Hopes, Dreams, and Bullshit

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/21

Rereading the 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy unearthed long suppressed feelings and ambitions that first emerged in my personality back in the 1960s and 1970s. When I first read Hackers in 1985 it rekindled those formative emotions and desires then as well. I’ll start my seventies this year and I have to wonder when do hopes that I formed in my teens finally fade away? When can I just give up and be here now? When do I stop trying to constantly be who I was? Why don’t hopes have expirations dates? Why are these books so exciting after all these years?

I remember four years ago triggering these same emotions and ambitions when I reread The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I tried to write about what I felt, but those words don’t capture what I’m trying to say now. One thing about growing older, at least for me, is seeking clarity about my time in reality. Before I die, or my mind fades away, I want eliminate all the bullshit barnacles that encrusts my soul.

My current theory is we acquire our personal dreams and desires from pop culture and subcultures. During my lifetime I’ve belonged to many subcultures, but the two I loved most are science fiction and computers. Both current forms of those subcultures have long past me by, but their initial seduction have left subprograms running within my mind that never stop. Why was I able to deprogram myself of childhood religious programming, but I’ve never been able to escape that cultural programming acquired from age 12-22?

You’d think we’d forget old beliefs as we acquired new insights. Of course, I’m generalizing, assuming all people are the same. Maybe other people do that, but I don’t. Why can’t we emotionally be like historians who rewrite history with new discovers. For example, after rereading Hackers I read A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018) by Joy Lisi Rankin. Basically, Rankin is saying, hold on there Steven Levy, your history of computer pioneers from MIT and Silicon Valley leave out a lot of middle America computer pioneers. Her book is reshaping my sense of computer history I got from Hackers. Why don’t I do the same things with my personal history?

This is not the book review I sat down to write. I might try again, but let’s go with the flow. These books hit the bullseye of my old computer ambitions. Over the past year I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos about 8-bit computers, especially those from The 8-Bit Guy. David Murray essentially has traveled back in time to work on computers at the point where Hackers ends in 1984. Many other YouTubers have done this too. I’ve wondered if the solution to my problem with all these old hopes and desires is to return to a past point in time and start over. I realize at this moment, that’s exactly what I’ve done with science fiction. I’m reading and collecting what I loved best from 1965-1975. That’s kind of weird when you think about it. But maybe it’s a natural aspect of aging too.

However, I also tell myself I should jettison my past like they were my first and second rocket stages and seek orbit for what I could be in 2021. But could that be me bullshitting myself that I’m not too old to learn new tricks. Of course, maybe one way not to stir up old emotions and desires is to stop consuming old pop culture. Does my library of old books, magazines, movies, and TV shows keep those old subprograms going? Actually, yes.

I have a friend, Anne, who lives so in the present that she hates the past, and even throws away old photographs and mementos when she finds them. I also live in the present by reading books published in 2020 and magazines that are February 2021 current. If I tossed out my old library and read only new books and magazines I would become a different person. I could become a fast nimble speedboat. But because I loved old pop culture, and can’t let go of old ambitions, magazines, and books, I feel the past I carry around has grown to the size of the Titanic. (I wish I had a photo of a guy in a rowboat towing the Titanic on a rope to put right here.)

The current nonfiction books and science fiction magazines I’m reading are about politics, climate change, and all the other dark clouds the horizon of this century. (No wonder I want to return to last century.) If I only read new books and magazines I’d completely reshape my present personality. Reading these three computer histories rekindles the futures I wanted back in the 1970s and 1980s, and they were tremendously more appealing than the futures I envision now. The people profiled in those books had such wonderful dreams about what computers would bring to the 21st century. And their dreams came true beyond anything they imagined or hoped. Yet, I wonder if they could see the downside of their creations, would they have done anything different? And isn’t that what I’m doing now by rereading these old books, second guessing my past decisions?

One of the reasons I can’t let the past go is it feels unfinished. I didn’t get to consume all the pop culture I wanted back then, satisfy all my wants, or achieve all my ambitions. But having lived in the future, it also feels like we took so many wrong turns. I can’t help but want to go back and finish what I started and even try different paths.

There is a whole lot more I want to say about Hackers, but this essay has already gotten too long for chiseling on this stone. Hopefully to be continued on another rock.


10 thoughts on “Hopes, Dreams, and Bullshit”

  1. Soul of a New Machine was a formative book for me. As was Gödel Escher Bach. I think I first wanted to be a programmer after reading an Isaac Asimov story in the late ’50s or early ’60s. So here I am at age 71 working as a second string ‘go’ programmer for a cloud company.

  2. James,
    It takes a lot for me to “LOL” these days but damn, you did it. I was sittin’ here in front of computer, piddlin’ (yes, droppin’ the g’s ’cause I’m southern and “piddin'” is what old retired guys do). And my “caw caw” wave file went off to tell me, “Hey, old man. You have email.” (And yes, even that “crow” sound has a reason for being, for me, all that “meaning and purpose” stuff.) And I read the title of your column and again, I burst out laughing. And you will understand better’n anyone else.
    I am that guy, you know, who has been keeping and writing in journals since 1979. In those early years it was “A Life Revisited,” then it became “A Life with Dreams”. A few years later it was “Only the Best Life Ever” and, starting last year, it was, and remains, “Epilogue”. Indeed, from merely “revisiting” that “old life” I had when I started putting it all into digital format back in ’11, to adding those “dreams,” not just of the nocturnal variety, but those dreams and ambitions, the stuff of everyday life. And with all the retrospection going on, make no mistake, I have had, and still have, “only the best life ever”–most of which is “in spite of” me and what a bumbling chap I have been most all of my life and rather “because of” the wonderful people–yes, very few “wonderful” people–who gave my life the meaning and purpose it has. Most were indeed people I, too, would rather forget but…but ain’t it fascinating how quickly the brain retains the “bad” stuff. Then again, maybe it is only MY brain that works that way because I’ve met few others who so easily and quickly remember the names of those who, yes, make life a living hell.
    Last year, however, it was no longer the past that kept my focus. Instead, I started looking at the present, no, not as something that I am a part of. Sure, I was in the “present” back in the ’60s, getting stoned and laid in the backseat at the drive-ins, but the “present” was “out there…somewhere”. I simply started focusing on this present, this “here and now” And…and now is when I wish I had simply called the last two years of my journal “Hopes, Dreams, and Bullshit” because damn if you didn’t sum up life on this planet in the fewest words possible.
    I never really had any “hopes” or “dreams” back when I was in the “present” ’cause all I cared about was, well, working, paying my bills, being as “happy” as possible with my station in life. But I’m that old guy now (right behind you, I’ll be 69 in a few months, the same age as the year I graduated from high school) and all I see is…Bullshit.
    Me? I still think of a story or two to tell…from the past. My personal life, here in the present? Oh, it remains only the best life ever. But any thoughts at all “hopes” and dreams” for both the present, in that “bigger picture”? No, it is all Bullshit. But I will admit I do have a terribly misanthropic pleasure from yes, adding the stories from “out there” to my journal and then summarily commenting on them. And one last time, most all of those comments could be ended with me, asking that imaginary “someone” who might read all this stuff…in the future: “Do you believe this bullshit?”
    James, you stay safe and be well.

    1. Randy, I also graduated from high school in 1969. I’m also from the south. I’m glad I made you laugh out loud. I’ve been noticing that I don’t do that much laughing out loud anymore. Then I watched It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Nutty Professor and Genevieve and started back to laughing out loud again. By the way, are your journals online?

      1. James, I have thought about putting them online many times, but….
        And that becomes a perfect example of…of life on this planet. And all I mean is I simply can’t bring myself to take that one chance in, what, a billion, that a “someone” would find them–and now you’re really in MY world–and find a way to…to make money…off of the stuff that *I* have written? Hey, if anybody is going to make money off both the stories of my misery and suffering as well as all those good times and fun stuff, then dammit, it’s gonna be me!
        But there are three external hard-drives, plus the computer, where I keep all of this stuff saved and backed-up. Oh, and one of those “flash drives”. My daughters have no interest in ’em…sorta kinda understandable since they had to grow up with the man who writes them. Lisa, my wife, accepts with far more grace and dignity than I could ever muster when I ask, “Hey, Lisa, what were you doing back on…” and then just fill in the blanks with the dates. But James, it really is fascinating to compare what I “remember”–when, who, what, etc.–with what I have written, that documented history. And I read that history and I am also reading a different “me” and often I am left sitting here, wondering, “Was I really like that?” But at the same time, I often say, “Damn. I miss that me, very much.”
        So I write, again, with the thought of that future “someone” reading it. But then again, I also write *to* whomever that might be. But at the end of the day, I write for an audience of…one…me. So maybe…one day….
        And this…just for fun because yes, it, all this writing can, does, and has become OCD as hell:
        Monday, February 01, 2021, 0000
        So January looked like this:
        Journal Totals as of Sunday 01/31/21:
        The Stuff of Everyday Life (1979 – January 2021)
        15 journals: 7,925 entries / 7,993 pages / 3,091,261 words
        Ancillary Journals:
        42 titles / 10,186 pages / 3,707,265 words
        57 titles / 18,179 pages / 6,798,526 words
        Add those titles placed into Archives:
        10 titles / 3,495 pages / 1,318,541 words
        That total now becomes:
        67 titles / 21,674 pages / 8,117,067 words

        1. Randy, if you want to earn money from your writing you should pull out about 60,000 words of your journal and turn it into a focused memoir. Send it to publishers, or self-publish it on the Kindle. If you go the Kindle route and you find readers you might also find a traditional publisher to reprint it.

  3. Re: “(I wish I had a photo of a guy in a rowboat towing the Titanic on a rope to put right here.)”

    I have some images related to this you might find inspiring

    A drone video shot by Senja Larsen about her husband pushing a huge piece of ice with a rowboat:

    Lonnie Dupre “pulling” a nuclear powered icebreaker to shore (staged photo):
    (context is also interesting as that trip was done in collaboration with Greenpeace)

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