excursions into international trade prompted me to find out exactly where Finland was on a map. No, much more important was the fact that with the addition of a simple $60 cartridge, that ugly brown machine whisked us into an entirely new dimension nearly a decade before the rest of the world discovered it: an online cosmos of discussion and debate.

Today, most of my old techie friends are sharper, livelier writers than many of the humanities types I meet. I don’t wonder why. Logged into single-line bulletin boards, reveling in a crudeness I’m glad the world has forgotten, we learned how to craft an argument for a particular audience; we discovered, through trial and error, the tricks of persuasive writing; and we learned, eventually, the art of conveying tone. All of this experimentation occurred in one of the few non-academic environments that encouraged our flailing attempts at coherent, articulate writing, an entirely online milieu that would later take the rest of the world by surprise—and which most of us never imagined would someday go mainstream.

In the past decade, I’ve kept a roof over my head by cranking out a million words of uncredited copy. Freelance gigs have given me an excuse to romp across England and Wales; subsequent paychecks have funded adventures in the Balkans and South Korea. Five feet from where I’m typing this, a carton of trade paperbacks with my name on each cover amuses me to no end, because I know there’d be no little Charlemagne book had I not owned that dumpy computer.

Twenty-five years later, my programming skills, which were never formidable, are finally rusted and gone. Other people troubleshoot my technical problems, and I consider it a triumph when I fiddle with blog templates and manage not to break anything. By contrast, most of my fellow Commodore owners pursued careers that capitalized on those early encounters with personal computers. They stayed current; I spun off in a wildly different direction. Regardless, I’m pleased to claim at least honorary membership in the online generation falsely accused of “changing the positions of satellites up in the blue heavens”—even if all I did on my home computer was simply learn how to write.

5 thoughts on “FOR L=54272 TO 54296: POKE L,0: NEXT

  1. I was just wondering the other day…suppose the web (and specifically the blogging tools) had lacked typographical and formatting capabilities and nothing was available except raw text. Would it ever have taken off? Would people have written long and well-thought-out essays, as opposed to just short telegraphic messages? Your story suggests that the answer to at least the second part of the question is “yes.”

    You might be interested in this post: Metaphors, Interfaces, and Thought Processes.

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  2. David: Thanks for your comment (and the link). I’m struck by the third-from-last paragraph in your post: “But the number of blog-writers and blog-readers remains small as a proportion of the population, and the failures of K-12 education have arguably created a large segment of people who will never be able to deal easily and naturally with text.” One of the hallmarks of the “pre-Web” was that it took work to master the tools. Being able to deal easily and naturally with text, understanding the abstraction of the command-line interface, and being patient enough to experiment with that interface in the first place were all prerequisites. Software advances have made it easier for people to work around those last two issues, but being comfortable with pure text is, as you correctly point out, still not a commonly held skill. That’s why blogging is, I suspect, as much a minority activity in 2007 as Usenet participation was in 1991 or BBSing was in 1984.

    In the spirit of my post, though, I’m still left to wonder: what (if anything) are today’s 15-year-olds learning about writing from blogs, online journals, and social-networking sites that they’re not learning in the classroom? I have no basis for even beginning to answer that question, but amid all the fretting and conventional wisdom about the damaging effects of online communication and text-message lingo, I think it’s a question worth asking.

    Jeffery: I hope I haven’t given the impression that the level of discourse on those early bulletin boards was particularly lofty! We were, after all, merely a bunch of surly teenagers arguing about nonsense. Even so, the emphasis on public writing was tremendously valuable. In my high-school English classes, I had to impress only the teacher; online, I had to impress and persuade my peers. You can imagine whose approval I valued more highly at that age.

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