The Atari 2600

So, while a lot of the roots of modern computing hardware can be traced to the Commodore Amiga, and a lot of the roots of modern software can be traced to Xerox Parc (along with modern networking), pretty much nothing can be traced to the Atari 2600 – and yet, it was one of the most influential computing systems of the 20th century.

The design of the 2600 can best be destribed as ‘cheap’. It’s kind of extrordinary to think that the system had so little memory that it could not even represent the first paragraph of this blog entry in RAM. I had wristwatches in the 80s that had more RAM than the 2600. It also lacked a lot in custom chips – there wasn’t a framebuffer, or a blitter, or.. much of anything, really. The CPU spent its time ‘racing the beam’ – taking advantage of the ‘downtime’ in NTSC while the electron beam swept back up to the top of the screen to do any computing needed to keep track of things like score counters or player sprite position (heh heh sprite yah right!) and focing all the effort of the CPU on actually driving the display while the beam was sweeping across the phosphers.

What the 2600 mostly gave us was A: a set of developers who could code for *anything* and B: a entire generation of people who learned that computers could be fun. The 2600 was so cheap that almost everyone either had one or knew someone who did, and it was small and light enough to be passed around amongst circles of friends. It had some surprisingly playable games for such a unenviable piece of hardware, which mostly speaks to just how dedicated humans are when it comes to entertainment. If we put the kind of effort into ceasing war and arranging for love for everyone that we put into moving little pixels around on screens we’d already be living in a utopia. For that matter, I feel pretty sure that if the people who designed some of the later game consoles (like the PS3 and the Wii) were permitted to design a economic system we would no longer have any reasonable reason to have wars.

It is pretty astonishing both how far we’ve come in terms of computing in the last 50 years and how far we haven’t come in terms of political systems. We are still just fine with a president who lies several times a speech, almost half of us still believe that helping people out is a sign of mental illness but lying in order to start wars isn’t..

I think the problem is that democracy is limited to the average intelligence of the group, whereas things like the 2600 – well, computers in general – are driven by the brightest and best. And I also suspect that various organizations – especially “news” organizations like Fox that have heavily spun news and outright fiction in order to fit people’s preconceived notions and make them feel good about voting for the death of their fellow man – pander to the lowest common denominator and try to drive it ever lower.

I can’t help but wonder, though, whether our votes are actually counted at all. The powers that be could have a hybrid paper/blockchain system that would let us all check the aggregation and also look for signs of malfeasance, but they have chosen to go with easily-hackable digital voting machines instead. Normally I tend to look down on conspiracies and “the illuminati are ruling us all” because honestly, Earth does not look that organized. On the other paw, it *really* seems like we should be further along than we are. So maybe the 20-yacht club, who love it when the cops kill the lowly peons because it makes them feel powerful, are in fact leaving us the *illusion* of voting to keep us from rebelling, but actually installing whoever they want whenever they want.

On the other paw, assigning a *toddler* the nuclear launch codes, which is what clearly has been done most recently, doesn’t make sense under *any* scenario I can think of. So maybe I’m just stuck in a video game and don’t know it. Or I’m hallucinating a mile a minute.

One Response to “The Atari 2600”

  1. Swipes Says:

    I feel your review of the Atari 2600 was mostly neutral and maybe slightly negative. I’d expect more love for someone who bought one as an adult and then later bought an emulator as well. We won’t discuss that they were both gifts for someone a billion times less tech savvy than you. More love for Atari!

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