From the Archives: SPACEWAR: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums by Stewart Brand (1972)

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Video of "Spacewar"

Ready or not, computers are coming to the people.

That's good news, maybe the best since psychedelics. It's way off the track of the "Computers - Threat or menace? school of liberal criticism but surprisingly in line with the romantic fantasies of the forefathers of the science such as Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, J.C.R. Licklider, John von Neumann and Vannevar Bush.

The trend owes its health to an odd array of influences: The youthful fervor and firm dis-Establishmentarianism of the freaks who design computer science; an astonishingly enlightened research program from the very top of the Defense Department; an unexpected market-Banking movement by the manufacturers of small calculating machines, and an irrepressible midnight phenomenon known as Spacewar.

Reliably, at any nighttime moment (i.e. non-business hours) in North America hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-Death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friend and wasting their employers' valuable computer time. Something basic is going on.

Rudimentary Spacewar consists of two humans, two sets of control buttons or joysticks, one TV-like display and one computer. Two spaceships are displayed in motion on the screen, controllable for thrust, yaw, pitch and the firing of torpedoes. Whenever a spaceship and torpedo meet, they disappear in an attractive explosion. That's the original version invented in 1962 at MIT by Steve Russell. (More on him in a moment.)

October, 1972, 8 PM, at Stanford's Artificial Intelligence (AI) Laboratory, moonlit and remote in the foothills above Palo Alto, California. Two dozen of us are jammed in a semi-dark console room just off the main hall containing AI's PDP-10 computer. AI's Head System Programmer and most avid Spacewar nut, Ralph Gorin, faces a display screen which says only:

THIS CONSOLE AVAILABLE.
He logs in on the keyboard with his initials: Click clickclickclick click.
L1,REG
CSD FALL PICNIC. SATURDAY 11 AM IN FLOOD PARK . . .
He interrupts further announcements, including one about the "First Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics" at 8 PM, with: CLick ("run") clickclickclick ("Space War Ralph") click ("do it")

R SWR.

WELCOME TO SPACEWAR.

-- EXCERPT FROM "SPACEWAR: FANATIC LIFE AND SYMBOLIC DEATH AMONG THE COMPUTER BUMS" BY STEWART BRAND FROM THE DECEMBER 7, 1972 ISSUE OF ROLLING STONE