ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Catching Flack for the Philez —

My man “Flack” O’Hara and I were having a chat about this whole “Where Have All the Philez Gone?” thing I mentioned last week. He goaded me into writing a letter to 2600, so I did, which was generally a good thing (we’ll see if I get into HOPE in a year and a half) and we kept discussing the fundamental issue. Here’s some excerpts from his latest letter.

The former journalism student in me died a little when I read the article. You and I are old enough to remember the days of, you know, LEGWORK when it comes to writing an article. When you’ve read so many BBS-era text files, there’s this thing … it’s hard for me to describe but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. There’s this voice that people use that, when you read it, you can instantly tell they didn’t do any research. Key phrases stick out, like “I’ll bet” or “probably” or “I’m guessing.” The real red flag is when you see two or three of them in the same sentence. “You know, I’ll bet that at least half of the people probably don’t think this.” It’s a way of writing that lets your audience know that you did absolutely no research on the topic you’re writing about and you have no confidence in your own opinion or stance.

I think you saw this a lot in old BBS textfiles because, let’s face it, doing research meant actual work back then. To be a good journalist you should know or at least comprehend the topic at hand. To be a real journalist, you need to know more than your audience does about a topic. In other words, on a scale of 1-10, if I know 5 and my readers know 3, that’s okay because you are still conveying new information to them. If your readership is a 5 then you had better be bringing a 7 or an 8 to the table. The thing is, back in the BBS days you could often get away with a 1 or a 2 because people were not going to go out and research whatever it was you were writing about. But now, thanks to sites like Google and Wikipedia, you can. It’s like that scene in the Matrix where Trinity learns how to fly a helicopter in seconds. We’re not there yet, but we’re close. I can appear knowledgable about any topic in minutes thanks to search engines. So if you’re writing an article, you had better AT LEAST have used the web at some point, because your readers will, and any bullshit fluff is going to be caught very quickly.

On a slightly different tangent, does this not make you weep for the readers of 2600 a bit? It’s like one moron making up stories and spreading them to a bunch of morons. There must’ve been at least a few people who read that article and went, “huh?” I don’t know, man. The whole revisionism angle bothers me as much if not more than the shitty journalism. I guess people are used to just walking on to forums or into chatrooms and spewing bullshit and hoping that enough people will just believe them. It also makes me really, really sad about the state of 2600. Are there really no hackers left?

I dispute across-the-board quality of the files, of course, but the ones that stand out, which I laud freely, show signs of research. If we start out with a early file, say ‘To All Who Dare, The Black Box”, you have a well-presented work, talking about a neat circuit that can give you something neat (free phone calls, or free phone calls to people who call you), with a clear presentation of how to do it, what it achieves, and the theory of operation. That’s pretty well-put together. And to the end of my days I will promote the incredible quality of Bioc Agent 003’s series The Basics of Telecommunications as one of the highest watermarks on BBS textfiles. Meticulous information, beautiful presentation, world-class layout. (Number 7 is particularly well done.)

On the other hand, even the utopian, freewheeling era of the 1980s gives you scampy articles like Masturbation Techniques and Info, which reads more like a random-riffing stream-of-consciousness typing test than anything else …and the 1990s give us random-direction-filled files like How 2 Make Free Copies, which fails to alight the audience about specific copier models, context for the way copiers (and copy machine coin boxes) work, and a razor, razor-thin justification (you need a lot of copies to plagarize properly).

Perspective might come from this article from TAP magazine, a 1982 issue. For historical context, TAP (Technological Assistance Program) was the proto-2600, or you can think of 2600 as the new-school TAP. By 1982, things are starting to fall apart a tad for TAP, and there was a one-two punch of a firebombing (!) of the office and “I’ll help you” staff not quite up to the task of keeping the endeavor together. As a result, quality controls are starting to slip a little, and you get an “informative” article/textfile that reads like a guy you’re in a line for the bathroom with who’s struck up an unwanted conversation with you:

“In Berlin, I purchased ten grams of hash on the street for 8 German marks per gram. For those who are not up to date on the exchange rate of US dollars to Marks, the price is translated into $3.85 per gram! But how good is the hash you ask? Well, a friend and I smoked a rolled up cigarette laced with a small amount of hash while on the return flight to New York and in a matter of five minutes, we were knocked out. When the plane began to fly upside down, we knew we were stoned off our asses. Incidentally, one should smoke hash in the lavatory of the jet, not in one’s seat!”

Not exactly a spectacular piece of journalism.

The spectrum test Flack suggests is the jewel here. The idea that someone who is only nominally ahead of the learning curve than someone else but able to construct a decent explanation of where they are, could still be of use to them, is the fundamental idea behind science. You learn a bit, you explain yourself properly and clearly, and then draw the best conclusions you can, which give others the inspiration to research further, and hopefully adding their own bit.

This works well for journalism. Doesn’t work as well for entertainment.

In entertainment, you don’t actually want people to learn too much, other than you’re good at providing them entertainment so they’ll come back. You don’t look into stuff too deeply, because you’re basically telling a good story, and reality gets in the way of a good story. Instead, you’re trying to be funny, you’re exaggerating where needed, and if you think that people will buy in if you paint it with a slight amount of “authority”, it’ll work better for your interests and those of your audience.

Once you regard articles like How to Kill Santa Claus: DEAD! as nothing more than entertainment, you’re relieved of expecting important information from them, and on the side of people looking for “meaning”, the pure inherent destructive evil of a little story-telling jaunt like this fades away. Entertainment is easier to write, too, so when you read something like the “drug” file mentioned above, you realize it doesn’t matter if the guy is right or not; he’s just spinning a yarn and drawing silly conclusions and the editors are letting it sail through because who can it hurt?

It’s only when you try to play the game that some of your articles are journalistic and others are entertainment, and pretend you’re only journalistic, that us “old-timers” get a little cranky. Not because we haven’t seen the work before, but we don’t like the implication that a half-baked blog entry printed on actual paper gets the same regard as a slaved-over textfile written 20 years previous.

And yes; the web has made the world into one gigantic cheat sheet, enabling you to get through 2 minutes of reasonable conversation on a subject without having to excuse yourself early to get another drink. But it sure won’t enrich either side of the endeavor. And while entertainment is a great thing, it’s not known for nourishment.

I think it’s being able to distinguish between the two that’s the real lost skill, not making heaping plates of either.

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