hckr.fyi // thoughts

And All the Keys That Remain

by Michael Szul on

I mentioned previously that I pulled over a number of Codepunk and Apotheosis articles under hckr fyi to mostly represent a "best of," and a consolidation of various writing projects over the decades. I was in the process of doing the same thing for Key 23 when I realized… there really wasn't much to bring over. I did salvage the introduction to the launch as a snapshot of a moment in time when a handful of Internet nerds thought they were pushing cultural boundaries, but I was surprised at the utter lack of quality writing I wanted to salvage from a project that actually meant a lot to me during some years of significant philosophical growth.

I briefly touched on Key 23 back in 2021 for the Apotheosis project when I said:

Technoccult—although sharing the same name as a [Grant] Morrison creation, but not actually based on it—was a fringe culture web site created by future Wired writer Klint Finley. Many participants on [the online message board] 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) […]. 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.

The first paragraph is effectively covered in the aforementioned snapshot in relative detail (with the added benefit of being the story and impression from when it all occurred).

I've rarely spoken of Key 23's downturn. Towards the end (and after an ill-fated transition to "Key 64" as an "evolved" moniker) there were a lot of people (and a lot of egos) who wanted to express how the site/blog ought to function and what it should focus on—how it should handle articles and features, and how it should be designed. This created a lot of in-fighting, but more importantly, most of that was coming from people who were rarely adding content and never supporting the infrastructure. I was always hesitant to push my opinion because I felt I had too much pontential control, but at the end of the day, I was the one paying for the servers and I was the one writing the software. It stopped being worth my effort, so I abandoned it, and it eventually went offline.

I never hear from Klint anymore. He once interviewed me for ReadWriteWeb about Microsoft products, but after he entered deep into journalism, he skipped out on most of us Internet weirdos, abandoned his own Technoccult site, and expressed little interest in the occult or counterculture that had powered our group. I occasionally hear from one or the other Chris depending on when the stars align and Lapo has mostly disappeared. Wes and I follow each other on the socials, and it's been fun to see his family grow. There are others I come across on occasion (James and Taylor, and sometimes John), but mostly digitally. We've all pretty much aged and moved on.

I recently went through the Key 23 archives—concentrating on what I wrote. There wasn't much there. First, I realized that I spent so much time handling the technology that it left little room for writing. Many of the pieces I wrote I actually brought over from a different project (more on that in a later post). Those original pieces that I wrote seem mostly dated, but also seem like the ramblings of a naive 20-something… which is every bit what they were. In the end, I decided only to bring over that introduction.

I almost wrote the word "disappointment" in that last paragraph, but I'm not disappointed. I don't think much of what I wrote during the Key 23 days was thought-provoking or impactful, and writing about the occult is trying to tie objectivity to subjective truths, but what I realize is that Key 23 was a hotbed of the tail end of the communication revolution. It collected fringe writers and thinkers adandoned by the WELL, Barbelith, and Disinformation and gave them a way to talk to each other. The value was in the community, the relationships, and the experimentation, and not the actual content. We didn't require social media or content creators… We just needed to cross paths… and Key 23 enabled that—even if only for a short period of time.