NS Internet column
Written 13 September 1999 for the New Statesman
Geek art is a curious form. There are worthwhile things to say about the human world which only make sense if you know quite a lot about technology. I once heard Douglas Adams describe a baby going into a sort of small rapture before resuming interest in the world. "She's rebooting", he said. That makes sense to almost anyone, and it could not be translated into other language without losing all its point. At the far end of the spectrum are things like the Amazon.com jokes about "ping" the duck in a children's book, which is elaborately misunderstood by reviewers to be about "ping" the program for investigating the integrity of networks.
Somewhere in between there is a hinterland in which wonderful and expressive things are said about humanity which require, for their understanding, a technological education and the best example of these I have recently found came from Slashdot. This is perhaps the most self-consciously geeky place on the web. The name (written by pedants as /.) is a fragment of a Unix incantation, the prefix you need to invoke a hidden file in your home directory. The motto: "Slashdot. News for nerds. Stuff that matters" gives a flavour of the terse and often justified arrogance which flavours the site. The idea is that this is a place where the people who understand technology can talk about what is really happening. It is a debating chamber for the unacknowledged legislators of the modern world.
The founder is a young man called Rob Malda, whose own pages contain the story that started this ramble. It is an account of his adventures with a virtual Tamagotchi. Tamagotchis, who seem now to have gone completely extinct, were a short-lived craze, originating in Japan, for little plastic things which pretended to be animals. You had to feed them with attention, or they would wither and die. They beeped to demand a button push when they were feeling neglected.
Malda tells the story of how he tried to write a virtual Tamagotchi. You would write a program which would demand attention just as the programs inside a physical Tamagotchi do, but it would live and run among all the other programs on a Linux box. Since the true devotees of Linux can eat, sleep and shop ant the keyboard, and need never leave their machines except to excrete, such a program would work for them just as well as the real thing. So he describes how he wrote a suite of Tamagotchi programs and got them running properly on his own machine.
And his friends saw what he had done and it was good. But to have a program running only on your own machine is entirely contrary to the spirit of Linux. It's like living on a desert island with no one to hear what you say. So he wired up his programs to all the computers in the house where he lives (it is understood that this is a communal affair) and soon all his friends could feed the Tamagotchi programs attention from wherever they were on the network.
The next step was to let his virtual pets talk across the Internet. Soon he would be able to feed them attention from any keyboard in the world, whatever else he might be doing, simply by sending the right email. And this, too, came to pass. But when he had done so, he realised that the whole process could be carried further. He did not have to send the email himself. He could turn the job over to a set of programs which would automatically send messages of reassurance to the hungry Tamagotchi. So he tried this out, and it worked. He now had a whole network of scripts and programs communicating with each other. He had created not only a need but a satisfaction of that need and arranged, like God, for everything to go on even without his presence.
All this is told with a great deal of convincing technical detail, so you can see, if you know what he is talking about, exactly how it was done. This is important because without it, the final, savage twist in the story would not work at all.
In the last paragraph he explains it was all a fable. It was not a story about computer programs, but about the rearing of human children. He and his friends had been reared like these Tamagotchi, by parents who automated all of the contact involved and who grew progressively more distant as they did so. They had just been toys and excuses for cleverness.
Even that is not quite the last twist. He has to explain, right at the end, that none of the programs he described ever existed or ever will. Perhaps he's wrong, and somewhere, some distant geek artist less skilled with words than rob Malda , is trying to act out the same story with a suite of Perl scripts and, since it's a creation myth, a little Python too.