4 APRIL 2000 - For reasons unknown, I am sometimes asked to speak at web conferences. I've delivered my rap in exotic locales as far-flung as Istanbul, Stockholm, and New York. Well, technically, I live in New York. But if I lived somewhere else, New York would be far-flung, and many Americans wish it was. And so, last weekend, accompanied by the lovely Joan, I found myself among the featured speakers at Boston's Geek Pride Festival.
Geek Pride is about many things, but this year it was mainly about Open Source, and 99% of the attendees were hardcore Linux geeks. VA Linux was prominent among the sponsors, and several heroes of the Open Source movement were scheduled to speak. I'm not a hero of the Open Source movement (or anything else) but the delightful Susan Kaup, co-organizer of the festival, asked me to show up anyway.
[... Which calls to mind the delightful story of an address I once gave to a group of photographers. I'm not a photographer. I don't even photograph well. So when the phone rang in my office on that long-ago morning, I was somewhat taken aback.
"I need you to give the keynote lecture at a conference on Digital Photography and the Internet," explained the rather frantic caller.
"Why me?" I asked.
"Roger Black cancelled," she explained.
"Well, maybe," I said. "When's the gig?"
"Tomorrow morning, 9 A.M."
"That's impossible," I said. "I'd need weeks to prepare."
"The pay is $2500."
"I'll be there at 8:30," I said.]
Every man has his price.
Geek Pride did not have $2500 to spend on speaker's fees. In fact, they had no money at all. But that didn't stop Eric Raymond, the Cluetrain guys, Rob Malda and other fine Netizens from showing up to speak, and it didn't stop me, either. Contrary to what you read in the press, the web is not about money.
This was, in fact, the very message I intended to deliver at Geek Pride.
My rap, in a nutshell: Karl Marx said the revolution would put the means of production in the hands of the workers. It didn't happen under communism, but it is the reality of the web. When Ted Nelson conceived of hypertext in 1965, and when Tim Berners-Lee invented the web in 1990, they empowered every human being on earth to participate in a worldwide creative revolution. And what do we do with this incredible gift? We sell stuff.
Ted Nelson was dreaming of a universally accessible library of all human knowledge. Tim Berners-Lee created the toolset to build that and more. Neither man was thinking about how to turn 24 year-olds into IPO millionaires, and the bland commercial focus of the past five years betrays the revolutionary creative nature of the web. But there are things we can do to fight back.
And yada yada. That, in highly condensed form, is the thesis I was prepared to deliver.
And so we went to Boston.
There was a party the first night, in a long dark bar. It was nicely catered and well-arranged. But I didn't recognize anyone there, and they didn't recognize me. (Visual anonymity comes with the turf.) So I sat at the bar and tried to look thoughtful. Then I tried to look moody. Then I tried to look like Johnny Depp.
I probably made moody.
The sun shone bright and the air felt cool and clean on the morning of the festival. We crossed the street from our hotel to The Castle, a tall stone fortress dating back several hundred years. Inside, along with the usual booths and tables, there was a Nerf shootout, a Quake III gaming room, a trampoline house for junior geeks, and a ring of 52 Linux PCs, so visitors could check their email or sit staring at the screen as if they were at home. There was also a solid wall of noise. Nerf guns, music and conversation echoed off the high stone ceilings.
In the front of the hall came a procession of incredible speakers, who at times could scarcely be heard above the din. Many of them lectured brilliantly, but for much of the morning, they were ignored by the celebrants, who were just so ecstatic to be among so many peers. (Think: Open Source Woodstock.)
Then Eric Raymond took the stage, and the crowd began to pay attention.
Raymond is a dramatic speaker. His thesis is that Open Source software is better than products from Microsoft and other companies because Open Source stuff is subjected to impartial review by peers. It's all straightforward and logical, but by force of personality he manages to make it sound dramatic and amusing. Raymond thinks Microsoft is dead and just doesn't know it yet.
The Cluetrain guys think advertising is dead, along with mass marketing in general, because the Internet enables people to tell each other the truth. Chris Locke of Cluetrain and I exchanged emails several years ago, though I didn't realize this while listening to him talk.
After Cluetrain, I went outside to smoke (geeks may be anarchists but you still can't smoke indoors) and Chris did likewise, followed by fans. I stood nearby and thought about talking with him, because Cluetrain had suggested that artists, writers and musicians would begin to be able to use the web over the next five years and of course, we've been able to do that since 1994. But Chris was surrounded by fans, and I did not feel like cramping his style.
Eric Raymond strode up and Chris asked if Eric had heard their speech.
"No, I was giving an interview," Eric said.
Chris told Eric about his upcoming book.
Eric asked for an advance copy so he could suggest changes to it.
I walked quietly away.
After several more hours, I went back to the hotel to see if Joan had returned from her walking tour of Boston. She had, and was watching a locally-produced TV show on carpentry.
"Now I've made the bottom nice and smooth, and I flip it ovah and insert this rotating screw head," the carpenter explained in his Bostonian accent. "Next we're going to turn it on its side and drill it hard."
Rob Malda (aka Commander Taco, creator of the popular geek 'zine Slashdot) was approaching the stage as I returned to the festival. I was scheduled to go on immediately after him.
For the first time since the conference began, there were no Nerf shootouts, no Quake III battles, no jaded web surfers with their backs to the proceedings. The entire crowd stood ringing the stage, their faces ecstatic as Rob walked on.
"I don't have anything to say," he said. "I haven't prepared anything."
The crowd exploded with applause.
"No, really," he said. "I'm pretty boring."
The crowd roared.
For a while, Rob asked volunteers from the crowd to act out scenes from The Matrix, and then finally he began to answer audience questions about the history of Slashdot, the zine's current moderation system, and programming in general. He spoke simply and honestly, out of his lived experience. It was funny. It was smart. It was riveting.
I started to sweat, and went outside to smoke again, bumping into Joan who was just reentering the hall.
"They're actually paying attention," she marveled.
"They love him," she said.
"He's lovable," I said. "He's one of them and he's their hero at the same time. How the hell do I go on after that?"
Girlfriends always know just what to say.
"If you bomb, who gives a fuck?" Joan said.
About an hour later, Rob walked off the stage, and half the audience walked away with him.
I went on and began to talk. My voice flew out of the monitors and echoed strangely off the distant back walls.
In college I took hallucinogens (as I had in high school) and naturally fell in with artists and musicians who engaged in similar chemical refreshment. One of my pals was a music composition student named Mark. At the end of freshman year, music students were supposed to give a piano recital. Depending on how they did, they would either continue in the program or be asked to leave.
Mark stayed up speeding for five nights prior to his recital, and took mescaline on the day of the performance.
Sitting down at the piano, he became mesmerized by the sound of the first note, and after staring at the keyboard for an eternity, he played the note again. When its echoes died out, he played the note again. And again. Then he passed out on the keyboard.
It was the end of his musical career.
I was reminded of this as I listened to my voice echoing boomily off the cold stone walls. The strangeness of the amplified sounds I was making lulled me into a trance state, from which I only occasionally emerged. Somehow I finished, and apparently I had said something meaningful. A small group of fine people followed me out into the night. We talked for a while, and then I followed Joan to the hotel. The next morning, we flew back to New York.
If asked to speak again, I will always say yes, because it is always good.
But I'll go on before Rob Malda.