Tagcyberculture history

Cyberculture History: Electronic Music Pioneer/Soviet Spy Leon Theremin

leon theremin

Theremin saw little of the $100,000 he was paid, Glinsky says, which most likely went straight into Soviet coffers. But he stayed in the US for a while working on other projects, and engaging in industrial espionage.

“His very reason for being sent over was his espionage mission,” says Glinsky. Demonstrating the theremin instrument was just a distraction, a Trojan Horse, as it were.

“He had special access to firms like RCA, GE, Westinghouse, aviation companies and so on, and shared his latest technical know how with representatives from these companies to get them to open up to him about their latest discoveries. […]

Later that year he returned suddenly to the Soviet Union, leaving his wife behind. Some people suggested he’d been kidnapped by Soviet officials, but Glinsky says a combination of debt and homesickness led to Theremin returning voluntarily.

He returned to a Soviet Union in the grip of Stalin’s purges. He was arrested and falsely accused of being a counter-revolutionary, for which he received an eight year sentence in 1939.

BBC: Leon Theremin: The man and the music machine

RIP Owsley “Bear” Stanley, Original Sound Engineer for the Grateful Dead and Big Time LSD Manufacturer

The Bear

Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the original sound engineer for the Greatful Dead who was also credited with kickstarting the 60s by manufacturing massive amounts of LSD, died in a car accident in Australia last weekend.

National Post’s Obituary of Stanley

The Dead get a bad rap these days. Many have forgotten the band’s contributions outside of hippie music. Jerry Garcia, a lifelong science fiction fan, was actually a technology advocate with an interest fringe science ideas like cryogenics. Lyricist John Perry Barlow went on to co-found the EFF. The Dead forum was a core part of the important BBS The WELL, an early force bringing together counter-culture and high technology. In the history of cyberculture, the Dead is up there with Stewart Brand and Timothy Leary in terms of importance.

A couple years ago Uriah Zebadiah hipped me to the Dead’s contributions to audio technology via Stanley. In addition to being an LSD manufacturer, Stanley wanted to experiment with audio technology – and the Grateful Dead were his lab. He funded the band just so he could experiment with their equipment.

From San Francisco Chronicle’s profile of Stanley from 2007 (via Boing Boing):

Less well known are Bear’s contributions to rock concert sound. As the original sound mixer for the Grateful Dead, he was responsible for fundamental advances in audio technology, things as basic now as monitor speakers that allow vocalists to hear themselves onstage. […]

“We’d never thought about high-quality PAs,” says the Dead’s Weir. “There was no such thing until Bear started making one.”

The Chronicle profile includes a rare interview with Stanley about his all-meat diet and his belief in a coming Ice Age.

For more history of LSD, check out the Skilluminati article Ronald Hadley Stark: The Man Behind the LSD Curtain.

Cyberculture History: A Virtual Reality Concept from the 15th Century

 Giovanni Fontana's Castle of Shadows

In 1420 Venetian engineer Giovanni Fontana created a proposal for the Castle of Shadows. From BLDG Blog:

Philippe Codognet describes the 15th-century machine as “a room with walls made of folded translucent parchments lighted from behind, creating therefore an environment of moving images. Fontana also designed some kind of magic lantern to project on walls life-size images of devils or beasts.” Codognet goes on to suggest that the device is an early ancestor of today’s CAVE systems, or virtual reality rooms—an immersive, candlelit cinema of moving screens and flickering images.

Full sized image at BLDG Blog

(Thanks Bill!)

What would you call a genre speculative fiction based around this period? Venetianpunk?

Cyberculture History: Did Gary Numan Predict Facebook?

Gary Numan Replicas cover

With Numan’s first album, Tubeway Army (‘78), it was already clear that Numan’s songwriting was concerned with the relationship between man and machine and what we would now call the post-human condition. It includes lyrics like “Me I’ve just died / but some machine keeps on humming / I’m just an extra piece of dead meat to keep running,” from the track “Life Machine.” Anyone listening to a lot of Gary Numan will notice that the word “me” figures heavily in his lyrics. The song “My Love is a Liquid” from the same album features the lines “can’t meet you face-to-face / There are no corners to hide in my room / No doors, no windows, no fire place.” In our times, this is a blatant comment on the way the internet mediates social relations.

Numan’s following album, Replicas (‘79), couldn’t be more drenched with prophetic visions of the internet and Facebook. The opening lines of “Me! I Disconnect from You” – in itself a charged title – are metaphors for botched Facebook relationships: “The alarm rang for days / you could tell from the conversations / I was waiting by the screen / I couldn’t recognize my photograph / Me, I disconnect from you” – the line about the screen doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of the late ’70s, unless Numan was specifically talking about an imagined form of communication. It practically goes without saying that “disconnecting” from someone entails ending a Facebook relationship or, even worse, de-friending someone. It doesn’t even require analysis to see why the following track, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” is rich with Facebook meaning. The track “You Are in My Vision” anticipates critiques of television by theorists like Marshall Mcluhan, Jean Baudrillard, and though not a theorist, naturally Cronenberg in Scanners and Videodrome, with its lines “Fade to screens of violence / Like a TV screen but silent / Where the victims are all paid by the hour.”

Thought Catalog: Did Gary Numan Predict Facebook?

Someone in the comments points out that some of this isn’t as enigmatic as it seems:

most of his lyrical elements, especially in Replicas, were references to a dystopian science fiction novel he was writing but never finished. the ‘friends’ he talks are identical robots that could be hired and used for any purpose, and “the life machine” is about a comotose individual being sustained by a machine. it’s all quite directly inspired by numan’s favorite writers, and as such one could more perhaps more aptly say that william s. burroughs or phillip k. dick “predicted the future”. still interesting though. numan’s contributions to modern music and popular culture are woefully under-appreciated.

To be clear, Numan has distanced himself from his early sci-fi lyrics. He told Electronic Musician:

Science Fiction has no influence on the music, especially lyrically, and especially now. To be honest I only ever wrote a handful of songs that were remotely connected to Science Fiction and they were all nearly 20 years ago. The ‘Replicas’ album, or bits of it, one or two things on ‘The Pleasure Principle’ and one or two things on ‘Telekon’. I would say about 15 songs, maybe 20, out of a total of well over 300 to date have anything to do with Sci Fi. I think because I became successful with electronic music, a newish thing 20 years ago, and a song called ‘Are Friends Electric’ (it was that song that launched me in the UK anyway) I was given a Sci Fi label that stuck long after I’d moved on to other things.

For the curious, via Song Meanings, here’s a bit from William S. Burroughs’s story “Astronaut’s Return” that is clearly referenced in “Down in the Park”:

Ugly snarl behind the white lies and excuses. […]
DEATH DEATH DEATH

So many you can’t remember
The boy who used to whistle?
Car accident or was it the war?
Which war?

The boy’s room is quite empty now. Do you begin to see there is no face there in the tarnished mirror?

Cyberculture History: First BBS Launched 33 Years Ago Today

Ward Christensen brought his Computerized Bulletin Board System online 33 years ago today. From Wikipedia:

In January 1978, Chicago was hit by the Great Blizzard of 1978, which dumped record amounts of snow throughout the midwest. Among those caught in it were Christensen and Randy Suess, who were members of CACHE, the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists’ Exchange. They had met at that computer club in the mid 1970s and become friends.

Christensen had created a file transfer protocol for sending binary computer files through modem connections, which was called, simply, MODEM. Later improvements to the program motivated a name change into the now familiar XMODEM. The success of this project encouraged further experiments. Christensen and Suess became enamored of the idea of creating a computerized answering machine and message center, which would allow members to call in with their then-new modems and leave announcements for upcoming meetings.

However, they needed some quiet time to set aside for such a project, and the blizzard gave them that time. Christensen worked on the software and Suess cobbled together an S-100 computer to put the program on. They had a working version within two weeks, but claimed soon afterwards that it had taken four so that it wouldn’t seem like a “rushed” project. Time and tradition have settled that date to be February 16, 1978. Christensen and Suess described their innovation in an article entitled “Hobbyist Computerized Bulletin Board” in the November 1978 issue of Byte Magazine.

Wikipedia: CBBS

(Thanks Trevor!)

More info:

Christensen and Suess’s telling of the the history of CBBS.

CBBS memoris on the BBS: The Documentary site.

BBS: The Documentary A documentary on the history of the BBS.

Proto-webs: Paul Otlet’s Universal Book

Box and Arrows article on Paul Otlet:

In 1934, years before Vannevar Bush dreamed of the memex, decades before Ted Nelson coined the term ?hypertext,? Paul Otlet envisioned a new kind of scholar’s workstation: a moving desk shaped like a wheel, powered by a network of hinged spokes beneath a series of moving surfaces. The machine would let users search, read and write their way through a vast mechanical database stored on millions of 3×5 index cards.

via Bill Seitz

The Big Website of Everything

If you’ve never been there, Everything2 is definitely worth a look.

Update: Everything2 is an encyclopedia-esque repository of collective knowledge that predates Wikipedia. But you can read about it on Wikipedia.

Back online at last

We’re back up and now running with Grey Matter. It’s a nifty little program that should speed up the process of things around here. Look for a new site design to follow.

Update: Since this post was published, we’ve migrated to Movable Type and then to WordPress. I remember Grey Matter, created by Noah Grey fondly. It inspired WordPress.

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