The autodidact’s carnival

I have no idea how computers work. I’ve been using them since the early Eighties, and my understanding of their inner workings has increased only slightly since I started word processing and social networking. I am adept at making computers do stuff, but it’s like driving a car powered only by rice balls. I do not understand the mechanism.

I’ve never written any kind of code. I know that it’s all based on an improbable number of 1’s and 0’s, but that’s about as far I get. It’s digital because it…involves digits? I’ll be here all week.

 I’m too old to have had computer classes, so I bash around at random, largely depending on the kindness of strangers whose tolerance I have learned not to test. My computer knowledge is like an old quilt, patched and repatched, filled with holes, with a command line mnemonic overlapping a clever Twitter shortcut I learned yesterday.

I came to the computer culture early. I’ve written about this before, and I do it again not for nostalgia’s sake (although that’s pretty fun), but because my experience might be useful in thinking about more modern issues.

For reasons having mostly to do with luck, I came to The Well in 1987; I had no idea what it was, and neither (it turned out) did the people who invented it. It was a place, they thought, where people could discuss ideas — and they did, a lot. But it was also a place that encouraged, even  demanded, the formation of community. For many people, that community became as important as the one people had spent years cultivating in meatspace.

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Meatspace: an example

“Meatspace” is one of the words I learned on the Well. It means the space where meat meets, meat like you and me and all those living beings in the real world. The earliest print mention of the word, sez the Wiki, was in the Austin Cyberspace Journal in 1993, but I’m pretty sure I learned in 1989. Everyone on the Well was more computer literate than I was, and I had to learn the acronyms (Remember IMHO? Or its more confident cousin IMNSHO? Has YMMV died a terrible death?), I had to note its revered artifacts (Moore’s Law, Repo Man, “Visual Display of Quantitative Information”) and its instantly appearing memes.

It was an autodidact’s carnival. I was unaware that other people were learning the culture as well, and they, like me, were also creating the culture. There was a lot of looking around and saying “what the hell are we doing?” People thought maybe it was a grand adventure, unless it was some adolescent acting-out fantasy. It was of course both.

And all this energy inevitably spilled over into, you know, meatspace. There were parties, fabulous collections of freaks and geeks and musicians and futurists and many people working in what would come to be called Silicon Valley. A lot of them were hackers, and an understanding attitude towards various forms of benign lawbreaking was central to the culture.

Flying in space: A metaphor

And stuff got real too. Someone was hospitalized for tests, and someone else fell off a boat, and then someone had cancer and someone else was in rehab and then people died, as people will. There was an extremely troubling on-line suicide. And then, well, bi-polar, or poverty, or crippling anxiety; people whose only community was this one.

A lot of people got laid because of the Well, and some got married, and others threw elaborate parties.  But the center of the community was still on line. It was the truest expression; not in real life, but in this other equally real life. People say oh, it’s an addiction, but no, it’s actually a rich emotional environment. It’s people coming together voluntarily to be people coming together.

I hear a lot of complaining about phones these days. People with their noses in their phones all the time. “Carl, I see them at the cafes, all these kids staring blankly like goddam zombies, Carl, at their phones, like goddam zombies. Why aren’t they out killing foxes?” Or whatever.

But I know that they’re not getting zombified; they’re getting socialized in a whole new way. I’ve been there; I’ve done that; it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t interfere with your grasp of reality. It’s a culture. It feels distinct from other cultures, the way (say) Mexican culture feels different than U.S. culture. Facebook feels different than Twitter, and I assume Snapchat feels different from both. You can feel it in the interaction, in the odd moments of art, in the native dialect.

From my point of view, the current problem  is that community is monetized, the way marriage has been monetized, the way death has been monetized. But I suspect that The Young have found a way around that. Group texting is unmediated and without advertising; I imagine that there any number of wormholes and playgrounds somewhere in there. Indeed, there’s evidence on the Internet that this is true, but The Young don’t talk about it much because it’s technically illegal. Which would be in the grand tradition of the hackers I met 25 years ago.

The battle between man and computer will be long and bloody. It’s doubly complicated because we’re also going to have to fight the robots. But I have confidence: We can colonize them before they colonize us. As Faulkner remarked on getting the Nobel Prize, “It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.”

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Humans unaware that they are outdated


Photography by Tracy Johnston

Effective cheering by Michelle Mizera


Real estate porn

I read the New York Times Magazine regularly. I read it on Sunday mornings in the processed pulp edition. I sit in my window seat and stare at the sky in between articles. Sunday morning turns into mid-day, and then I have a bagel. I believed God designed life to be lived exactly like that.

Last Sunday brought us a fabulous article on Sea Monkeys ,  plus Donald Trump (he makes people happy!) and Minecraft (it’s changing the way your kids think!). What more could you want, really? Hooray for the editorial side!

The advertising, of course, is vile. It is unapologetic pandering to the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent. Apartments in New York “starting from” $2.1 million or 2.6 million or $3.8 million. Plus God knows what hidden fees and spa payments and call girls on demand. I’m not sure what “ending at” may be, but let’s say $50 million.

Honestly, if you have to ask.

Most of the ads feature photographs of impossibly large living rooms looking out on impossibly gigantic balconies with impossibly glittering downtown lights beyond. Often there is a view of the Hudson, perhaps with a lovely 30ish woman lounging on a divan in front of the impossibly huge windows.

They are all down there, whereas we are up here, away from grit and disease and odd-smelling people and perhaps death itself. Just a striver? We’ve got something in a $4 million hovel you might like — lower floor, of course; windowless floor plan; hot water extra. Or buy it for your nanny.

But some advertisers go in a different direction. For example:

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This photograph merits some examination. What can we say about this woman, beyond the obvious: She’s rich, she’s lovely, and we can assume that she did not rent the child. (They’re models; I know that; I’m trying to unpack the implied narrative.) And she’s opening a present — from her child? To her child? — wrapped in some fancy bookstore paper reproducing  a small holograph poem written by Edgar Allan Poe when he was very drunk.  They are snuggling on sheets with a thread count of 1.6 billion. And they are preparing to eat what might be a fancy strawberry shortcake.

Plus a cup of coffee for Mom, because she has just a teeny Ambien hangover.

And there’s a knife, which will be useful. But plates, forks, napkins? Perhaps Consuela has not brought them in yet. I think we can safely postulate a Consuela, right? And probably a Maria who made the cake, and a Hector at the door, and Malinali and Citlali cleaning the apartment ever so quietly. But now it’s quality time with the kid. She’ll remember this moment until she doesn’t.

Of course it’s an ad for an apartment building. It’s Thirty Park Place, just a block from city hall, two blocks from the World Trade Center memorial, and a bracing walk away from Wall Street in New York’s prestigious Nexus of Evil neighborhood. The sell line is “My kind of nightlife,” because snorting cocaine in nightclub bathrooms is so last year.

It’s sad, isn’t it? A couple feels alienated from their children, and they say to each other one Sunday morning, “Let’s buy a condo starting at $3.645 million; that will make little Harper love us.” Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about the happiness.

Although, candidly, the apartment will probably go to a nice Russian oil magnate as a place to stash some cash and, from time to time, Ilana the former model and Chastity Awareness Day representative. Or a Saudi family, or a Chinese one — those are the big three nations with seriously tanking economies.

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But wait. There’s more.

San Francisco is another city favored by poverty-fleeing billionaires, and San Francisco has its own real estate porn. Some of it even makes it to Times. Consider the advertorial section at the back of the magazine promising “Best of Luxury Homes & Estates” — because, as Nancy Friedman points out, the ampersand is a symbol of power around the world.

One entry featured “One Mission Bay,” which seems to be catty-corner from McCovey Cove — it’s hard to know exactly, because One Mission Bay is not a real address. According to a map on the official website, it’s right near Pier 50, and thus not far from Pier 80, the city’s newest homeless shelter formerly used by Larry Ellison’s big useless boats.

You would no doubt like to know that each “home” is outfitted with Gaggenau appliances, Caesarstone quartz countertops, hardwood floors and tile backsplashes which, hey, I have tile backsplashes. How expensive can they be? (Gaggenau ovens are $5000 per; another $2000 will get you a cook top. My tile backsplash was $120.) They don’t mention bathroom fixtures, so I’m assuming: No bidet.

I know the Mission Bay development is supposed to be a good thing. It’s got UCSF curing cancer, and a commitment to open spaces and public meeting rooms, and below-market-rate housing. But developers are not in it for their health, so there must be luxury homes as well, with all the Gaggenau you can eat and views of the Bay, still free to all.

Have I indulged in stereotyping? I have. Do I care? I do not.

But never mind. These ads perform a public service, making us aware once again of the general creepiness of people with too much money to spend, all as we sit in the privacy of our own genteelly decaying living rooms.

Vaya con Dios, bad people. Go buy something.

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Photography by Tracy “Herself” Johnston

Analysis and cheerful support by Michelle “let’s do some marketing” Mizera