I look for coffee and find Nolan Bushnell, inventor of Atari
It’s that time of day. I am at SXSW and I need coffee. Wandering at large in the upper floors of the convention center, I see a lounge, one of the corporate sponsored hangout rooms where people sit, recharge their phones, send work emails, and nap. These places sometimes have coffee.
I smell coffee and I hear the puffing whir of a cappuccino machine. Good enough, going in.
This is the Comcast Social Media Lounge, brought to you by Comcast. It’s supposed to have tech influencers giving speeches as well. In fact, there’s one here now.
At the door there are some friendly people scanning badges, they apologize but they are out of books. Apparently Nolan Bushnell is here, and everybody wanted to pick up a copy of his latest work. He invented Atari and is regarded as an integral part of the tech revolution by some people. Right now, he is being interviewed on a small stage.
The interviewer is author and speaker, Guy Kawasaki. Kawasaki is very enthusiastic about this interview. The tone of his questioning and the excitement of his interjections are reminiscent of a young person at a comic con who is meeting their favorite graphic artist.
Bushnell maintains a cool distance. He’s leaned back in his chair, hands clasped, legs crossed at the ankle. He doesn’t need to be here, it’s all a choice. He’s done this sort of thing a million times.
Questioning starts with the ancient history of a time before home computers. They go back to discuss Bushnell’s association with fellow tech innovator, Steve Jobs. Apparently Bushnell was the only person to actually employ Jobs, a fact he seems to take some pride in. Bushnell speaks highly of the innovative usefulness of Jobs.
They delve into the gossip of their company culture. Kawasaki asks about the Grass Valley culture ” what was it like “were you guys just sitting around in beanbag chairs smoking marijuana all day.” Bushnell responded “yeah, we had a research facility in Grass Valley and everybody said, oh yeah, Grass Valley, they must be doing a lot of doobies but actually those in my marketing department, almost none of them smoked.” The crowded laughs because the someone said doobie.
Then Kawasaki gets into the history of Atari in particular. Bushnell explains how it all started at an amusement park where he was head of the games department and he ” knew the economics of coin operated games.”
Later, he happened to end up in “the university of Utah video lab, the only place hooking up video screens to big computers .” He describes it as ” magic time magic place, total serendipity” and explains his realization that “if I could make this cheap people would play it.”
He started the company with just “$250 each my partner and I, and we could not raise capital from anybody, so we had to grow the company to about 40 million dollars until anybody would pay attention to us.” He expands that they “never had any money,” so they had to generate their funding “the old fashioned way.”
Kawasaki asks a specific, but common question about Atari, “Can you explain what “Atari” the word means? ”
Bushnell explains that it started with a game called “Go,” “an Asian game played by Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and it’s black and white stones on a 19 by 19 black and white matrix” He describes it as “The best game in the world, it balances your left and your right hemispheres there’s and art to it there’s a logic to it.
In the game, if you are about to engulf your opponent it’s an Atari. And so you say “Atari! It’s like check in chess and I thought, that’s a pretty aggressive name to name a company. So a lot of people thought it was a Japanese company because it was a Japanese game. But it was an American company with a Japanese name.
Bushnell also expands on the relevance of the arcade to innovative tech culture. He explains that “historically it was the training ground, this bridge between what’s going on in the lab and what’s being done at home, because when things start out they are expensive, they’re not robust, and you can do them in the arcade.”
This perspective paints arcades as the kind of place that could bridge the gaps in available technology to the general public. An arcade was the kind of place where, for a quarter, anybody can reach the cutting edge of gaming tech. Nolan Bushnell described how “arcades kind of lost their way when home technology seemed in terms of graphics to exceed what was found in arcades.”
Bushnell speaks of a future full of “sensors and processes and very cheap Raspberry Pis running HDMI, I mean magical stuff.” These things could be used to recreate arcades of the future and restore “the arcade ” as a place of cultural relevancy.
Meanwhile, another event at SXSW also touched on that theme. The Mr. Robot television show chose to set their characters, techno-anarchist revolution at a former arcade. They gathered to learn and expand what was possibly in the (former) cultural hub. This concept of the arcade as a cultural center could be of further relevance to the future.
Bushnell has other things to say about the future. He is currently discontent with the education system. He says “I feel like our schools are doing a horrible job. We’ve got too much school and not enough education.” His ideal vision with more “project-oriented” work in order to “up the ante for engagement, keeping curiosity and passion alive.”
He speaks critically of the idea that college is the only way. He explains that he thinks “we’ve reinvented indentured servitude, because of student debt. College is way too expensive. I mean the cost of college per hour is horrible.” Taking it a little further, he references the “old joke ‘if you have a problem with pigeons on campus give them tenure and they’ll quit showing up.'”
His ideal world involves “eliminating noise”. Things like the “liberal arts” can be done more efficiently. He says ” we need to know how to write, we need to know how to fix sentences, that stuff. But that stuff, if mediated by software, you can do it in a day and a half, 15 or 20 minutes.” From this perspective eliminating noise can lead to a better, more efficient, world.
The cappuccino machine is very loud. Throughout the discussion various people walk up and ask for one. At one point, the interviewer snaps cheerfully” Do you have to make cappuccino? It’s Nolan Bushnell you can always make cappuccino later.”
I am polite enough to wait till the presentation is over. However, it seems the cappuccino machine closed with the conclusion of the presentations. Apparently you can’t make cappuccino later. But you can go get a picture and an autograph from Nolan Bushnell. Many people do. He is an icon to them.