Silicon Follies

Chapter 35: Comdex burlesque -- Barry preaches to the choir as Paul duct-tapes the demos

Published July 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A computer-generated TeraMemory logo drifted across the expanse of the huge rear-projection screen, rebounding noiselessly from the borders. Similarly embossed foam boomerangs -- a favorite with the conventioneers -- whizzed festively across the conference hall. Anticipation was riding high. Barry's "Race for Cyberspace" address was shaping up to be the most attended event at Comdex. Hordes of tech enthusiasts poured into the hall.

WHIP had created an enormous amount of buzz, to be sure, more than sufficient to fill the room. But WHIP was just the icing on the cake; Barry himself was the main event, an object of cult fascination among infotech weenies. He had it all: big market cap, the best toys and buck-naked ambition. He could draw a crowd, even in the midst of the gold rush. The faithful came to pay tribute to the personification and validation of their own private dreams of conquest and control. Barry Dominic was the proof in the pudding, the beacon lighting The Way, a bona fide info-capitalist messiah.

The lights dimmed and the screen began to broadcast a video clip: a smartly dressed executive -- in conference with a dozen similarly young, dynamic, eugenically perfect personnel -- tapping out a message on a sleek, paper-thin, completely hypothetical palm computer. Zoom in on the message: "Running late. Start without me." The stylus pops the "Send" button.

Zoom in tighter, a fantastical plunge through the screen of the fictional PDA, into the circuitry of the device, where the message is shown decomposing into a stream of bits. Collapse the perspective tighter still, down to a single bit of information in the chain.

Then a bit's-eye view of manic electronic transit through a host of WHIPped devices: wireless packet relay, hub, LAN, WAN. Hurtling across rooms, through walls, under buildings, across cities -- a wild, vicarious, hyper-speed ride through the infrastructure of the information age. The audience ooohed as the perspective whisked them through a satellite bounce, an instant trip into orbit and back.

Arriving at its destination, the bit is reunited with its kin and reassembled into the original message. Perspective pulls out, out through the skin of the device at journey's end: a futuristic home entertainment system. It springs to life, displays an acknowledgment on its console, and records the opening serve of a televised beach volleyball match. Another TeraMemory logo, underwritten by the slogan, "WHIP. It's a whole new ball game." Wild cheering from the audience.

Candy Sawyer, tracking the excitement from the edge of the stage, pumped her fist. Volleyball had been her idea.

A monster sound system began to pound out Devo's "Whip It" as spotlights illuminated a rising podium in the foreground. Barry strode onstage, a vision of Italian tailoring, mouth bared into a feral smile, which the screen amplified obscenely as he stepped into the pulpit. More cheering. More baring of 10-foot-high teeth.

"Inflection points ..." he began. "We're on the threshold of a time when all this ... chaos ... is going to start making some sense. TeraMemory is here to show the way."

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Meanwhile, life on the floor of the exhibition hall continued unrepentant. As Barry's fanfare built to a crescendo in an adjoining auditorium, events in the TeraMemory booth offered much less cause for such raging optimism.

Not that anyone could tell the difference. In light of Candy Sawyer's directive to make the demos work at any and all costs, Paul and the other engineers had resorted to a little technical sleight-of-hand: a shell script here, a little hidden hard-wiring there, one or two discreetly redirected I/O cables and one shamelessly bogus videotape loop spoofing a console interface. It wasn't a complete lie, of course; much of it actually worked as advertised. But conference-goers were a merciless bunch. Generally they met any demo hiccup with derision, savage criticism and propagation of rumor far more damagingly fictitious than any of Paul's ruses in the booth. His new mission -- in the absence of technology tough enough to face the public -- was to effect a mildly covert saving of face.

No observer would even come close to uncovering the flimflam; the only telling detail was the occasional, surreptitious glance passed between Paul and his engineering comrades as the TeraMemory booth bunnies performed the demo's scripted routines. After a short while it even began to feel perfectly natural to Paul. After all, this was the nature of the trade show: an increasingly uncomfortable interface between nascent, tentative technology and manic market boosterism. The two could never come together without a few modest prestidigitations.

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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