When I moved to San Francisco, it was partly in response to Donna Haraway’s famous A Manifesto for Cyborgs (1985). There she advises all who would oppose domination (in its myriad forms) not to let technical knowledge remain the province of the “high-tech boys”, but to themselves take up the coding games her manifesto describes. I’ve learnt a lot about the power of serious play since then. Of tools and toys
Cyborganic was a community of friends, geeks, and artists who came together in the development of new practices and imaginaries of networked media. I conducted participant observation field study of Cyborganic from 1993-2003 and this research was the subject of my 2008 dissertation
This wasn’t my first experience with the radical new forms of sociality and peculiar new subjectivities made possible by digital technologies. I’d seen something like this before. As a college student in 1987 I worked building phone bridges for a company, PDQ Phone, that hosted telephone chat lines–e.g. the Love line, Fantasy Line, B & D Line, Transgender Line, Foot Fetish Line, Large and Lovely Line. These were essentially different phone numbers that paying customers (almost always men) could call to talk to women and one another. The key innovation, however, was that the women didn’t work for the company and were not paid professionals. A few individual women were simply given free access to “courtesy lines” and these amateurs kept whole bridges of paying customers on the line. In a sense, PDQ was selling these people to each other, not just the female volunteers to the male customers, but the audience to itself. These were party lines, not private one-on-one chats. Everyone chatted together as a group around the designated topic of the line. As such they were also telecommunities both similar to and rather different from those that sprang up via the Internet.
Did the PDQ product line constitute new publics, or new markets? At that time I couldn’t have asked such a question and I can not answer it yet, but the theme of consumer/citizen has been central to my thinking since that time.
PDQ was founded by an MIT grad who saw opportunity in the telecommunications deregulation of the1980s. Around the time it became possible legally for new companies to offer telecommunications services (networked products), it became possible technically and economically. The functionality of analog telephone exchanges that used to take up entire buildings could now be replicated in computer hardware and software. With digital technology PDQ could advertise local phone numbers in New York and across New England that were operated from their offices in Kendall Square. I quickly saw the strange and extraordinary potential of the digital lines that went into service in the summer of 1988.
In a quarter the space taken by the analog equipment to host 8 lines with a total of 64 callers, a single operator sitting at a computer with headphones could moderate dozens of lines and hundreds of callers across a widely expanded geographic region. At the time computer networks were revolutionizing the economy with derivative products (futures, options) and 24/7 capital flows. I couldn’t help notice the parallels to the extraordinary telephonic “derivative products” that digital telephony made possible for PDQ. For example, the voyeuristic “Bedroom”, where paying customers called in to listen to two people having “phone sex,” something permitted on only two of the other party lines. The exhibitionists “in the Bedroom” would call an unpublished courtesy number and could communicate only with each other. They could not hear their audience. Paying customers however, could talk to each other as they listened in. Watching the moderators of these lines deal with troublemakers and the various social issues that came up was instructive to me years later in relation to the Internet.
In August 1993, I finished film school. Three days after turning in my thesis, I drove a moving truck from Los Angeles to San Francisco, to be part of what was already happening around the net and new media technologies at that point. Mosaic had been released that spring and it seemed critical mass was around the corner. The net was moving beyond subcultures, linking people all over the world, and putting neighbors in new relationships. Soon I would be living in one of the few grassroots networked neighborhoods on the planet. I’m not talking desktop metaphors here, but a real neighborhood network–apartments, with a server in one kitchen, CAT5-tied-to-sneaker hurled across street to friend’s apartment (the other sneakernet), and over to friend of friend, who likes to use your roomate’s LaserJet downstairs, then wake you for her printouts.
Even during the BBS years and earlier it had been obvious that networked multimedia would change us and the world. I was lucky enough to be where one could feel the groundswell of being in the midst of amazing things. San Francisco in the early 1990s was home to a vibrant scene–artists, geeks, musicians, scientists, entrepreneurs, hippies, hackers, hucksters, dreamers, and poets–all experimenting with technology and telecommunity. What better way to study the coming networked culture, I thought, than to move to San Francisco and be part of it? It may seem a little naïve in this post-dotcom era but I truly believed in what Howard Rheingold had in his .sig file: “What it is…is up to us!” So did a lot of other people and that’s what made San Francisco such a draw in the fall of ’93. 10 years, a millennium, and several lives ago.