"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
High-profile eccentrics are in short supply these days in Silicon Valley. Instead, we have a profusion of whitewashed, khaki-wearing, buzzword-spouting young executives single-mindedly in pursuit of dazzling IPOs. After all, who has the time to pursue truly extravagant visions when there are start-ups to be funded?
The Valley’s lack of truly interesting people may in part explain why Joe Firmage is still the subject of widespread morbid fascination. As CEO and founder of the enormously successful Web services company USWeb, he announced back in 1998 that he believed in aliens. To escalate matters, at the same time he began a very public campaign intended to attract readers to his online book, entitled “The Truth,” in which he talked about alien visitations, intergalactic travel and a host of unconventional economic and scientific theories.
Firmage’s subsequent departure from USWeb — which, at the time, was merging with CKS, another prominent Web design firm — was swift; the media coverage of his book was not kind. Words like “nuts” and “crazy” followed his every move. His career, so said the conventional wisdom, was over.
But 29-year-old Firmage has proved resilient. Since his ouster, he’s launched a venture firm called Intend Change that has funded several successful start-ups. He has continued to write and has nurtured a small but dedicated group of supporters. In late June, he announced his latest coup: a partnership with Carl Sagan Productions to create “science content” both online and off. With $23 million in pocket, the code-named “Project Voyager” joint venture is a true example of synchronicity between personal beliefs and business plans.
Salon Technology caught up with Firmage, and talked with him about his ambitious plans to make science fun for 15-year-olds, his reputation as an alien apologist and the future of propulsion. We even tacked the new-agey poster that he gave us to the wall of one of our cubes. We want to believe.
Why don’t you start by telling me about Project Voyager and what it’s going to be?
Project Voyager is the code name of a 21st century media company that intends to help reinvent entertainment and learning, drawn specifically from our knowledge of science. The basic idea is really very simple. Look at the incredible technologies that we do have for entertainment and all forms of media, from television to cinematic works to computer graphics. Then, ask yourself how much of that technology has really been deployed to depict and portray the amazing wonders that we’ve learned in several centuries of the scientific revolution about our position in the cosmos. We are, in fact, a pale blue dot floating in the ocean of the universe, and there is so much out there for us to learn about ourselves.
How did you get involved with Carl Sagan Productions?
One of the things that certainly affected my life very deeply early on was the work of Carl Sagan. I can remember my father planting my butt down on the floor one day in front of the television set and forcing me to watch this PBS show called “Cosmos,” and from the first 10 minutes I was hooked. It was an eye-opening experience for me as a 12-year-old.
The contact started 18 months ago, after I’d written some things. I picked up the phone and tried to hunt down Carl Sagan Productions, and I finally tracked down Ann Druyan [Sagan's partner and widow] and we had a nice chat. … It was in the context of those discussions that I began thinking about what might be possible if someone from the Internet and someone from Hollywood got together and did something remarkable.
Give me more examples of what we might see coming out of Project Voyager.
The idea of [making] the cosmos accessible through your Web browser is the central notion of what our portal will do … Ann is heading up the Cosmos Studios subsidiary of this enterprise — the basic idea is that it will work a lot like LucasArts. They will be the originators of scripts, pilots, treatments, storyboards and other sources of intellectual property and creative ideas, that will then be produced in partnership with major studios. First out of the gate, we’ll be doing mainly nonfiction work, including a new, made-for-the-year-2000 version of “Cosmos,” which will be broadcast later this year. And we’ll follow that up with a whole string of productions which we’ve already started to work on, in 2001.
And all relating to issues of astronomy, physics, etc?
Think of it, just generally speaking, as science. We take a very broad view of science — it touches everything from the stuff way out there like astronomy, to the stuff very close to home like human health and the environment. It’s a very broad sweep of content that we will be organizing under the umbrella of this company.
How will these productions relate to your book, “The Truth,” in which you explore the possibility that extraterrestrial life has visited earth?
They are completely distinct, in the sense that there is no purpose or intention on my part to use this vehicle as a means to promote my own particular views on where we find ourselves in science today. But there is complete overlap in that I am passionate about science. The scientific method is the only way to reliably, ultimately get to the truth of the matter. I’m thoroughly convinced that the right approach for me and everyone else on issues that are highly controversial — like life out there in the universe — is to let the evidence speak wherever you go.
It’s an interesting human story here — Ann and I have differing points of view on the question of extraterrestrial life. We both believe that it’s out there. I just happen to believe that it may have actually visited us. She does not believe that. Both of us sign up to the commitment that we’ll let the scientific method arbitrate this discussion.
Are you planning to investigate the subject of extraterrestrial life in some of the productions you’re doing?
It’s an issue that can use a lot more high-quality reporting, whatever your perspective — whether it’s skeptical or inclined to believe that there’s life out there. There’s so much opportunity to tell the stories of the people who are pursuing these questions, to talk about the scenarios and the implications of the questions, to describe what it will be like one day when we do discover life out there — whether it’s a microbe on Mars or visitors from afar or a radio signal from Alpha Centauri!
You raised $23 million for Project Voyager, and $250 million over the last year for Intend Change. Yet I hear that many at US Web called you “nuts” after you published ‘The Truth.” Much of the media coverage of your writing has been unflattering. The Red Herring even warned people away from working with you. Was it a challenge raising funding for your programs, given some of the controversy around your belief in extraterrestrial life? Has it had a negative impact on you?
It is unquestionably true that my views are unconventional on this question. But they are highly conventional on most other questions that people find important in Silicon Valley; I’m a pretty well-known writer in terms of trends in the Valley, what’s going on in the tech industry and so forth. It’s unfortunate, in my opinion, that a valley that is living off of the fruits of a scientific revolution is unwilling to consider that there might be another scientific revolution.
People in the Valley all too quickly have forgotten that it was the spectacularly unexpected breakthrough of the transistor that directly gave rise to everything everybody is experiencing out here. Guess what? There will be future breakthroughs of that order and they will be equally unexpected. I’m pursuing one of them. History will tell whether I’m right or wrong. But when companies are advertising about visionaries and “thinking differently,” it would be nice to see a little bit of an open mind from some quarters.
But from other quarters, it’s there. I have great relationships with a lot of venture capitalists in the Valley, and great relationships with a strong network of business partners and associates. And if others get uncomfortable because of what I talk about, that’s OK too. So be it.
Is there anything you wish you hadn’t published? In particular, your recollection about a visitation with an alien creature was especially ridiculed by many people. Do you wish you hadn’t talked about it?
It’s hard to say. Ultimately I believe that truth trumps. Why not speak the truth as best you know it? Yeah, you can say you should have been more discreet or more subtle in communicating what you did. And there are certainly approaches that I might have taken that could have been more easy for other people to hear, shall we say.
So I hear those criticisms, and I respect the point of view, but at the same time we all have to live our experience and our truth. One of the things that I think Silicon Valley is guilty of right now is an overemphasis on often very shallow ideas. There are a lot of brilliant people in Silicon Valley, and there’s also a lot of very robotic thinking. I think we need to be very open to new ideas and new perspectives in order for Silicon Valley to survive as a center of gravity for innovation and brilliance.
Have your own opinions about this stuff changed in the last two years?
I wouldn’t say I’ve reversed any position at all, but I’ve gained a clearer view on all the things I’ve written about, whether that be science, the trajectory of economics, extraterrestrial life, whatever.
One of the things that gets lost if you just read the press articles of the era is that the press put a lot of words in my mouth that I didn’t say. I never said I was definitely visited by an extraterrestrial — those were not my words, but the words of half a dozen writers who then imprinted them on the rest of the public.
What I did say is that I woke up one morning and experienced the appearance of a human-like figure in my room. And we proceeded to have a conversation about space travel. And five minutes later he was gone. Was it my future self? Was it an extraterrestrial, or the consciousness of one? Was it a sleep paralysis episode? Or was it simply a bad potato? I do not know. I do not know. People way overinterpreted that statement. It was like one paragraph in a 600-page work that touched on the real issues, which are in fact very much meat-and-potatoes scientific questions. I’ve gotten just a lot clearer about those issues in the intervening two years.
What changes in the areas of physics and astronomy do you expect to see in your lifetime?
We are most certainly experiencing a second Renaissance, one where the expansion of our knowledge is far more punctuated than anything that happened 500 years ago. Simultaneously, a communications network is spreading around the globe, we’ve discovered water on another planet’s body in the last week, we’ve published the first sketched blueprint of the human genome and now we’re talking about a level of computer intelligence that rivals animal consciousness. And, in this particular area that I’ve been pursuing, there is the possibility that we will learn new secrets in the disciplines of physics and uncover new ways to propel and power machines. Those new ways could carry us to the stars and transform the footprint of civilization on the biosphere in a tremendously positive direction.
Do you find it odd that so much attention is being paid to you?
Here’s where it really becomes quite ironic. You have brilliant physicists, absolute geniuses, like Kip Thorne or Michio Kaku, and others who are now engaged in the quest to understand wormholes and time travel and such. By comparison, my physics ideas are so mundane.
All I’m claiming is that human beings might discover or create a new type of propulsion system that causes motion to occur without shooting stuff out of a nozzle. They are talking about opening up a portal to move forward or backward in time, or creating a rip in the fabric of space-time and zipping across the galaxy through something like a black hole.
These are far, far more exotic physics ideas than the stuff that I’m talking about. The difference is very simple: What I’m talking about would have immediate implications, and some of these other ideas are much further out. That’s why people tend to react with a more controversial attitude.
And, of course, you’re a high-profile Internet personality who hasn’t necessarily made his name previously in science and physics.
True, true. That’s not my domain, but I certainly hope to finance the people who do. I’m not a physicist, I don’t have a Ph.D. in physics. I studied it, I was a good student and got great grades and understand what I’m talking about. But I’m not going to be the one who comes up with a breakthrough. Others more gifted than I will bear this opportunity.
Going back to what you’re doing with Project Voyager: Given that today’s youth is raised by MTV, do you think it’s going to be a challenge to get them to eschew the sites that let you download Eminem lyrics and instead spend time at a scientific portal?
One of the ways that I hope to succeed in exactly that objective is to present the wonders of the cosmos with the degree of creative flair that you see on MTV. What is more interesting than the diversity and amazing stories that span the universe? There are so many stories that remain untold, so many incredible adventures. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the opportunity to show people their nature. I see that as a challenge, and my objective is to create something that the average 15-year-old would love to hang out on.
What is the legacy you want to leave behind, with “The Truth” and Project Voyager?
I want to return to the public the sense of open-minded discovery that rests at the very heart of science. These days, we often find science so foreign to us as everyday citizens, because it often seems to be off in the mists of academics. When, in reality, science is so beautiful, and a simple way of life for every human being — regardless of whether you have a Ph.D. or not. Scientific process is about discovering truth. So the legacy I’d like to leave behind, the epitaph might read: He found some truth that perhaps others had overlooked.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)