My friend Robert and I were big fans of Omni Magazine, which in the 80s was the magazine for the young adults who would go on to fall in love with cyberpunk. We would have conversations about the articles and stories that started from the assumption both of us had read them (and both of us always had). It would have never occurred to either of us that someone we knew might not read it. (note: You can find the new version of it here.)
One discussion that sticks out in my mind centered around an article that had posited the question: What will etiquette look like in the 21st century? The article invited reader participation.
Omni’s letters column was interesting and hilarious and the following month did not disappoint. I will forever remember sitting in Robert’s old Chevelle in an empty lot in the hills above Laguna Beach, getting high and reading the letters to each other. One in particular caught our funnybone: It is bad manners to abruptly awaken someone by turning the gravity back on.
We laughed so hard in that ridiculous way you do when you’re high. Robert proceeded to mime peacefully floating in zero-g, only to be thrown to the floor by sudden gravity. What made it even funnier: When he flopped back against his car door, he’d forgotten he didn’t shut it tight and he tumbled out of the car and into the dirt, then laughed so hard he couldn’t get up for ten minutes. These are the kinds of stories that will never be as funny to anyone listening to them as they will always be to you remembering them, because you had to be there.
We believed in future tech, Robert and I. That is, provided we survived as a species into the 21st century because in the early 80s life felt uncertain. It was still the Cold War era and relations were tenser than ever. The doomsday clock stood at 3 minutes til. World War II was no further back in history than the 80s are to us today. But if we could survive, we believed we’d see wonders.
Sadly, Robert didn’t make it to the 21st century: a motorcycle accident took him from us on a summer weekend in July, 1999.
Robert is still a part of my life in a lot of ways, in my memories. I think a lot about the things he and I dreamed we’d live to see. I find myself doing things for him, in a way. We’d started the first few books of the Dark Tower series together; it was a few years before I could pick it back up without crying, but I did and I finished it for both of us. With each thing that we could only imagine in 1984 becoming commonplace, he will come to mind. I’ll look at things like the smartwatch that I can make phone calls with or the voice-controlled GPS in my car and think: What do you think of that, my old friend. Isn’t that something? We had such a sense of wonder about emerging everyday technology.
Neither of us could have ever predicted how the technology we thought would save us would instead turn us into such soulless beings. That we’d trade genuine human connection for whatever gets us clicks and likes. Engagement, man, it’s all about engagement.
We are engaging with precisely nothing. We are disengaged to the point that we think nothing of destroying the lives of people we disagree with, somehow telling ourselves this is righteous. We’ve disengaged from humanity; our own and others. We traded our souls for social engagement and ended up with neither.
And I look around me and think: I’m so sorry, my old friend. What a cockup we’ve made out of all the promise we had.