A Geek's Night on the Town

Geek nightlife used to rock a lot harder back when the V.C.s hadn't yet awakened from their troubled dreams to find the stock market had been transformed into a giant cockroach. But those of us who spend a great deal of time with our heads plugged into the data stream still need a life.

And so, late last week, some friends and I plunged headlong into the digital social scene, looking for a relief from coding, writing, lab work, whatever.

What we discovered said much about what it means to be part of the high-tech community now that all of the pretty packaging has been torn away. Our evening began at an event organized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), which had organized a panel of lawyers and pundits to address how anti-terrorism legislation would limit our digital liberties. One glance around the room made it obvious that what might have once been a giddy, frivolous community of netniks had morphed into something serious. Nobody was there to swap cypherpunk war stories; nobody was getting high in the corner and talking about value-adds or vaporware. These geeks were political in the deepest sense of the word: for them, technology was not a toy; it was an instrument bound up with social justice.

Deprived of the cash influx many once took for granted, confronted with punishingly intense surveillance laws, and fearing a racist backlash against colleagues and friends, the geeks at this gathering formed what felt like a true community. Our solidarity was more intense -- and our dissident voices braver -- than anything I'd encountered during the dotcom bubble era. Members of the audience talked about how their political activism or hacking activities would make them "terrorists" under the new, capacious definition proposed by congressional legislation.

After the panel we headed over to an ill-defined event I'd heard about that sounded like nothing so much as an old-fashioned dot-com party. I say this because the company sponsoring the shindig has all the earmarks of those image-driven, business-senseless start-ups of yore.

The start-up is called Play Industry, and its Web site (www.playindustry.com) would qualify as fashionable dot-com retro if only it had been launched 15 years in the future. Indulge me as I quote at length from its "about us" page: "Play Industry is a brand driven, multimedia, entertainment company with a primary focus on consumer markets. Play Industry is the Rolls Royce of pop culture identity that drives product marketing, image development, and event production to an audience near you." Feeling nostalgia for 1999 yet?

The party was called "Gloss," and it was a celebration of lips. And no, as I discovered when I talked to cofounder Cassandra, "lips" doesn't stand for anything. It's not a product; it's just a body part.

"We like to throw parties that celebrate female body parts," Cassandra explained. I wondered why she and her partner, Stephani, called their company "multi-media" and what exactly they did. "We focus on the rich, the beautiful, the connected, and the artistic," Stephani said. "And we're multimedia because we work with a variety of different markets."

OK, that explains nothing. I was feeling more dot-com every second. What exactly is Play Industry selling? "We do product development, where we work with a client to create an ambience, to enhance their image. We bring them to the right people," Cassandra told me. "We want to create a decadent atmosphere that is sensual and makes everyone feel good." Added Dacia, a model who works for Play Industry, "Tonight's party is totally A-list. That's part of what we do."

Surrounded by hordes of surrealistically beautiful women and Men with Money, I settled into a white leather lounge chair and surveyed the A-list scene. A Flash movie danced on the wall; a DJ spun some sort of Hall and Oates remix; our schwag goody bags were packed with blue eyeliner and sparkly lip gloss. Play Industry, apparently, has financial backing for whatever it is it does. And V.C.s will be lining up at the door.

I wondered idly how Play Industry would "create ambience" for the people at the EFF panel. Would they use beauty, fashion, wealth, or pop culture to build up an image for people threatened with life in prison for hacking? Which of their gorgeous models would be used to brand the concept of being "placed under surveillance without judicial oversight"? I guess I'll never know.

Annalee Newitz (alist@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who reminds you that in space, no one can smell your aromatherapy. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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