We begin to meet without knowing exactly why. We know we have common interests. We know that we feel understood in each other’s company, and that’s a good start. We know our enthusiasm won’t be misread, that the intensity of our curiosity is wordlessly accepted. We gather ourselves together, we work on each other’s projects and we keep an eye out for the others tuned to the same frequency.
A few dozen at first, then a few hundred, eventually thousands. Our interests expand as the tribe expands. Like energy attracts like, and soon hundreds of localized gatherings bloom around us all over the world.
And even though life changes - school ends, responsibilities accrue - the signal is always there. Calling us back to the company of the people who understand us, who light up at the same things we do. We want to share what we’ve learned. We want to learn what others have to share. We want to teach and be taught and move the culture forward. We want to do our part to construct a future as free and open, as secure and as resilient as the tribe that’s building it.
That’s the signal. That’s why the years, the miles and any number of calamities don’t stop it.
This year’s visual inspiration started with video games. Specifically, Atari 2600 box art.
We picked the box art because it represents a gateway into another world, a signal beacon that called a generation into the digital space where the internet would one day bloom.
Two sets of images on the box. Vivid cartoons to tell you what the game meant to portray, and clumsy, fat-pixeled images that showed actual gameplay. ‘This is that’, the boxes said. ‘When you see this, imagine that’. For those with the imagination to see it clearly, the message becomes ‘translate this into that’. Once a certain type of kid learns a trick like that, there is no turning back.
A simple equation kicks open the door, and you realize even you can make pixels do things. Maybe better things, if you learn the cipher. Master the rules that govern this hidden world, and there is almost nothing you can’t do.
Not everyone who chased 8-bit ghosts or shot Space Invaders became a hacker. But many saw the door and were called to walk through it, because for some of us, the signal can’t be denied.
Similar things were happening in the world of music.Electronic instruments - samplers that could emulate real instruments, drum machines that could sound like a live drum kit - were suddenly available to musicians and hobbyists alike. The value proposition was that you could create music even if you didn’t have a drummer handy, or add strings to your composition without hiring a quartet.
For those with a particular bent of mind, however, this missed the point. Why would you waste these amazing machines re-creating sounds you already knew? For these kids, the real power of these electronic tools is the ability to sound like nothing at all that has ever come before. Like video games, these awkward boxes covered in switches and knobs, trailing wires in all directions, opened a door. On the other side? Hip-hop. Freestyle. Electro. Techno. The New World. And once you see that music can be anything you imagine, there is no way back. The signal has you.
Here are some sample tunes from the era when that digital anarchy jumped the air gap into the musical mainstream.
For a bunch more music that fits our theme, check out the Spotify Playlist we’re calling “DC29-The Signal”.
Movies and TV
Disney’s deeply weird, hypnotic attempt to bring 1982 audiences inside the computer is the most on-theme movie that could possibly exist. The programs are personified. Some of them take their names from real Unix commands. There are literal (and awesome) bugs running around that destroy sloppy programs. The protagonist is a human so obsessed with programming that he gets himself inside the machine to do physical battle with a runaway process that has become sentient and evil.
Max Headroom is the unstoppable signal personified. Created to be a lowly AI veejay, he hits a nerve and gets a UK TV movie to flesh out his backstory. That movie spawns a one-season UK series and a fourteen-episode, two season run on US TV. These TV shows, in turn, spawn books, songs, comics, video games and even a turn as spokes-head for Coca-Cola. That would probably have been proof enough that the 80s were looking for a snarky, slick-talking robot best friend. But Max Headroom wasn’t done with us. On the 22 of November, 1987 Max jumped the air gap.
That night WGN TV in Chicago had its airwaves hijacked twice by a pirate in full Max Headroom regalia. He spoke about Coca-Cola, cartoons and on-air personalities from WGN, and ended the show with a weird spanking segment. The perpetrators remain at large. Max Headroom is now free to roam in reality prime, and is occasionally spotted in movies and rap videos.
A lot of great science fiction from this time period deals with a particular anxiety - the nagging fear that the world you know is hiding a larger, stranger world you cannot yet perceive. Philip K. Dick’s VALIS is a masterpiece about the call of the unseen world on those who sense its presence. Ready Player One is a fun romp through the creative explosion that accompanied all the new shiny toys that the early 80s brought is. And if you haven’t read Neuromancer, don’t finish this guide - just read Neuromancer.
And more importantly, there are T-files. For years free textfiles were a primary signal vector. Anybody with an internet connection could grab the latest Phrack for all the latest hacker news, counterculture goodies and maybe catch the announcement of nmap. One could follow the Cult of the Dead Cow online for their patented blend of tech and gonzo. Soon enough, a subtle door opened. Those who had to know more figured out how to go through it. Many did, maybe even you. Or the person who inspired you. The signal wins out. The eternal call brings us together to work on a better world, and to spread its gospel - to bring in the others, until all of us are found.