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"Behold the mighty WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS," the narrator intones, a class of fifth-graders falling asleep as the projector clicks. "At one point, these lumbering beasts roamed the IBM-compatibles in huge herds, eating 640k and excreting keystroke macros. They died out during the Great Windows Shift of the Teleopathic Era, unable to make the transition from their native lands, and are now extinct."
Yes, it was only ten years ago or so that DOS was king, 2400 modems were pretty high tech, and the internet was something only used by scientists and the hard-coriest of computer geeks. Now, all of these things are dead; you see IBM 286s at garage sales with hopeful "$5!" stickers on them, dusty and unsold.
As a result, most books written about technology feel excavated from ancient Sumeria. Who cares about the complex issues involved in creating the MCA Widgetmaster when it was replaced by the FireLine Bandcrammer two years ago? It's all details, and boring ones at that.
And yet this is the truly amazing thing about What Just Happened: Despite the fact that some of these essays were written twelve years ago, you still nod and say, "Yes, that happened to me yesterday." It feels alive and as vital as the internet itself.
Amazed at the bizarre things people will waste their time on? How about the entirely-graphical Carnegie-Mellon Coke Machine, which recorded the temperature and number of cans left in each slot - all in ASCII art, and all in 1994. Annoyed at the Patent Office giving away the rights for Instant Messaging to ICQ? Well, Gleick wrote about how the patent office may be in over its head almost six years ago. In 1998, Gleick wrote about the increasingly ridiculous amounts of legalese that you have to agree to in order to install almost any program on your computer; have you installed Microsoft Office lately?
The internet technology has mutated five thousand times since ARPAnet, but James Gleick is here to remind us that really, nothing much has changed.
This book consists of thirty essays on the internet, presented in chronological order, and What Just Happened is much like a box of candies. Each essay is a tiny gem of scrupulous fact-finding and tight, clever writing - totally different from every other essay, but each gloriously addictive. James has an eye for the interesting, and you cheerfully follow him just to see where he goes next. "Come here with me," he says, taking you by the hand. "This is fascinating!"
For example: Software bugs. You generally don't think of bugs fondly - especially not after a computer freeze has just lost you half a day's work. But James does research to find the interesting side of software crashes, noting with wry amusement that Microsoft's tech support people are not actually allowed to say the word "bug." (The preferred word is "issue" - or, preferably, "a known issue.") He discusses the problems of software engineering, discussing the very legitimate troubles programmers encounter when tracking down critical errors in increasingly-complex programs. He chuckles as he dissects a press release from Microsoft, showing how they spin doctor their announcements of fatal flaws in their products, then wonders whether this technique can be transported to other industries: "Continuing to respond to users' design for clean, efficient power, the Soviet Union has accelerated an upgrade of its historical Chernobyl Nuclear Plant...."
He finishes up by passing on the cheerful conclusion from Microsoft's tech team: His word processor wasn't crashing his computer - no, not at all. It was simply causing a three-minute delay between every keystroke.
And yet this is not simply a time capsule. Some of the articles - trifles, really - are so quick and fun to read that you'll regret when they're over. Gleick writes a eulogy for his password, a good and complex password made useless by a hacker... And his search for a newer, uncrackable, and above all memorable password. He discusses some of the worst phrasings from software and hardware manuals ("Type the field name Name in the Field Name field"), then discusses the tragically small number of people these incomprehensible diagrams are created for. He researches the new advances that phone companies are making in creating softer, yet purposely annoying, buzzes and beeps to draw your attention in large crowds.
In many cases, Gleick explains why some of the promises of the past have never come true: He writes about the troubles involved in replacing cash with electronic currency, which goes a long way towards answering why micropayments have never really taken off. He talks, inevitably, about the breakup of Microsoft and asks some rather crucial questions.
And even when he's wrong, which is rare, he's riotously off-target. In "This Is Sex?" - written in 1995 - he explains how the internet is a terrible medium for pornography, and people should really stick with magazines. Hugh Hefner would like to disagree.
This is, in short, the sort of book you hang around the coffee shop discussing with your friends.
What Just Happened is completely unnecessary...and that is most of its charm. This is pure, delightful froth, like the sweet foam on top of a fresh cappuccino - something to be sipped and enjoyed, a little at a time. You won't come away with a deeper understanding of networking - well, probably not - but you will have many fascinating anecdotes tucked into your pocket, and a smile on your face when you leave. I can't recommend it enough.