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The Specter of Tetramino

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The Specter of Tetramino

04.06.2009

It was twenty-five years ago to the day that Russian programmers changed the world. In June 1984, Alexey Pajitnov, with the help of Dmitry Pavlovsky and Vadim Gerasimov, created Tetris while working at the Dorodnicyn Computing Centre (Soviet Academy of Sciences). The very first version of the game can be downloaded at Gerasimov’s website (http://vadim.oversigma.com/Tetris.htm). After only one year, the game had taken Moscow by storm and in 1986, it appeared in the United States. The rest is, well, history. For the game’s development, Pajitnov received next to nothing in monetary compensation.

It sounds strange to say that Tetris is twenty-five years old. Such round dates aren’t often associated with the information age, which seems far too young for such numbers. Nevertheless, a quarter of a century is all that’s needed to seriously talk about history. Today’s date is one of the very first serious anniversaries of the computer age.

Beginning with Tetris, it is quite possible to measure the history of the digital era. ENIAC was built back in 1946, but for ordinary people, the computer became common only in the 1980s. It was Tetris that became the model for the new entertainment format. There were   computer games that came first, such as Spacewar and Pinball, but they reproduced merely what existed at the level the slot machine, or at least that which could be represented in reality. Tetris is a fully digital phenomenon in that it cannot exist outside the computer. There are craftsmen who drop tetramino, switching lights in the windows of tall buildings, but this is reality that imitates the computer, not the other way around. This gives us reason to jump and shout with pride – this is ours, we thought this up!

In fact, there is nothing to be proud of. For Russia, Tetris is a symbol of an interrupted flight. Pajitnov’s invention gave rise to the hope that we were ready to build a new era where we would be on equal footing with the Americans and the Japanese. Tetris was the same sort of landmark in computer development as Microsoft, the iPod, or Super Mario Brothers. And that was precisely a Russian achievement. From the beginning, Tetris was promoted under the slogan “From Russia With Fun,” which reinforced the association between the new technology, unimaginable a couple decades earlier, and Russian specialists. The Japanese at the time were forging Sonic the Hedgehog and Bill Gates of Seattle was pushing Windows. 

Alas, like a team that brilliantly won the first match and blew everyone else away, the next twenty-odd years we were out of the race. In recent years, Russian computer specialists’ achievements have included Kaspersky Labs, which makes the best antivirus software, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which turned out to use the Strugatsky brothers’ heritage much more effectively than The Inhabited Island. The game has a considerable following among gamers all around the world. This doesn’t make the system, however. No one, not even the propagandists on Channel 1, considers Russia a leader in the field of information technology. Just “average” would be enough.

Pajitnov’s invention showed the limit of the Soviet system’s technological development. We can say that Tetris marked the end of an era of achievement that began with Korolyov and Gagarin, Landau’s Nobel Prize, and others. This model, originating in Soviet sharashka and developing into a caste of scientists and scientific bureaucracy, worked for a time, but eventually exhausted its potential. Jokes about Soviet micro calculators being the largest micro calculators in the world came into being before Tetris, and there was nothing to hide.

In the 1970s and 1980s, our science lost its effectiveness in the same way that the entire Soviet economic and political system did. Even Pajitnov’s achievement was outside the system and was therefore a one-time affair. In order to invent Tetris, the most primitive machine couple with ingenious wit was all that was needed. A single wit would hardly have been sufficient for Windows or HTTP protocol, however. Thus, quick-witted schoolchildren do well in the younger grades and get stuck in the upper levels where natural talent is not enough to compensate for the absence of a base. For students the base is a habit of serious work; for society it requires a willingness to change and the desire to move forward.

It is not worth engaging in self-deprecation. Russia was moving forward. We spent the 1990s ambitiously modernizing our entire society, beginning, as Marx would have it, on the economic basis. After 2000, we sought to move away from the shock of this restructuring, although now the time to relax has passed. Capitalism has been built and oil has lost its effectiveness. The time has finally come to establish a new base for technological development to replace the Soviet one.

In other words, now, twenty-five years later, we have returned to the point where we were in June 1984. Apple, Nintendo and the Indian programmers in the time since have already gone quite far, but Russia is not accustomed to overtaking development. Whether we will do so depends only on us, but it would be nice to prove that Tetris was not just another freak occurrence but rather a manifestation of our national potential – potential which in the time since has remained hidden behind the rows of tetramino.

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