Crown, 1996, 214 pages, C$15.00 tpb, ISBN 0-517-59575-3
Okay reader, let’s step in the time machine!
Sit down in the chair, grab the controls, reset the dial to a primitive, dark and dangerous time. Be bold and go back to 1995. It’s wasn’t an easy time in that savage land known as America. The O.J. Simpson trial was on everyone’s minds. Bad dance music ruled the airwaves. TIME magazine boosted public interest in the Internet tenfold by pointing out that it contained plenty of porn. And, on August 24, a beast known by the name “Windows 95” was unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
Dave Barry was there, and a fat publishing contract allowed him to chronicle this turbulent period in Dave Barry in Cyberspace. With his sagacious talent for vulgarization, he gives us a brief history of computing, a primer on the inner workings of computer, a buyer’s guide, a quick trip to Comdex -the biggest computer trade show on Earth-, embarks upon the Internet -as primitive as it was way back then- and makes insightful predictions about the future of computing and how it will affect everyone’s lives in the long run.
Oh, who am I kidding? Dave Barry in Cyberspace is a book-long collection of humorist Dave Barry’s usual insanity, cleverly focused on computers to target the geek book-buying public. The result hasn’t aged very well, but still contains enough laughs to entertain.
Take, for instance, Barry’s history of computing. It goes from the stone age (who didn’t have numbers, which seriously screwed up their taxes) to the Greek (Pythagora discovered that tipping equals 15%), Stonehenge (which, seen from above, clearly forms an “Enter Password” dialog box), steam-powered computers (using fourteen-ton diskettes), early WW2 codebreaking computers (nothing funny here), primitive arcade game (“it was only a matter of time before the American public demanded -and got- Pac Man”), MS-DOS versus Mac (“serious computer geeks ignored Apple because they wanted a challenge”) and the then-current, wildly popular Win95. (“Microsoft’s getting orders from primitive tribes that don’t even have electricity.”) “How would our ancient ancestors react if we were to show them a modern computer?” asks Barry. “Probably they would beat it into submission with rocks. They were a lot smarter than we realize.”
And that’s just the first chapter —not including the introduction.
The wit and comic aptitude that propelled Barry in several hundred newspapers with his syndicated humor column is readily obvious here. Even if some Stylistic Quirks[TM] tend to repeat themselves, the overall effect is pretty funny.
But never forget that behind the silly jokes and elaborate punchlines lie several hard kernels of truth. The frustration of computer usage, the suspicion of Middle America at seeing their lives invaded by techno-speak, the sheer uselessness of most computing activities, the appeal of disembodied communication through safely anonymous channels —all of those are here, and chronicled in a fashion that will be of interest to far more than 21st century anthropologists.
Even better; Barry treats the subject with a kind of satiric reverence that allows his book to be funny both to the computerphobic and the super-guru. Like most great comics, Barry’s biggest asset is not only to know what he’s speaking of, but to look at it from a carefully-cultivated idiotic point of view that overlays a solid knowledge of what he’s satirizing.
Already, five long years after the release of the book, it has begun to lose its immediacy and to gain in historical value. Nostalgia is beginning to fill such terms as “Windows 3.1”. Dave Barry in Cyberspace is in serious danger of becoming a time capsule for latter times. And a darn funny one, at that.