Michael Stutz began exploring the literary/underground/DIY culture of the Internet as a writer for Wired and Rolling Stone so long ago that, way back when I first showed up on the lit/tech scene (which was a long time ago), he was already there to show me around. After a long self-imposed separation from the online world, he has now returned with a three-volume novel chronicling the entire life story of a connection-hungry connoisseur of online culture. Meet Michael Stutz.
Levi: Your novel Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age is a coming-of-age tale, hearkening back to other classics of the genre from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones to J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. But your hero’s world is a new one for fiction: the emerging society of online culture, from the early Unix dial-up BBS’s of the 1980s to the dot-com mania of the 90s to the more scattered social networking scene of today. What kind of reaction are you getting from readers to the idea that a life lived largely online is one worthy of heroic fiction?
Michael: The novelist Tony D’Souza just called the book’s hero, Ray Valentine, “the Everyman of the wired age,” so it seems to be natural — and remember McLuhan: “technology forces us to live mythically.” Yet, you know, heroic fiction of the kind we’re talking about is almost nonexistent in contemporary literary fiction. Arther S. Trace, Jr., an outsider intellectual, wrote a powerful, prescient book in the early 70s called The Future of Literature. This is about the only book of literary theory to map out and show the decline of heroic fiction. It was a long process, but Trace shows how it really tanks in the day of postmodernism. And you know what? I’ve always been repelled by postmodernism — in everything, from literature to architecture. I don’t identify with it or fit in with it at all. For decades we’ve had the postmodern “anti-hero” in fiction, and everything has to be ironic and heartless, and that just doesn’t connect with me. I’m Beat and before. Bring me back to that and let’s go off in a whole new direction and forget all this other stuff. I want to do something totally different. So if the classical hero is the way, and the new world of the net is my ineluctable material, the combination is pretty much the way it had to be.
As for the reaction to this, keep in mind it’s still early in the book’s release, so only advance readers like yourself have even seen the whole thing, and that only in uncorrected proofs — the book’s kind of long so it’s been divided into three volumes with a staggered release.
But for readers of volume one, I know a few of them who are the real old-school, high-literary types for whom the online world is completely alien, I mean no email no nothin’, and they’ve connected with Ray Valentine more than even I ever expected them to — one octogenarian reader told me how the young Raymond’s game of “making formulas” illuminated forgotten memories of doing similar things down in the basement, with his childhood buddies, back in the Great Depression; another lady even signed a letter to me as coming from her “inner Ray”! So I’m jazzed about that, because that was exactly the plan: I wanted it to be readable in some far future when the net’s forgotten and nobody has firsthand experience with computer screens and all the hard drives are over. And these readers are my first indication that — yes! — it’s entirely possible.
On the other hand, of course all the people who knew those gone worlds of 80s home computers and the 90s net are excited about the huge nostalgic aspect of that. Here we are now, alt.society.generation-x, entertain us!
Levi: Though online culture makes a big showing in your novel, I think you also do a good job of bringing real-world scenes to life. I especially enjoyed the early chapters, when your main character Ray Valentine is in school groping for a social identity in real life as well as on the BBS’s. I smiled at the way Ray and his friends were bowled over by the movie War Games, because it gives them their first glimpse of “hacker culture”. Many mature “hackers” wouldn’t have the courage to admit that a popular Matthew Broderick movie was a formative influence, but indeed this movie probably did inspire many future techies. Did this movie also mean a lot to you in real life?
Michael: [laughs] It did! Back then all the “real” hackers made fun of it, of course, yet all through the 80s it sort of hung there as the film about hackers, and it probably inspired thousands of kids who later went on to contribute to our computer world. There’s the whole question of what the word itself means, and in a way War Games was guilty of perpetrating the “bad” meaning of the word — the act of breaking into someone else’s computer system was later given the name “cracker” in order to keep it separate from what a “hacker” really is. All anyone needs to know about the 60s roots of hacker culture and Unix and the net is in a fantastic book by Steven Levy called Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. A hacker is one whose self-mastery of a system is demonstrated by having stretched the capabilities of that system. That’s my definition right there — and in a sense all great artists are genuine hackers.
But the film that meant even more to me as a kid was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There, Matthew Broderick’s just as much a hacker as he was in War Games — and actually, I think he’s even more so; I think you can make the case that Ferris Bueller is one long meditation on applying the old hacker concept of “social engineering” to high school itself. So it’s really a hacker movie in a very deep way.
I haven’t watched either film as an adult, however, and I think it’s better that way.
Levi: You are very coy with contemporary literary references in this novel. Your hero is named Ray Valentine, a Kerouackian name if I ever heard one, and, amazingly, you encounter a famous Beat Generation poet named Carlo Marx, which is the name Jack Kerouac gave to the character based on Allen Ginsberg in On The Road! I never expected to meet Carlo Marx in another novel — it’s a nice surprise to see him here. Speaking of coy, your book clearly takes place in the United States of America, and yet you have invented your own city and state. What’s up with that?
Michael: [laughs] Levi, this is hilarious — I do feel like I live in a world where the Beats are alive and the past is still breathing, so it’s nice to hear you refer to a story taking place in the late 1940s, written and published in the 1950s, as “contemporary”!
I made a city and peopled it with characters, and then I knew I’d have to find a place to put this city, so the state became necessary. Now what? Well, it turns out that America’s big enough to hold it if you fold it in right. You just lift up on the land along the base of some mountain range and tuck it in, smooth it out all the way to the rivers, pat it down and pay attention to the weather. It seems to have taken, and now I’ve become interested in the migrations of its peoples, the history of its land, the founding of the many villages and towns—there’s an enormous mine of new material here that I’m currently wrestling with.
And I knew that if anyone would pick up immediately on the Carlo Marx reference, it’d be you. I’m hoping it’s a nice surprise for certain readers. But you’ll see in this book that they aren’t actually characters at all — I’m not about to use someone else’s character in a book like, say, the way Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney did with each other. These are rather off-stage references. Ray becomes obsessed with the Beats and their work and, since he’s after all a character living inside a world of fiction himself, I knew that instead of giving their names I had to reference the characters — so it’s a book where the hero discovers his “real” mythic heroes, who themselves are characters in these other old books.
The Beat Generation did play an elemental role in my own journey, so sure, there’s also a connection there. Back in the day I went around with Allen Ginsberg’s phone number in my wallet. He encouraged me when I was just beginning, he was a real link to that incredible past, and through him I got to connect with everyone who was left — Burroughs, Corso, Snyder, Kesey, Hunter Thompson, everybody. It seems like a dream now, because it’s all so far gone, but that’ll be my own legend of the Beats someday, a whole other story.
I suppose Ray’s connection with On the Road is that these characters are both dark-haired, dark-eyed guys from ethnic Italian families who are wowed and wanna take it all in. But I have a real-life observation about where Sal Paradise might’ve come from that I don’t think has been said anywhere, like it’s some deep Lowell secret, and when I think about that I can’t even believe it — as if I should just hold it tight and not tell — but I want to, and I think you’d appreciate, so here goes.
If you’re in downtown Lowell right on Central what you do is walk your way over to Bridge Street, go north on its long aisle, so that staring down at your back is the high white altar of the old Lowell Sun newspaper. Keep marching along on the sidewalk past a constable’s office and off ahead’s where the tangled green erector set of a bridge steps over the Merrimack River, and looking over your right shoulder now you’ll see that where you stand is just a good baseball’s pitch away from the big marble monuments of the Kerouac Commemorative. Now right there, where the land slopes down to a slight pit of a valley, a wide swath dimpled down, tilt to your left — you’ll see it just sitting there exhausted, behind some decommissioned tracks where trains once thundered with clear steel echoes on the back wall of the town as they shot out to the millyards, unbelievably, a tiny black diner, forlorn, forgotten — and in bright brick-orange lettering is the name: the Paradise Diner.
Paradise! In the secret Beat heart of Lowell! Sitting openly right before the long drawn brick curtain of the Boott Mills of Doctor Sax legend! Just stand there and make the sound of enlightenment, AH! I mean, it’s straight from the past, pitch-perfect … and shut down last time I saw it, piled before it were bent cartons and broken glass, it’s probably mouseclogged — who knows what’s happened. I’m afraid to even Google it. But the Paradise Diner? In Lowell? How come nobody’s ever talked about that? Or have they? I hope it’s still around even if empty abandoned because it stands as a complete encompassment of the enfabled past, and I hope it remains this great American landmark forever.
In my mind Jack’s Paradise is also connected to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s coming-of-age novel, This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald originally named his hero Michael Fane, you know, the exact name of the hero in another great heroic coming-of-age novel, Compton Mackenzie’s unfortunately-forgotten two-volume Sinister street. Fitzgerald ended up renaming his hero Amory Blaine, which of course still rhymes perfectly with Fane, and yes he did love him — like, that’s amoré!
Levi: After Ray Valentine grows up and leaves college, he is hired as a writer at a magazine called Yellow Submarine, which appears to me to be a fascinating amalgam of Wired and Rolling Stone. Actually, it resembles Rolling Stone most of all, but I know you wrote for Wired magazine. Your author bio mentions that you coined the phrase “Net Generation”. Was this while you were at Wired? Did you wish you were writing for Rolling Stone?
Michael: I actually did write for Rolling Stone first. Right out of school I threw myself entirely into the indie rock scene, and was experimenting with all these connections between writing and music — you know, New Journalism-esque rock criticism, filing gonzo show reviews with all the rock magazines out there, writing songs like a mad balladeer and recording improvisational noise rock as a background for my spoken-word “instant writing.” So it was a thrill to break into Rolling Stone, because they were so big and well-paying, but like any of this I knew it wasn’t what I had to be doing.
It also felt to me then that it was too late for rock. It wouldn’t save us, if anything it’d kill us, and it was over. It was like by the time we were past the thick middle of the 90s, it just felt like the whole scene had fallen apart. That was right around the time when the Web was really taking off — suddenly, “online journalism” had become a new reality in the world and I jumped into it. That’s when the “Net Generation” thing came — it was during my tenure at Wired News. I saw that this went right to the core of it. Everyone who was doing anything was online, the net was this place where all the connections were being made, there were online communities everywhere, for everything — remember the BEAT-L? — and it was like with a few clicks and searchings you could reach out and connect and find people from everywhere who were also reaching out and doing, searching, dreaming. It was a whole new way of living and the most exciting thing in the world, like there was this sense that we were all crashing together, quickly, and also radically changing the world for the better and nothing would stop us at all.
And culturally, I think the one thing we did have was the music, you know, indie rock, the hundred subgenres of the so-called “alternative” — we didn’t have any big literary movement, we can’t name any major painters or sculptors or really any kind of major artists or art movements in our time at all, but we had Nirvana and ten thousand other bands. And by the time the 90s were winding down even all of that was passing away — but the net was ubiquitous, it was huge, and we were all building it. Looking back you can divide this whole era by that dot-com boom: before it, the online world was still a hidden underground; afterward, it was a new civilization and everyone was about to be part of it whether they’d want to or not. The net is the central concern of our time, affecting all fields and patterns. So here we are now …
Levi: Because you are one of the few people who has been immersed in Unix culture as many decades as I have (I also began using it in the mid 1980s) would you mind settling an argument I have with a friend? He tells me that the term “open source” was not invented or widely used until the Open Source Foundation “invented it” in the late 1990s. I swore to him that we were talking about “open source” way back in the 1980s and early 1990s. What do you remember about this? And while we’re on the subject, where do you think open source culture is today, and where is it going next? Is your novel intended to convey any moral message about this question to your fellow hackers?
Michael: I’d love to settle that argument for you, but I’m afraid that what I’m going to say might only make it more complicated! [laughs]
The big OSI announcement concerning the term “open source” happened in April, 1998; I remember because I filed a story on it and if I check the archives I can probably find the exact date. It was in fact a term invented then by Eric S. Raymond, and his idea was to pull a social-engineering hack so that “free software” would be palatable to corporations. There were a bunch of hackers involved with OSI including Bruce Perens and Russ Nelson, I think — he had a mailing list or something I was on. But then suddenly owing to hacker politics the whole thing about which term to use turned into this big either-or proposition, and it began this enormous, fiery war between supporters of the term “free software” versus those who supported “open source.” It was insane.
So although nobody referred to free software as “open source” before the spring of ’98, you’re also right that the term “open source” was in use back in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s for a completely unrelated thing — it describes a then-new methodology for collecting intelligence information. Instead of only relying on private intelligence sources, the idea is to collect data from sources that are published openly — stories in magazines, newspapers, radio programs, public records. There was software to facilitate this, too, so you might be remembering articles about that kind of “open source.”
Open culture has come a long way in changing the world — from a laughed-at idea to something that you run into everywhere, all the time. Open or free anything is a subset of our computer revolution, and I think the next major field to be completely transformed is education — “free culture” is going to power the deschooling movement.
I remember when I began advocating “free culture,” the reaction was nearly universal. Everyone thought it was crazy — including the seers of the free software world. Richard Stallman did allow me to promote it on the GNU Project’s site, but even he didn’t completely agree with what I was saying — almost nobody thought it was practicable or even desirable. It was like that for years. I remember once a popular columnist at a major newspaper wrote a very angry article, you know stating that he thought I was stupid, and crazy, and also a Communist, and all this other stuff, just because of my idea that we needed to publish works other than software as open source. He didn’t bother to contact me at all — he just used his whole column to go off on this rabid attack: “Is there anyone on the Internet as brain dead and stupid as this Stutz guy, who thinks that real adults would ever publish a creative work with an open source style license?” I wonder if anyone has ever shown him the Creative Commons yet. Or Wikipedia.
Of course my own attitude towards all of this has changed. I haven’t written about copyleft in over a decade, and I wasn’t involved with Creative Commons at all. Not that I oppose it, but I did what had to be done and I’m not trying to be the “free culture” guy now or a cheerleader or spokesman for anything. Just as Ray finds out in the book, the world might be a dream, but we still have the power to create its reality — and that’s what makes history.
I’m here to write, so all I’m going to do from here on out is get out all the books that I have to and just finally be done with it, goodbye and goodnight.