ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

That Time that I Cared —

The hardest part of my “job” is neither the collecting of artifacts and information, nor the by-its-very-nature obsolesence of the things I surround my life with. It’s not even the lawyer threats or the endless arranging of my time such that I can do the work of 387 meth addicts.

The hardest part, by far, is remembering when I cared.

And by cared, I mean absolutely lived for these things, these textfiles, these software programs, all these printouts and parts of computer history long gone. It has been to my dismay as I travel through my no-dress-rehearsal life to realize how absolutely talented our minds are to dull and dismiss anything we keep close to ourselves for too long. I really really care about this stuff, but it is a different sort of caring than I once had. Whereas in some ways these late-night collection runs and warez trading still bring the smile and memories to my face, I am not “in the moment” anymore.

As a youth, I would watch download progress bars like a jeweler working on the Hope Diamond. I would wait, breathlessly, for someone to respond to my sub-board posting on a BBS that probably had 200 people to its name and a single line for them to share. I would read, intensely, the textfiles I downloaded and printed out, studying them in school or on a bus or walking along the highway to and from the local diner that had arcade games. This was an entirely different form of living and in that way I was very much alive but a different sort of alive than now.

The human mind’s ability to sort through its world and experiences and produce a shopping list of not-accurate-but-will-do-for-now rules to follow from them has given us some pretty amazing triumphs, as well as the occasional terrifying disaster. It is what we do, and as we get older, we change so that things we’ve encountered before have a warm but distant glow to them, demarcating that we can avoid the whole intense study phase and move right to the decision phase. But a warm and distant glow is nothing compared to an intense burn.

Discoveries delight; rebuttals sting. Anger flares. Secrets smolder. Like a deflated balloon looking up at a ceiling it used to knock against, I can recall a great many events in my young life that cut lines of indelible ink across previously open sheets of paper. The thrill of newness, of realizing I’d stumbled into a whole new place for myself, and the seemingly-endless chain of connected miniature revelations that these breakthroughs would drag into my life. I can see these things, but I don’t quite feel them the same way, even recalling them and being the very person who experienced them.

The challenge, therefore, is for my work to reflect in itself a sense of excitement, of caring, of non-dismissive regard for the great and wonderful things that have come and will come again, refashioned. I am capable, as any readers of this weblog or patrons from nearby restaurant tables can attest, of a nuclear level of cynicism. If I don’t concentrate, and this is a good percentage of the time, I can receive the gift of a fan or admirer at an event or in my e-mail and return it with a useless self-deprecating kooshball of quasi-acknowledgement that does me no favors and the other party even less.

This is wrong, as wrong as a person can be.

Yes, there are salesmen and jerks and all the hazards of human interaction, but there are, so many more times, that person for whom your own old hats are glittering new headgear, expanding their minds. I get letters all the time with this tone, of a kid who just wants to talk, chat, engage me for a while. Entertainingly, the eggs of their questions usually come wrapped in a nest of complimentary platitudes that sound exactly like someone who is sweating over every word to avoid offending me in any way.

At conferences and parties, I’ve caused that jolt of recognition as someone figures out I’m that textfiles guy. They’re not putting on an act, they’re not cynically regarding me as a point of ridicule; they’re honestly surprised and happy to see me. After the first few times, it becomes difficult to give each new person that same smiling and open-faced regard. But that’s what makes it difficult: I must.

GET LAMP is as much a story about the excitement of the text adventure genre as it is about “history” in the sense of “a connected series of events”. I’ve shown the occasional bit of film to people, and the opinions range. One thing that’s obvious to me is that it won’t be anything like the BBS Documentary was, and will approach the subject matter with a lot of talking heads but with a ton of artistic insert shots too. (These are embryonic plans and could change, of course.)

But here’s the germ of the idea: for the young, the first time they sat down at a text adventure, even one of Scott Adams’ two-word-parser “Grand Adventures”, I’ve found that people were overcome, literally washed away, with the sense that they could do absolutely anything with these games. For those who program or who programmed in environments prevalent back then, the potential horizon was a lot shorter than the player thought… but that’s the skill needed with any linerar/semi-linear tale: making the reader/player feel they’re in control, can step away at a moment’s notice from the “plot” and change things however they wish. That feeling, which I simply cannot feel like I once did, has to show up in the film and hopefully make everyone feel washed over with a sense of possibility. If done right, that will be a wonder to behold.

I realize my good fortune in having this be the “worst aspect” of the life I live. But like any shortcoming, you can ignore it as unimportant and do so at the peril of waking up one day to find yourself not growing up but dying down.

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  1. Like you, I was there. I was there, turning off my monitor at bed time in an attempt to fool my parents into thinking my computer was really off. I was there, scrounging allowance in order to afford yet another box of floppy disks. I remember going from 40 to 80 columns, from 300 to 1200 baud, from green screen to color, from cassette tapes to floppy disks.

    Back then it seems like technology was advancing by leaps and bounds. Every new game and every new system pushed boundaries to new limits. But now … I don’t know. The last major breakthru I can really remember is getting a cable modem, and that was close to a decade ago. I guess you could throw flat panel monitors in that list too, but in ’98 I had a 1ghz machine and now I have a 2ghz machine. Hard drives have increased a few hundred gigs here or there, but we’re still talking about gigabytes, not terabytes. Game makers are still dressing up Doom/Quake and calling it a genre.

    I dunno. I wonder if kids today will have as much to be amazed about. Rose-tinted glasses, perhaps? Maybe it’s just the fact that I’m not there anymore.

  2. Jon Shadden says:

    Ah, I remember when I “cared” as well. I have over 1,000 5 1/2 floppy disks worth of old “care” sitting unorganized in a flimsy cardboard box in the basement alongside a broken Apple II, Commodore 64, an Amiga and a Commodore 128 (with a vast assortment of semi-working peripherals).

    Last time I looked through them (when the first emulators came on the scene and I was anxious to transfer the software over to the PC) I could remember where I got most of the programs on them from… which BBS, which person to person trade, etc. and I wondered why I cared enough to remember.

    But in all honesty, for me, it was never about the games, the text files, or the raw information. The BBS scene provided the social interaction that I sorely lacked while in school. It allowed me to be the person I didn’t have the guts to be as an adolescent— a power broker, a rulemaker, an elite. As I grew older, the skills that I learned from the BBS world carried over from the fantasy world I created while on a BBS to the real world. Bonus.

    I also could recall, to some degree, what was going on in my life when I downloaded such and such… who my friends were, which milestone I was reaching, etc. Much like when I catch a whiff of a perfume that an old girlfriend would wear, I would flash back with an intensity to a pleasant part of my life, if only for just a moment.

    This site does this for me as well… I remember reading some of the textfiles as a youth, being awed with the mystique of boxing, dreaming of whipping up a bomb using common household materials (I never did) laughing at those so-called “anarchy” files. When I re-read them here, I capture those thoughts and emotions once again— if only for a very brief moment.

    And I know this isn’t a unique experience. Like the former jock who walks his old football field or a person who drives by the house they used to live in while dreaming of days gone by… nostalgia can be euphoric and intoxicating.

    So unlike you, I still remembered when I cared. However, I don’t quite know WHY I cared, and to some degree still do care.

    I could talk for hours about text files, warez trading at 300 baud, Alliance calls, up-all-night BBS hopping, PBX pranks, the dawn of the BBS scene and all the details of mid-80’s phreaking, but any audience I attempt to share this stuff with have a hard time stifling a face engulfing yawn. Sometimes I think that the way I spent my youth has alienated me in a way that I have very few shared childhood experiences with my contemporary friends.

    Baseball cards and little league? Nah, cathode flicker and pink noise.

    But in the basement, that flimsy box still sits. Other than being “that box full of junk” to my wife, it serves as an anchor of sorts.

    Perhaps that is why I care.

  3. Trixter says:

    Holy crap — Jason has a mood swing! Never thought I’d see the day. A chink in the armor!

    We care because we care *more* about what happens if we don’t.