Multimedia Undead

"I'm designing this training game for the feds," an infamous hacker-cum-artist told me with a wry smile. "It's all about decision making and intelligence and stuff. It's steady work, and a lot of us are taking gigs like that these days." As I absorbed this strange piece of information, she wandered away, disappearing into the clots of geeks, perverts, and weird but uninteresting Burning Man types mingling next to unfinished pillars in the giant warehouse office space.

A small group had started painting one another's seminude bodies inside a glassed-in area that looked like a conference room. The free beer was flowing. A DJ started spinning this techno version of a song by the Fixx, and somebody else projected a movie onto one of the walls.

It felt like I was at a Vivid.com office rave, except raving is dead, Vivid is dead, and nobody was pumping live images onto the Web via T3. We were most emphatically in the leaner, meaner 21st century, where all the groovy online companies are dot-nets and dot-orgs. And the parties -- like this one, the Tribe.net open house -- feel serious and sedate compared with the dot-com orgies of yore.

As I toured the festive office space, a gradually warming beer in one hand, I felt like a geek Scrooge. I didn't want to henna myself, I thought the guy juggling shiny glass balls was kind of annoying, and I was at my most enthusiastic while talking to the incomparable D.S. Black about his (highly analog) book collection and squeezing Jukie Sunshine's nondigitally altered ass. But there was more to this feeling of Scrooge-hood than my usual mixture of shyness and hostility. Tribe.net's party was like a gathering of the ghosts of multimedia past, present, and future.

At the party's zany heart were the ghosts of multimedia past: first-generation multimedia guys with wide smiles that said they'd made it big at Bally-Midway or Apple or Lotus back in the days when it took real guts to be a geek. There were no shiny-latex-clad hackers swooshing across movie screens in the early 1980s -- if you were a computer nerd, chances were that you'd be beaten up and called a faggot more than once. A founder of Macromedia took me downstairs and shared a fragrant bag of herbs he called "Romulan mind meld," for good reason. In my intoxicated state, I managed to make a joke in which I confused Romulans with Cardassians, but no one even noticed.

I kept thinking about how my smoking buddies had been part of the gang who created the sprawling techno-entrepreneurial complex that gave birth to things like graphical user interfaces and Flash animation and the whole sparkly, zippy edifice of the goddamn World Wide Web. "My company was the first multimedia business South of Market," Marc Cantor told me with a grin. Guys like him built the media world I take for granted today. And they still know how to party.

The ghosts of multimedia present were everywhere in attendance. Scott Beale, owner of indie ISP Laughing Squid, was wondering aloud if he should have worn a different T-shirt. Matt Gonzalez was schmoozing with Web designers near the beer kegs. Jason Shankel, a developer at Maxis since the days of Sim City, gave me a quick plot synopsis of recently departed S.F. TV show Farscape that ended with the magic words, "It's like a combination of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Blake's 7." OK, I'm buying the fucking DVDs. Right now.

More mysterious and affecting were the ghosts of multimedia future. They began flickering into existence as I realized that despite the dot-com crash, despite people's seeming disaffection with all things Internet-related, the multimedia industry lives on. As the hundreds of people streaming in and out of the Tribe.net party reminded me, there is now such a thing as a steady Internet job. Think about it: there are people who work at flashy shops like Yahoo and Google and Pixar, but there are also thousands of PHP slingers and XML freaks who work for libraries and factories and museums and financial institutions. They are the culture industry of the future.

As I mused on this, a sweet-faced young man next to me began explaining what got him interested in science fiction and technology. "My mother was abducted by aliens, which gave me an interesting perspective," he said.

The Internet economy didn't die. It just got smaller. And stranger.

Annalee Newitz (flashpage@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who remembers her first GUI like it was yesterday. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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