THE ONLINE DEATH OF A CYBERNETIC FUTURIST
Edited and with an Introduction by KIM HASTREITER
"[Kim Hastreiter is] the coolest person in New York." —The New York Times
"@heaven recalls a time when the net was about people, ideas, compassion, and everything that made us human. It is both an accurate portrait of the online world as it once was, and a profound call to retrieve this desire for a genuinely connected future." —Douglas RushkoffTweet
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1994, northern California. The Internet is just emerging from its origins in the military and university research labs. Groups of idealistic technologists, recognizing its potential as a tool for liberation and solidarity, are working feverishly to build the network.
In the early chat rooms of one such gathering, soon-to-become-famous as The WELL, a Stanford futurist named Tom Mandel creates a new conference. In a topic headed “Local Bug Report” he asks for advice from fellow online participants about how he might shake off a persistent hacking cough. A few weeks into the conversation it emerges that Mandel’s illness is something serious. Within six months he is dead.
This astonishing and deeply moving book is an edited version of the exchanges that took place on The WELL in the months leading up to the death of Mandel. It traces the way an innocuous health topic morphed into a dramatic chronicle of terminal illness and the complicated and emotional issues that surrounded it. A cast of articulate and savvy participants offer their advice and love to Mandel, supporting both him and each other as the trauma unfolds. At the center of their back-and-forth is Mandel himself, in a voice that is irascible, intelligent, never sentimental, and, above all, determined to stay in the conversation to the end.
With an introduction by Paper editor Kim Hastreiter, who followed the exchanges on The WELL as they happened and was so moved that she printed and filed away a copy, @heaven opens a window onto the way the Internet functioned in its earliest days. In contrast to the trolling and take-downs of today’s online discourse, this electronic chronicle of a death foretold reminds us of the values of kinship and community that the Internet’s early pioneers tried to instill in a system that went on to take over the world.
Publication May 14, 2015 • 250 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-939293-75-6 • E-book 978-1-939293-76-3
Kim Hastreiter is co-editor of the independent New York fashion magazine, Paper. Via her Macintosh SE 30 (which, as a keepsake, still occupies a corner of her office desk) she was a “lurker” on The WELL throughout the early 1990s. She was recently profiled in the New York Times.
From Kim Hastreiter’s introduction to @heaven
In the early 1990s I began hearing buzz about something called The WELL, an experimental bulletin-board-slash-“virtual community” run out of northern California that attracted many of the early radical Internet pioneers as participants. I registered, logged on and immediately became hooked. The WELL offered its small and vibrant online community many diverse forums that evoked strong opinions, maverick ideas and intense conversations on quite a variety of alternative, cultural, intellectual, political and even everyday subjects. As a member, you could scan the categories — from books to sustainability to technology — enter any of the ongoing topics that piqued your interest and join into these conversations or just “lurk” if you didn’t feel like speaking up. As a newbie, I was timid among all these super-brainy geeks so I began lurking big-time, avidly following many topics that interested me and soaking it up like a sponge.
After about a year into my WELL adventure, a topic caught my eye in the Health conference called “Local Bug Report”. It was September 1994 and flu season was just beginning. I felt feverish and was looking for advice. This topic had been started by WELL veteran Tom Mandel (whose ever-changing user id was for this “Doctor Lecter”) because he couldn’t seem to shake his cold. Turns out Mandel, dispenser of sore throat and phlegm advice, was actually a futurist working at the Stanford Research Institute where he was a forecaster. He was also a consultant at Time Online (which in those days was found on AOL). No slouch.
I got a kick out of lurking in Mandel’s Local Bug Report forum, pouring over all the snarky complaints and suggested cures from a gaggle of uber smart tech pioneers from all over the world. Mandel, (who by October was now logging in as “Ed Wood”) conscientiously kept the conversation on topic but still wasn’t feeling any better despite all the advice from fellow topic-mates, including a nurturing woman tagged as “Ms Demeanor” (aka Nana) and a (real) doctor called “Flash Gordon” who, early on, recommended everything from decongestants to sinus sprays.
But on October 18th, a huge “topic drift” hit the conference that forced Mandel to change the nature of his “Local Bug Report”. It turns out that after a month of feeling like shit with no improvement, he finally went to a specialist and two spots were discovered on his lungs. Word of his trouble spread fast on the WELL and throngs of Mandels’ supporters joined the conversation and trying to keep his sense of humor — Mandel changed his ID to “The Moulding Corpse of the Mandel Incident.” But it went from bad to worse. By mid-November, he had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and revealed the news to his shocked Flu Bug buddies.
And so this once innocent little health topic morphed before our eyes into a dramatic ongoing chronicle of a man’s fatal illness and the complicated and emotional issues surrounding it — from wrestling with his short term survival options to coping with the end of his life six months later. And those of us who both lurked and exchanged support and love for Tom during this intense time morphed into a powerful little posse of accidental witnesses. Witnesses not only to the life and death drama, but witnesses to the power of the Internet.
I continued to lurk constantly in these intense and emotional conversations with hundreds of participants Id never met from all over the world every day. (I never did feel confident enough to post), getting to know intimately and care deeply for this ill stranger and his friends. I monitored Mandel’s mood, condition and daily progress. His login id eventually became “I Hate Carrot Juice” and his philosophical posts and conversations with his growing group of virtual friends from around the world entered a whole new unexpected dimension. I saw someone looking death in the eye surrounded by a powerful community of people he’d never met face to face supporting him in his heavy decisions, inspiring him and loving him.
By March, Mandel’s health was getting worse but he logged in and shared like a trooper every day until April when nearing the end, he became too weak to post. After actually marrying Flu Bug’s “Ms. Demeanor” on April first in the hospital, Tom Mandel passed away a few days later. “Flash Gordon” announced Mandel’s death in the Local Bug Report conference on the day he died and froze the conference forever. Sensing its historical impact, I immediately copied and pasted the entire 6-month transcript from beginning to end onto my hard drive before it was taken off line. I had been so moved by what I had experienced with people I had never even met, yet had gotten to know so well, that this has stuck with me for all these years. Looking back I realize now that I had watched history happen in the ether through a community of pioneers who were planting the seeds for what social networking would become. For 20 years I have backed up this transcript on every computer I have ever owned, secretly dreaming it would someday make a sweet little book that told the story in a small way about something that was bigger than any of us could ever imagine.