Crave the sweet hum of a dial-up modem or the early days of IM? We get nostalgic with the best technological memoirs this side of the www
We are living in a brave new era of memoir, with writers looking back on their relationships with machines as much as those with people. When you recall a memory heavily involving technology – the message board you once hung out on, a decisive Skype call you once made, the first sext you ever sent – the line between the tech and the emotion barely exists. It makes sense, then, that the best of personal nonfiction writing today often features tender recollections of machines and their relationship to the writer. This could be games journalism, histories of computing, straightforward autobiography, anything – screens are everywhere, so they are in everything. This week, we highlight ten of the best in personal technological writing.
“TIME MAY CHANGE ME: DAVID BOWIE AND OMIKRON: THE NOMAD SOUL” BY JOE BERNARDI
Joe Bernardi’s reviews for Paste take brilliant advantage of the simple structural fact of video games: an individual human relating to an individual product. In this review of Omikron: The Nomad Soul, originally released in 1999, he uses the game as a yardstick by which to measure his own change over time as a person. Tech time and human time move in strange asynchrony with one another, but – like Paul Ford below – Bernardi shows the emotional stakes of the points where they cross.
BREATHING MACHINE BY LEIGH ALEXANDER
Games/tech culture journalist and rad individual Leigh Alexander’s memoir is a sweet, lyrical account of growing up in the dawning internet age. Anybody who tried to fire up the dial-up without their parents hearing will relate to her tale of a youth spent in love with the screen.
“THE SIXTH STAGE OF GRIEF IS RETRO-COMPUTING” BY PAUL FORD
Paul Ford is one of the best writers on the internet right now, full stop. But his work about messing about with computers and feelings simultaneously is pretty much without peer. In last week’s essay, Ford talks about the past, his friend Tom, and emulating old computer systems as a way to get back to the past.
ZZT BY ANNA ANTHROPY
In the early nineties, there was an MS-DOS game called ZZT, which essentially allowed players to design their own games. Anna Anthropy’s book by the same name is nominally about remembering the game but in fact about much more besides: weird stuff, sex stuff, teen stuff, tech stuff. A perfect memoir.
CLOSE TO THE MACHINE: TECHNOPHILIA AND ITS DISCONTENTS BY ELLEN ULLMAN
Originally published in 1997, Ellen Ullman’s book is that rare thing – a memoir of working in programming that is sensitive, literary and accessible. Her stories of life as a woman working in tech from the late 70s onward are full of unusual insight; complicating the standard narrative of what it meant to work in tech in the late twentieth century.
“GENERATION WHY” BY ZADIE SMITH
Zadie Smith is not a particularly tech-y novelist: she may have updated the epistolary novel to include email in On Beauty, but that’s about it. Her “New York Review of Books” essay about social media, therefore, is an ambivalent walk through a range of conflicting feelings. In it, she actually admits to quitting Facebook after only two months, which lends the whole piece the interesting flavour of a genius talking about something she is barely acquainted with. Does social media shut down or expand possibility? This is Smith’s central question. Even if we’re not sure we agree with her answer.
“A BRIEF HISTORY OF NTP TIME: MEMOIRS OF AN INTERNET TIMEKEEPER” BY DAVID L. MILLS
Okay, this is definitely more technical than it is literary. But David L. Mills’ article about “the origins and evolution of the Network Time Protocol (NTP) over two decades of continuous operation” is an engaging tale of amateur expertise. As he puts it in the paper’s abstract, this “narrative is decidedly personal, since the job description for an internet timekeeper is highly individualised and invites very few applicants. There is no attempt here to present a comprehensive tutorial, only an almanac of personal observations, eclectic minutiae and fireside chat.” Weird and laudable work.
THE EARLY YEARS OF ACADEMIC COMPUTING BY KENNETH KING
Cornell University’s Library has this tiny resource with only two books in it, “The Early Years of Academic Computing: A Collection of Memoirs”. One of them is by Kenneth King. An illustrious computer scientist, King looks back at a university research career spanning 1953 to 1993. It is full of amazing stories, like this one of a researcher messing up a project on an IBM 704 computer in the mid-50s:
“At the end of his allotted time he pulled his output from the card punch and observed that the decaled edge of the cards seemed to be randomly distributed in every corner of the deck. He had failed to feed all the cards face down, 12s-edge-first into the punch. It was an easy mistake to make. Every tabulating machine had a different rule for inserting cards; some face up, some face down, some 12s edge first, some 9s edge first. That’s why college graduates were hired to put cards into those machines. A card had a printed face with the decaled edge on the top left. The top of the card was called the 12s edge and the bottom was called the 9s edge. I thought that the Professor was going to cry. He said, “I’ve wasted a whole week”! I told him that his output could still be rescued because the printer didn’t really care whether the cards were face up or face down and he could still print his output if he inserted the cards properly into the printer. He seemed very puzzled and held the thick deck of cards over his head turning and twisting the deck as he looked at it. He suddenly exclaimed, “That’s right, the holes go all the way through”! As he had this aha moment he flipped his hand and his output flew into the air and was distributed across the computer room floor. It was now my sad duty to inform him that he had indeed wasted a week. At the time I pondered whether his observation on the holes might serve as a starting point for a new computer-based academic discipline, but then dismissed the idea.”
GIVE ME EVERYTHING YOU HAVE: ON BEING STALKED BY JAMES LASDUN
James Lasdun’s memoir of being stalked by a deranged former student is terrifying for many reasons, not least among them the digital means by which the stalking was conducted. This was an email-oriented terrorism, with the stalker sending emails seemingly from Lasdun’s own account and plastering the internet with vicious slander. Makes you long for the days of just not picking up the phone.
MEMOIRS OF A COMPUTER PIONEER BY MAURICE WILKES
Like Kenneth King, Maurice Wilkes’ memoir is about working with computers in the mid-twentieth century, but even earlier – he retired from Cambridge University in 1980. Wilkes was the second ever director of Cambridge’s computer lab in 1945. He built and designed the EDSAC, the first stored-program computer, and deserves the credit for many projects which made higher-level programming languages possible. A fascinating book by an architect of the technology we’re using to write this article.