ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

420 —

I’ve been somewhat fascinated with the term “420” recently. Not so much what the term signifies (hey, let’s smoke pot) but to watch it really break into mainstream usage and spread in crazy places.

I play online on the XBOX 360 and so many handles are variations of the term. “420 Bunny” was my favorite, but you get stuff along the line of “420killa”, “Go420”, “FourTwoOhGal” and so on. 420 seems to have penetrated even the most out-of-way locations; I see it in user icons, in newspapers, in messages, signatures, classifieds and, as mentioned, usernames.

High Times apparently has tracked this term back to 1971, with a group called The Waldos who used the term as a code around parents for smoking dope. That would make the nomenclature something like 35 years old, which is pretty far off the mark of when I would have nailed it. I’d be pressed to think this was anything that happened before 1999. It goes to show one of my little rules: stuff happened earlier than you think.

The ubiquity of the term, which ostensibly indicates a crime in most countries, is phenomenal. There’s something to be said of the layer of protection one thinks online existence affords in terms of self-declaration. And speaking of the self online:

The fact is, the world has changed in terms of self-identification; the easiest way for computers and databases to classify people and objects is via boolean flags. I am this, I am not this. And the flags themselves are most easy to code when they’re short and direct, even if they overlap to a massive spectrum of activity. I am Straight-Edge. I am 420. I am Geek. I am Gamer. You call yourself a thing or not a thing and that makes it easier for the machine to tag you. In return for this ham-fisted but ubiquitous world outlook, you are easier to search for, easier to find others who fall under this heading, easier for you to hit a button and find more stuff.

This is all fine and good until you start to pair or group up people under these tags, and then the myriad flaws in the system are obvious. There’s intense gamer geek and there’s slow-moving chess-by-email geek. There’s don’t drink at parties Straight Edge and there’s seeking-converts-to-jesus Straight Edge. There’s good-time 420 guy and there’s barely functional 420 spiraling loser. Shared flags are not a bond. They might help, or they might hurt. But it sure is easy to classify.

A fundamental aspect of this is objective observation of the self, which is a rather difficult process. When 90% of the people think they’re above average, you run into issues related to honesty and usefulness of a graph. When a group decides to ban a member, the resultant shudder can tear it apart.

420 is now morphed into a brand, a lifestyle, a commercial front, but people do that with anything. That there’s now “rallies” on April 20th (4/20) and 420 shows up on clothing is a separate situation, the same reason that any assembling of more than 300 people causes a balloon vendor. Focusing instead on the 420 as flag-within-itself, it’s rife and ready for misuse.

“420 friendly” is a term that shows up in places, and to the weary eye of the browser it can be interpreted several ways: “I smoke pot”, “I don’t mind if you light up in my house”, “I’m going to keep going to the bathroom and light a joint at your party”, or “I am going to consistently, whiningly beg for some of your pot”.

Robert Hayden, faced with this inevitable issue of booleans being poor nomenclatures, created The Geek Code, which enabled a person to delcare their entire life and outlook in a large series of codes, each with a myriad of variations:


I read a book a day. I have library cards in three states.
I have discount cards from every major bookstore.
I've ordered books from another country to get my Favorite Author Fix.
I consume a few books a week as part of a staple diet.
I find the time to get through at least one new book a month.
I enjoy reading, but don't get the time very often.
I read the newspaper and the occasional book.
I read when there is no other way to get the information.
I did not actually READ the geek code, I just had someone tell me.

This system is not perfect, but note how the self-identification is along concrete standards, with a few “general” variations as well. You don’t have to say “I’m pretty smart”, you say how many degrees you have or what you’ve accomplished. This system is not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than “420” on its own.

Remind me to hammer the “fish symbol” and the “ribbon” magnet next.

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  1. Daniel Black says:

    Hi there,

    Not sure how widely adopted it is, but there is also the Hacker Key which purports to offer something a bit more refined than the Geek Code.

    Also, wonderful seeing you’re writing publically, as I hadn’t known anything about your site except its copious archive of text files. I spent a lot of time on BBSes, including one in Cincinnati that was hit during Operation Sundown (before I got there), and, of course, spending my money dialing long-distance to &ToTSE. Ah, the rush of paranoia upon reading about what the ATF really did in Waco….


  2. Church says:

    Heh. I was reading the first part of the post and thinking to myself, “Geek Code tried to solve this very problem.” I wonder if sig length restrictions on web forums have stifled it, or if it just got old.

    Incidently, your comment system refuses to take submissions from my iPhone for some reason.

  3. Jim Leonard says:

    When you say “420”, I think “4:2:0” also known as the chroma subsampling using in MPEG-2 and PAL DV.

    Yes, I’m a video geek.