Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#47, August 11, 1999


by Marylaine Block

It's a standard sort of feature in the news: the announcer intones "And on this day in history …" The only flaw with the concept of "This Day in History" is that so often it only records the people who came first - the ones who flew the first airplane, built the first automobile, aired the first radio broadcast.

We ignore the second and third and fourth people to do these things, though, which is a pity. You see, we don't really buy into the model of "I make it, you buy it; I tell you how to use it, you use it that way." We like to talk back to inventions, tinker with them. It's the hobbyists and enthusiasts who understand all the possibilities of those inventions, and turn them into something far more interesting.

The inventors of the automobile created a "horseless carriage." Later-arriving hobbyists created low, sleek, powerful race cars and "Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Babies." Where the inventors saw basic transportation, the hobbyists saw sport, speed and style.

Tinkerers playing with radio equipment competed with each other to see how many signals they could pick up, from how far away. In the process they discovered the physics of short waves and improved the technology. When the government took control of most of the radio spectrum, leaving only the short waves to the hams, they served the nation by conveying messages during wartime and disasters, when the regular communication lines were disrupted. As radio programming became ever more uniform, and choice more limited, the amateurs created low power stations to return programming variety and local voices to their communities.

It wasn't instrument makers but performers, like Jimi Hendrix, who used the incidental, undesirable feedback in electric guitars to create a new sound altogether.

It took hobbyists to see in clunky, ponderous mainframes the potential for lightweight versatile personal computers, because they understood machines could be fun. As they invented ever more elaborate games for the machines, and fed in ever more images, they had to build in far more memory than computer manufacturers had believed necessary, and improve their power and speed. (The world of computing owes much to Pong and pornography.)

It was the tinkerers who taught computers to sit up and do tricks - graphics, video, animations, real-time chat, and the world wide web. They took the research network developed by the military (as topdown an organization as you can get) and turned it into the world's first functional anarchy, a free-for-all of ideas, art, software, information, good and bad, with not a gatekeeper in sight to authorize or approve any of it. They discovered that the web was an environment in which you could say and do whatever you wanted, talk back to power.

Webheads discovered that the net allowed them to go around official sources for news, software, information. Deciding that "Information wants to be free," and hating corporate monoliths, they did everything they could to liberate knowledge, putting music lyrics and secret tobacco company documents online, and inventing software to sell their downloadable music directly on the web, to cut the music industry out of their profits.

It was independent curious amateurs who got ticked off at Bill Gates' closed little world and seized on Linux and open source code as a way of sharing their good ideas and making computers operate better.

You see, inventors can create whatever they want, for whatever purposes they have in mind, and they will be the ones remembered in encyclopedias and "This Day in History." But we Americans will use those inventions as we damn well please, remake them in the cause of entertainment, self-expression, and personal freedom. We may never know the names of these amateurs, tinkerers and hobbyists, but they're the ones who have reinvented our technologies, forced them to adapt to us, to become more human, more, well, American.

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