Interview on Whitedust —
This has appeared on the Whitedust Security Website:
Interview with Jason Scott
By Mark Hinge & Peter Prickett (Wed, 22 Mar 2006 13:48:17 +0000)
Jason Scott is the creator, owner and maintainer of textfiles.com, a web site which archives files from historic bulletin board systems. He is also the creator of a documentary film about BBSes, BBS: The Documentary which began shipping May, 2005.
WD> What first got you into computing?
Dad was a dyed-in-the-wool IBMer – basically joined the company soon after grad school and stayed on for 30 years, including a few years afterward as a consultant. He was always able to bring home strange machinery from work as long as I could remember (by the time I was born in 1970, my father had been at IBM for about 5 years) and so when he started bringing home different types of computers like the Commodore PET, I was the one of his three kids who immediately took to them. And when the IBM PC came out, we got one of the first ones. The bond was instantaneous and magical for me and computers and has never left.
WD> What was the computer that got you started getting serious on?
I was pretty serious on that Commodore PET, with the chiclet keyboard and the massive 8k of memory, combined with the awesome influx from the cassette drive. I still have it, of course, and it’s about 30 feet from me as I type this. So that’s about 25 years I’ve had it.
WD> What was your first modem?
My first modem was actually not mine – my friend Chris Boufford’s grandparents had a modem at their place and Chris showed me how it all worked; it was a Racal-vadic 300 baud acoustic, which meant putting the phone handset in a cradle and not talking too loud, lest the data corrupt. Those were great times.
WD> You co started TinyTIM in 1990. It is reported that TinyTIM is the oldest MUSH still running. Why did you start it? Why did you resign in 2000 and from what position?
TinyTIM was a MUD, later a MUSH. People can look up what that means, but if you haven’t heard of it, think ‘online adventure game/chat system’. I started TinyTIM with my friend John as a practical joke/parody of other such games that were running at the time. There was a kind of overbearing seriousness to online games, with a strong roleplaying aspect as a strict adherence to ‘the rules’, no matter how lightly those rules had been constructed in the first place. We started our own game to make fun of those games, and a strong community (an actual strong, real community) was quickly formed around it, and has lasted in some form to the present day, online and off. As for my leaving, I’d co-founded TinyTIM when I was 19, and when I was around 29, I had started TEXTFILES.COM. TEXTFILES.COM took off, and while I loved using the TinyTIM game, I was pouring a lot of energy into it for what at that point was a strong set of members numbering in the dozens (with hundreds of other occasional visitors). With textfiles.com, I quickly started to serve out hundreds of thousands of users in a month. If I wrote an essay, I got hundreds of responses or forms of acknowledgements. With TinyTIM, I got one or two. After a while, I realized it wasn’t as much fun or rewarding. So, after much personal thrashing, I walked away. The breakup was not amicable. But the game continues to exist, although not anything like it was.
WD> How long did you work for Psygnosis? Your role at Psygnosis has been described as technical support. I suspect that what we understand to be technical support in 2006 is different to 1995. Please explain your role?
I worked at Psygnosis for about a year before Sony (the parent company at that point) moved operations to the west coast, away from Cambridge, MA where I worked, and so the company closed. I then worked for a small start-up in the same office with some ex-employees, but it didn’t take off. It’s hard for me to imagine how different things are between then and now, because I’m sure the drive to help was there; you either want to help these poor people calling or you quit (or get promoted away). I loved helping people. I loved the sound of relief when I started to tell them how to get around a tough puzzle, or to get their machines to boot, or how to get into the system to figure out why the game wasn’t working as well as it could. The Psygnosis US office was small enough that we didn’t go crazy over metrics (amount of time per call) and while we were sometimes inefficient about that, we made a lot of people happy. I was in it, of course, because I loved the idea of working with Psygnosis; truly a peak in my lifetime.
WD> You have spoken at every DEF CON since 1999 and numerous other conferences. When was your last speech? And what was the subject matter?
My last speech as of this writing was ‘A History of Hacker Conferences’ at Shmoocon 2006 in January. I expect by the time this shows up, my big talk will be ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’, being given in the beginning of April at Notacon, in Cleveland. I encourage people to check the site for that con out at www.notacon.org. Good people. Good times.
WD> You made a documentary – BBS: The Documentary. It took you four years to complete and it was premiered at the 7th Vintage Computer Festival. Why there?
The Vintage Computer Festival rules; an absolutely great time. At some point, I think Sellam (the organizer of it) floated me trying out some footage there, and I said I would happily premiere a ‘beta’ version of it. So I did that, and the feedback from the crowd changed a lot of how the thing ended up being at the end. So it was a perfect match, passionate geek folks seeing a geek movie.
WD> As I mentioned earlier, it took four years to make. Why so long? And why were you so willing to give so much time to the project?
Two main reasons: I have a day job which limits the amount of time I can spend on my travelling and other hobbies, and the pure mass of interviews (over 200) just took a long time to accomplish. And I was going to do 400! As for why, I realized that if this wasn’t done, then people who had a vital influence on BBSes and therefore the Internet were not going to get their time in the sun. By getting this stuff on video, I knew I’d be able to do something to ‘save’ the history of that time beyond just some lines in the back of a telecom book.
WD> Why are BBS’s important? Are they still in use?
BBSes are just an electronic extension of communities, of people communicating, and of the human need to gather and trade their knowledge and stories of their lives. It’s a basic need, and the bulletin board systems fulfilled that need. While some of the aspects have changed (people generally use internet connections instead of dial-up telephone lines, and HTML rules the day on web forums), the basic paradigms of electronic messaging are still there, still running, still making a difference in people’s lives.
WD> Did you run your own BBS?
I ran a BBS for two years called The Works, in 914/New York State, Westchester County. Like a lot of young kids, it went down when I went to college.
WD> What sort of market do you think a documentary with such a specialised subject will find? How have sales fared?
Sales have fared well; I made back production costs within three weeks of release, and the rough numbers go into six figures. I think there’s a great market for a well-told story about anything, really. I don’t pretend this movie is for everyone, but people who have seen it who weren’t forced to see it by others, give me very strong positive feedback. For its ‘market’/audience, it is just what folks are looking for. It’s what I was looking for in 2001, before discovering there wasn’t anything like it. It’s not for everyone, but because of that, I could make it so tha
t it would do what it does, very well.
WD> Can you give some examples of the things that the documentary brought to light without ruining it for those who haven’t seen it?
Oh, there’s a lot. If people remember or know of BBSes, then it touches on subjects that haven’t seen a lot of documentary/movie footage about them: XMODEM. 300/1200 baud. Ward Christensen. Fidonet. Boardwatch. Phone Phreak BBSes and ‘Boxes’. Cracking/Pirating Apple II software. ANSI Art and the ANSI Art scene. Just everything around BBSes that I could fit. It’s 8 episodes long, totals five and a half hours between them, and has tons of bonuses. It’s a lot of stuff.
WD> You have written a lengthy essay about BBS Documentary being a Creative Commons. Could you briefly explain why and what do you consider the future of Creative Commons and copy write law?
The essay is a huge one to distill down but I can try. Basically, I am a big fan of being consistent where possible, and it’s kind of hypocritical to tell other people that they should share their works and then not do it with your own. And having made an actual ‘thing’, these hours of episodes, I was big into the idea that when the time came to release them, I would not place the same amount of restrictions on them that copyright law in the US allows. As a copyright holder in the US, you are given an enormous amount of tools and privileges to defend your work, literally for decades beyond your own death. I think, personally, that essentially to protect Mickey Mouse for the Disney corporation, the copyright law has been rendered meaningless, and too easily ignored in the same way that you ignore the babblings of a crazy person. To have that opinion, however, you have to be willing to back it up with your own stuff. So I did. Creative Commons is an interesting solution to the copyright situation; offer, openly, alternate copyright contracts with the world that limit the creator’s hold over the works. For a creator, it makes them kind of nuts, but all charity is a little nuts. In my case, I knew it was silly to tell people not to copy my stuff. It was by geeks for geeks and geeks love to share cool stuff. So I got shared, a lot. I estimate it’s been downloaded by well into the tens of thousands. That’s really cool. I get fanmail. I can’t speculate how copyright will continue in this country, but I can go to bed at night knowing I did the right thing with my own stuff.
WD> Many people feel Wikipedia to be a wonderful thing. However you have had some issues with it. Why?
I direct people to my essay, ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’, or my talk on Wikipedia I’ll be giving at Notacon, which will be available on archive.org and other locations. It’ll say it better than any paragraph or two I throw out here. But I will say this: It IS a wonderful thing. But sometimes even wonderful things can have a dark side or cause as much trouble as they help.
WD> Is there anything in existence that you feel compares favourably to BBS?
Strange way to phrase it. I really like the way things are now, with near-instantaneous downloads of what used to take days. I like some web forums, some chatrooms, I really do like a lot of everything out there. The key is not to act like it’s supposed to replace or be the same as BBSes. It’s another thing, another situation, which comes down to the same: meeting and interacting with people. And I love doing that.
WD> You are the man responsible for textfiles.com. How long have you been doing this? What does textfiles.com do?
I started textfiles.com in 1998. I did it because I had a nice collection of old BBS-era textfiles, and I wanted them ‘saved’ by putting it on the Internet, since a lot of them missed out the chance to be transferred to websites. I think that little mission has been very successful; millions have been to textfiles.com since then. Since 1998, textfiles.com has had a lot of success, and also the mission has grown to kind of all sorts of computer history. So as time goes on, I just keep expanding, keep looking, keep adding. I currently consider it the best thing I’ve done.
WD> You’ve been involved in the ‘scene’ for twenty years. What do you consider the key moments?
My key moments are going to be different than others. People can look up the history for themselves, but my key BBSes that affected my early online life were: Sherwood Forest II. Sherwood Forest III. Osuny. The Safehouse. Dark Side of the Moon. Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The Works. The Emerson Wall. ARGUS. People know them or they don’t. They’re like family history.
WD> Your next project is Get Lamp. What is it about? What do you expect to discover?
GET LAMP is about Text Adventures. Think Adventure, Zork, Scott Adams, Infocom, Magnetic Scrolls, Inform, and so on. Kind of strange, I know, but it’s going to be really enjoyable interviewing people. I think the kind of personality who can write a story/world where they have to anticipate every possible thing a reader would want to know about is a fascinating personality type. I expect to meet a lot of that sort of personality.
WD> When do you anticipate its completion?
I won’t even try. The BBS movie was supposed to be two years. Look what happened. I just encourage people to check getlamp.com and ask to be notified.
Categorised as: Uncategorized
Comments are disabled on this post
>I think the kind of personality who can write a story/world where they have to anticipate every possible thing a reader would want to know about is a fascinating personality type.<
This reminds me of the only text adventure I ever solved — Planetfall, by Meretzky.
When I inadvertently discovered there were footnotes in the game, I started to systematically read them one after another. At about the 11th or 12th footnote, I was greeted with the message: “Isn’t it fun to read all the footnotes?”
I still remember that, along with the joy of solving the game, and the hilarious characterization of the robot sidekick Floyd. (You suddenly felt worse whenever he came in the room).