Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing. -Joseph Heller
He moved from Brooklyn to the suburbs in West Orange, New Jersey. He assembled model rockets and launched them across the soccer fields. He graduated from hobby-kits to building his own, putting cockpits for mice into the nosecones, equipping them with heart-monitors and altimeters and – because he was bright, and a little nebbish, but big-hearted – multiple parachutes.
Faded, sepia Polaroids: watching Kennedy inaugurate the Apollo program, reading Heinlein’s Have Space Suit – Will Travel, at a wooden bench with a soldering iron, lugging the launch pad out into the grass, standing with his hand against his brow, staring up into the cloudless blue sky.
What had he seen? Rockets landing on Mars? Or raining down on Khe Sahn? Woodstock? Or Altamont? It’s hard to say. Fathers are notoriously opaque. But we did build model rockets together – sans lab mice, as suburban PETA moms would hardly have stood for it – and launched them in a park in South Jersey. When our mail order launch system failed we went to our neighboring town, to Edmund Scientific – an electronic warehouse and DIY mecca – and got the parts and forklift scales to start our own.
What my father had dreamed, what dreams he had buried, of these I cannot speak. But I had watched Reagan commission the space shuttle; I had read the same orange-jacketed copy of Heinlein. I had stood by my father’s side and stared up at the sky, still cloudless, still blue.
My father’s child, I loved tinkering. I got my Ham Radio license – N2VOD – and spent many nights in my basement, talking to strangers. There was a lot of chatter about something called ‘packet radio’, an underground version of the world-wide-web that utilized amateur radio instead of phone lines. I rode my bike to Edmund Scientific and got the parts to build an aerial and started saving for the equipment to hook up the family’s old IBM PS2 to my radio. A neighbor, an old Morse-code junkie, heard what I was up to and gave me a milk-crate full of vacuum tubes and resistor coils. It was that kind of time, that kind of town.
Then the usual introductions: handshakes with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, the beginning of a beautiful friendship for which I had high hopes. But spring came, and a young man’s mind turned to death. On April 19th, Timothy McVeigh used a fertilizer bomb to destroy the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Two days later, a woman named Leslie Nelson (formerly Glen Nelson, until his ’92 sex-change) machine-gunned two of our local cops – including my former elementary school D.A.R.E. officer – and a county investigator after they tried to serve her a warrant. Before the day was over ATF tanks rolled through the streets of our quiet suburban town. Later that week, a good friend of mine was busted by the FBI for hosting ripped copies of Microsoft Windows on his website, which up until that month had been a private Bulletin Board. In a panic, he smuggled his computer hard-drive to me before the FBI raided his house. On the drive: low-quality porn (lots), shareware (Spear of Destiny, Doom) and the Anarchist’s Cookbook. The Cookbook, originally a print manuscript published by William Powell to protest the Vietnam war, had spread across the early network of Bulletin Board Services (BBSs), collecting other articles and recipes – the majority by the pseudonymed Jolly Roger and Exodus. By the nineties it had become a strange, somewhat bi-polar, multi-media, multi-author text. [For a fuller history of Cookbook, check out this VICE article.]
About half of the Cookbook was dedicating to ‘phreaking’, the art of unauthorized manipulation (i.e. hacking) of large telephone networks using a combination of tones at certain frequencies. Though the internet had gone live a year prior, there were still a lot of dial-up BBSs; access to phone networks, thus, meant access to the ever-increasing number of things that were controlled by computer: from pizza-delivery to NORAD. The Cookbook contained enticing, but unsubstantiated, stories of hacking into power-grids and ‘the President’s Bomb Shelter’. It also contained blue-prints for increasingly sophisticated devices for getting around the roadblocks that Ma Bell and her associates had set up for Phreaks. All of the parts necessary to build these ‘Blue Boxes’ were available – the Cookbook pointed out – next door to me, in Barrington, New Jersey.
I was fascinated and delighted with the Cookbook until I got to the second half (largely authored by ‘Exodus’), comprised of recipes and designs for high-explosives, lethal-booby traps, nail-bombs, pipe-bombs, fertilizer bombs, even a fuel-air bomb (remember Outbreak?). All you needed was a steady hand, house-hold chemicals, and an electronic goods store. One of Cookbook’s contributors noted that Edmund Scientific was his hands down favorite.
I read the Cookbook twice. The only thing I saved was a recipe for LSD that turned out to be highly – although, thankfully, not dangerously – inaccurate. I deleted the text file and then scrubbed the drive and threw it out. That night I dreamt in pixilated hermaphroditic erotics. Then the dreams turned to nightmares. I dreamt of firing a rocket into my high-school. In the rubble I saw broken bodies, shattered bones. A severed head with my own face. Even my Id thought it was a bit much.
I wondered then, and I wonder now, if McVeigh and Nelson had dreams like mine when they read their copies of the Cookbook.
A heavy trip: the Fall of 2001 made the Spring of ’95 seem like a student prank. The death of irony (short lived, thankfully). The death of bomb jokes in airports (not short lived, alas). During the Clinton years of internet hyper-investment the primary online concerns were child pornography and fraud. With the world aptly terrorized, the Anarchist’s Cookbook made it back into the limelight – though the Al Qaeda crew hadn’t read a single page. (It had also popped up after Columbine, although those malcontent sociopaths had failed to successfully build a bomb but did successfully use their parents’ legally purchased shotguns and assault weapons.) Details hardly matter that year, the Patriot Act was already being whipped up to suppress and disenfranchise, although little was being done to curtail gun sales. But this is not a story about the extravagant defense of the 2nd Amendment at the expense of the 1st Amendment.
It is, in a way, the story of Edmund Scientific, in fact, the end of that story. In 2001, Edmund closed its doors. It had nothing to do with the Patriot Act or Al Qaeda. Homeland Security had no fears of sleeper agents or home-grown suicide bombers gearing up in Barrington, New Jersey. No more aisles of resistors and capacitors, no more Russian Sovtek tubes, no more Electro-Harmonix circuitry. No more goofy hall of mirrors. No more rockets.
And not because the government had anything to fear. Despite what the paranoid brain-stems in Arizona and Montana seem to think, even a fuel-air bomb couldn’t dislodge the powers that be from their entrenchments. In fact, if you want to look at things dystopically (or despotically), history is pretty clear: fascists love bombings, it justifies their worst excesses (if they can’t elicit a bombing, they’ll stage one). Survivalists and Militiamen keep copies of The Anarchist Cookbook because they are too myopic to understand this, or because they are psychotic, or because the Cookbook is a fetish against their impotence. They represent the sad, dark side of anarchism; they’ve murdered children, assassinated heads of state and started wars. Still, in the end, they’re doomed to the backwoods, the ass-end of history. They couldn’t even cause the closure of a warehouse in the ‘burbs.
What closed Edmund was a greater – perhaps the greatest – historical force: apathy. Ham Radio was never going to replace the internet: the fetishistic devotion to Morse code keep most at arm’s length, DSL and cable were exponentially faster than radio, especially over the shit-end of the spectrum that Congress had set aside for amateurs before selling the rest off to a handful of corporations. The technology got away from the average tinkerer – even an industrious nerd is no match for the complexity of a fiber-optic router – but it was easier. When Ma Bell and her anti-trust children switched from tone-based to digital systems, the Phreaks fell behind. The charm of the Phreaks is the Jules Verne quality of their obsolescence and the disproportion of their curiosity to the potential gain. Most Phreaks broke into phone-systems to see if they could, to see if their home-made equipment would work. The politics – the anarchy, the anti-corporatism, the saber-rattling – all came after the fact, if they came at all. This was the other face of anarchy – subversion for subversion’s sake, experimentation as an end in itself – the face of the curious, the weirdos, the DIYers, the nerds. The rocket builders.
What can we say of the Phreaks, those sad anachronisms? The fields are empty; the rocket builders are gone. They play video games now.
A decade after Edmund Scientific closed, I ran across the Anarchist’s Cookbook again, researching the differences between Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Fincher’s adaptation (Palahniuk gets dynamite right from the Cookbook, Fincher lost his nerve and left out key information – weight ratios – from the formula). Again I was struck by the horror of what a few ‘motivated individuals’ could do, even after years of legislation curtailing access to explosives and their component ingredients. And, again, I was touched by the childish glee with which the Phreaks approached their craft, their excitement in boasting, but also in sharing, and most of all in doing. And I was a little more honest about that duality: I had both strains of anarchy running in my blood.
Of course, it’s easy to valorize Phreakers, perhaps easier still to lionize all weirdos. The kids making noise-rock, unintelligible student films, graphic novels, skate videos and ersatz scribbling and notebooks of all sorts – it’s all masturbatory and self-involved and pretentious. Self-amusement. Self-love. Acknowledged. But self-love is better than hate, better still than apathy and boredom. At the least, it’s no worse than the monoculture run by the handful of corporations that own television and radio and that – give it time – will own the internet before most of my generation is in the grave. No one’s even fighting it very strenuously, and – after all – corporations have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.
But let’s stop that rant before it starts; it’s fashionable to be dystopian about the internet, or about the world, but – ye fucking gods – it’s wearisome to keep it up. So it’s worth remembering that the moral of Heller’s book cuts both ways. While it lasts, we can use the internet for whatever we can get away with. You can even order a rocket-kit from the company that bought Edmund Scientific, although the models are small, sanitized miniatures. And, when the web is gone or co-opted, we’ll have to find something else. That’s okay: that’s the moral of the story, the resilient yin to the yang of anarchy’s dark, inbred violence. Anarchy never wins – in fact, it loses as soon as it imagines it can – but it never stops. It’s the counterforce. It’s something to do on a Saturday night besides huffing glue and jacking off. It’s not heroic but it’s better than nothing.
I dream I see my father, standing in a field. He’s twelve years old. He holds his hand against the sun. The rocket’s trail fades into the summer haze. He waits and waits, but it never comes down. In his mind, it travels up and out of the atmosphere. It crosses the sub-zero void and lands on Mars. The young offspring of some ancient, alien race finds the rocket. He stares up at the Martian sky and smiles.