SPACEWAR Is Still My Metaphor

It’s important sometimes to realize that while we are blazing new trails in mainstream education, we are really dealing with the dam of industrial culture finally breaking.

We’ve been paying attention enough to know why it’s breaking. We deserve credit for that.

In fact, we’ve been waiting for it to break.

But the ideas that fuel me (and I think possibly you) aren’t as new as most of my colleagues think. What we are looking at is the transference of a hacking culture to a mainstream population. That’s the revolution in a nutshell.

Educational institutions need to turn out more hackers. Because it’s the hackers, not the planners, that will save this planet.

So while the idea of the “hacker next door” might be novel to our co-workers, the culture is warmly familiar to us. It’s decentralized, it values recursion, iteration, intervention. It sees consumer/producer divisions as quaint. It sees five-year-plans as authoritarian and unproductive. It sees the Machine as an extension of Self.

In a way, it was all so predictable.

But I went back and reread Stewart Brand today and, well, if you haven’t read his early stuff recently, treat yourself to it. It will take your breath away. The wisdom of crowds, planner vs. hackers, machines as community builders, it’s all there.

From Stewart Brand’s brilliant 1972 article in Rolling Stone on the playing and creation of SPACEWAR:

Where a few brilliantly stupid computers can wreak havoc, a host of modest computers (and some brilliant ones) serving innumerable individual purposes can be healthful, can repair havoc, feed life. (Likewise, 20 crummy speakers at once will give better sound fidelity than one excellent speaker – try it.)

Spacewar serves Earthpeace. So does any funky playing with computers or any computer-pursuit of your own peculiar goals, and especially any use of computers to offset other computers. It won’t be so hard. The price of hardware is coming down fast, and with the new CMOS chips (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor integrated circuits) the energy-drain of major computing drops to Flashlight-battery level.

Part of the grotesqueness of American life in these latter days is a subservience to Plan that amounts to panic. What we don’t intend shouldn’t happen. What happens anyway is either blamed on our enemies or baldly ignored. In our arrogance we close our ears to voices not our rational own, we routinely reject the princely gifts of spontaneous generation.

Spacewar as a parable is almost too pat. It was the illegitimate child of the marrying of computers and graphic displays. It was part of no one’s grand scheme. It served no grand theory. It was the enthusiasm of irresponsible youngsters. It was disreputably competitive (“You killed me, Tovar!”). It was an administrative headache. It was merely delightful.

Yet Spacewar, if anyone cared to notice, was a flawless crystal ball of things to come in computer science and computer use:

  1. It was intensely interactive in real time with the computer.
  2. It encouraged new programming by the user.
  3. It bonded human and machine through a responsive broadband interface of live graphics display.
  4. It served primarily as a communication device between humans.
  5. It was a game.
  6. It functioned best on, stand-alone equipment (and diarupted multiple-user equipment).
  7. It served human interest, not machine. (Spacewar is trivial to a computer.)
  8. It was delightful.

In those days of batch processing and passive consumerism (data was something you sent to the manufacturer, like color film), Spaccwar was heresy, uninvited and unwelcome. The hackers made Spacewar, not the planners. When computers become available to everybody, the hackers take over. We are all Computer Bums, all more empowered as individuals and as co-operators. That might enhance things … like the richness and rigor of spontaneous creation and of human interaction … of sentient interaction.

Treat yourself, and go read the whole article now. It should be required reading for anybody going into learning technology.

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