The Beatrice Interview

David Bennahum

"We used to race into the room to see who could get to the terminals first..."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

I first learned about David Bennahum when he was publishing MEME, an e-mail newsletter--more like a column, really--about technology and culture. "I was reading so much extreme stuff about technology," Bennahum says as we chat in one of downtown Seattle's myriad coffeeshops, "incredibly overhyped, almost messianic in its worship, or filled with Luddite pessimism, with no inbetween. I just got sick of it. So I started writing these essays...almost like a scrapbook of things I'd come across. I wanted to put technology in context." So, in 1995, he sent email to about 600 people--nearly everyone he'd been in contact with over the previous year--with a sample column and an invitation to subscribe. "120 people replied. So I set up a nickname in Eudora with all those addresses, and then I started getting more requests, until I had about 360 people...and ultimately I was spending an hour or two administrating the list by hand, changing email addresses and stuff, until I finally sent an email out asking somebody to give me a listserv so I could automate that part of the process." With the listserv up and running, Bennahum's circulation skyrocketed to 7,500 subscribers, plus about 1,500 hits a day on his website.

Then he wrote Extra Life, a memoir of growing up as a computer kid in the late '70s and early '80s. I recognized a lot in it, particularly the way in which we'd get engrossed by our first home computers, which were light-years behind today's Macs and PCs...

RH: There's a scene at the very beginning of Extra Life, when you're dragging your Atari 800 out of storage. You're confronted with technology that's only 15-20 years old, but seems so clunky to us now.

DB It's a metaphor for how insanely fast technology moves in such an amazingly short amount of time. A kid today has totally different experiences with computers than I did as a 13 year-old with those first home computers.

RH: Those computers were radically different from the graphic user interface systems of today. They had operating systems that you truly had to learn and master.

DB It was an environment that invited you to go deeper if you wanted to, to explore beneath the surface of what was on the screen. You had to go deeper to use them properly. Because the programs were stored on diskette, you could read them, change them--for kids, it was an automatic invitation to go tinkering and playing. You can't really get behind Windows '98. And why would you want to go there?

RH: Exploring that world provided you with an escape hatch from the emotional turmoil that was going on around you.

DB It was an escape and a creative medium and a shelter at the same time, psychologically and emotionally. I could go to my room and disappear. The book's only been out four days, and I've already received incredibly amazing emails about it from readers who have similar experiences. "My parents divorced, the computer was a place to hide in."

RH: When did you seriously start about writing this memoir?

DB I got a contract to do a book about the Internet back in '94. It was relatively new as a cultural phenomenon then, and the idea was that I would do a book about its significance, written from the point of view of someone who'd grown up with computers and could thus come at it from the inside. When I started writing that book, I kept asking myself, "How do I convey to the reader what was so exciting about computers?" Because that feeling helps explain why the Internet took off the way it did. I kept going further and further back in my life, until I was writing about being a kid and playing my first video games on my first home computer. Finally I had about 150-200 pages like that, and I brought it to my editor, who said, "I don't know what you're doing. This is not what we asked for, not what we expected. But I think this is the book that you should write. Will you do that?" And I said yeah. But I never would have come upon that story had I not first been told to write about the Internet.

RH: What were some of the hardest parts of writing this?

DB One of the hardest parts was reconstructing everything that had happened. So I called up a lot of my old friends and interviewed them. It was also a challenge to get all the book's technical details right. Hardest of all was getting the tone down for the narrative voice. I wanted to capture the voice of a kid exploring all this for the first time, but still be able to switch to the adult who could explain what it all means, going back and forth throughout the book without it being jarring or weird.

RH: There's a section where you intersperse the text from Dungeon with your reminiscenses. How'd you get the game's language down so well?

DB I downloaded it. The Internet's a great place to find old software. Someone had written an application that was essentially a Dungeon emulator; it contained verbatim the old FORTRAN program that had been written originally. It was a 200K application. So I just downloaded it to my Mac and took logs while I played the game.

RH: When we were young, 200K would seize up an entire network.

DB And we used to race into the room to see who could get to the terminals first, until our teacher set up a rule that you couldn't run into the room anymore.

RH: There was a sense of camaraderie and respect among the computer kids. As you're all learning to program, the ones who are more proficient are happy to share their knowledge with everyone else.

DB One of the most important values we learned was sharing information. Another was that any grownup that got in our way, in terms of getting access to the computers, was to be totally mistrusted. All exploration is good; computer secrets are bad.

RH: It doesn't seem like you were ever a hacker in the popular sense of the term, but you did have to face similar ethical dilemmas, such as figuring out what to do with information that you uncovered.

DB A friend of mine totally brought down the school computer, and I knew how he did it. But I'd let him into the system through my account, and I didn't want to tell my teacher that. Whenever you enter a system that other people are using, you'll end up facing those dilemmas. You'll want to explore, to see what other people are doing, but at the same time, you're not supposed to be there.

RH: As someone who spent a lot of time learning to program who now makes his living as a writer, do you see a common ground between the two fields?

DB They aren't really compatible, I think. Most people who program don't write really well, and most people who write really well find computers hard to deal with. I was lucky that I could bridge those two worlds. I wanted to write a book that would appeal to geeks, people who grew up with computers. I wanted them to find it credible. But at the same time I wanted my mom to be able to read it and understand what it was about.

RH: As a programmer, did you realize you'd maxed out at some point?

DB Partly. And in the late '80s, early '90s, there really wasn't an Internet to program for. All the programs were stand-alone applications for PCs. It just wasn't that fun. The whole point of being in the computer room with your friends was the interactivity of sharing your programs with everyone, passing them around. If you're actually doing programming for real, where's your audience? You're just stuck in a cubicle someplace. I got a job doing database programming at one point, and... (shudders) I like programming, but I was a temp. It wasn't my actual profession.

RH: Who are some of your favorite writers?

DB I like William Gibson a lot, and I also like older sci-fi. Ray Bradbury's short stories are just amazing. I also like a lot of non-science fiction. Part of what's happened with science fiction is that we live in that world now. It's hard to be a science fiction writer in a world where all this stuff is real.

RH: In 1986, Neuromancer seemed totally unattainable, and yet now it feels like the modern world.

DB Last year I read a book called The Beach by Alex Garland. The lead character is a 26 year-old who plays video games all the time, and that's woven into a Lord of the Flies story. Woven in perfectly. Science fiction appears everywhere--although most labeled science fiction is still ghettoized as schtick. It's all about choosing your fetish. If you're into medieval stuff, there's stuff for that, or for goth, or cyborgs. But there's something very phony about it.

RH: How about nonfiction about technology and society? I'm sure another important moment for you was when you first read Stephen Levy's Hackers.

DB That's a great book. It's one of the best books ever written about computer culture. People should be reading Hackers now. That's definitely my number one book on that list. The problem with contemporary books is that so many of them got caught up in trying to predict the future, and became outdated before they were even published.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Stephen Holtzman | Complete Interview Index | Kate Bornstein and Caitlin Sullivan

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan