Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Doing Things for Free: Part 2

In 2015, at least in the US, video arcades are certainly no longer the hubs of activity they used to be three decades ago. Places that used to be packed with children, flashing lights, and pinball machines now look sort of sad. Even when I was young, arcades were already on the decline in all but the more heavily populated areas. Modern arcades, however, are hardly updated and--from personal observation--mostly empty. For many reasons, this is disappointing. Children (and adults) miss them dearly; parents miss having a place to send their kids.

This is due, in large part, to the rising availability of arcade games on home consoles. People no longer needed to feed quarters into a machine to make endless runs of games. Instead, with one moderately sized purchase, a game could be played over and over again, in the comfort of one’s own bedroom. It would not take long for the purchase price to offset the quarter pay per play method. It became the case that many popular console games were ports of arcade standbys. But it could not recapture the feel of arcades.

Home computers interconnected by the Internet was steadily more popular in the mid-1990s. This lead to innovative new ways to distribute games, such as message boards and shareware. This new term meant that content creators could make their software instantly available to anyone who wanted it. In all likelihood, these were the first examples of “viral” distribution. A piece of software that received a bump in attention could suddenly spread like wildfire. And there was no go-between interfering with the producer and the consumer. It was a direct link.

As it were, playing video games at home turned out to be desirable. The iterations of the Atari were basically mini arcades. Companies like Nintendo and Sega warred with competing consoles and playing games on the computer became even bigger. And as time passed these games became part of the history of the larger game industry as a whole. Games now seen as history, however, are increasingly difficult to enjoy as fewer people have access to actual working machines. Luckily, there is a legal home for these classic titles so that they can still be accessed today. Of course, it’s on the Internet.

The Internet Archive, also famously known as the Wayback Machine, is a nonprofit collection of links and files. One of its primary uses is archiving slices of the Internet so that it can be visited in the future. Want to see what your favorite website looked like in the early 2000s? You can bring up a sample of it in a matter of seconds. The other use of the website is to browse millions of files, including books, audio, and software, such as games.

While the collection is fairly small still, users can download and play many classic titles for the PC or for Atari and Sega systems. Some games do not hold up, to be sure, and appear outdated and uninspired. Others were and still are considered to be masterpieces. But they are all available for one to peruse at no cost, regardless of quality.

Being able to broaden one’s horizons is becoming easier all the time with the aid of the Internet. There is no cost barrier to entry with so much entertainment, just as it’s never been easier to freely share one’s own creations. Content goes from the producer to the consumer effortlessly. Anyone with an Internet connection has the freedom to experience new things. Or in some cases, old things which help ground our current landscapes. In any case, it’s a good time to be connected.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Doing Things for Free: Part 1

I don’t read as much as I should. Between fifty and a hundred books a year is a good number for me. I truly enjoy reading, but it is one of many ways I choose to spend my free time. And it’s tough to find a balance in free time! As my list of books I want to read grows bigger and bigger, the amount of new and interesting books certainly does not go down. For every book I finish, I’m sure I add three more. This brief is not about making a dent in that list.

As more and more books are released every year, it is easy for classics to become buried in the past. Furthermore, if young people read less, they become painfully lacking in knowledge on classic literature or philosophy that forms that background of much of today’s media. Missing out on literature that is “too old” means missing out on allusions that are worth knowing and stories that are worth hearing. One way to combat this: exploring free archives of such writings.

In today’s Internet culture, there is certainly no shortage of free access to information. Although the means for receiving the information are sometimes questionably legal, many of these no-cost resources can be found through legal means as well. A quick search on Amazon’s Kindle store reveals hundreds of classics--from Ulysses to Les Misérables--for absolutely free. But this is not limited to just old titles; hundreds of recent releases, both fiction and nonfiction, are also available for immediate download. These are available to anyone with the Amazon app, not even requiring the Kindle itself.

Another legal example, Project Gutenberg (presumably named after the inventor of the printing press) is one of the oldest and largest digital collections on the Internet, amassing over 48,000 titles. With this many options, a dedicated reader could spend their entire lives getting caught up. Again, as these books are totally free, it makes the option to pay $13.99 for the same book in a Barnes & Noble seem absurd.

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there is certainly free literature. These are just two of the options one has to pick some up; there are many other possibilities as well. If it seems too easy to find, it’s because it really is that easy. Once, I wanted to read this old journal article on a subject I was into at the time. A Google search found a PDF for me in less than a minute. I’ve said it before: I love the Internet.

To me, though, nothing replaces the feeling of holding a book. I could never advocate using a device over a paperback. But the truth is: enough people are carrying around a phone or using a computer that these titles could be quite useful. It’s remarkable how much of the world of literature can be found instantly in the comfort of your own home. These no-cost options certainly offset the cost of a device and might justify the purchase.

At its best, the Internet can be put to use as an incredible archive. As a repository for information, there is almost no limit to the amount of content that can be found. And public domain means, literally, owned and shared by the public. So, if you haven’t yet gotten around to the complete works of William Shakespeare, you technically already own them, and they’re already stored for you online.

This is fascinating because it largely takes away the excuse to not be educated in classical humanities. For no monetary cost and no more effort than the click of a button, one can easily find something rewarding to read and enjoy. A person has a right to read whatever he or she wants, and the options are easily presented and seemingly endless. I know it puts my To Read list in a pretty bad shape.