Fear of Necco

Rumor has it that the most dangerous thing in Cambridge is not, as one might expect, a particle accelerator or small nuclear device hidden in deep catacombs beneath the MIT campus. If terrorists wanted to bring the city down, they wouldn't point their flying objects at a power plant, either. They'd go for the old Necco factory building. You know Neccos, right? The less-interesting precursor to Sweet Tarts, Neccos are hard sugar wafers whose popularity I have always attributed to their uncanny ability to stick to anything once you've licked them.

The Necco building is an innocuous, industrial-era behemoth spotted with tiny windows and crowned with a tower the pastel colors of a roll of Necco candies. Apparently it's filled with enough flammable gasses that a nicely aimed airplane would create an explosion big enough to flatten the whole town. It would be like revenge of the low-tech, factory-driven world on the high-tech one.

There's a lot of that sort of revenge going on here in Cambridge, and it's not being caused by terrorists. A casual stroll around the city reveals hundreds of tiny conflicts between the presumption of scientists and the power of old-school labor. After all, the city is right across the river from Boston, which is known for a thriving working-class culture that goes all the way back to the pre-information era (wow, imagine an economy ruled by things other than data!). Maybe sci-tech will always be an annoying kid sister to Boston's blue collars and blue bloods.

I got to know my new home by taking a stroll down Cambridge Street, starting at Inman Square near my house and working my way down to MIT's invisible bubble of nonpublic, encrypted wireless networks. A cute geek with a UNIX gut was running what looked like some kind of Bluetooth-style "personal area network" in an Inman Square caf? -- he had his PDA and cell phone and some other small electronic device I couldn't identify all synced up and was clearly swapping data from one to the other. It reminded me of San Francisco, where it seems like half the population is wired into at least two digital widgets during any given period of time.

Not so gradually, the neighborhood around Cambridge Street became Portugese-Brazilian, and filigreed Victorian homes gave way to the brick row houses of respectable working-class families. Instead of perfumy stores called things like @Home that hawked expensive chrome knick-knacks, there were stores advertising, "Poultry -- Freshly Killed!" There were small, mom-and-pop stores selling huge slabs of fish and South American sugar treats. Hidden in between an apartment building and an empty storefront, a tiny shop sold rare science fiction and horror memorabilia. Although I could see the tips of the tech-biz buildings near MIT in the distance, the sci-tech economy seemed about as remote as Star Trek.

That's not to say there wasn't wealth in this neighborhood; it just wasn't geek wealth. A pricey furniture store displayed sumptuous bedroom sets for newlyweds. Dark wood, decorated with hundreds of tiny pink flowers and glittering angels, the bed frames and dressers could have come from any era in the 20th century. There was nothing sleek, nothing "cyber," about them. They were from a universe in which Ikea never happened.

As I turned a corner, cutting down Third Street to Kendall Square near MIT, I suddenly spotted a plane flying low with one of those message banners trailing behind it. "BIOTECHNOLOGY CELEBRATION IN KENDALL SQUARE," it blared. I was suddenly reminded of the celebration I had witnessed several weeks earlier when I was house-hunting in this neighborhood and walked into a Portugese street fair full of loud music, colorful flags, beer, and the delicious smell of grilling sausage. Absurdly, I re-imagined the scene with biotech nerds. Would they be eating genetically engineered strains of popcorn? Kebabs from a cloned lamb? I tried to hear music, some strains of the bands hired to perform at the "biotech celebration." But I heard nothing. What would biotech types be listening to, anyway? Probably product pitches from Affymetrix and pharmaceutical propaganda from Celera flaks.

Then it began to rain, and I raced for an underground T station. Whisked to Harvard Square, I popped out in front of a store where somebody in a Linux T-shirt had ducked into the doorway and was using a Zarus to send e-mail. I thought fleetingly of the Department of Justice's new war on peer-to-peer "thieves" who promiscuously trade music and video files using their PDAs, computers, MP3 players, whatever. I suppose that's the revenge of a truly ancient economy on everyone.

Annalee Newitz (necco@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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