Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jimmy Maher's "The Future Was Here"

Jimmy Maher is an independent scholar and writer living in Norway.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga, and reported the following:
When I was asked to write about page 99 of my new book for this blog, I of course eagerly turned the pages to find out what lay there. My heart fell when I found a fairly deep-in-the-weeds discussion of Sculpt-Animate, an application that pioneered 3D modeling on the personal computer. On page 99 I'm in the middle of walking the reader through a simple sample project, showing how an artist circa 1988 would have used the Amiga's hardware and software in her practice. Why, I wondered, couldn't I have placed something more immediately obvious, quotable, and pithy there?

But as I thought about it more I realized that page 99 might just provide a good illustration of what sets my book apart. One thing I wanted to do with the book was to not neglect the technology in writing technological history. To understand what allowed the Amiga to, say, pioneer the field of desktop video (something that has become so ubiquitous in this era of YouTube that, like “desktop publishing,” the term has ceased to be a useful signifier), one has to understand a bit about its design, even about how the Amiga got its picture to the screen and how this differed from other contemporary computers. So, and while I don’t neglect culture and sociology, I do delve quite deeply into the inner workings of the machine. At the same time, I keep the jargon to a minimum and, when I do indulge, make it a point to explain it carefully beforehand. I thoroughly believe that any patient and interested reader is capable of understanding this stuff if the author just shows a little bit of care, and that’s the assumption that guided me throughout the writing. In other words: no computer science degrees are required.

The stories of lots of people are also in the book, from that of the kid who created one of the first widespread computer viruses to that of Eric Graham, the sometime astronomer who created the aforementioned Sculpt-Animate. Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry even make cameo appearances. By telling the stories of the artists and programmers who built the Amiga's legacy without neglecting to detail the technological affordances and constraints under which they worked, I hope their achievements shine all the brighter -- for the story of the Amiga is ultimately the story of these folks who foresaw the future in which we now live.
Learn more about the book and author at The MIT Press website and Jimmy Maher's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue