hckr.fyi // thoughts

Faceless on the Internet

by Michael Szul on

This post is a rewrite from the Apotheosis project, and was previously published in both blog and podcast form on Codepunk.

If you follow me at all on Twitter, you might have noticed that I've been retweeting and promoting James Curcio's Tales from When I Had a Face Kickstarter. James and I have been acquaintances since the early 00's at a time when Internet communities were transitioning to the World Wide Web, but still remained niche rather than tied to any domain of social media.

Many my age still remember the years of personal bulletin board systems (BBS) when the Internet was young (and more explicitly tied to the telecoms).

Eventually, cyberspace emerged as a collection of protocols with BBS, IRC chat channels, and UseNet newsgroups filling out additional communication channels. I remember following newly created UseNet newsgroups dedicated to the very first SciFi Channel original programming (long before it became whatever SyFy is supposed to stand for). In many ways, BBS and eventually UseNet were areas of dedicated fan groups and consolidated discussions—all tied together by whichever Internet moniker or handle you decided to use.

In Edward Snowden's memoir Permanent Record, he reminiscences of the days of Internet handles and the ability to be one person on one side of a conversation, but also experiment by being the other person on the other side of a conversation. This wasn't the same as anonymous Internet trolls. A name is a name, but a name that you give yourself holds power. This is why many modern occult groups or secret societies have you chose a new name for yourself upon initiation. It's not a name to hide behind. It's a name to stand behind. But at the same time, this doesn't mean that your self or your persona is static. Much like Snowden in his early years exploring BBS systems, you could try on many faces.

As the World Wide Web started to evolve more as the primary tool of the Internet (for better or for ill), online communities emerged to replace BBS, UseNet, and even IRC to a certain extent. Some will remember the emergence of the The WELL—Stewart Brand's oddly titled Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (we come up with the acronym first and then retrofit it), which housed members such as John Perry Barlow and gained infamy through the transgressions of members of MOD. Bill Ahern and I discussed this in a past Codepunk podcast episode. Other niche message boards started to gain ground as well, and during the turn of the 2000's with the publication of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, the Bomb surfaced as an online resource for those interested in Morrison's intelligently weaved multi-dimensional story. Morrison himself looked at the narrative not as a tale of fiction, but a hypersigil—an occult construct of will—no different than what most modern writers feel when approaching stories of mythical narrative. With myth, I'm reminded of Puck from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman—where he adapted a wrapped narrative of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Puck exclaimed with some exuberance that the tale was all true. "It never happened, but it's all true." Truth emotes from mythology because mythology is a living narrative that exists outside the boundaries of culture and time. Mythology is to narrative what Carl Jung's archetypes are to gods, demons, or characters within stories. This is precisely why Joseph Campbell made waves with Hero of a Thousand Faces—this idea that the stories we tell that transcend fiction are ones that encompass common motifs and archetypes. Campbell has even made statements that closely align with Gaiman's own written words:

Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.

The Bomb spawned an online community named Barbelith that grew in popularity in underground circles. This was at a time where individual web sites, weblogs, and message boards often gathered significant readership (pre-social media). Many who participated in Barbelith also had their own blogs, writing about similar themes.

Logo of the Bomb at Barbelith

Technoccult—although sharing the same name as a Morrison creation, but not actually based on it—was a fringe culture web site created by future Wired writer Klint Finley. Many participants on Barbelith also lurked in the Technoccult comments. It was through Technoccult that I became associated with Klint and several other Internet denizens. During a break for vacation, Klint asked me and writer Wes Unruh to substitute for him on the blog. After Klint returned, several readers on the site suggested that those of us writing about common themes create a group blog (reminiscent of a musical super-group—a mash-up of multiple bloggers working together on a single publication). Klint, Wes, former Adobe employee and future Institute for the Future contributor Chris Arkenberg, robotics engineer Chris Joseph, Lapo Boreaux, and myself then founded Key 23 (also based on a Grant Morrison concept—he was big back then).

The story of Key 23 as an Internet community is a long and winding (and intriguing one) and I don't want to get ahead of myself by going into it here just yet. I am trying to retain some form of linear or time-based narrative with these nostalgic pieces, and Key 23 comes much later than BBS or UseNet news. But what's important is that Key 23 burned bright, but also burned fast. We interviewed the likes of Richard Metzger, Michelle Belanger, and Douglas Rushkoff. We acquired many more contributors including then socialist, but future egoist and alt-right agitator Nick Pell, writer/director/actor John Harrigan, occult author Taylor Ellwood, former Mozilla employee Angelina Fabbro, and narrative explorer James Curcio.

The downturn of Key 23 happened quickly after the upturn in social networking. MySpace, Twitter, and eventually Facebook ate into mind-share, but also in-fighting (as usually happens) and exhaustion (ditto) put the online publication in an unsustainable position. Many of the original founders left the group and eventually I shut the entire operation down (I managed the software and hardware running the site). We all went our separate ways back into the digital ether.

I grew up in South Jersey, which was a stone's throw from Philadelphia, and at the time James Curcio was living in the city (he would leave, but later return). I've always looked at Philadelphia as a cyberpunk city because of its many unique features, underground music scene, and generally middle-class feel. James and I would meet up on two separate occasions in real life. Once we would meet up with a girlfriend of his at Shampoo Nightclub during their Wednesday Nocturne event. This was supposed to be a goth/music scene, but the music bordered more on industrial/rave/EDM. Fresh off of a few "cool kid" Key 23 articles, I met up with James to discuss some underground topics when we were both young, thin, and had the energy to actually stay up at night. I even still drank vodka back then.

The next time I met up with James, Key 23 was a thing of the past. Like I said, it burned bright, but burned fast. James, however, was fast tracking a handful of transmedia projects at a time when transmedia was just being coined. Prior to his Key 23 days he was best known for having Join My Cult! (a mental case of a fiction story) published by the arcane Falcon Press, and his ambitious projects brought him into contact with some experimental artists and well-known story-tellers. Eventually James founded Mythos Media as a transmedia company, recruiting myself, P. Emerson Williams, and Rich Pizor, with Ong's Hat originator Joe Matheny (in the capacity of his Alterati project) acting as an advisor.

I met James at the famed Monk's in Philadelphia for muscles and scallops one lunch while I was consulting with Peirce College.

Mythos Media was ambitious in that with very little funding, it was attempting to provide an outlet for experimental narratives in art and fiction that reflect higher level mythological concepts. The original idea was the production of a "living mythos"—a modern narrative that adhered and assimilated the archetypes and myths that are ever-present, but wrapped in the ideas (and breakdowns) of today.

Mythology, you see, isn't something that happened in the past. Myths aren't stories of the past, present, or future, but are stories and narratives that are relevant and ever-present always. Creation myths and apocalypse myths (and all myths in-between) occur on a regular basis and are rooted in the archetypes and psychosis of every culture and every human. This is how you can even have a hero of a thousand faces to begin with.

We had no clue about how to run a business. Outside of Joe, nobody was highly skilled at raising capital or creating a sustainable business model. Most people were artists and creators who knew how to create a thing, but very little about how to sell it. In fact, our initial focus ended up on projects with highly visual components, which raised the cost of printing, and resulted in a depletion of funds. Eventually Mythos Media was closed as a media house, but James pushed forward with his modern narratives and held firm to the Mythos Media brand.

I think the mistake from the outset was assuming a business view of what should have essentially been a collective narrative through myth. Writing, drawing, printing, and selling other peoples' work was never something that was going to capture the passion to drive a project, and James' own work produced a thread that ran through music, podcasts, videos, collage art, and written word, and required a significant focus to invoke the energy necessary to shift the paradigm on such a mythological tale.

Decades in the making—and several books in production—James' stands at the cusp of completion for a major piece of work: the aforementioned Tales from When I Had a Face.

Tales from When I Had a Face

From the Kickstarter:

Tales is a mythpunk work of speculative fiction / fantasy, with a healthy dab of horror for good measure. It is not historical fiction. Though inspired in part by an open-ended, many year long immersion in the art and myth of the various cultures and traditions, we were careful to maintain this distinction.

The story:

On Ayta’s seventh birthday, there came a knock on the door, and her namesake stood before her. Gran Ayta. Once a thing of myth, descended from legends. Now she seemed just a stooped old woman, but appearances can be deceiving.

Ayta’s lonely childhood was soon transformed by Gran’s fantastic stories of flight from one world to the next. From distant Siberia to the Second World, from there to the very Land of the Dead she had come, or so she claimed. And she had returned with secrets taken from that underworld, to teach her granddaughter.

Seven years later, her Gran would be dead. Ayta had to come to terms with the legacy she had passed on to her, bearing these myths in a world which has no need for what it sees as childish things. A childish world that she knew was soon to end.

Just when she thought she had finally left those tales in the past, she met Nyssa. A character straight out of Gran’s stories who was unknowingly bound by the same fate she was. Like all star-crossed lovers, their fate was written from the moment they crossed paths.

Now… What does this have to do with the Internet?

Do understand that you have to go back to the beginning… and not just of this article. The Internet was a shift into a new era where the virtual world was opening up new avenues of communication and narrative. Technology meant that the old gods were dying, and in their place, a psychedelic menagerie of computer screens, digital companions, and left-libertarian mutualism. The people gained masks in a world of Reagan consumerism, disguising their names and faces to re-assert the mystic 60's on a digital screen away from the Alex P. Keaton's of the world.

As the old gods withered, they were replaced with the triumvirate of land, labor, and capital—each with their own gods… each with their own stories. And what is our world, but a reflection of the stories that we tell ourselves? Little do you hear of the triangle of free market progress. It has been taken over by the singular spoke of capital with an obsession for growth at all costs being the only way forward.

Take a pause and re-read the synopsis of James' Kickstarter. Does that not seem "tip of the tongue" familiar? If you've felt despair in the last two decades… If you're read anything from the Dark Mountain project… If you've ventured deeper into the more poetic CreepyPastas… If you've struggled daily with the idea of sustainability in a increasingly climate scarred world… You've felt this. When the paradigm of the stories that we tell ourselves disappears… When you're far removed from being a hero or even a person of a thousand faces, the only stories left are the tales from when you had a face.

Why is this relevant today? Because the culture in the first world is crumbling through our transgressions leaving us without our comforting myths of the past, leading us to a second world of modern mythology. This second world—birthed from an exponential age—is one of stories, technology, virtual worlds, and where everyone can be faceless.