Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company  
                               The New York Times

                 November 8, 1998, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 7; Page 26; Column 3; Book Review Desk

HEADLINE: Nothing but Net

BYLINE:  By J. D. Biersdorfer; J. D. Biersdorfer is a member of the newsroom
technology staff of The New York Times.

    In addition to age, generations use cultural milestones as markers along the
highway of life. The baby boomers, for instance, were not only midwives to the
birth of rock-and-roll but also witnesses to the rise of television as a popular
entertainment and informational medium. In "Extra Life: Coming of Age in
Cyberspace," David S.  Bennahum  notes that the generation known as X was the
first to incorporate a new home technology into its ethos: computers. "As
computers entered our homes, we were defining a new culture through gleeful
experimentation," he writes, "one that with the Internet in the 1990's would
become dominant, capturing as much attention as did rebellion in the 1960's or
jazz in the 1920's."

    Bennahum,  a contributing editor of Wired, Spin and Lingua Franca, has
written a laid-back autobiography of opinionated observation. Memoirs of people 
under 30 (with the possible exception of Drew Barrymore) often run out of
interesting anecdotes because there has not been a whole lot of living done yet.
"Extra Life" neatly sidesteps this pitfall, because  Bennahum  relives not only 
his own youth but that of the personal computer as well.
 Like many memoirs, the book longs for a simpler time. Instead of "Howdy
Doody" and Beatle wigs,  Bennahum,  born in 1968, wistfully recalls learning
BASIC code writing from a manual, programming modems by hand and
enthusiastically sharing his computer knowledge with his buddies. "To know the
machine as we did, so intimately, is to forever change the way we experience our
machine-mediated world," he observes. In many ways, he is a classic poster child
for those of us who came of age in the late 70's and early 80's. (Full
disclosure: I'm 31.) The family moved frequently, his parents divorced when he
was young and, mired in adolescent angst,  Bennahum  discovered, as many of us
did, the magical world of pixels and programming through Pong, a popular arcade 
video game.

   "Ours was the first generation to have toys that bore little relation to the 
world of adults, or reality on this planet," he recalls. "They came from a
galaxy far, far away, as the opening titles to 'Star Wars' suggested." With
gadgets like these and some preteen experimentation with drugs enlightening his 
lonely Manhattan childhood,  Bennahum  takes his interest to the next level.
Bargaining with his father, he strikes a deal -- his dad will buy him a home
computer in exchange for excluding his hoodlum friends from his bar mitzvah's
invitation list. With an Atari 800, 48 kilobytes of RAM and a cable to attach
the thing to a television set to convert the screen into a monitor, he's off and
 Although the book dwells too long on certain details of his life (his
youthful druggie days bring to mind "The Basketball Diaries," except with Upper 
East Side nerds),  Bennahum  sticks to a steady narrative pace and re-creates
well his mind-set and childhood loneliness. In a memorable chapter, he
alternates his recollections with the script of a computerized role-playing game
to amplify his explanations of just why computers enticed him so and how he
applies basic computing principles to his life.

   Like amateur acousticians who prefer the sound of analog vinyl records to
digital compact disks,  Bennahum  is a purist. After examining the past, he
voices his concerns for the future, worrying about the commercialization of the 
Internet and fearing that slick off-the-shelf software with easy-to-use
interfaces will keep people from truly understanding their machines (whether
they want to is another matter). "Such camouflaged technology changes into
wizardry or sorcery, becoming the alchemy of our time," he warns.

   With low-key but astute introspection, "Extra Life" strips the surface layers
to find the roots of both a generation -- one expert at converting alienation
into self-sufficiency -- and one of its milestones. A milestone that, in
 Bennahum's  view, "would cross over and become a rich part of our culture,
world culture. . . . A new media. . . . Here is where it would happen -- not at 
Microsoft, or in some mysterious research lab. It would happen out here, built                                                                               
by us, for ourselves."

                  Copyright 1998 The  Kirkus  Service, Inc.  
                                 Kirkus  Reviews

                                October 1, 1998

    Bennahum's  debut is an autobiographical coming-of-age story, told eloquently
through his relationship with computers.                                         
  Bennahum,  a contributing editor to Wired and Lingua Franca, digs through
his memories of being an outsider throughout childhood, and details a
fascination that began with his first Atari computer. The reflections are vivid 
and often provide cultural commentary on how the computer boom of the 1980s
shaped a generation, and how kids games like Space Invaders and Merlin broke the
ground for todays Internet age. Above all,  Bennahum  is an accomplished writer,
both down-to-earth and inspiring, whether hes describing the processes of a
modem or the beguiling possibilities a child sees in an expansive white carpeted
room. He consistently reaches into two of the most incomprehensible worlds (the 
mind of a computer and the mind of a little boy) and pulls out understandable
and identifiable experiences.  Bennahum  is a storyteller for the kids who were 
born in the '70s and grew up in the '80sthe Atari generation. Adults nearing
their 30s now who spent hours bootlegging software from BBSs, playing Pong and
Breakout and comparing the merits of a Commodore 64 and a TRS-80 will find
justification for and rejuvenation of their childhood fascination with those old
boxy machines. Those who grew up alongside them will be rewarded with an
insight into a cultural worldview that went largely unrecognized (and certainly 
unaccepted) because it belonged to kids, freethinkers, and crazy engineers. Just
the sort of people Apple computers is applauding in their commercials today.
   In telling the story of the burgeoning computer culture,  Bennahum  winds up 
with a beautifully told story in which he comes to understand how his
fascination with computers helped shape the way he thinks, the way he learns,
and the way he copes.