Two stories and a manifesto.
When I was in my senior year of high school, I was inspired by the Hofstra University humor magazine Nonsense to put together a humor magazine. Teaming up with two other buddies, John and Alex, we created a magazine called EsnesnoN, which was, of course, “Nonsense” backwards. The rules for what was acceptable in a high school magazine were much different than a college one, and there were a number of other notable differences, like our lack of an official office and our much smaller budget. But ultimately, we not only got recognition and some amount of funding, we created three issues in our first year (1988). And since all three of us were seniors at high school, we passed it on immediately to another student, who kept it going, and who then passed it on to others who kept it going…. in fact, it went for at least 10 years. But this is all trivia.
In 1988, when we were all doing this, the general way that a magazine was done was to print out, either on a dot-matrix printer or by going to a professional printer, the columns you would be having in your magazine or newspaper. You would then take these printouts, cut them with scissors, and then paste them, using actual paste, onto a piece of paper which you could then take to a printer to have copied onto large sheets of paper (11×17″ in our case) which would then be folded in half and stapled and which you could then sell or give away. There were electronic publishing systems, to be sure, but not in high school, and not available to us.
We did this for the first issue; either print stuff out directly onto paper or draw in our stuff into a “master” which we then took to a horrible printer who took forever (weeks) and then eventually blorted out the issues we wanted, which we then sold at a nice proft, allowing us to do another issue.
After doing the first issue, we got access to the computer lab and found a program called Aldus Pagemaker. Running on Macintosh computers along one side of the room, you could run this program and work with it during lab hours or during lunch or basically when nobody was teaching a class in there. After playing with the program a little, learning how the little tabs and sliders and the rest worked, John and I (who by that point had become the dominant, driving editors) decided this was the way to go. The school newspapers (there were two) and the other magazines (there were three) were doing nothing like this, and we figured that we could leverage the fact that we didn’t need to be timely and in fact could be enormously stupid, to get around any hurdles. So we started doing stuff with the Macintoshes.
First, we needed some photographs or digital images to put in this new issue. We had a sort of mascot/assistant, Matt, who we took photos of eating a bowl of nuts and bolts. The idea was our cover would be like a cereal box, and if you happened to look closely, you would see he was eating metal garbage. You know, funny.
To take these photos, we had one of the students with darkroom access take the photo for us, after we’d set up the shot, and then this student would get time in the high school darkroom, and a day or two later happily presented us with a manilla folder full of 3-5 8×11″ prints of the photos we’d taken.
We then were able to take these photos to the scanner in the computer room, and using a scanning program, turn them into TIFFs. The TIFFs were likely in the 200×400 range, so they’d fit on the floppies we had, and then we were able to drag the images into Pagemaker and put text around them. Once we found that we could choose all sorts of neat text and then see how it looked on the screen (sort of), we knew we were the kickass cutting edge magazine on campus, and the rest of the dinosaurs could just die.
The high school had no laser printer. The way we got around this was that I was the school announcer, and as a result was friendly with the office staff, and it turned out that the Chappaqua school district had a laser printer, in the main office, located a number of miles away. So we negotiated this deal: after saving our pages to a floppy, we would put the floppy into an interoffice mail folder, which we would then address to the right person in the central office to print. After a day this letter would be picked up, where it would end up on the desk of a nice person we never met, who would then print out the page/pages on the laser printer, put the printed pages into a new interoffice envelope along with the floppy, and then a day or two later it would show up in our mailbox in the main office. The round trip was something between 3-5 days, depending.
Obviously, with no immediate feedback to the printing process, John and I would pore, methodically, over every bit of every page before we sent it out. We’d taken forever to get just the right artwork, just the right editing of the digitized photo of Matt’s head, just the right margins, and then we’d send it out into the interoffice mail system, and it would come back. Sometimes it could come back mangled, like blank pages, or with something cut off by the actual laser printer margin (which we didn’t know existed) or with a scaling issue or letters eating into each other because it turned out the font was wrong. So we’d then sit with the mangled paper and our saved file and try to coax this into a solid, working version, pore over it again, and then send it out for another 3-5 day trip.
When it was done, we waited a week while the printer did their work and then got back the second issue, a really nice, desktop published, black and white production that we thought was truly snazzy, and represented weeks and weeks and weeks of hard work.
The third issue took so long it came out after school ended, but that’s typical. It got out, after 4 more months of solid work, and I still have copies. Not bad for a few high school kids who thought the word “smegma” was funny.
One of my mentors who guided me in my youth was a fellow named Andrew/Andy Rubin (he later has come to be known as Android Rubin, or, even more likely, Mr. Rubin). He’s somewhat famous now; he was the guy who helped create the “Danger Hiptop” that became what a lot of folks call the “Sidekick”. He also worked at Apple, Zeiss, General Magic, and I think he currently works at Google. He’s a genius, and from the time I first knew him, he had the most amazing technological toys at his disposal.
At a time when people were content to run single-line BBSes running off of IBM PCs and Apple IIs, Andy was running an 8-line XENIX-based BBS called “Spies in the Wire” that could do UUCP mail. I understood almost none of all what it did, up to and including the fact that the idea of a system being “multi-user” was so foreign to me that I kind of refused to accept it, kind of like you might do if one of your friends could actually flap his wings and fly. You would just reject it like a bad organ and carry on. Andy had stuff like that all the time; when CD players were just becoming “not weird” to be in a house, he had one in his car. That could hold 12 CDs. So we’d drive around, he’d press a button, and it would just start playing music from the trunk. Again, this is all trivia.
Before he moved to California permanently, he lived in Ossining NY, in an apartment overlooking the prison yards of Sing Sing prison. I’m not exaggerating, because I stood there on his balcony and looked over the prison yard of Sing Sing, with yelling, arguing prisoners and bright lights. Apparently the rent was pretty good. He also mentioned that he would put his speakers on the balcony and blast “Jailhouse Rock” at them, but I wasn’t around for that and can’t verify the story is true. If anyone would do it, though, it was Andy.
One time when I was visiting him at his apartment, he was showing me some of the items he had lying around. One of them was a Pixar workstation, one of the experimental graphics workstations that could do amazing things for its time. I can’t recall at all what those specifications were. But I do remember the massive box next to it. I asked Andy what it was, and he explained it was a 200 megabyte disk. This was 1986 or 1987, quite a time to have a 200 megabyte disk.
But he had more than that. He had a couple other such behemoths, massive metal boxes that were 100 megabytes, or 200, and so on. I asked him why he had all this stuff, especially some that had no computer to hook up to.
He explained “I wanted to be able to say I had a gigabyte in the house.”
So there’s my two stories.
What’s going on in telling them, besides getting them down other than in my memories, is that in both these cases there are unspoken lengths and limits being incorporated. In the first, it’s time, and in the second it’s weight and cost. Both of these contribute, by their nature, to what constituted the roles of “acceptable”, “easy”, “hard” and so on in doing tasks, whether it was creating images, storing data or duplicating work.
To create a 8″x11″ sheet of printed laser printer represented days to weeks for me and John. To create a photograph and be able to see the outcome took days, and to see it finally reproduced on paper was weeks on top of that. Our control was meager at best; we had a feedback loop so very large that we had to separate out the “finishing” aspect and concentrate on the “best practices” side, working to ensure that even under a number of situations, the final work would be usable.
To assemble 1,000 megabytes, my buddy Andy pulled strings, got old equipment, pushed it all together, and did it just to say it was done. He had access to amazing things, had capital and influence on his side, and both of us could sit there in his apartment and bask in the glory of that new, unfamiliar word: gigabyte. We knew that not only was the word real, we were there, standing in the presence of one.
Now, in the present day, years after all this happened, my friend Andy far away and Esnesnon a childhood memory, I can sit here, in my office, and know this:
- I downloaded 5 gigabytes of data TODAY.
- I took dozens of digital photographs and looked at them TODAY.
- I browsed hundreds more on my hard drives looking for something. Hundreds.
- I browsed my hard drives on my networked systems, which have between 4 and 5 TERABYTES among them.
One of the fascinating things about the human mind is how quickly we adapt. If yesterday you could barely walk, and today you’re able to run at the speed of sound, your brain initially reels at your good fortune, and then immediately sets to work trying to integrate your actions and personality into the new ability, and then starts concocting variations to it to see what else you can do.
In these examples, we see how something amazing to me (a gigabyte of storage) is now in my room, four to five thousand times over. And in fact, I am filling up space so fast that this amazing expanse of disk space is barely enough to contain a few minutes of video I shoot for my documentary. We see how the process of creating images, which took days, now takes less than a few seconds. And the ability to go through them, make changes, see the changes, and make decisions is also reduced to seconds.
But beyond that jump, that compression, that amazing leap, there’s something very important here, a wisp of a dream of an idea, that is why I am talking about this.
When we created those photographs of our friend Matt in 1988, we created them in that context. The context of not seeing what would come out, of trusting the student to take the right photo, to have in our minds the joke we wanted, to hope that we would achieve it, to dread it not coming out. We made that simple photo the most important thing to us.
Similarly, the printouts were not just the process of creating a page of text and jamming it into the printer. It was a two-man team interacting with a satellite office (to us), where we had no communication except the self-evident data on a floppy. We sunk hours and days into considering every angle, every possible problem, every best intent we could work with when the printout came back. We sent it out, wrapping it up in an envelope and addressing it just so, and then we would walk out of the office as you would walk out of a surgery: head down, considering your move, wondering what the coming week would bring, and both free of the weight of the moment but filled with the concern of the future. That was in every page.
And the gigabyte was not just a gigabyte to Andy (and to me). It was a point of pride, a happy assemblage of power, prestige and influence, a strong feeling of having something that few others in the entire would could know. The inability to explain it to anyone, the knowing smile, and the amazing, insane physical weight of these machines in the apartment… we were happy with our little secret, our clubhouse of technology that jettisoned into the tiny tiny fraction who knew the incredible assemblage of one thousand megabytes.. one million kilobytes.
These things, these contexts, disappear in the harsh light of the present, when technology has left things behind, and the newest and the greatest now stands among those older items as a sun stands next to a tiny moon on a tiny planet. The past is almost a rounding error to the present.
What happens is that people view the past in the context of the present, and in doing so they miss out on details that could change their entire outlook. It’s one thing to see a stove in a cabin. Big deal, stove in cabin, you have two stoves in your house, and a microwave oven and a fridge. But this cabin, you see, is on the top of a mountain, and it took three people a day and a half to drag the stove up the side of the mountain, during which time the blizzard hit, and they huddled, quietly, against the side of the mountain, the stove cold against their hands and face, as they used it to keep out the harshest of the wind, and when they got to the top of the mountain and put this stove in there, they danced the frenzied dance of the true winners, and they lit cigarettes off the stove and raised a toast to themselves. The present day person sees an oven. The men who were there, now old and missing one of their numbers, see that stove as the pinnacle of their friendship.
Who turns a stove into a triumph? Who makes a gigabyte into a miracle? Who turns pieces of paper into surgical operations?
Historians do. History does.
The ANSI artwork that populates ARTSCENE.TEXTFILES.COM is wonderful to behold, good stuff that numbers in the gigabytes now, literally hundreds of people working to make artwork out of text and a limited palette of colors. It’s a neat story, and I know where you can hear about it.
But what’s lost to someone browsing those artworks, is that there was pretty much no way for most of those kids to really ever see their own artwork. They could scroll through it, glance at pieces, and maybe fake up a little bit of it using a plotting program or a couple of pages of printout, but in fact, they almost never saw the full color non-scrolled images they created. And it took them days, weeks, months to create them, poring over every line, every choice of shading, every little trick and trap. If you look at the images, you’re anywhere from indifferent to impressed. But if you know how much work went into them, and the fact that you’re looking at stuff in an instant that could take four to eight minutes (and longer) to slowly have come by over a modem onto a screen… it adds something to the work.
In 1994, when I was using a Macintosh, it could take upwards of a minute or longer to “render” a JPEG image. Just one high-resolution image was an investment of the machine and my own time, waiting to see what would come of it. Some were interlaced and you could get a feel for what was coming. Others were incremental and you had no idea. Either way, it was a process, an endeavor. Now, opening a folder in a preview or thumbnail mode lets you see, at a glance, all these images. In a millisecond, you’re staring at a presented gallery of images that would have previously represented a workday to be able to browse through with such ease.
Take it away from computers. Consider a museum. You see a gallery of paintings in an annex of your museum, where they all represent some “period” in time, some school of thought that people followed. Each of those paintings represents weeks, months, years of work. They represent an artist starving, considering whether they needed bread or ochre paint more. They represent works where the two artists might never have seen each other’s work in their lifetime, but now they’re placed next to each other as if they were living in the same dorm room. To see one painting and then decide to see another in the time period they came from could potentially be an expensive proposition indeed, travelling hundreds of miles on non-existent roads between towns to gain entrance to the stately home these paintings were hanging in, or entering the school or society that had this work in their foyer.
The works are bones. The stories are often sinew, sometimes there, sometimes not. The time is skin, long rotted away, forgotten, not considered the vital part of the body that it was.
In it incumbent upon the historian, the viewer, the audience, to be made aware of or to become aware of the context and circumstances of these things, even something as seemingly cold and machine-like as the history of computers, to realize, truly, what was and what is there.
Without this effort, the time with crunch together, the achievements will accordion into flat stacks of images, and the triumphs and lows that these things represent will barely register as bumps beneath an endless sleepy-eyed browse of the past.
And that’s the manifesto.
Categorised as: Uncategorized
Comments are disabled on this post