Silicon Follies

Chapter 8: Psychrist, the semiotic demolition derby and Deathmatch 3000

Published April 9, 1999 6:45PM (EDT)

Steve and Psychrist had walked for miles in the foothills of the valley's western slope. Through lush meadows, past stands of old, eccentric oaks, the surroundings offered an impressive display of fauna: lizards, squirrels, hawks, songbirds, an occasional deer.

The surrounding hills, dotted with grazing cattle, stood much as they had a hundred years earlier. The frenetic pace of urban growth hadn't touched this place.

This was all the more amazing, Steve thought, because they were only a mile or so from El Camino Real. It felt much farther, and he was never much at ease out in the middle of nowhere. He turned and walked backwards for a few steps, reassuring himself with the view. This was a great place to survey the valley's geography and larger architectural landmarks. He could see the whole thing laid out before him as if in miniature: San Francisco Bay, Hoover Tower, the Dumbarton Bridge, Mission Peak, Moffet Field, Great America, San Jose.

If there was any bucolic splendor left in the heart of the Silicon Valley, Stanford University seemed to own it. This particular stretch lay just above the campus, and there was no better -- or nearer -- place to escape the ever-accelerating pace of the valley floor. The only evidence of human artifice was the university's huge, dish-shaped radio telescope. This day it was cocked in a southwesterly attitude, a pair of hawks perched on its rim.

"Technology is a myth by which to mobilize people," ruminated Psychrist, his own forest of dreadlocks knocking together in the breeze. "It contains most of the elements of magical thinking and omnipotence. It's the proverbial genie in a bottle."

Steve listened attentively, which was completely out of character. With anyone else, he would have riddled the conversation with obscure puns and sardonic aphorisms. But Psychrist was more than an acquaintance. He was one of Steve's heroes. And a hacker needed heroes.

Psychrist described himself as a "cybernetic infiltrator/provocateur." The Bay Area arts scene -- such as it was -- had embraced him as a performance artist. Fortunately for him, the ballistic nature of his performances guaranteed a large following among the nerds, techies and otherwise culturally challenged males who wouldn't be caught dead at a French impressionist retrospective.

His relationship to technology had begun as it did with many adolescent males, forged in the glee of destructive curiosity. As a child he had an earnest enthusiasm for explosives. After pyrotechnically pulping every mailbox in the neighborhood, just about the time his voice was changing, he began to refine his interests to rocketry and electromechanics.

But this new avocation was brought to a hasty conclusion by the Department of Defense after one of his creations lifted -- and explosively scattered -- a payload of aluminum confetti. Ordinarily this wouldn't have been a big deal, but the location -- the airspace above Mountain View's strategically significant "Blue Cube" -- ensured the attention of North American Air Defense radar. Right in the middle of the Cold War.

The ensuing state-sponsored supervision encouraged new hobbies. He became an avid reader, moving quickly from pulp science fiction to authors far outside his experience and education: Marx, Veblen, Bourdieu, Spengler. His aesthetic judgment sharpened. His rhetoric attained critical mass. And after the remedial regimen cooled down a bit, he merged the old hobbies with the new ones. He became a culture hacker of sorts, a semiotician with a blow torch. He lived for the symbolic reevaluation of the cultural frame of reference.

Especially when the symbols tore each other to pieces and burst into flames.

And so he arrived at his role as the underground virtuoso of legendarily incendiary performances. Imagine an event somewhere between a fireworks display and a monster-truck rally, but heavy with symbolic content: demolition derby as conceived by Umberto Eco. Performances were never announced in advance; if you had the good fortune or connections to bear witness, you were one of a very few elites. Steve had only heard about them and seen the popular video documentaries.

But now Psychrist had come to him. He had sought Steve out, based on his hacker credentials. They were discussing a collaboration on his latest "installation."

"See, the question is not how much can technology can do for us, but how much are we going to let it do for us. Let's just assume that soon machines'll do everything we want. We've let the genie out of the bottle and we get our three wishes, no strings attached. What do we want? 'OK, computer, do all my work for me so I can sleep all day. OK, computer, I'm bored -- entertain me. OK, computer, raise my children for me.'

"Eventually, humanity succeeds in attaining Ultimate Sloth. Yippee. Total prosperity for everyone. But at that point, what are we, generally speaking? We've forgotten how to make things, tell stories, be nice to each other. We're just these squalling mouths feeding on some senseless digital stimulation. Not human anymore; just sidecars to the Machine, ready to be sloughed off.

"Marx got it right. As automation advances, people become appendages of the Machine. But don't price it yet: Eventually we become more like vestigial organs. Then what happens?

"There's this guy, John Lilly. Psychologist, cyberneticist, intellectual outlaw weirdo, general threat to the status quo. Well, he gets into some really twisted stuff: goes to Big Sur, loads up on a cocktail of unspecified, unpronounceable psychedelics, hops in the sensory isolation tank -- a sort of hermetically sealed hot-tub for solipsists -- and waits."

"Waits for what?"

"Messages. From anywhere. As in, 'Here I am, as unencumbered by my sensorium as I'll ever be, and hopped up on goof-balls to boot; my disbelief is completely suspended. If there's anybody on the line, speak now or forever hold your peace.'"

"Jeez. Pretty extreme. What happened?"

"Well, he claims to have received an interplanetary update, sort of a galactic version of headline news. And the message is this: The main event -- galactically speaking -- is this ongoing war between carbon-based and silicon-based life forms. Newsflash: The battle has just been joined on earth. That workstation on your desk? The one you've been spending all your time with? That's just a primitive, viral-type organism. Just hang around a few hundred years. That's when the real fireworks begin.

"And here's the amazing part: This was all back in the early '70s."

"Whoa. Totally outside."

"Isn't it? That's where I got the idea for my latest installation. 'Deathmatch 3000: C vs. Si.' It's a kind of kinetic parable about freedom and self-determination. I'm still working out the details, but I've nailed down a partial grant. I think I can scrape the rest together myself. But I'm going to need a good hacker -- I can't do the network programming myself."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Daylight fled as they walked back down, hands in pockets. Freeways and office parks began to shimmer below. Steve gazed out at the derelict dirigible hangars of Moffet Field, twin slugs creeping infinitely slowly across the valley floor.

"The real question," said Psychrist, rubbing his goatee, "is how to keep the animal-rights folks off our backs."

By Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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