Tim May Got the Net

Tim May died last month. We hadn’t spo­ken in at least a life­time, but he was a dai­ly voice on my screen at a cer­tain time back in the 90s, in the day when the cypher­punks list was not only required read­ing but a required place to be — a time when at least a few of us at Wired held seri­ous to the idea of Mar­shall McLuhan as the magazine’s “patron saint.” Those were the days when the net came to me through the full-screen pine mail­er inside a Lin­ux shell, at the speed of an ISDN line — one that was nor­mal­ly reserved for busi­ness­es, but that I’d talked AT&T into installing in my home.

I might’ve emailed him only once or twice in the years since 9/11, but I often won­dered what he thought of this new age, with the accel­er­a­tion of the net and its par­al­lel degen­er­a­tion of civil­i­ty, soci­ety, cul­ture. He fig­ured all of this long ago and didn’t want any part of it. He was so pri­vate you still can’t see his house on Google. There isn’t an image any­where. You can’t even see his street — just the base of it at the bot­tom of a hill, well before it curves off to where his dri­ve­way even­tu­al­ly begins.

Our only col­lab­o­ra­tion was a cypher­punks-era microzine, “tim­may,” that I cod­ed in plain TeX, com­pil­ing some of the most out­landish and grotesque anti-May insults that were inter­ject­ed anony­mous­ly into our cypher­punks con­vos. Back then, if you were writ­ing any­thing new and out­side the main­stream, you did it in a zine. I think copies might’ve been giv­en out at a con — and, of course, mail order. That’s how things got out in those days. And “tim­may” was per­fect­ly out­ré, so he appre­ci­at­ed it.

There’s prob­a­bly only a dozen copies in exis­tence, although I still have the files. It’s just a hand­ful of small pages, a microzine, and none of the facts in it are real — but fic­tion is like that. No writ­ers — as in mak­ers of sto­ries, fic­tion, nar­ra­tive prose — hung out in these places or under­stood it or were part of it, but the net was my mate­r­i­al. The world was chang­ing and the new online world was as real as any­thing. The thought was that “tim­may” would be a weird lit­tle post-post­mod­ern art pan­e­gyric to his ideas of lib­er­ty and free speech.

As it turns out, it was quick­ly for­got­ten — tucked away in time with all my oth­er post-col­lege junk. Every­thing moved on. Until now. And look­ing at it, right after read­ing his obit, I see that it became exact­ly what I thought it would, almost as if I’d felt this moment com­ing twen­ty years before: it’s just a set of cold, old sym­bols on the page, with all the remote and final feel­ing of a eulo­gy.

Longo intervallo

Vintage screenshot of the dsl.org weblog

Once, at a point that goes back to what can now be only described as anoth­er life, I found myself among a tiny group who were try­ing some­thing the world had nev­er seen: blog­ging. It was the day of Hotwired, Netscape Nav­i­ga­tor, and sit­ting front-row at Jorn’s Robot Wis­dom site as he was hard-cod­ing the form into exis­tence — and there were about a dozen of us care­ful­ly watch­ing in that moment before tak­ing it up eager­ly for our­selves.

What fol­lowed in the fever pitch of the years imme­di­ate­ly after­ward was a con­stant pass­ing-out of links with, what seemed like, the entire world: those were all the oth­ers who were also set­tling the out­back with their home­made sites.

Blog­ging, in that 1.0 incar­na­tion of link-filled “weblogs” — before they mor­phed into a kind of online diary — was like con­struct­ing a syl­labus of every­thing you were inter­est­ed in or were attract­ed to or that you were read­ing or learn­ing at the time, an ever-expand­ing out­line of links, to oth­er people’s work, held togeth­er by your edi­to­r­i­al eye.

But secret­ly my heart was open­ing out in the form of nar­ra­tive prose, and I knew that the style and the mode of ear­ly blog­ging, with its links and facts and brevi­ty and news, wasn’t at all what I need­ed to be doing — for me it was a timesink, sideshow and dis­trac­tion. Soon enough I’d even feel the same about the lat­er form, the “blog­ging” in diary-like entries of short com­men­tary that would soon take over. Almost nobody was doing it for fic­tion, it seemed there was no online audi­ence for that, and out­side of music writ­ing it just was not my thing. I knew that the work that did need doing, and the doing-of-it to the sat­is­fac­tion of my yearn­ing heart, meant that I’d absolute­ly have to stop. And so I did — I more or less fell off the net com­plete­ly.

I still remain ambiva­lent toward cur­rent so-called social media, but this site does estab­lish a def­i­nite return — with, this time, the work I know I have to give.