the first day of the recent "Transformations of the Book"
Conference at MIT was the last day -- or possibly the last day
-- of GeekCereal. It is a kind of collective web diary my son
has coordinated for the past year and a half as part of his
duties as Gardener in Chief of Cyborganic Gardens, a web-based
on and offline community, whose various web activities were
supplemented by real life dinners every Thursday (TNDs) at Cyborganic's
South of Market headquarters. My wife Alice told me that it
might be the end, and that I should try to read his final post,
but I didn't get to it until Sunday. As the bright yellow "cereal
box" splash screen came up (more flakes! more nuts!), and
Caleb's cartoon likeness and one-line teaser appeared, two days
after they should have been supplanted by Rebecca and Jeremy's
posts, it was clear Alice had been right -- "Sayonara
Cyborganic" was the headline.
born in 1968, the annus mirabilis of the new age, when I had
been suspended from graduate school and from my not very lucrative
stipend as a preceptor in English at Columbia, while my Lawyer's
Guild counsel traded memos with my thesis advisor (who was also
the head of the faculty senate discipline committee) over the
niceties of whether it was possible to be guilty of trespassing
in one's own office in Hamilton Hall. As the years passed and
fervor gave way to prudence (we had more than our chains to
lose), Alice and I retained, as is not unusual in academic Cambridge,
a connection with those times, though ever more faintly. All
of our children went through the alternative programs in the
Cambridge schools, descendants of the parent run nursery schools
and playgroups we had joined as early members.
So it was
with a sense of pride, as if Caleb were carrying on the family
business of hapless non-Marxist revolt, when he was drawn into
the orbit of the nascent Web culture, running chat lines, reading
proof for Wired and HotWired, managing a devoted staff of friends
and disciples at CNET Online, apparently in the belief that,
somehow, technology and community could converge. Having worked
at MIT since Caleb's first birthday, I was less sanguine --
but in the past few years I too had been influenced by unexpected
optimism, and was drawn to explore electronic
tools for teaching literature. Unlike Caleb, who had mastered
enough Pascal or whatever it was to have all the records of
Cambridge Rindge and Latin School at his disposal from his Freshman
year on, I had no aptitude for computers (the Datateknik cover
story on my project noted, in Swedish, that even the laserdiscs
refused to obey my nervous commands, and attributed the project,
reverently but incorrectly, to the genius of Nicholas
Negroponte ), but I had wonderful collaborators, and a strong
will, and persisted. Like Caleb, I thought we were using technology
to make things better. I began, in tentative ways, even to imagine
we were using it to change the world. Our mutual interests and
hopes became a strong bond. When I could, I even got some free
consulting and moral support from Caleb and his group, who had
become highly paid web designers, flown in, at times, to rescue
complex projects from their incompetent intiators. I couldn't
afford the full treatment, but apprecated the good advice they
gave in passing.
ago, their communitarian instincts led to the forming of a web
community that would also be a company, that would be realistic
and professional as well as alternative-cultural, kind, and
smart. That was Cyborganic, and its birth was heralded by a
wonderfully goofy and fairly accurate story in Rolling Stone,
with a double page upside down picture of the house on Ramona
Street, with cable strung from every landing, and a geek at
every window ("that's Trish! That's Sonic!-- is that Caleb
up there? -- why didn't he stay on the second floor where we
could see him better?"). Though all the geeks came off
well, Caleb seemed to be the hero of the piece, at least to
us, with a header proclaiming -- "if Caleb has any fears
of jumping, he isn't showing it." Our stacks of copies
of the issue, with Lenny Kravitz on the cover of each one, have
hardly faded. (Visitors pick them up to read the latest Rock
and Roll high fashion news and then put them back in the pile
quietly when they realize they're two years out of date.)
Cereal itself (http://sharon.net/gc/) was a joy to look
at, to read, and to navigate. The seven "geeks" were
each responsible for a main post on their day, and "side
orders," comments from the others, were optional but frequent;
a flawless interactive calendar kept track of all entries, allowing
you to follow one character through the weeks, or to follow
a thread or a story. GeekCereal launched when Caleb and his
friends had an entire six months of writing in the archive --
this was an unfolding story of their lives in and around multimedia
gulch that had a history at its inception.
provided us, as parents, with glimpses of Caleb's life we hadn't
had before and a fuller picture of things we already did know
-- his leadership, his love of cooking for large groups of friends,
his hard work and kindness were much in evidence; his "side
orders" were often compassionate and understanding, and
even when the tone was angry, he seemed to point the way to
productive modes of expressing anger in this oddly private,
oddly public medium that others could imitate -- and they did.
His acknowledgment of our role in his life, and his affirmation
of his bond with his brother and sister were moving beyond words,
and perhaps could not have been communicated to us in such depth
through any other medium, reading what he had written primarily
to share with friends and with unknown visitors to the site.
discussed his giving up smoking (we never knew he smoked), his
love of reggae and hip hop came into better focus, and, as East
coast mostly folks we learned about the Western rite -- fetish
parties, bondage a go-go
(Caleb disapproved, but seemed to know a lot about it); Reggae
on the River; Burning Man ("good God, don't go!" we
wished, while his posts teased readers with claims that he would
sit this year's event out, only to provide them with a last
minute on-site post from the desert.) We gathered, from GeekCereal
and the pictures posted on Bianca's Smut Shack (how did we wind
up there?) that Burning Man was some kind of desert youth festival
in which people burnt very large effigies and dressed bizarrely
or went naked amid the pyrotechnics. Steev's post
was an exuberant celebration of human anatomical diversity,
newly seen and appreciated.
the geeks, before and after the event, were openly anxious about
their role, their dress or undress, the propriety of their demeanor
-- "I don't know if I'm ready for Burning Man" was
the theme. Alice and I, years before, never started for Woodstock,
as the baby needed feeding and the news of hundred mile traffic
jams was discouraging -- but we didn't know anyone who would
admit to anxiety about how they might look or appear there.
the Web, we were also able to follow Caleb's secret
but gradually revealed mission to India, where he participated,
as an early "scout" (see Numbers
14:24, the passage we had in mind when we named him, and
see also his account of that naming in his FAQ)
in the wiring of the Dalai Lama's compound at Macleod Ganj.
The India post was the only one with a photograph -- a beautiful
view of the Himalayas, where one of the Western visitors got
lost after dark; the local lamas said prayers, were unruffled
and comforting, and the young man returned safely.
to rely on the Friday serving, and noticed that the comic book
image of Caleb, , that accompanied every post (strange at first,
too quirky to be our son) came to seem more and more like him.
At times it seemed to BE Caleb, more present than the pictures
on the mantel.
moved by his stories of his love for his partner Tricia, a wonderfully gifted, quiet and reflective person.
She had been a classmate and friend at Yale, but Caleb had not
dared to try to date her during their college years. When she
migrated to the Bay Area, like Caleb she worked in "new
age" publishing -- first at Wired as an associate art director,
then at Yoga Journal. At
Cyborganic she was the designer (with Sonic, Queen of the Universe)
of GeekCereal, and then went on to work for Third Age. She had moved from the East to be with Caleb,
and there is a media-in-transition lesson somewhere in the story
of their reunion.
friends in Berkeley for a few days several years ago, and renewed
her acquaintance with Caleb by chance. Then she left. The story
goes -- it has several versions, oral, written and webbed --
that Caleb then wrote her a twenty page handwritten letter and
sent it by surface mail (no email for this communication). There
was no response for weeks, and then she showed up in her tiny
red car (not the canonical Alfa Romeo roadster, but close enough
so that I think of her driving over the Bay Bridge to Berkeley
like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate). She had quit her job,
loaded up her belongings, and driven out. They've been together
since. Most romantic stories I've heard lately have involved
the Internet as matchmaker; perhaps the use of the mail and
the internal combustion machine will seem as archaically romantic
in a year or two as Daphnis and Chloe does now.
was at Yale, he and a friend were selected to deliver the Class
Speech at graduation, which at Yale is a stand-up comedy retrospective
you have to audition for. We were entranced, but found the next
day, when the event was covered in the Yale campus paper, that
we had missed nearly every double entendre ("play"
to us suggested either the Boston Celtics or theories of the
"ludic" in the Middle Ages). The paper even took note
of the massed parents in their clueless delight, missing every
vulgarity. Well - it was better than Marian Wright Edelman's
speech on the same occasion, which seemed to me insufferably
self congratulatory and insulting, contrasting her own social
commitments with the irresponsibilty of the privileged young,
about which she knew little and assumed much. I'm still impatient,
though guiltily so, when the Children's Defense Fund calls for
version of Caleb's life and that of his friends offered many
similar interpretive challenges -- we often missed the point
of elegantly lewd posts, Alice missing a bit more than I, usually.
of last year, while I was at a conference in Atlanta, Alice called to say that Caleb
had called and would call me with an important message; I guessed
what it was about, as Caleb had been hinting at spending a considerable
portion of his boom or bust savings on a diamond (a diamond!
-- no hippy crafted silver and flawed opal for the webhead generation).
I was exhausted after a long day, trying to sort out Hal Varian's unsettling futuristic vision of academic assessment using web citations and
making notes on Peter Lyman's humane and wise account of his trip to China and the preciousness of
the freedom of speech on the internet. I left the television
on loudly so I wouldn't fall asleep and miss the call -- when
it came, images of a village that had fallen prey to a deadly
outbreak of ebola flickered on the screen; I had a bad connection.
Caleb's message was brief -- he'd proposed to Tricia, she'd
accepted and I could read about it at length in his post tomorrow.
He too was tired, and couldn't really talk -- but he wanted
me to hear this news by phone.
So the phone
had become the way to show respect for parents -- but the canonical
version was the web
page, and it was indeed rewarding to read; reflective, funny,
loving, wastefully extavagant and wonderful; it was a treasure
for us, and we copied text and snapped screenshots (command,
shift, 3) to save it. We understood the double and the triple
entendres. It was better than a phone call.
was ending -- a prey to the vicissitudes that might befall any
idealistic community structured as a corporation. The touch
of gold rush fever had been there, we might now guess, from
the beginning (we have seen it in academia too, but there's
no eldorado in educational multimedia either, at least not for
those who sought it most ardently); the geeks who wrote for
the Cereal had actually been contractors and employees (though
some had wanted to be partners) -- and they had not been paid.
There was no revenue with which to pay them, and the venture
capital and its supplements had dried up; relationships suffered;
one geek was already in small claims court with a case against
the founder. Caleb sounded the knell, and he did it with elegance
posts had been infrequent in the last few weeks, and the "side
order" responses had almost disappeared, all four of the
remaining Geeks responded. Rocky
was perplexed, and almost disbelieving -- ""so this
means you are backing out of the project? that's all it seems
it could be, i guess... unless one person can decide it's over
for everyone." Steev
was rueful but accepting and grateful for having participated.
He was the geek who seemed to us to have changed most over the
months, from a nervous beginner, a technical guy whose only
convergence with these high style webheads seemed to be his
purple hair (at least the obligatory "Steev" caricature
has purple hair) to an effective and interesting writer. His
posts combined wide eyed and naive appreciation for the wonders
of the web world (especially at Burning Man) with an engaging
down to earth and direct style.
(does he still wear a long skirt, and why? where will he go
after Apple?) was brief -- he can be found at satori.net. Each
of the geeks now referred us to their home pages, and some promised
to keep writing and told us where we could find what they wrote.
I read Allison's side order last -- and followed the link to
her home page at floozy.com. It brought tears to my eyes, as
the screen displayed the conclusion of the Phaedrus.
As the day cools and the dialogue ends (though these precious
moments preserved on papyrus rolls and transcribed in the medium
of print now reach us in cyberspace),
friends depart. Socrates offers a prayer, to Pan and all the
I may become beautiful within, and that whatever outward things
I have may be in harmony with the spirit inside me. May I understand
that it is only the wise who are rich, and may I have only as
much money as a temperate person needs. --Is there anything
else we can ask for Phaedrus? For me that prayer is enough.
asks him to offer the prayer on his behalf as well, "since
friends have all things in common." Socrates replies, concluding
the dialogue, with words that appear on Allison's page in large
blue character, underlined.
Let's be going.
And that was how the serial ended, an ending worthy of Plato's
great precursors, Calvin and Hobbes (I mean the final Sunday
panel, that shows an expanse of white, of newly fallen snow;
and either the child or the tiger remarks, as the strip ends
forever, "Let's go."). In my reading, on that day,
it didn't even occur to me that these words were also a link.
As Alice and I re-traversed the end of Cyborganic the next day,
I noticed that Allison's post let us know that she hadn't changed
her page in months. In fact, as we now discovered, "let's
be going" led to a series of marvellous quotations, from
Huang Po, Sufi mystics, American transcendentalists, Montaigne
-- and, of course, to much else. "Let's be going"
is Allison's signature link.
And so at
the end of the cereal we began to learn more, belatedly, about
Allison, and her particular sensibility, to revisit old and
revered texts we had in common and to follow her lead into new
paths. We couldn't know where following these connections might
lead. Given the personal and legal tangles these folks had got
themselves into, even how long these posts might remain on the
internet as Cyborganic went under, we didn't know -- but the
transformation of what had been an imprtant part of our lives
had been marked. The cereal ended for us with deeper understanding
of the medium, and its special way of articulating endings and
beginnings, with gratitude for a form of connection that could
not have existed in any other form, and with the sense that
we understood, a little better, the restlessness of grown children
at the end of family visits.