I still remember her like it was just a day or two ago, instead of five years.
I was at a 2600 meeting in Boston. 2600 meetings are loose hacker get-togethers ostensibly organized or blessed by 2600 magazine, but which range wildly in approach, context, and usefulness. What they often serve as are ways to scoop up beginning technical folks and smash them headlong into a social scene they want to be part of but didn’t know how to enter. By having regular meetings, you are a sitting target for these new folks to find a place to be themselves. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it does not. I have been attending them off and on for 22 years.
She was new, or at least, new to Boston’s 2600 meetings. She sat down, black hair and dark eyes, and she quietly regarded everyone, occasionally engaging a couple people in conversations I couldn’t hear. I forgot what subterfuge I used to strike up conversation with her, but it was most certainly subterfuge and I didn’t know what we were going to talk about.
I still remember her pointed question, the result of an hour attendance in this food court with this rag-tag group of teenagers and 20-somethings.
“So.. what exactly do you all do?”
I started to burble out some generalized description of classic hackerdom, some half-hearted description of technical tinkering, and she stopped me dead.
“No, I mean what does everyone here actually do. What do they accomplish? Are they doing anything?”
This was not exactly the sort of conversation I was expecting, but hey, what the heck, let’s fly with it. I asked her what she was doing, hoping to hear either silence or something interesting.
She pulled out some photos of herself, on a park bench somewhere, covered in garbage bags and tied into some sort of bundle, with her feet in a bucket or some similar container. Her eyes were closed. There was someone sitting next to her on the bench, obviously a stranger, looking either bemused or confused, it wasn’t clear.
She talked about this art project she had done, where she had left herself as some sort of living sculpture at various parts of her previous city. She explained to me how she was trying to get people to open their eyes, to change the way that they looked at things. She thought that a technical group of people or hackers or whatever she thought we were would be able to give her new ideas, or team up, or do something. What she got was a bunch of quiet kids talking about what new crap they’d bought or some near thing they’d learned about.
She wanted action. She was getting talk.
She never came back to the meetings, and I’ve thought about her occasionally, because fundamentally, she was right. Talking is not doing, and planning is not doing, and sometimes even doing isn’t all that much in the way of doing.
One could laugh at Funny Bucket Garbage Bag Girl and dismiss what she was doing, but she had a plan of action, some theories on what it would do, and she had done it, and had results from it, even just photos. She had stuff, and she could show her stuff and incite others to either do better stuff or shut up.
I am, by some standards, an interesting speaker. I go all over the place, initiate non-sequitir, use profanity as humor and occasionally forget my place, but at the end I usually went somewhere. Some people hate that, some people like that. Enough people like it that I could probably just do speeches forever without breaking a sweat and continue to entertain.
But speaking is not doing. Criticism is not doing. Punditry is not doing.
One of the more interesting side-effects of my little sideline hobby of criticizing the Wikipedia project has been the evaluations of my character as a person, or of my intellectual stature, from people who know very little of my other work. To some folks, I’m just the guy who went off about Wikipedia and worked in the phrase “Katamari-Damacy-like Ball of Shit” into a supposedly intellectual overview. The reviews have been very helpful, but they’re just reviews of a performance, a classification or statement of my thoughts, unsolicited and distant, of the inherent flaws in the design of Wikipedia.
(On a side note, I’ve had the rare opportunity through this to feel the frustration of spending a year, on and off, learning a subject well enough to speak about it, and then watch as someone takes on the arguments with all the grace of muppets doing brain surgery. Normally I simply don’t throw enough energy in studying a subject to be able to mount anything other than a vague defensive position in discussion, and the potential to get “schooled” is great. Here, after my year of studying the subject, I’ve had to walk through a collection of forums, commentaries and writings where people obviously familiarized themselves with the first 8 words of every paragraph and then fired down the slope, guns blazing and helmet on backwards, ready to match wit. I say all this in my haughty fashion because 99 times out of 100, I’m usually the fucknut with the backwards helmet and the guns. It’s refreshing to get some perspective on the other side.)
Ultimately, of course, all most critics have done is provide a negation, a declaration of void against someone else’s efforts. While the rare critic is simply trying to provide context of a project or work in a greater timeline or schema, a lot of them are just whiny bicycle horns, uselessly bleating while others Get On With It. I kind of dread the possibility of becoming that.
So I’ve been doing stuff. But here’s the thing.
A lot of my stuff is very quiet. Very off to the side, a slow, incremental increase in data and collected material towards my general historial projects, including my websites and documentaries.
DIGITIZE.TEXTFILES.COM has been growing, with more and more scans added every week. I’ve even written a bash script that generates an XML file of the new stuff being created. (Perhaps it was best you weren’t aware of that, so you didn’t have to hear the screaming.) I’m about to add some additional ways to browse the scans so that people can find what they were looking for a lot easier… at this point, there are 562 scanned pages!
This past weekend, I added some footage to the arcade documentary. I think you’ll agree with me that these screengrabs of some of the footage looks pretty good. I also made some contacts for future interviewees for that project.
And this past Tuesday, I drove down to a ferry, rode across the Long Island Sound, and interviewed the creator of what was eventually called Choose Your Own Adventure, Edward Packard. He wrote a book called Sugarcane Island back in 1969 that allowed you to make decisions in a story. You would turn to page 15 if you wanted to enter the cave or turn to page 20 if you didn’t. You either go “huh” or HOLY CRAP when I tell you that I spent a great day with this gentleman, interviewing him and enjoying a nice meal with him discussing the GET LAMP project.
That’s a very special kind of doing, and I feel blessed to have gotten the chance to do it.
I’ve been mailing out constantly to potential interviewees, and there’s sessions planned all this year. I’m still trying to contact even more, and expect to have well over 100 interviews for GET LAMP and who knows how many for ARCADE (ARCADE may outstrip BBS Documentary, but you didn’t hear that from me).
I’ve got a half-dozen interviews in the can. I’ve nailed sound and visuals to where I don’t have to sweat them out like I used to (but I still have to concentrate). The equipment and I have a little agreement going, and we’re a good team now. I am working. I am doing.
Films are generally slow-motion things, ones like mine even more so. Long after peoples’ interest flicker and look away, I’ll be interviewing, researching, editing. For years. It’s part of the deal, and one result is that people are just now learning I finished the “BBS Movie”. A few people have written me recently to suggest interviewees, even, unaware there’s two thousand of these packages in my attic.
I’m doing my little thing in the background, like others are, and at some point in the future, my film will bloom and flower and everyone will know about it, or at least a good number of people. At point, it’ll become obvious I didn’t just spent all my time tearing down Wikipedia or yammering about Funny Bucket Garbage Bag Girl.
But until then, I’m doing what I do.
Not just talking, not just criticizing.
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