Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company The New York Times November 8, 1998, Sunday, Late Edition - Final SECTION: Section 7; Page 26; Column 3; Book Review Desk HEADLINE: Nothing but Net BYLINE: By J. D. Biersdorfer; J. D. Biersdorfer is a member of the newsroom technology staff of The New York Times. In addition to age, generations use cultural milestones as markers along the highway of life. The baby boomers, for instance, were not only midwives to the birth of rock-and-roll but also witnesses to the rise of television as a popular entertainment and informational medium. In "Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace," David S. Bennahum notes that the generation known as X was the first to incorporate a new home technology into its ethos: computers. "As computers entered our homes, we were defining a new culture through gleeful experimentation," he writes, "one that with the Internet in the 1990's would become dominant, capturing as much attention as did rebellion in the 1960's or jazz in the 1920's." Bennahum, a contributing editor of Wired, Spin and Lingua Franca, has written a laid-back autobiography of opinionated observation. Memoirs of people under 30 (with the possible exception of Drew Barrymore) often run out of interesting anecdotes because there has not been a whole lot of living done yet. "Extra Life" neatly sidesteps this pitfall, because Bennahum relives not only his own youth but that of the personal computer as well. Like many memoirs, the book longs for a simpler time. Instead of "Howdy Doody" and Beatle wigs, Bennahum, born in 1968, wistfully recalls learning BASIC code writing from a manual, programming modems by hand and enthusiastically sharing his computer knowledge with his buddies. "To know the machine as we did, so intimately, is to forever change the way we experience our machine-mediated world," he observes. In many ways, he is a classic poster child for those of us who came of age in the late 70's and early 80's. (Full disclosure: I'm 31.) The family moved frequently, his parents divorced when he was young and, mired in adolescent angst, Bennahum discovered, as many of us did, the magical world of pixels and programming through Pong, a popular arcade video game. "Ours was the first generation to have toys that bore little relation to the world of adults, or reality on this planet," he recalls. "They came from a galaxy far, far away, as the opening titles to 'Star Wars' suggested." With gadgets like these and some preteen experimentation with drugs enlightening his lonely Manhattan childhood, Bennahum takes his interest to the next level. Bargaining with his father, he strikes a deal -- his dad will buy him a home computer in exchange for excluding his hoodlum friends from his bar mitzvah's invitation list. With an Atari 800, 48 kilobytes of RAM and a cable to attach the thing to a television set to convert the screen into a monitor, he's off and running. Although the book dwells too long on certain details of his life (his youthful druggie days bring to mind "The Basketball Diaries," except with Upper East Side nerds), Bennahum sticks to a steady narrative pace and re-creates well his mind-set and childhood loneliness. In a memorable chapter, he alternates his recollections with the script of a computerized role-playing game to amplify his explanations of just why computers enticed him so and how he applies basic computing principles to his life. Like amateur acousticians who prefer the sound of analog vinyl records to digital compact disks, Bennahum is a purist. After examining the past, he voices his concerns for the future, worrying about the commercialization of the Internet and fearing that slick off-the-shelf software with easy-to-use interfaces will keep people from truly understanding their machines (whether they want to is another matter). "Such camouflaged technology changes into wizardry or sorcery, becoming the alchemy of our time," he warns. With low-key but astute introspection, "Extra Life" strips the surface layers to find the roots of both a generation -- one expert at converting alienation into self-sufficiency -- and one of its milestones. A milestone that, in Bennahum's view, "would cross over and become a rich part of our culture, world culture. . . . A new media. . . . Here is where it would happen -- not at Microsoft, or in some mysterious research lab. It would happen out here, built by us, for ourselves."
Copyright 1998 The Kirkus Service, Inc. Kirkus Reviews October 1, 1998 Bennahum's debut is an autobiographical coming-of-age story, told eloquently through his relationship with computers. Bennahum, a contributing editor to Wired and Lingua Franca, digs through his memories of being an outsider throughout childhood, and details a fascination that began with his first Atari computer. The reflections are vivid and often provide cultural commentary on how the computer boom of the 1980s shaped a generation, and how kids games like Space Invaders and Merlin broke the ground for todays Internet age. Above all, Bennahum is an accomplished writer, both down-to-earth and inspiring, whether hes describing the processes of a modem or the beguiling possibilities a child sees in an expansive white carpeted room. He consistently reaches into two of the most incomprehensible worlds (the mind of a computer and the mind of a little boy) and pulls out understandable and identifiable experiences. Bennahum is a storyteller for the kids who were born in the '70s and grew up in the '80sthe Atari generation. Adults nearing their 30s now who spent hours bootlegging software from BBSs, playing Pong and Breakout and comparing the merits of a Commodore 64 and a TRS-80 will find justification for and rejuvenation of their childhood fascination with those old boxy machines. Those who grew up alongside them will be rewarded with an insight into a cultural worldview that went largely unrecognized (and certainly unaccepted) because it belonged to kids, freethinkers, and crazy engineers. Just the sort of people Apple computers is applauding in their commercials today. In telling the story of the burgeoning computer culture, Bennahum winds up with a beautifully told story in which he comes to understand how his fascination with computers helped shape the way he thinks, the way he learns, and the way he copes.