Jason Scott – speaker interview

In this interview, we asked Mark Piper, co-founder of the mighty Kiwicon and, uhh, hacker, to interview the urbane and erudite Jason Scott.

Mark: Let’s save people a visit to Wikipedia. Give it to us straight. Who is Jason Scott?

Jason: I’m many things to many people, but these days I’m mostly living the high life as an Idea. The Idea is simple: computer history is important, and online data generated by people has weight and meaning. I run a number of projects, including the TEXTFILES.COM family of sites, a number of documentaries both in production and finished (BBS, GET LAMP, with ARCADE, 6502, and TAPE on the horizon), and working full time as an archivist for the Internet Archive.

Mark: Let’s chat about your job. To me, it looks like one of the coolest jobs in the world. Reading awesome stuff, playing old games, meeting the people who literarily changed the world, browsing GeoCities and a seemingly unlimited supply of hard drive space. Is it really is cool as it looks? What’s the biggest challenge it brings for you?

Jason: It is humbling and amazing to spend every single waking moment doing something I want to do. Yes, it really is as cool as it looks, assuming that doing unbelievably involved classification, investigation, and compilation of data is what sends your motorboat humming. For me, the fact that I help people around the world get access to so much culture and help give hope that possibly-lost history can be found again, is about as good as it gets. It’s kind of amazing to live un-ironically well for a change.

My inbox, however, looks like something that crashed the Yellow Submarine movie into Wargames.

Mark: New Zealand isn’t just a hop and a skip away for you. In fact, it’s a long fucking distance to travel. What do you hope to achieve the most from this visit?

Jason: I had the opportunity to visit New Zealand last year, and I celebrated it by landing there and being sick as a dog for the whole time. I also saw a single city, and my hosts were kind enough to guide my dizzy carcass, like some sort of meandering videogame character, through the streets of Auckland. What I saw was great, so the opportunity to travel and see more of New Zealand is a welcome chance to get it right the second time.

I’m not bothered by the distance – the destination is great! However, the last time I came by, I spent the return flight awake watching movie after movie, and 9 feature films later, I got off the plane stumbling like the creatures from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So call that a lesson learned.

Mark: You once said : “The computer industry is 50 years of over promise and under deliver”. Is that changing yet?

Jason: We have a LONG way to go before THAT changes – with endless new people signing on every day, promising them that their phones will turn tears into gold or will rescue orphans from burning buildings is still quite profitable, and with a few notable exceptions, it’s considered the way computers are marketed.

Normally, that’s not a big deal, but when the promises drift into longevity, access, and shutdown times, then my amusement turns to anger.

Mark: One of the things that shines through out the subjects of your work, is an in-depth understanding of the technology stacks some of your interviewees used. They knew how it worked and what the limitations were (and how to push them). There seems to be an increasing number of people that believe such in-depth stack knowledge is becoming a lost art. What are your thoughts? Are we understanding the technology less?

Jason: I think that there’s still access to much of the deep knowledge of how things work but as we spread the reach wider for who can use computers, the motivations of these folks to learn the really hard developer-level stuff just isn’t there. If this handheld computer that makes phone calls does more processing while showing you a map than a building’s worth of home computers did in the 1980s, your first thought might not be “I can’t wait to get into the device layer” and is likely more to be “Oh come on, that road’s been closed for weeks.”

I definitely think there’s a trend towards there being virtue in being unaware of the undercarriage of technology, and that means a lot of people are in the same position they are for their energy or their food – something goes wrong, anything at all, and we’re just completely frozen, with no solution coming forward and nothing to do but wait for the lights to come back on or for the vegetables to stop having whatever took them off the shelves in the first place. It can’t be great to be that disconnected from what keeps you alive and healthy.

Mark: As a sysop growing up, one of the things that was really clear to me at the time was the importance of staying local. Whether it was phone verification for new users or a social BBQ to talk tech over, BBS’s were largely a local community thing. Are such local communities getting lost now days with all the fan dangled new web tech? If so, can it be saved?

Jason: When things started to really move over to the internet, we definitely lost that feeling of locality and geography. Since websites were few and far between in the world, there might be one big online forum or one large news site that everyone around the world posted on at the same time. But over the years, we’re starting to see that locality come back, be it in the manner of mobile apps, attaching geography to social media, or even how people can set up something like a subreddit that services just their college or smaller town. It’s all cyclical, I guess, and things are looking up again.

Mark: You and the team at Archive Team, mirrored Geocities. An impressive undertaking in anyones book. I get lost in there randomly browsing the old neighborhoods from time to time. During the archive process you must have seen some classic stuff. Could you share a favourite you stumbled on during that mirroring work?

Jason: To be honest, what really made me happiest was not individual webpages (although I did find lots of interesting ones), but using this mass of webpages to look for similar items and then group them all together. For example, I really liked tracking down Under Construction GIFs, those animated promises of future work on a website, and putting them all on one large web page. Same for Netscape logos and mail icons. When you do this sweep across the entire collection like that, you start to see trends, artistry, and a perspective unheard of a mere 10 years earlier. To be able to go “now show me what people thought was a good way to promote their browser” or “how many different ways can you say ‘click here to mail me'” is pretty amazing.

Thanks to both Jason and Mark for this interview!

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