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Where This Was Is Where We Are

Lost in the back

Lost in the back

Value Village has a backroom stash of cables, answering machines, automatic cassette clock radios and other artifacts from then and now. A few startle with the force of their temporal dislocation. You don’t expect to be able to touch a thing you’ve forgotten and then utterly remember.

I never had a Radio Shack Color Computer, but know people who did. Mostly they were treated as a strange but revered pet, given their own room and television. Thick books surrounded them so that the kids could figure out how to program a Moon mission or run the Federal Reserve, but they typically remained unopened and the CoCo was used to play games made of little characters with pixels the size of your thumb.

A few, though, were used by the secret wizard underground. Guys–always male, and always very thin or far too heavy–typed on the keyboard and spoke quickly in arcana that to them was plain English. They knew what all the little chips under that silver plastic did, which tiny tin limb reached down to the green circuit board and talked to what pin in another bug. When they typed they knew everything from the closing of the key’s switch to how the character was drawn and placed on the TV. And they knew how the TV made images too, of course.

1980 or so had these boys and men far, far on the sidelines, a subculture as incomprehensible as phone phreaking, Dungeons and Dragons, and “renaissance faires”. They looked strange and had strange thoughts, read weird books and could barely dress themselves. There was nowhere for them to go but inside the machine. All human social trapping was irrelevant inside the silicon, and they could speak the language.

I never reached that point of knowledge and mastery, if that is the proper way to regard such things. Several things prevented it: a fascination with video and film that was easier to understand at the time, my belief I didn’t know math well enough and never would, the paradoxical adult reaction of revulsion and a desperate need for you kids to understand this stuff. My few BASIC programs didn’t do all that much, and the cassette storage of the time lost my work anyway. Like being a real scientist, it was something I could ever really do.

Finding this CoCo abandoned on a thrift store shelf struck me with that era’s dual sense of promise and foreboding. Nobody really understood what these things were for or what they could do, but they somehow controlled the nukes. Nobody understood those either, but there was an era beyond that old present where we all had jobs in air conditioning and smog and inflation weren’t problems. The computer was something better even if nobody understood what that was. Even the wizards didn’t: they just trusted that better thing was out there, coming.

Now computers are at discount stores and are as exotic as socks. For many people they are yet another thing you need pay someone else to fix. Computers have made a few people rich and given millions jobs. The CoCo and others like it did neither: companies that made it and computers like it are long gone, out of the business, or teetering. That rare handful of their long-ago adepts still live alone in messy apartments, reading strange books and dressing badly, though they look worse now, after the divorces. They move from job to job and have a hard time getting along, fitting in. They are still looking for something they can’t describe and is never quite right, but they know it will come if they can just get some serious hacking time in. Someday they will finish the decades-old work started in a back room one late night when Reagan was President and the future was still to come.

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