Eric Theise

Megabytes at Kilofeet: The Telluride Ideas Festival and InfoZone

I knew something was up when, in September 2014, some old friends contacted me about a period of time long past. Turned out they were both drafting contributions to a volume entitled Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy, another old friend. The MIT Press brought it out in August 2016 and, being under the impression I get namechecked in the Community Networking section, I decided to dust off an article I wrote after returning from the Telluride Ideas Festival in July 1993. It resided on the WELLgopher for many years and came out on paper, lightly edited, in Fringe Ware Review #3 (ISSN 1069-5656).

For now, I’ll put it out in its original monospaced glory. In time, I’ll scan and add some photos from the Festival.

Megabytes at Kilofeet: The Telluride Ideas Festival and InfoZone
..by Eric S. Theise 
 
"I haven't got a clue that I'm *not* twenty-five anymore, and I've got
several that I *am*."  It's Friday morning, and Doug Carmichael and I
are getting acquainted over bowls of coffee.  We've been brushing past
each other in cyberspace for a few years, and from his online demeanor I
would never have pegged him as having white hair.  But Doug, like most
of the social hackers drifting into Telluride today, talks and types
from an ageless gleam in his eyes.
 
The Steaming Bean fronts what everyone except the map calls Main Street.
Main Street glides into town from the west, expands into the central
commercial artery, then winds up towards the waterfall that forms the
east boundary of town.  It anchors the town hall and the city park, the
opera house and the movie theater, the bars and restaurants, the art
galleries and book stores, the t-shirt shops and the real estate
offices.  A quick scan in any direction confirms what the 1300 people
who've settled here -- or built a vacation home here -- are acutely
aware of.  Telluride, bounded on three sides by mountain slopes, is
land-locked.  Finite.  Much of the growth here is absorbed by satellite
developments up and over the ridge, at Mountain Village and the proposed
Skyfield.
 
There's another kind of development playing out here, a kind of digital,
unbounded Main Street.  With roots in technology -- BBSs and free-nets,
cable television and cellular telephony -- and utopian threads from
architecture and urban planning, the Telluride InfoZone is at the heart
of this year's Ideas Festival.  It's drawing the social hackers here to
brainstorm about Tele/Comm/Unity and, if the Telluride Institute has its
way, some of them will stay, to live, work, and attract.
 
Friday afternoon.  The basement of the Sheridan Opera House is humming
with monitors, Centri, modems, phone lines (too many/not enough) and a
lone Minitel terminal.  Mission Control will house ongoing demos of MUDs
and MUSEs, Internet Relay Chat, The WELL, Community Memory, and a
temporary franchise of the Electronic Cafe .  The cable-stringers
(Gene Cooper, Brett Dutton) greet the altitude-queasy newcomers, and the
non-electronic hum turns to all of the TBAs still on the agenda.  I walk
two blocks to the Elementary School and meet with Bell Labs expatriate
Madeline Gonzalez and text artist Judy Malloy to set up and maintain the
portfolio of network channels that will allow outsiders to participate.
At 5 p.m. we head over to check out Program Director Richard Lowenberg's
gallery opening.
 
Lowenberg's photographs and video piece deal with surveillance and
covert information collection.  It's a successful installation, but like
most openings, socializing trumps viewing.  Among the online cohorts I
meet is Jacques Leslie, who's written a piece for Wired about K-12
networks.  I'm building one.  We compare notes.  Mark Graham, pale from
an exhausting week in Moscow advising scientists about fiber networks,
rounds up a group for dinner.  I'm bringing up the rear as we search for
the restaurant and, as we pass an innocuous doorway on Main Street,
Brett shunts me up the stairs and into an astonishing loft space.  If it
weren't for the views, I'd swear I was in Manhattan.
 
John Lifton and Pamela Zoline live here.  Like Lowenberg, their
contributions to the Institute include a finely-honed design sense.
Introductions and the local wine flow, the gathered partiers tear
through the final version of the Festival program when the printer
delivers it, and at 8 p.m. we drift across the street for the kickoff.
 
Nearly 150 of us have registered, and we're greeted with the wordless
clarity of a Tibetan chime.  Pamela and John stress their ambition of
empowering small, rural communities to take their place in the global
information society.  Megatrender and resident John Naisbitt notes the
central paradoxes of his forthcoming book: that as the world economy
grows, smaller economies 1) acquire more power and 2) behave more
tribally.  Carey Davis, Institute Director, describes their other
initiatives -- the Deep West Arts Circuit, Composer to Composer
Festival, Native American Writers Forum, and collaborative environmental
program.  Lowenberg talks about the InfoZone's evolution, and warns that
its vaporware status is threatened by newfound attention, hardware, and
connectivity.
 
And then Doug Carmichael steps up to the microphone and works some
serious magic on all those TBAs.
 
He likens the microphone to an Indian speaking stick, conferring the
responsibility to speak from the heart on its holder and the equivalent
listening responsibility on all others.  He tells us that we who have
come are the right people, and that we know what needs to be said and
done.  Anyone wishing to convene a session must write a short
description on a poster, take the microphone, introduce themselves and
their session, and tape their poster to the wall.  When all have had the
chance to speak, we will sign our names to the sessions we're interested
in.
 
An hour later we have a full and aptly named Ideas Festival.
 
We filter downstairs for the Electronic Cafe's videotape teaser.  Some
check their e-mail, others head out for a nightcap.  Some lunatics stare
at the insanely starry sky.
 
Saturday morning.  Distinct weirdness walking through the maze of
vehicles lining the center of Main Street for the Superwinch Rotary Club
4 x 4 Tour.  The breakout sessions include:
 
- "Internet values and the future of network services"
- "Electronic publishing and rural communities"
- "Using existing resources to build tele community"
- "Education and telecommunications in today's systems of learning"
 
Howard Rheingold and I offer "How we treat one another in the online
world," which fleshes out the range of cyberclimates from MetaNet's safe
haven to USENET-style shake 'n' bake.  Our group stresses the importance
of exemplary behavior by hosts, moderators, and other elders, and
contrasts solutions like bozofilters and killfiles, censorship and
banishment.  Making newusers comfortable in their navigation and
communication is the central theme.
 
We all come back together for the "Economic and policy issues" panel.
This is clear: U.S. West's relationship with its rural customers is
rocky.  They've put dozens of rural exchanges on the selling block,
feeding fears that service will deteriorate and long-promised upgrades
will never materialize.  They're accused of abandoning their backyard
for lucrative ventures with Time Warner and Eastern Europe.  They
counter with calls for cost-based pricing to offset their competitive
disadvantage against smaller, niche providers.  Everyone seems
well-informed and comfortable slinging jargon like "intraLATA".  Note to
city dwellers: we have it easy.
 
Richard Civille (Center for Civic Networking) suggests that strong local
models for community nets could easily become federal policy, and Bill
Washburn (Commercial Internet Exchange) cautions that coupling
fast-moving technology with slow-moving government could result in the
U.S. becoming a follower as it has in quality-assured manufacturing.
 
"Marketplace of Ideas" is the novel lunchtime strategy where each
panelist holds court at a different restaurant.  This works well, except
that some restaurants aren't prepared for the onslaught of Powerbooked
Ideators.  (Telluride is the only place on the planet where I've been
early to *everything*.)  Washburn, his son, and I talk about foreign
innovation on the nets, then are joined by Lowenberg and Gene Youngblood
and the conversation turns to media and politics.
 
The afternoon breakouts include:
 
- "Running global village business from remote locations"
- "Providing electronic access to government"
- "International boundaries being changed with Internet"
- "Developing a telecom resource center"
 
I choose "Cultural preservation and online systems" convened by Randy
Ross (American Indian Telecom), Steve Cisler (Apple Library), and Dave
Hughes ("having him around is one reason why Colorado SuperNet doesn't
need a big marketing staff").  I'm intrigued by Cisler's "(or why you
might want to stay off the global Internet)", but that angle never
crystalizes.  Instead, he demos some impressive multimedia projects
dealing with oral and architectural histories.  Hughes updates the saga
of NAPLPS-based shareart and the Troika drawing/multifont/telecom
package, and Ross talks about the National Museum of the American
Indian.  Subsequent discussion centers around outreach to
underrepresented communities and assuring online respect for
multicultural practices.
 
As recorder, I take refuge at the Steaming Bean over a double mocha and
my Dell.  We're uploading the proceedings to The WELL where regulars and
Telluridian guests can continue the discussion.  Regrettably, I miss
most of "Social and cultural issues of tele community" with Cisler,
Hughes, Ross, Youngblood, Anne Branscomb, and Howard Rheingold.
 
For dinner, there's a party at Arizona State University's Deep Creek
School a few miles west of town.  Dan Collins gives a tour of the tents
and cabins, the studio they've barnraised, and the sculptural
installations that line the banks of the cold, noisy creek.  Over
barbecued chicken, killer gumbo, and Miller Drafts, Richard Loveless
tells me about the doings at ASU's Institute for Studies in the
Arts, which he heads.  The ghosts of Bucky Fuller, John Cage, and
Charlotte Moorman frolic in the campfire smoke.
 
The Electronic Cafe is one of the Festival highlights I'm most curious
about.  Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz have been hooking groups of
people together for over a decade but video-enhanced chat isn't my model
of cyberspace, and I have my doubts.  But as Saturday night wears on,
and we connect to the Marin Headlands Art Center and Biosphere II (and
later, Europe, and their Santa Monica homecafe), I'm awestruck by the
goodwill that comes through the metronomic pulse of that slow-scan video
frame, even though people weren't doing anything but schmoozing, singing
for each other, and clowning around.
 
Sherrie and Kit have mastered the deceptively simple patter it takes to
draw people into this odd collaborative form.  Kit's grace with the
handheld, clumsily-cabled, monitor/camera combo, casually sweeping it
through 3-space to capture just the right frame to whisk off to a remote
site, bears the mark of high artistry.  *I got it*.
 
"Have you given much thought to what the community's reaction is going
to be when they realize that all that information for K-12 students and
queer activists is interleaved on the same hard drive?"  I lean back and
sip my Newcastle.  Patrick Finn lets a lungful of cigarette smoke out of
the side of his winning smile.  Closing time, Sheridan Hotel bar.
Patrick's one of three Taos wildcards that have materialized in search
of Ideas.  Richard Bryant is pragmatic.  Spiro Antonopoulos is
nose-ringed and happy sleeping in the antique tramway car on Main
Street.  Patrick can't sleep; his mind is reeling though he's never used
a modem before.  He'd have had nothing to connect to if he'd tried.
 
I'd confidently stepped up to the Centris, cracked my knuckles, and
systematically struck out.  Taos, arts mecca of the Southwest, has no
public Internet or UUCP site, no in-dial for CompuServe or SprintNet, no
FidoNet node; nothing.  It's cheaper to call out of state than to Santa
Fe.  The La Plaza Foundation is hellbent on changing their telecom
landscape.  For the Anglos, Latinos, and Indians.
 
I take Patrick for an all-night net surf, slithering through
gopherspace, tapping into the mishmash of minds that is USENET, snagging
gif files from online art galleries.  I get home just before sunrise,
and sleep through the Sunday morning breakout sessions.
 
The morning panel features Carmichael, Cisler, Matisse Enzer (The WELL),
Lee Felsenstein (Community Memory), and Mark Graham (Pandora Systems)
running the gamut of hardware and software options needed for community
connectivity and computer conferencing.
 
There's another Marketplace of Ideas, then the final round of breakouts:
 
- "Community networks getting started"
- "Info Rich and Info Poor?"
- "Privacy, Anonymity, and Authentication"
- "What roll [sic] should government play in information utilities?"
 
I imagine spin doctors heading in droves to that last one, but I choose
"K-12 Education and the Internet", convened by Ken Klingenstein.  We
talk of several gopher-based systems coming online -- Boulder Valley
School District and Pacific Bell's Knowledge Network -- and of the need
to support teachers through release time and accreditation as they
acquire network skills.  I leave a believer; networks *will* have
greater impact on K-12 education than they have had at the university
level.
 
Sunday mid-afternoon.  The final "Free Locals' Session" features the
major InfoZone players speaking about their relationship to the
community and project.  The Public Library and School System are
represented.  U.S. West is there, as is Liberty Cellular.  Each has a
different take on why it's hard to serve such a mountainous region.  We
hear about Telluride Cablevision's limited two-way transmission capacity
and learn that the entire Festival has been carried live on the public
access channel (we thought it was being videotaped)!
 
Madeline Gonzalez is the only panelist who doesn't -- or can't -- appeal
to her roots here.  She talks about being drawn to Telluride from a
corporate/engineering environment in her search for something more
natural in geography and purpose, and expresses her sadness at having to
leave.  She's frustrated; working without pay since January, cooking on
a wok in her hotel bathroom, working odd hours to stay out of people's
way at the Institute.  It's a surprising message to hear from the upbeat
Opera House stage but personally, having witnessed the tendency of
nonprofits to burn out their best volunteers, I think it's a healthy one
for the community to hear.  It also opens a floodgate of questions from
the floor.
 
People want to know what the opportunities will be for collaboration
between the school and library; for distance learning; for local content
from the sheriff, fire department, tax assessors, athletics, and zoning
commission; they want to know about tourism; they want to know about how
the local media (KOTO, Daily Planet) will be integrated; what the
InfoZone will offer to students and their parents.  The questions are
handled diplomatically, if noncommittally, and people are urged to get
involved and to pay closer attention to media reports on the InfoZone.
 
There's been speculation all along about the extent of local awareness
and support for the InfoZone, and this outburst of questions is
exciting.  We outsiders sit back, listen and watch.  A show of hands
suggests that more than 90% of the 60+ people live here.  More than 75%
would dial into the InfoZone today if it were operative.
 
The emerging picture of the InfoZone goes something like this.  The
local portion will be a Macintosh-based BBS running First Class' TCP/IP
compatible software.  Local services will be free; Internet access will
carry a fee.  Interim Internet access will be provided immediately
through accounts on a Colorado SuperNet unix machine, accessible via
four local dial-up numbers.  The eight Centri donated through the Apple
Library of Tomorrow grant will be distributed as public access terminals
in Telluride and in outlying mining and farming towns.  The modems
donated by USRobotics are already in use.  A RISC workstation donated by
IBM will see service as a terminal server.  The InfoZone will be
positioned as a testbed for future video and cellular technologies.
 
The gavel comes down.
 
We're packed into John Lifton's minivan and there's too much going on.
Someone's thrust an envelope through the window into my hand and, as I
swivel to pass it back, it turns out that it's not for anyone present.
Meanwhile, a none-too-subtle videographer is trying to muscle his way
through the side door of the van.  John punches the accelerator and we
leave him curbside.  Speechless, for once.  Minutes later we're through
the cattle guard and onto the mesa that will be Skyfield.
 
John and Pamela are eager to talk about their development plans
(including incentives for the creation of good and lasting architecture)
and the landscape (naming the peaks and drainages and talking about
trails and wildlife).  It's wonderful to be out in the waning mountain
light.  I drift away from the conversation, feeling the impending
weather change in the air, wondering what the dropoff is really like
there where the landscape swoops down and out of sight.
 
As we double park across the street from the Opera House, a stranger
appears to claim the mysterious envelope.  I hand it over, dumbfounded,
and head over to the Opera House for the Festival's closing reception.
 
There's a spirited breakfast on Monday morning, but what social hackers
are left are making their way out of town, bumming rides to the airport,
checking their tires.  I stay on and give a four-hour Internet intensive
in the Elementary School's router room, and it's well attended and well
received.  I'm probably the last to leave town, and I get a wicked
sunburn and an overdose of bad food on the twenty-hour drive back to San
Francisco.  I nearly break into tears when, twenty minutes from home, I
find the Bay Bridge closed due to an accident.
 
But community can come from adversity as well as commonality, and a
little party forms at the toll booths.  We dance, share stories from the
road, and I'm invigorated enough to sing myself home as soon as the
bridge reopens.
 
(You can pick up the proceedings and other materials from the Ideas
Festival in the WELLgopher's Community/Civic Networks/Telluride section
(gopher gopher.well.sf.ca.us), and Colorado SuperNet's anonymous-ftp
server, ftp.csn.org in the /Infozone directory.)
 
--
  Eric S. Theise
  P.O. Box 460177, San Francisco, CA 94146.0177
  Internet Domain Editor, Millennium Whole Earth Catalog
  The WELL: internet, matrix, & news conference host + gophermeister