an intimate glimpse of the passion driving the technomadic quest for freedom.
by Steven K. Roberts
Palo Alto, California
December 7, 1988
Maybe it’s the Pink Floyd. Wordless memories overtake the present, obscuring it, confusing it, rendering the computer puzzling even while practiced fingers perform their familiar little dance. Perhaps madness lurks herein: time is inside-out; the swirling vapors are real. Guitars like scalpels part the calloused years, revealing visions of terrible glorious color overlaid upon freight trains rumbling gritty in the night, adventures and obsessions shot through with scalding orgasms and icy knife thrusts of panic potent enough to raise gasps and gooseflesh…
Yep, it’s one of those days. There is some uncertainty about whether my eyes are open or closed, for the imagician of the intellect runs a shell game with reality while the fingers patter on…
I recall suddenly a day up Boulder Canyon, long ago, the mountains inside my head barely differing from those outside, rock hard and hot against my cheek, legs vibrating with the tension of death’s leering proximity, and that crazy moment when the internal model of the world gets lost in a dozen hotly competing alternatives — each convincing, each alluring, each equally fatal if mistaken for the real thing. I grinned into the stone and inched impossibly upward, curiously disconnected, vision overloaded, abruptly free…
Ah yes, freedom. Maybe that’s what’s behind all this. The sudden exhilaration of walking empty-handed away from Somebody Else’s Plan and sticking out a thumb, leaning against the girder of a drawbridge for thrumming three A.M. liftoff, dynamiting a love nest with walls where once were windows, releasing the brakes what-the-hell and flying with a shout down a mountain road, releasing reality and flying with a scream into the infinity of psychosensory unknowns… it all tastes of freedom.
Try, please try to capture this. Reach into your past, before marriages and businesses, and examine the gaps between major commitments. Inside those gaps are subtle tears in the fabric — glimpses of wild seductive alternatives to everything you knew at the time. They’re like tantalizing clandestine peeks through slightly parted curtains: alternative realities only inches away… close enough to fondle.
Hey, maybe you not only peeked, but passed through. Did you get a wild hair and hitchhike off somewhere, not caring where, just for the sweet sense of movement and adventure? Did you leave your self behind one night, carried on a seductive wave of music and light to a nameless place that left its mark across the decades? Did you drop acid, shave off all your body hair, and have a ménage à trois with hot-blooded Turks in a bat-infested Mexican pit cave?
Or hell, maybe you passed through and stayed. Are you reading this via satellite in a sweat lodge of musty buffalo hides, idly scritching a mad tangle of gray beard while your eyes twinkle knowingly in the soft blue glow of an electroluminescent backlight? Is the notion of staying five years in one “place” (defined however you like) repugnant? Are you doing exactly what you want to do with your life, not only now but at 9:00 Monday morning and tonight in bed?
The most delicious freedom comes from living beyond the known — and not necessarily in the “alternative lifestyle” tradition. The real prisons are those of expectation: denying the possibilities of a life in order to be what somebody wants you to be. I’ve watched brilliance tarnish, fade, and finally disappear in the murk of a stupid marriage. I’ve seen those capable of pushing the big envelope waste a lifetime waiting for little ones with paychecks, rationalizing lost time with dreams of retirement and future ventures. I’ve seen others, constrained by circumstances or interests to a steady job, discard all leftover energy in a nightly haze of television, alcohol, pot, religion, and numbing routine.
I am not a proselytizer for nomadics — or anything at all, really, other than what’s already inside you. There are countless ways to explore that, and my own peculiar choices are obviously not for everybody. But damn it, do you have any idea how much brilliance and wit rots away undeveloped? We need to do away with the numbing influences of this mad age and start developing passion. What could you teach others if you applied your skills and insights to whatever you love most? Could you change the world if given the chance, even if only through a tiny increment in the exponential evolution of discovery?
Today’s assignment: do something that involves risk, learning, awe, passion, courage, invention, insight, or the sweet sparking of another’s awareness.
Interesting phenomenon, speaking of all that. Watching The Grey Fox last night, I found myself intrigued that society has always lionized a certain class of outlaws, renegades, and charismatic purveyors of misdeeds various (as long as they do it with panache and don’t venture too far to the Dark Side).
There’s something here that’s more than a literary device, and I think it’s related to the phenomenon that keeps the Computing Across America madness alive. People are fascinated with life on the edge — endlessly obsessed with freedom and adventure. The fact that much of the culture feels “stuck” creates a vast market for anyone who’s really out there doin’ it, as I have often been told. And so, if you’re a nomad, adventurer, wild-eyed inventor, or even a colorful bandit, then you have a direct line to the envious sympathies of an entire nation.
In my case, this translates into easy sponsorships, frequent invitations, and book sales. Scores of opportunities arise, far more than I can ever accept. The contrast is dramatic: as a faceless drone with a forgettable name trying to eke out a freelance living in Midwest suburbia, I hustled hard for consulting gigs and magazine assignments, grateful for every byline. I even did a few engineering jobs that were every bit as complex as the Winnebiko, but so what? My computer-packed NEMA 12 enclosures disappeared into factories, blinking their little lights alongside the creations of a thousand other forgotten behind-the-scenes specialists.
But then I trashed my lifestyle, sold the house, and hit the road without a security blanket — living hand-to-mouth as a high-tech nomad on a compu-bike. The change at first was subtle, but within months my file of newspaper clippings was too fat to carry and I was appearing on national TV, Time, USA Today, and so on. Why? I was still the same person, wasn’t I? Was it the bike?
No, it was the risk. The freedom. The public reminder that inside each of us is a bit of madness. I started getting letters from people I had unwittingly pushed over the edge, strangers thanking me for showing up in print at a critical moment in their lives. My <pangs> of longing for sexy strangers turned into a succession of short, intense relationships. And despite worries about day-to-day survival, I began sensing envy from those with stable incomes (even a few millionaires).
And soon it crystallized: The bike is an essential component, for it legitimizes my claim that this is a lifestyle of blended techno-passions that allow network interconnection with a global community. But the bike is only a part… the whole is something ancient, wonderful, and by no means my own invention. Freedom.
If all this makes your chest tighten with something akin to lust, makes your thoughts turn to wispy nostalgic images of wide open spaces, or fires you with the urge to live on the edge, then don’t just sit there, damn it… go for it!
The new bike is slowly growing, fueled by obsession and the intellectual nutrients of Silicon Valley. Soon I will tell you about it. Someday I might even ride it, following my own prescription for happiness. In the meantime, I feel like engineer, technician, project manager, PR hustler, and embattled CEO all at once — a schizoid quintet numbed by the scope of the task. The only thing that makes it bearable is the absurd fact that it’s completely optional and, I keep reminding myself, fun.
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