by Steve Larsen
After the tech crash of 2000-2001, I tried to pull my thoughts together into a book, tentively titled What Were We Thinking. The following would have been the first chapter. It describes the heady time when people were just beginning to talk about the possibilities of the Net, before venture money began pouring in and before everyone began to think about “getting big fast.” The time frame is October, 1996…
Driving back to New York from Philadelphia in my ’91 Nissan 300ZX, I loved it. I always have, the surge of acceleration, the sticky tires and tuned suspension providing a nearly direct connection to the road. Something about the control and the pure action between my foot and the spring of the pedal. As far as old technology goes, if there’s anything better than powerful wheels, two or four, moving smoothly across the face of the planet, I don’t know what it is.
I was speeding, and loving it. In the car with me was Christopher Locke — rambling intensity, endless chain of menthol light cigarettes, a three gallon tank of cappuccino and a raspy, boyish, brick-through-the-window rage.
We were high as kites because we’d just left a conference outside Philadelphia where 50+ of the brightest people around had taken a few wonderfully unstructured days to throw paper airplanes and talk about what they thought and what they wanted to do. And all of it had been so possible, so absolutely open and feasible, that it had been like being present at the discovery of a new world. I’d been running gatherings myself, salons, up at our place in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, but nothing like this.
Maggie and I had taken the house fresh from California and the death of my two-year-old son, after a long illness, and we’d arrived shell-shocked. It wasn’t just our grief for Eric, which was an enormous thing — it was our fear for Ginger, our ten-year-old daughter who’d been locked by the death into a terrible guilt and grief. All the normal resentments she’d felt about a new child in the family, a sick child who’d harvested all of our attention, had come down on her after his death like a dark grey sodden cloud. But we’d been able to find help for her, and a marvelous therapist brought Ginger slowly and beautifully back. It was a relief to watch and the anxiety in Maggie and I gradually began to wane.
The house was beautiful, high on a cliff above a stream, with a wall of windows. So was Croton-on-Hudson.
As we settled in deeper and things got better, every once in a while, on a Sunday morning, I’d get people who were into new stuff, thinking out new possibilities, to come by and eat, and drink wine, and talk.
There were glimmers and waftings of ideas and lively voices. Lots of the New York new media folks would come up and there’d be others who just happened to be in town, who were passing through.
Chuck Martin (The Digital Estate), would be there, IBM-casual gadgets. Jack Rickard, editor of Boardwatch Magazine, fishing vest stuffed with pens, keys, notebooks, and cigars.
Chris Locke, who was living in Stamford. Dread-locked Jonathan Steuer who was working in HotWired and who brought Justin Hall of Justin’s Links from the Underground, an expansive, hypertext rendering of his life and mind — everything from his father’s suicide when he was 8 years old to his dating life. Justin’s site finally caused me to create my own and begin to deal more openly with the death of my son.
The crowd shifted and blended and shifted again.
So I knew how good semi-random gatherings could be and I was looking forward to the Retreat planned by Jerry Michalski and Esther Dyson in June of ’96.
Esther Dyson had been running PC Forum successfully for decades.
In ’96, Jerry convinced her that it was time to put a new bunch of people together — they might be miles apart in terms of disciplines, but each would have said something to Jerry in the past year that had made him say, “Aha.”
The invitees became his “Aha people,” though since then the group has more often tended to refer to ourselves as “Jerry’s Kids.”
Whether an individual’s interests had been commercial or social or political or spiritual, there had been something there – a sense of things shifting and moving smoothly, like tumblers in a great lock.
None of it was structured or locked or owned or codified. If the general feeling was that IBM could kiss our collective asses, well, there was no reason not to say so. Because of all of the entities going in to the experience, it was explicitly stated and understood that each individual there would be speaking for himself.
So, the conference is in June of 1996 and 54 people attend at Eagle Lodge, northwest of Philadelphia. Jerry and Daphne Kis, Esther Dyson’s partner in Edventure Holdings, has selected the conference center — wonderful tall green trees, stone paths linking the buildings. Best was the amphitheater, perfectly fitted to the size of the crowd — everyone can see everyone else, and there’s enough room to spread out.
Eagle Lodge isn’t far from the site of the first Quaker meeting in Pennsylvania, something I didn’t know at the time but which was oddly important to Jerry. He’d attended a lot of Quaker sittings and had some notion of a similar structure for the Conference — an open silence to only be broken if it could be improved. Nice idea, though not all the attendees bought it.
I knew what Jerry was thinking. A few months earlier he’d invited me on one cold, clear, sunny winter Sunday to a Friends meeting in Connecticut, a church in Wilton, beautiful as only New England churches can be — white with a modest steeple, at the edge of a woods with trees all around, white narrow siding.
There’d been a sanctuary area, a semi-circle of pews facing a big fireplace, and as the Friends moved into it they’d become quiet. No opening hymn, no reading from the Bible. We’d just sat in the stillness and it had been unbelievably peaceful so I could feel myself in a cascade of images and words — some thought, some felt, and some from another place entirely.
About 40 minutes into the meeting, this utterly peaceful silence, one woman had spoken and briefly offered a thought she’d had earlier in the week, how she’d suddenly seen God’s hand in something she’d never noticed before. Everyone had taken it in, but no one had chosen to add anything. ‘Speaking only when you can improve the silence” is a high bar.
At the end of an hour, an elder of the church had risen to read a short list of announcements — a food shelter needed contributions and help, some church members were ill and needed prayers. And with that, we’d filed out.
The atmosphere at Eagle Lodge certainly wasn’t as pure or as quiet as the Friends’ meeting, but it was wonderful nevertheless, with some of its sense of necessity, and freedom — that anyone who needed to speak, could speak, whenever the necessity grabbed him. And speak we did, the words and thoughts moving back and forth like a well-played basketball game.
When Chris and I get there after the long drive down from New York, we’re immediately pointed to tables and given t-shirts and magic markers so we can write on and decorate them. We also get green and red and yellow paddles for use in the next day’s sessions — a green paddle held up will mean “I agree with you,” a yellow paddle, “Hmmm, where are you going with this?” A red paddle, “Bullshit.”
The sessions begin the next day with a most welcome edge of childishness. There are scatterings of toys to play with, miniature slinkys, puzzles, silly putty. No agenda — we make up the rules.
Esther Dyson (small, and compact, often wearing several layers of clothing to keep warm, she’s open and welcoming though her intellect can intimidate and she’s probably more interested in ideas than in people), is there though it’s clearly going to be a conference quite unlike her PC Forum events where she functions as the thought leader, taking her audience on wonderful trips through her own interests.
This conference is more Jerry’s, and he chooses to give it back to the attendees — Don Norman, Doc Searls, Arthur Einstein, David Isenberg, Emily Davidow, Jack Henry, Malcom Casselle, Omar Wasow, Udi Shapiro, Yossi Vardi, Judi Clark, Howard Greenstein, Kyle Shannon, Eric Hughes and Nick Givotovsky, among others.
The conversations are incredible, and for the first time in my life I participate in a real dialogue with 50+ people.
Jerry leads the group in making a determination on what we want to talk about, where do we wish to focus our energy and then he moderates. It’s a wild group and while I first get the feeling that Jerry’s task is somewhat akin to herding cats but after a time he appears more like Coach Pat Riley coaching the Los Angeles Lakers in their prime. Some people go off and prepare, then come back and present to the group, others present with little to no preparation.
Nick Givotovsky squirrels himself away in his room to write us Webmasters — We Market Mindshare, a well- informed, cautionary and cheerfully vicious poem —
. . . (we’ll raise a fire so slowly,
you’ll always feel just rosy
ill we boil you whole, see)
its a play for your attention
a test of your retention,
its brand placement, recognition
its our method of control
its our custom thought patrol
we buy you once – you’re sold
we’re mining our log files
for ID, session and path
were using our wits
and applying new math
counting the pageviews
and getting a laugh
from the ad guys and agents
who’ll be tracing your paths
from marketing megaliths
who’ll make claims on your cash
we’ve got profile upon profile
of totally tracked, measured and mapped
micromarkets of one or a dozen,
of you, your lover, your brother, your cousin,
we’ll know what you want
cause we’ll know where you go,
we like you a lot and we want you to know,
if you’ll give us your name
we can put on a show,
we can build you a world
once we know where you go,
for your own solo “demo”,
and at last we’ll be able
to lock on and grow
at last we’ll be able
to barcode your soul.
There’s Eric Hughes, who within a month of the conference co-founds Cypherpunks, a roving band of cryptographers, privacy advocates, and digital anarchists. He presents a session on micro-payments which he begins by handing out pennies to everyone. When he’s finished the pennies come back in a copper shower, from every corner of the room.
Nothing compares, though, with Chris’ free form rant.
He’s been waiting to get on for a while and finally goes on our last full day. He’s enraged — you can see it in him as he walks. I’ve noticed him seething at our table — not always — mostly during the particularly techno-dweeb or business-as-usual ramblings. The amphitheater is terraced and on each level there are tables and all the energy seems to drain down toward the speaker, good or bad.
Chris gets up and “What the fuck,” he says, not questioning, more like a statement of fact.
“I’ve been stuck at IBM for a year with my thumb up my ass and I’m waiting for someone to figure out what the fuck is going on and they’ve got plans I give them all the time and they file them and say “Yeah, Chris, that’s great, then they take me into some fucking egg carton room and tell me what I’ve got to work with, which is nothing, no money no equipment no staff, and then they give me a check and I fucking go home and sit there, where I’ve got better tech stuff anyway than IBM where it took me two solid months to get an internet hookup, and this is what they want me to do, see, they want me to do the internet thinking, and get them into it, but the first fucking thing they tell me is you’ve got no resources and ‘Oh, by the way, don’t talk to anyone about this stuff without clearing it through channels.’ A fucking year. And I sit here and some of what I’m hearing is how to work in the system. Well I say fuck the system — it’s dead it’s stupid it’s non-responsive it’s counter productive it’s fucking socially evil and if we put any more of our goddamn time into propping up these dead- ass morons we deserve what we fucking get.”
The veins are standing out in his neck.
“Just fuck ’em and move on. I’m sitting around drawing a fat check off these people and it isn’t enough. I don’t want their money. These are deathly structures with no perceptible pulse except for once in a while you run into somebody lost in the fucking halls and maybe you start to talk about something real and then the guy with the fucking glad-hand comes around and tells you can’t do that, you can’t talk.”
“This is a huge goddamn breakthrough into who knows what and as we sit here IBM is trying to figure out how to put it in a box and make it sit up to beg for airholes and fucking cheese. We’re not going to work in the system because THE SYSTEM DOES NOT WANT US.”
“Go rageboy, go,” Esther yells out.
“THEY DO NOT WANT US AND THEY’RE CRIMINALS BY INSTINCT ANYWAY AND IF WE PUT ONE MORE YEAR INTO FUCKING AROUND WITH THESE DEAD FROM THE FUCKING TOP DOWN PIECES OF MANUAL-BOUND SHIT WE’RE GOING TO MISS THE GODDAMN TRAIN!”
There are whistles and cheers in the crowd. People are standing. One guy is on his table. Paper airplanes and erasers are filling the air.
“Let me tell you — I’m Program Director for Online Community Development and they’re paying me to do nothing and when I say “Hey, I’m getting paid for doing nothing they say, ‘As long as you understand the situation.’
I bring in a friend from the press to try and get some coverage and make them move and the management guy who’s going to talk to him, and show off, can’t get his modem to work and after twenty minutes he realizes it isn’t plugged in and says, dig this, ‘That goddamn tech guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.’
Brave new fucking world, huh? These guys are the Emperor’s guys. These are fucking a Entropy Brigade and the closer we get to them the more the heat drains out of our systems. If that’s what you want, fine, go for it, but don’t expect me to sit here and nod my head about how you’re gonna use these guys because THERE IS NO USE FOR THESE GUYS. Unless you want to hollow them out and use them for fucking floor lamps.”
His rant achieved eloquence, as rants occasionally can. Now, speeding toward home on the unspeakable New Jersey Turnpike, peering red-eyed through the cloud of smoke from the unspeakable Locke’s cigarettes, we’re turning over a lot of information, twisting and bending it, shooting into the twilight and the greasy salmon-smear that twilight can be around Newark, the refineries, the lights hung on the outsides of the buildings, seemingly, just like always.
How can I tell you about that conversation/monologue? Mix up a vat of hard information, coffee dregs, healthy contempt, real world pragmatism, mashed Toxico cigarette butts, visionary eloquence, trailing-off-in-the-haze 60s enthusiasms, pure rage, a sense of mission, Thirteen Ways of Saying Fuck It, a highly-tuned bullshit detector with wires and lights and everything, democratic zeal, arcane rock and roll, a dollop of Howl, a cloud of menthol smoke and a driver with his head in and out of the window, trying to breathe, at ninety or so, bearing down on the Hanging Gardens of Newark.
“We absolutely have to fucking burn the Fortune 500 down to the water-line. This is a moral obligation, this is an absolute fucking obligation.”
Chris waving his left hand in the air, the smoke from his cigarette eddying around in search of free air to poison.
After the conference a lot of things happen.
Don Norman, author of “The Design of Everyday Things,” leaves his day job and starts his own consulting group. In 1998 he publishes “The Invisible Computer,” which predicts that the complexity of the PC will kill it and it will give way to information appliances.
Doc Searls goes on to co-author The Clue Train Manifesto and edit the Linux Journal, crucial to the growth of the open source initiative.
David Isenberg publishes an essay called Rise of the Stupid Network: Why the Intelligent Network was once a good idea, but isn’t anymore. One telephone company nerd’s odd perspective on the changing value proposition. In 1998 it’s a bombshell inside AT&T but, more interestingly, because he also releases it to the Internet, it finds its way to The Wall Street Journal (“fascinating, scathing”), and David leaves to do his own thing — Isen.com, his “prosultant” consulting firm.
Emily Davidow continues with Digital Elements, a consulting company for the design and implementation of internet commerce, serves on the board of WWWAC (World Wide Web Artists Consortium), and continues to be the bleeding edge of the leading edge, finding and adopting new technology gizmo’s, adapters, browser plug-ins, before any of us.
Jack Henry grows EarthWeb into one of the nations largest ISPs while Kyle Shannon grows Agency.com into one of the largest and most respected new marketing agencies in New York. Malcolm Caselle co-founds NetNoir, a company focused on the vertical community of African-Americans. He remains fanatically involved with the human side of the Net, the communities. Omar Wasow sticks with New York Online.
Udi Shapiro (Ubique), Yossi Vardi (Mirabilis), Zach Rinot (Net Dyanmics): founders of the three leading instant messaging companies were all there. In 1996, IM was just catching on and was the rage. Everyone was fascinated with it but had difficulty figuring out what the value was to the one that owned the software and systems that made it all possible. Yossi’s company, Mirabilis, later went on to gather over 40 million users and then have AOL acquire them for $400 million. ICQ introduce the term “viral marketing.”
Judi Clark goes on to co-found Bay Area Women in Telecommunications (BAWiT), an organization addressing gender issues and policy in the telecommunications arena, and ManyMedia, a California-based company providing technical and educational support and training to business and education.
Howard Greenstein: a technical evangelist at Microsoft, co-founds the World Wide Web Artists Consortium and currently serves on its board of directors.
You know what it’s like when you wake up and you’re a kid and it’s Saturday and there are no chores and there’s nobody in the house and the sun is shining mildly and everything is possible?
Well, surprisingly, in a fast, smoke-filled car full of waving arms, barely visible, outside Newark, in the cruddy smog, that’s what it felt like — that things could be that way, at last.
Chris was working for IBM at the time, a mismatch of epic proportions.
I was working for Prodigy — God help me.