Classic front page story from The Onion, from the Jonnie Era. Christine Wenc found the whole batch of microfilm at the Wisconsin Historical Archive.
I’m finally living in the cyberpunk future I’ve dreamed of living in since I was a kid.
In my younger mind, the cyberpunk future was a cultural mélange raising a new age Tower of Babel over an aging infrastructure. Looming above the honeycomb of wearable computers, iconoclast retro-tech, autonomous taxicabs, bespoke electric bicycles, shining arcologies, and crumbling super-tenements. I would write software using deluxe object-oriented languages on my portable computer for my biometric wristwatch, weaving in and out of traffic through the over-crowded megacity on my electric bike.
The entire library of humanity would be available to me at my whim, with a gesture or a word. The stirrings of artificial intelligences would glimmer through the fiber optics deep beneath the city; gathering data, sorting, analyzing, learning. My interactions with them providing the training they need to interact with me: I would be their tutor and their student.
Then there were the robots. Their cybernetic forms simultaneously familiar and unexpected. Their cold eyes — if they had eyes at all —wouldn’t have the light of personhood behind them. They’d range from the cuddly to the terrifying. Some would be huggable dolls to comfort the infirm and the lonely, fashioned after children’s toys; or they would be modeled on children themselves, underfoot and skittering about, seen but not heard; or giants playing with toy blocks the size of skyscrapers, lumbering behemoths blotting out the sky. They would be servants and partners and they would be building the next world, and they would be fearsome weapons on land and in the sky, raining down hellfire.
We would hack our own biology with chemicals known and unknown, jack up our nervous systems with electronics and stimulants, chimerically rewriting our DNA and replacing our limbs and senses with cybernetic upgrades.
It would all be part and parcel of life on the rain-slicked, cyberpunk streets of the Seattle metroplex. And then I grew up and the future arrived.
Tent cities reach out in every direction along congested arteries leading in and out of the cities, ancient transports belching pollutants we struggle to cast off in our nostalgia for a time when life seemed simpler and there was freedom on the open road.
They frighten and confuse. Yet, when we feel something missing in ourselves, we yearn to integrate with it. Starting with a missing limb, we build a prosthesis; never satisfied, we upgrade and there is always an upgrade. First we tune it to walk, then we tweak it to run, then we hack it to fly.
We live in uneasy acceptance of it all, that it will rise up and take our place. Ancient fears those, every parent has had them from the dawn of time. The progeny casting the progenitor out, the student becoming the master.
Mega-corporations hold more power than governments. Government has fallen out of favor, replaced with a yearning for the anarchy of a fantasized frontier where we had freedom from the press of humanity and the burdens we impose on each other to keep the fragile peace. Yet, irresolute in our commit to the precariousness of liberty, we abdicate our natural desires and abilities to grocery delivery services, military-styled private police forces and constabularies, and an ever-growing list of entertainment options provided by a shrinking list of of suppliers.
The list of illnesses, diseases, ailments, disorders, maladies, and afflictions that plague us grows longer every day, yet we live longer than our ancestors ever hoped. The effort we’ve exerted to extended our precious lives belies the negligence in how we spend them. We’re not driven to live, we’re simply afraid to die.
We live in the future and yet there is always another future ahead of us.
We write the story of our tomorrow today.
Trans-sexual and trans-gender warriors marching under a battle standard defined with muted pastel colors around a milky white center do not inspire. Is it because my people spend so much of our lives trying not to stand out, but to fit in, to over-accommodate and become assimilated. Some even accuse us of attempting to mimic or impersonate.
My people have been accused of being in other people’s spaces, inserting ourselves where we don’t belong, wanting special rights and access, wanting to become something that’s physically impossible or socially inconvenient. Everyone’s always telling us what we can’t do. So, we work hard at being invisible, because laying low is the best way to avoid being just another statistic of our status as the most murdered sexual minority.
From my own personal experience, I don’t spend much time with my people. When a minority group is sufficiently marginalized, the people create their own cultures and those cultures can be dysfunctional in the extreme. Trans culture can place too much emphasis on being mistaken for cis because being cis means being safe and secure. It means being able to get a job, to have a family, to have a place to live.
Being trans means being less than, being undeserving, being targeted. For trans women, along with that, it means being told we have unearned privilege, that we are a problem that needs to be solved, that we are a danger to people who matter more than we do.
We make people uncomfortable, it’s plain to see. Though, your discomfort is nothing compared to the discomfort we address every day of our lives.
That we would rally around a flag that is little more than a dingy white flag of surrender doesn’t surprise me. It’s a terrible flag that I will never fly.
My people are being beaten and murdered daily. My people are still denied basic human rights. My people are grossly misunderstood and misrepresented by all, including those who call us allies.
We are an endangered species. We are refugees from an ongoing ethic cleansing. Those of us who’ve survived this long are modern day ronin just looking for a home and honest work.
Our flag, if we must have one, should be a golden chimera on a blood red field.
Amazon should be most famous for getting credit for other people’s achievements. Instead, the ubiquitous internet company that couldn’t even come up with its own name has been getting a lot of grief for poor treatment of its workers: something else it didn’t invent but is working extra hard to make sure it’s on the forefront of rottenness. Its most well-treated, highly-stressed employees have a beautiful corporate park on the northern edges of downtown Seattle while the rest of the city fumes and resents their rent-raising, traffic-brewing presence and their deplorable, drunken impact on traditional small-town life.
The fantasy of living in Seattle has been that of a small, frontier town that didn’t welcome arrivals happily. Newcomers are treated to what’s been colloquially known as The Seattle Freeze. Immigrants make Seattle different, and we don’t like different.
Transplants from outside the Pacific Northwest quickly learn to act like a native, and that means making someone even newer to Seattle feel unwelcome. There’s no zealot like a convert. Those of us who came here before you have a lot to prove.
Tech workers have been making Seattle a horrible place to live since ZymoGenetics and the biotech boom of the mid 1990s, since Microsoft moved to Bellevue in 1979, since the B-52 and the 707 in the 1950s, and long before that when what would become the Boeing Airplane Company set up shop on the banks of the Duwamish River in 1910.
The Duwamish people themselves were probably the first to exclaim the woe of unwanted immigration and all the troubles it would undoubtedly cause.
As awful as the current crop of Amazon drones are, they’re not the first to be blamed for the plague of big city problems they bring with them. I came to Seattle in July of 1991 with a group of friends from the Midwest, the Northeast, and the South to start a newspaper called The Stranger. We were loud and annoying, we didn’t follow the rules: we drank too much liquor, not enough microbrewed beer, thought Starbucks was pretentious.
Much like the current crop of invaders, the only thing we really liked about Seattle was that it seemed like a great place to turn into a place where we’d feel more at home.
We queered the place up. We thumbed our noses at authority figures. Many of us had come fresh from The Onion and had a taste for printing filthy words and dirty pictures because it got a rise out of people, because it wasn’t supposed to be done. We had a set of business ethics we cribbed from The Godfather movie franchise.
What was different back then is most of us worked very hard for very little money. Very few, if any, of us got rich off the endeavor. Some of us got famous, but most of us were just happy to have been a part of something that changed the world a little bit, maybe made it a tad more interesting than it would have been if we hadn’t been there to shake things up.
I’ve heard tell the money’s nice over there at Amazon. Maybe it makes me a big sucker for having spent my youth working on something that when I added up all the money I made on it, I would have been better off working a forty-hour week for minimum wage for the same amount of time.
I’m not even sure if we built something I’m proud of. The Onion and The Stranger helped usher in a world where fake news is more compelling than the real stuff. That’s certainly wasn’t the intended outcome. I don’t feel a sense of responsibility for that downturn, because it’s pretty clear that’s where we were headed anyway.
Most of the humor was making fun of what we saw happening around us by powerful entities acting in their own economic interests to the detriment of public polity.
I do feel like the people I worked with during that time had a sensibility that set us apart from the institutions we were mocking. We punched up at authority instead of ridiculing the powerless. When we made mistakes, and we made plenty, we turned that into jokes at our own expense. We may have worked ourselves into early-onset old age, but we… well, there’s really no way around that, that’s life in the fast lane.
It’s International Worker’s Day today, and there will be flashbangs and broken windows and signs blaming Amazon for all of Seattle’s ills. Amazon is awful, there’s no denying it. The company is leading a race to the bottom since it overtook WalMart, and as a society we’re all living poorer lives so we can save a few bucks on cheap crap we don’t need.
But the workers — the tech bros and the woo girls — they’re the Joe Six-packs and the Rosie the Riveters of the modern age. They’re the salt of the earth and their bent backs are building the future that we’re all going to live in. We’re all in this together.
Those of us who’ve lived in Seattle for the last five years, or ten years, or like me for the last twenty-five; we can see them as invaders who are only here to stink up Capitol Hill with their Fireball-shot and Rainier beer vomits, clog up the streets and the interstate and the Link Light Rail, and bring their screwed up values from wherever-the-hell-it-is they come from.
Or we can see them as ourselves, not too long ago.
From what I remember of myself back then, nobody could have stopped me from doing exactly what the hell I was going to do and whenever someone was stupid enough to tell me something couldn’t — or shouldn’t — be done, I’d work all that much harder to make it happen.
Welcome to Seattle, noobs.
I’m looking forward to what you have in store for us.
I ran into a friend today on my walk. He was running down the Blaine Street steps just as I approached to walk up them. We walked up together.
He was carrying with him five small stones, pebbles really. Each one represented a trip down and then back up again. When we got to the top, he tossed it into a pile of stones that accumulated in a hollow at the base of a tree where two thick branches diverged. Then he had just four small stones.
Being a student of the computer sciences, I thought, does that mean he takes five or six trips? Do the stones count five to one or five to zero? Being not very good at the computer sciences, I presumed five trips.
Taking an extra trip at zero stones always feels to me like just that, an extra trip. This is why I’m bad at the computer sciences, because zero isn’t a number to me; whereas to computer scientists, zero is exactly one half of the only two numbers that make up all the rest of the numbers.
The numeral 0 as an integer seems to have worked its way into use in various mathematical texts roughly around the common era year 500, or possibly 600, but definitely by the year 700. Before that, one examined the context in which numerals were used. It was also common to count in sexagesimal, base 60, which is why there are sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, and three hundred sixty degrees in a circle. Dividing circles into sixties is easier than dividing them into tens.
It’s also because counting on one hand to twelve is easier than counting to ten on two hands. One counts on the three finger bones, on each of four fingers of one hand, with the thumb. Do this four times and you’ve counted to sixty. Six times that is three hundred sixty.
And the world goes ’round.
Can’t quite do that in base 10. Not as easily anyway. Once we started doing fractions, though, base 10 really started to shine. That is, when we started using money. If I could get a shekel for every 160 grains of barley, great. But owing you a shekel that was worth 1/60th of a mana was a pain in the fingers. Owing you a shekel that was worth 1/50th of a mana, now that math could be done on paper. Heck, that kind of math could even be done quickly in the head and it would be easy enough for everyone to agree on the outcome.
It’s no great coincidence that the spread of mercantile mathematics, the base 10 numerical system, and monetary systems all evolved together.
We haven’t seen a corresponding computer-scienceization of custom. The common person still sees zero as a thing that isn’t done, instead of a thing that is.
When we make the move to qubits, we’ll have a zero that can hold a whole bit in itself. Then a light switch can be both on and off at the same time. As well, it can be off and off, on and on, and off and on.
At that point, I can tell my friend he needs only carry one quantum rock with him on the stairs.
On the first four trips, the rock will keep count of each trip. But on the last trip, he leaves the rock in the crook of the tree and runs down and back up alone.
“War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.”
— Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce
How do I do what’s right when I’m given every encouragement to do what feels wrong?
That’s how I felt growing up, that the world was set up to benefit those who followed a set of rules that directly contradicted everything I had been taught was moral and virtuous. I was raised to adhere to a set of Protestant Christian values in the Midwestern United States, and my formative years took place in the late seventies and early eighties. During my high school years, M*A*S*H aired weekly and while I couldn’t be counted on to attend church on Sundays, on Monday evenings I eagerly adjourned to the TV room where I knew a new episode of M*A*S*H would be shown.
Many of the stories I found compelling were stories of soldiers, particularly Radar O’Reilly, being bullied by tougher types, because I was being bullied quite a lot at the time and I found the answers comforting. That it would be okay to have a set of principles that don’t revolve around being the strongest, toughest, and meanest. This message was reinforced by characters like “Hawkeye” Pierce and Captain B.J. Hunnicutt, who exhibited deeply pacifist ethics and occasional thoughtful introspection.
Growing up in rural Indiana, I found the emphasis on kindness and understanding refreshing, given that I saw so little of that in the real people around me. It showed me that people could live emotionally rich lives, and in situations of terrible stress and mayhem, could find powerful ways to live out lives in dignity, even when all around them were acting insanely, cruelly, even brutally.
They built islands of serenity in an ocean of war… I mean, police action.
“Listen, it’s too big a world to be in competition with everyone. The only person who I have to be better than is myself.”
— Colonel Sherman Potter
The person I most aspired to be was Hawkeye. Even though he was a porn hound, a womanizer, a ham, a drunk, and occasionally an emotional trainwreck, he had a core of liberal sensibility that shone through. All of his problems seemed to stem from the fact that he cared so deeply about the people around him. He felt like a cog in a murder machine that he couldn’t escape from: both because the army would have imprisoned him and ruined his life if he resisted violently, but also because he felt a duty to use his abilities and skills to provide solace and support to the many others in the same situation who made their way through the hospital.
I suppose my childhood, especially my high school years, felt very much like a war zone to me. I guess that sounds dramatic, but there were those who made it clear they’d be happy to kill me because of who I was, or because of who they thought I was. However real their threats were, they certainly felt real and it left me feeling constantly in danger of life and limb to an unjust situation without recourse.
I wanted to be able to deal with my situation with as much integrity as the doctors and nurses on M*A*S*H did.
To that end, I aspired to have a skill so necessary that people couldn’t live without me. That they would have to put up with me being different, radically different, because they needed my talents so badly.
That worked out pretty well for me. I gravitated towards other misfits who had their own ways of standing out from the crowd. We sheltered each other from the outside world and urged each other to continually better ourselves. Some people thought us clique-ish, but I don’t think it was ever because we felt we were better than other people.
“There are so many things I was sure I’d have in my life by now. Every birthday reminds me of what’s still not there. This just turned out to be another day in the middle of nowhere.”
— Major Margaret Houlihan
In the very early years of M*A*S*H, many of the themes were profoundly racist and sexist, and though the show grew up faster than the times it existed in, it’s still existed in and reflected a time less enlightened than the one we live in now.
But characters like Major Houlihan shattered the stereotypes they started out as. Margaret started out as a mockery of career women and finished up as a role model. Corporal Maxwell Klinger began as a running crossdressing joke and by the end, redefined himself as a visible and relatable Arab-American character, even as he remained a first-class joker.
Major Charles Emerson Winchester III allowed M*A*S*H to explore issues of class, greed, and selfishness. Yet Charles wasn’t a cardboard cutout like Major Frank Burns was, he had his own set of talents that let him get away with his avarice as often as he was caught up in it. He also displayed a conservative sensitivity that helped me to understand that even people whom I disagreed on many matters with could, at the same time, hold values that I held dear as well.
M*A*S*H went to great efforts to humanize the Korean people, on both sides of the 38th Parallel. Certainly, this is the area where the white American view of Asians is the most problematic, but it was clear that the writers made great efforts to highlight the predominantly white character’s supremacist and colonial attitudes and expose them for what they were. The Korean people were portrayed as having lives that were valuable even as they were different and often similar.
“I just don’t know why they’re shooting at us. All we want to do is bring them democracy and white bread. Transplant the American dream. Freedom. Achievement. Hyperacidity. Affluence. Flatulence. Technology. Tension. The inalienable right to an early coronary sitting at your desk while plotting to stab your boss in the back.”
— Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce
M*A*S*H probably wouldn’t hold up today because we have (rightly) higher standards, but given the times it grew out of, it helped us all get to the world we have today where we expect not just television, but all storytelling, to be better by including all of our stories. Even now, we still have a long way to go.
Those stories of overcoming adversity are at the core of the human experience. While we all get enjoyment from conflict to the point where some of us spend much of our time inciting it, what we yearn for is the closure that comes from the resolution of conflict.
M*A*S*H allowed me to see myself in a variety of people at a time in my life when I didn’t see my beliefs reflected in the actions of the people around me. I felt alone and alienated because I was sensitive and caring. That perceived weakness made me a target, but ultimately those assets helped me survive the chaos of everyday life.
“Just remember, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything and the wrong way is to keep trying to make everybody else do it the right way.”
— Colonel Sherman Potter
This winter was the most difficult. There was the sickness, then the other sickness, then the injury, then more sickness, the neverending sickness. I blamed all that illness on the fact that I’d been indoors for the last fifteen years, while the bacteria and viruses mutated to defeat immunities I wouldn’t be building. The war between humanity and germ went on without me. When I resurfaced and rejoined the human race, I was defenseless. The miasma pounced and devoured me.
When the first buds appeared on the ends of hibernating branches, the long, cold winter’s grip on my soul loosened slightly. It was as if spring was being invented for the first time, drawn up from utopian plans of what a better world might look like, by a starry-eyed romantic, naively dreaming that everything dead might live again.
The buds became blooms, like slow-motion fireworks, they burst on the brown and the gray like pink and white phosphorous. Searing hope into my heart.
After the blossoms came the leaves. Already the cherry outside my window’s shed the sakura and the burgundy leaves reach out to the light that only graces this side street for an hour a day, in the late morning, before the sun moves on to briefly warm the dentist’s office across the street.
How I survived this winter, I’m not sure. I lost faith, I lost friends, I lost hope more times than I cared to count.
In the fluffy-cloud-filtered light of spring, I can see all that I’ve gained, like a branch gathers moss and lichen: a few extra pounds, a weary attitude, a new-found appreciation of my couch.
Life doesn’t stand still, though. Like the sap running again through the trees, the blood runs again through my limbs. That joyful feeling reminds me I still remember how to run and play, no matter how much my joints ache; that a thunderstorm drenches me just as deeply when my eyes look up to meet the sky as it does when I hang my head in submission; that everything I’ve lost, and I’ve lost a lot in my life, makes way for something new.
When I make room in my life for what comes next, I find that the same precious feelings are invoked. I still remember how to believe, how to love, how to trust.
In the poetry of spring, the subject changes, but the stanzas continue to rhyme.
I joined Facebook because I’m weak. Also because I’m trying to learn the lay of the social media land, which I once believed was hardscrabble badlands territory populated only by bandits and coyotes. I still believe that, but I’ve recently come to hold the opinion it’s the only way people talk with each other anymore.
There was once gold in them thar hills, I’ve heard tell, which means that by the time I heard the tale the hills were completely emptied of their gold, platinum, and probably a fair share of their cobalt.
Which is fine, because much as I love gold, I’ve heard lithium is in even greater demand. There is always something valuable to be found, even in a ghost town. Used ghosts are a growth industry.