What’s the Modern Equivalent of Byte Magazine?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Byte 1977 - DecBack in the 1970s, I developed an addiction for computer magazines. My favorites were Byte Magazine, Creative Computing, and InfoWorld. But there were countless others popping in and out of existence. During that period I’d go out driving two or three times a week to bookstores, newsstands, and computer shops looking for new issues to buy. I loved Byte Magazine the best because it was so well rounded, covering all kinds of computers, computer history, computer theory, computer science, featuring code and wiring schematics – great reading for hackers and wireheads.  Plus in the early years before small computers became an industry, they had fantastic covers.

There was an excitement about computers back then when we called small computers micros before they became PCs or Macs, with lots of do-it-yourself projects for a small subculture of geeks and nerds. Today I seldom buy computer magazines. My addiction waned when they all split into specific platform titles and computers became pervasive. My addiction disappeared after the world wide web became a new addiction. A few times a year I’ll buy a Linux magazine. Linux and open source fans still have a subculture vibe with a do-it-yourself spirit.

Now that I’m thinking about the Byte Magazine, I realize the late 1970s and early 1980s as an era before the internet, and my nostalgia has a lot of implications. A monthly magazine like Byte was self-contained. It was a reasonable amount of information to consume. Today, reading off the cloud, I feel like I’m trying to consume whole libraries in a gulp. When I research a blog post I find way too much to digest. It overwhelms me. Reading Byte in the early days of microcomputers was like reading science books in the 17th century. It was possible to be a generalist.

I loved studying the history of science fiction because its territory felt small — or did. In the past year, I’ve discovered enough new scholarly books on SF history to crush me. I can’t write anything without referencing all I know and think I should know. That’s mentally paralyzing.

I loved Byte Magazine because it didn’t cause information overload. I wish computers were still just for fun, a hobby. Magazines are dying, but I wish there was a computer magazine published today that looked at the world of computers in a small way. That’s probably why Raspberry Pi computers are so popular. They are small, and their world is small.

Puttering About in a Small Land by Philip K. DickThe other day an old friend texted me and asked how I was doing. I texted back I was fine, enjoying puttering around in a small land. She immediately called me worrying that something bad had happened. I had to explain I wasn’t in a hospital room but enjoying my hobbies at home. I was riffing off the name of a Philip K. Dick novel, Puttering About in a Small Land. I just love that title. I think that’s why I loved Byte back then, we could still putter around in a small land.

I’m reading Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You For Being Late. In it, he decides to invent a new name for “the cloud.” Friedman believes cloud computing is changing humanity and deserve a name that reflects its impact. He chooses “supernova,” which I think is a colossal bonehead choice. The obvious name to replace the phrase “the cloud” is the “hive mind.”

I’m starting to believe living in the hive mind is wrong. Sure, having access to all the information in the global mind is wonderful, but overwhelming. I’m wondering if the good old days weren’t those days when knowledge came in magazines.




12 thoughts on “What’s the Modern Equivalent of Byte Magazine?”

    1. It’s getting harder and harder to leave. There’s a great new documentary called Off the Grid about people living in the woods without electricity – but strangely enough, most have maintained connections to the net.

  1. I’ll toss in a few thoughts, or if my mind goes blank in the next minute or two just one.
    You touched on the “hobbyist” idea, that most folks back in that day were non-professionals who were interested enough to spend hours of their own time to figure out, understand, and then maybe even toss in some enlightening ideas for all to see, and maybe use.

    You are correct in thinking that Friedman is way off in his choice of nomenclature.

    We’re talking about a community of amateurs (some no doubt more capable than a few of the paid-for professionals) back in those days. That is a whole different world than what we live in today. Today, there is no difference between a pointed attitude formed around a few ideas, and an actual semi-pro offering some clues if not answers to assist other “amateurs” in wrangling their PCs.

    It is the new paradigm, wherein a voice (with many followers) can dominate a discussion regardless of the quality, veracity or actual truth of anything that may be in order. Whether or not our “guiding lights” of Byte or the other PC magazines were correct, they usually did not speak with a dominating authority. The assumption was that they led the hoi polloi into the frontier of things, where new things learned could flow from the bottom to the top, and then back again.

    Alas, those days are gone. I myself scrupulously avoid most social media, for multiple reasons but also because of a few unpleasant experiences. There are still useful on-line agencies (Ars Technica, TechSpot, Bleeping Computers, Ask Woody, and a few others) who seem to do a decent job of staying in tune with PC and other on-line related issues. They mostly of course are now not hobbyist sites for that purpose, but money-making entities with an entirely different mode of business. That is not an indictment, just a point of view. And the ones I listed (and others) are useful, even helpful resources.
    However, the days of friendly amateur participants are long gone in most circumstances. There are small groups here and there that have formed and created a small gravitational system that keeps people coming back: for help, to help and to discuss all the dreck that pours down upon us users (AskWoody is one such if you are still using Windoze).

    The big problem is that all the important tech is now in the hands of multinational corporations who have cleverly made every damn thing not nailed down as public domain, pure corporate licensed, and owned property. That leaves very little for the amateurs to play with – without lawsuits.

    Perhaps another optional title to replace Friedman’s “Supernova” is Black Hole. Everything within range is drawn in, and nothing comes back out. At least not until it’s time for that Supernova he is talking about.

    1. “Black hole” has much truer connotations than a supernova.

      There’s an abundance of computer knowledge on the web, so whenever I have a problem I can Google it and find other people who have had the exact same problem. I suppose that’s another reason why computer magazines have disappeared.

      Computer magazines provided a random stroll through new information, whereas on the net we generally search for specific answers, or follow hyperlinks that catch our interest. When I read magazines I’d read about computer systems I didn’t own, or uses for computers I wouldn’t ever need. I don’t do that anymore. I remember how I used to enjoy reading about how people bought a microcomputer with their own money and took it to work to automate some task at jobs I’d never even think about.

      I guess today we like to read about how people use their smartphones for new tasks.

  2. And we don’t have Ray Bradbury around to tell us a story that will help us understand just how much things have changed.

    1. I think writers like Bradbury and Simak were bridges across a vast generation divide that reminded folks that older wonders from earlier times shouldn’t be forgotten because of new wonders of modern times. Two other stories that did this was “Jefty is Five” by Harlan Ellison and “Travels With My Cats” by Mike Resnick. Of course, it could also be called nostalgia writing.

  3. Much of this post had me nodding, although I fell in love with computers as cute typewriters and only launched into the culture when I first saw a website in 1995. An equally bad alternative to the hive mind popped into my drone mind: the noosphere. That information overload is driving me nuts right now and I’m launching a life de-clutter in response. Enough, enough! There’s no room in my brain or my day for what keeps me alive — writing. I’m not going off-grid, but cranking up the discipline. You are so right.

  4. Rachel, the noosphere is one of those aesthetic concepts that I hate (even when I use it). I don’t care what kind of nooner is involved, my life in the urban/feral interface suggests that when the coyotes are howling somebody’s dogs or cats are soon to be dinner. That is just a fact.

    Whether or not Jerry would have horned in on this is one of those things we’ll never know (unless some one does serious research) but I would suggest that his occasional reach into the urban/human interface suggests the worst.

    And by the way, the coyotes are howling in my (nearby) ears right now. Something tells me that none of them give a damn about our discussions here.

    Those authors of many stories who wrote about humans, and their foibles seemed to me to have a keen sense of what our local scavengers could teach us. If only we should listen…


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