Readings — From the May 2015 issue

From the Palo Alto Sessions

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By Joshua Cohen, from Book of Numbers, out next month from Random House. Cohen is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

Toward the end D-Unit had been working on the touchscreen. Do not interrupt, we do not digress. Tactiles. Haptics. It must have been that he was forced into this, or the PARC touchscreen group had been short an engineer and asked him and he could not refuse, D-Unit could never refuse. But his true cur, toward the end, was printing, still printing, but not in 2-D anymore, in 3-D, and he would have printed in 4-D if he could, but no one could, least of all a Xerox employee. His condo was filled with attempts, cracked half-shapes and crumbling forms, in plastic, metal, glass, ceramic, foam, powders, pellets, waxes. It was a lot to go sorting through, a lot to determine which was a model and which a modeler, which was a machined part and which a part of a machine that machined the part, from a photofabricator, laser sinterer, deposit fuser, and we spent our time totally consumed with this sorting and did not return to Stanford.

We did not drop out, we just stopped going in, never answered the letters that came from the profs and deans who knew where we were living and then the letters stopped coming or just the box got too congested because we stopped going outside, never answered the phonecalls that came in either from the profs and deans who knew where we were living and then the calls stopped coming or we stopped getting them because the line was too busy and even now, we read once online, Stanford still lists us as like being on leave.

We just hung around the condo and avoided the computers, mutant x86ish PCs D-Unit had clunked himself, monitors surrounded by boxes of Kleenex and spritzers of Windex, keyboards surrounded by pressurized-air containers, for blowing out the dust from between the keys, and the other periphs he clunked himself too as like joysticks and steering-wheels and the double mice he called rats surmounted with babywipes and KleenGel antiseptics.

D-Unit must have abhorred the touchscreen. All that work to splenda an image only to let the user foul it up with sweaty fingers. Printing their grimy genes. Sacrificing clarity for convenience.

Basically this is the problem.

No matter how much we wipe our hands, no matter how much we disinfect — any way we can remember D-Unit just ruins the resolution.

We had not known that D-Unit had been condoliving at The Clingers ever since we left the house. D-Unit had never told us and we are not even sure whether M-Unit or Aunt Nance had known. Of the mail we took in, what surprised us the most were the catalogs for exotic gamemeats and kits for homebrewing. Of the msgs on the voicemail we checked, what surprised us the most were the appointment confirmations from gun ranges and attendance requests from Hasidics seeking a minyan.

Either this was the true D-Unit, free from having to split everything with M-Unit and so free to psychically compensate by evincing a split within himself, or this was a newly single engineer in the midst of über-crisis. We will never have confirmation. Unit 26 at The Clingers. Apostrophe, possessive.

We were alone with the computers and we tried to avoid them. We tried to convince ourselves we were above them, beyond them, we were pure and they were applied, we could work with just our head and they could work only with processors and electricity though still they required our head to give them tasks. But the truth, we realized, was that we were afraid of them, we were scared of getting into trouble again and to be honest being left alone with that many computers in one condo was as like being abandoned as like a pedophile in a sandbox during recess. Bad analogy, but appropriate.

But again this is the problem without resolution. We could say we were not able to help ourselves and were bored and so broke. Or we could say we were just cur about D-Unit. This career vegan who after his wife left him for a woman stuffed his freezer with enough cuts of venison to make 1.33 deer, this atheistic azionistic Jew who after his separation scrawled on the wall by the Xerox photocopier/fax the tollfree number for transmitting a prayer to be printed in Jerusalem and stuffed into a crevice of the Kotel. The Western Wall. Überwestern.

We turned on a computer and went through the files. We turned them all on and investigated. They were networked, so we stayed on one and went through them all. There was a genealogy he was investigating. There were recipes in a .doc called EZ_Meals_for_the_Single_Cook, there were inspirational anecdotes collected in another .doc called therabbinicapproachtodivorce. Another we remember was a scientific study on midlife, or secondlife, lesbianism.

On the floor by the CPU chassis was a flaking mass that, we had always thought, was just another faulty tridimensional printjob, and in a sense it was, because it was a cardboard box and we were always kicking it. But then we kicked it once and it spilled over and we, leaving off reading about the process of gittin, or Jewish divorce documents, but you know that, or the pseudoscientific relationship between lesbianism and premature menopause and the resultant excess of stress hormone and dearth of estrogen that affects the amygdala, got up out of the swiveler to examine the damage and what it was, it was the future.

It is inconceivable now. Not just that we had not experimented before, but that this was the way access was packaged. That access was packaged at all. Now everything just loads, streams, flows, automatically, but back then software was indistinguishable from hardware. A program came on a disc. A round rainbowized flatness that came in a box. Remember. There was a handbook, there was a manual. Containing instructions to heed, for installation. The program had to be registered, there was a warranty, there was a terms of service that had to be agreed to and signed, and both had to be sent through the mail. The old mail. Remember. But D-Unit had taken care of this. We cannot conceive of having missed this but have no rationale. The icons were there all along, there in plain day on the desktop. Press us, press us.

The net, the web. One a way of talking, the other what was said. We would have hacked if D-Unit had not stored all his IDs and pwords in memory. We dialed and the hiss came through and we came through the ascending levels of hiss as like progressively being swallowed by a cobra. We were connected, had msgs, mail, the new mail.

D-Unit had CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie, America Online, and though we forget which one we used, it was a service. Mortifying. Commercial. D-Unit was an early adopter for a rec, having opened his accounts in ’89, though also a late adopter for a tech given that we are describing ’91 and serious presdigitals had been dinking around with modems and phone exchanges not even in their offices but at their homes from the ’80s, the ’70s.

The D-Unit we knew had always been a hardware guy, meaning that he regarded software as like unserious, or pretentious, as like the gyno-linguistic pedagogy of his wife. He had spent his life around machines and if he at least tolerated the code that programmed them it was because it came on discs that came packaged in envelopes, in boxes. The D-Unit we knew never had any patience for the service economy, but was fundamentally a maker, a producer, consumed by stuff and things. To him, legit computing could only be accomplished in a workplace with other professionals, in the flesh and on a schedule, time and space were physically shared. The engineers replaced the tubes, replaced the transistors and circuits, by hand, the boss had a desk with only a paperweight on it and could not even type. The home was the home, the office was the office, and to bring a hugenormous mainframe back into the house, even in a better color than mental-ward offwhite, was as like committable an offense as like bringing back into the house another lover to introduce to your child and spouse.

We are not implying that D-Unit was a company suit, we are just trying to convey that for him the home/office dichotomy was a quasireligion, just as like his parents had kept glatt kosher and his grandparents had kept the Sabbath. He would never have read the Rationalists in the lab, he would never have soldered on the toilet.

He would have been appalled by all this realization of the virtual, communication becoming transactional, customers exchanging money for air. He would have considered it a scam, as like having to pay an admission fee at libraries, or having to pay a multinational corporation for admission to his brain. A multinational corporation that made its money licensing his knowledge to others, and, in turn, by commodifying, commodizating, their thoughts. He would never have listened to the movements of the fourth Bartók quartet out of the order of their intention, he would never have looked at the Rubens Calvary except in person.

We should also say that he always insisted on matinees at the Aquarius Theatre.

But that D-Unit who was totally capable of achieving his own access instead chose to subscribe to a cruft of rectarded netservices whose chief goal was to keep their users within the walled garden by providing a sense of community, along with local news and weather, only so as like not to lose them to the wilds of the web — that this was his choice meant he was depressed. We read his emails first, the first emails we ever read, and confirmed, depression. Online was not a hobby for him, but an attempt to spend himself unsad. Companionship at 14400 bits/second, 2400 baud, $6/hour on evenings and weekends, $3/hour on weekday days.

Venturing into the online activities of abco, abco33, batchelor, and cuddlemaven did not bring him or them to life, but brought us to be- come them or him, which prevented any mischief. Initially. While the rest of userdom was liberated by alias to chatrape girls or cybercheat on husbands, to meddle in any way as like D-Unit or his selves was to transgress a commandment. Respect the name. Respect thy parents even unto their proxy reputations. Initially.

D-Unit had posted to boards about the Dodgers, about seismology. To a room called Bay Singles, a place for people to flirt while discussing the dangers of meeting people online. To a room called Bay Singles: Jewish, a place for Jews to flirt while discussing the dangers of meeting goyim online. He also gave advice at Querytek, and at 1-800-Trouble. The desperation was overwhelming. He had helped a woman fix her modem by telling her to restart it. He had also accessed pornography. We would prefer not to discuss it.

It was ultimately the census that broke us, a room in which amateurs made recommendations for a digitization of the census and in a thread titled “1990 Last Paper Census??” D-Unit had posted a warning about the ease of data manipulation and uploaded a paper about accusations of electronic voting fraud in the 1972 presidential elections. The thread then split into two, one a discussion of Nixon, the other a discussion of the history of data manipulation, beginning with the punch card and its tabulator and ending, as like all discussions end, with the Holocaust.

D-Unit had been attacked for defending the death-camp totals. The thread had been dormant for eight or nine months. We posted nonetheless. We posted as like abco33, then created our own avatar and agreed with ourselves. Posted as like abco33 again, with thanks for our support. Then we argued about the Dodgers, a team we knew nothing about, a sport we knew nothing about, and were informed that, in baseball, there was always next season.

In Bay Singles, batchelor had explained his situation to troglodyke_Y, a self-identified lesbian who had collapsed midway through and written, “what else 2,” number 2, “expect from women?” then admitted he was a man. In Bay Singles: Jewish, cuddlemaven had explained the same or a very similar situation, which had garnered a single response, “abs?” and so still as like cuddlemaven we took the thread offboard and emailed the responder directly, wondering why s/he had thought it was “us,” and the party who turned out to be a retired PARCy responded, “abraham cohen is deceased. whoever you are you are being reported for violation of your ToS,” and so that account, the CompuServe, died too.

We flamed the PARCy with emails, as like other avatars, as like the same avatars but registered with other services. batchelor but now @?Prodigy, cuddlemaven but now @GEnie. We even went trolling for him among the dossy BBSes and subscribed to leetish listservs and wrote posts or comments or whatever they were called then to autogenerate and hex all the sysops down. It was an addiction, because the self is an addiction. We placed orders just through chatting, with paraphiliac feeders who lived in the Bay and were willing to drop takeout Asian fusion at the foot of our stairs with no strings attached, or else we explained and this we regret that we had cancer and so normcores took pity on us too and delivered pallets of cane sodas for nothing, never taking the bill or coins we left wedged under the mat. Our deliverers did not even want to meet us, certainly not after we insisted that we did not want to be met in our condition, and this let us assert was ultimately more important than the start of ecommerce, this was more as like the start of freecommerce, though not even that claim can justify our behavior.

We joined all the religious fora because back then the only pages that existed, smut aside, were about two things, basically: one being the absolute miracle of the very existence of the pages, as like some business celebrating the launch of some placeholder spacewaster site containing only contact information, their address in the real, their phone and fax in the real, and two being the sites of people, predominantly, at this stage, computer scientists or the compscientifically inclined openly indulging their most intimate curs, their most spiritual disclosures, as like experimental diabetes-treatment logs and conversion diaries patiently explaining ontological discrepancies between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhisms, interspersed with kitten and puppy photos, a Christmas tree growing at syrupspeed from starred top to rootless trunk until filling the window.

We tracked what we could, as like much as like we could. We trafficked, unable to stop. We had to know everything, to not just know everything but to have it, to keep it all under wraps, under banner. We correlated pages with profiles, cross-referenced profiles based on similarity of subject, style, or time of expression, but each time a connection was made, another connection appeared, and the number of sites grew too large, and so the number of their links grew too big, and so the database we were producing went onerous.

This is how history begins: with a log of every address online in 1992. 130 was the sum we had by 1993, by which time the countingrooms we were monitoring had projected the sum as like quarterly doubling. 623, approx 4.6% of which were dotcom. 2738, approx 13.5%. There were too many urls to keep track of, so we kept track of sites. There were too many sites to keep track of, so we kept track of host domains that only monitored or made public their numbers of registered sites, not their numbers of sites actually setup and actually functional, and certainly not their names or the urls, the universal resource locators of their individual pages, but what frustrated more than the fact that we could not dbase all the web by ourselves was the fact that none of the models we engineered could ever predict its expansion.

Computers had grown smaller by the release, shrinking to lap size, and were shrinkable further until the limit, the entropy point, at which it became feasible to make a computer hand size, finger size, too small to be humanly usable. The web had reached something of the same limit point but from the opposite direction, it had become too big for any one user to feasibly navigate. We identified only two ways to bring about realignment. Either to limit its size, which was censorship, or to map it and make that map searchable. The future was and will always be ahead of us, but also behind us, and to the sides. The future is the client, the past is just something to find.

The wallpaper of the condo was test pattern CMYK, cyan magenta yellow key-black stripes curving shoddy toward their tangency at a monoxide detector whining the sine wave of its battery drained. We covered it all with lists printed on printers and legal pads, lists of sites and site maps described, but it was only with the phone line conked and the electricity just after that we were finally able to get to work. Before we were too close to the screen. Too near to the potentials to equate them.

It was harrowing just going outside. The other condo units shone dusk to dawn and phones rang in the sky. We had octalfortied that sound and the look of gravel and hedges. At the foot of the stairs our mailbox had lacked the bandwidth for all the bills from PG&E and PacBell, four figures of bankruptcy. The condo was accessed by a staircase as like a fire escape, and the storage enclosure under the stairs contained a cage, and the cage contained a putrefied pet skeleton. It might have been a hedgehog. We went back inside. Just swiveled. It had taken a year and a half, 1993, for us to realize that the chair we sat in was adjustable. Which was helpful because either the desk was too low or we were taller than D-Unit.

Or else it was AOL that finally cut us off. Because that too was billed separately. We cannot recall precisely. And we had no clue that D-Unit owned a hedgehog.

Point is, we were returned from practice to theory and paper. It is unfortunate that you will have to transcribe this.

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