Welcome to the New Neolithic: Telecommuting meets Time Travel
by Sean Murphy
Stoned 77/July 1999
Mountain View, California
The three technicians stare at the screen.
Yes! There it is again: a transmission that seems to originate from somewhere in the Mierda de Caballo mountains of northern New Mexico.
The woman at the keyboard types a command, beginning the decryption process. The transmission appears to be some kind of video feed. Faces press closer around the screen.
A grainy image appears of a dry landscape with scrubby piñons in the background. There is movement at the edge of the frame. It is difficult to make out. The shape grows larger and approaches the center of the screen. It appears to be some kind of humanoid form, walking bent almost double at the waist, hands dragging something heavy across the dirt.
The nearly-naked figure slowly rises, raising the object above its head. The creature has a long beard and is covered only by a ragged loincloth. The object it is waving above its head is… a huge bone!
The technicians all break out laughing. The camera sways and lurches wildly, panning to show four happy young people in nylon jackets and wide-brimmed hats laughing and waving and pointing at the eviscerated corpse of some kind of antelope, hanging from a tree branch. The man in the fur jockstrap lopes into the frame and holds aloft his bone in one hand and a heavy notebook computer in the other.
The naked savage is Michael Evans, a senior software engineer for Vessel Enterprises in Mountain View, and the cameraman and four happy hunters are his coworkers. The six of them walked into the Mierda de Caballos a year ago with a fifty pounds of computing equipment, plenty of technical mountaineering gear, a couple dozen sacks of dried food and a paperback guide to the finer points of living off the land. Welcome to the wild world of extreme commuting!
Two airplane flights, a long ride in a jeep and three days’ hard hike with a forty-pound pack later, I arrived at the cliffside headquarters of Vessel New Mexico.
“We wanted to simplify,” Eva Miles, a senior information architect and wife of the bone-wielding Mike Evans, says. “We wanted to find a way to keep the jobs that we loved but escape all the rest of that lifestyle. We thought moving to a cave would be a good way to do that.”
“There were all of these ruggedized computing and networking tools coming out,” Craig Jones, another information architect and “chief gathering engineer” tells me. “We thought, â€˜This changes everything!'”
He takes me to see the array of solar cells they have cable-tied to the bare branches of a dead piñon. “We have to bring these in when it storms,” he says. “A few of us wanted to bring in spares, but our backs vetoed that after about the fourth trip back to the trailhead.”
Caroline Szarz, who describes herself as “packet rustler and chief horticulture architect,” points past the solar tree to the beginnings of the garden this group is depending on to take them through next winter. “Corn and squash,” she says. “Chile peppers. And beans, and beans, and beans. We’re kind of counting on the beans.”
We walk over to the rows of seedlings growing on the high ledge so that Caroline can show me the irrigation system. It’s a number ten can. “We have been doing okay for water so far,” she says. “We have a cistern for rainwater, there’s the river…” she points down the cliff toward the river, “and then there’s a spring down there, for in case.” She points toward the end of the valley. “We wanted to have our crops up here where we can keep an eye on them, but it takes a lot of this,” she says.
We walk ten paces back under the overhanging ledge to the cistern, dip the can and walk back. She pours water on a bean sprout. “It takes all morning. Jack keeps promising to think of a better system, but…”
We walk back to the cistern. “We take turns, but…” We start back to the garden. “…but it really cuts into your work day.”
They all insist that their “work days” haven’t changed much since they decided to become neo-troglodytes.
“Naw, not much,” Craig Jones, a graphics designer, tells me. “We’ve got network most of the time on the satellite.” He points at a blaze-orange dish peeking out from behind a rock. “And when you’re really writing code, you don’t want the phone ringing anyway, you know?”
Darwin Johnson, the group’s database guru, who has been listening in, imitates the sound of a portable telephone ringing and holds up a rock they’ve dubbed the “stone phone” to his ear. “Hello?” he says.
Darwin and I scramble up a series of ladders, checking out Vessel New Mexico’s office space. We find Mike sitting on a boulder, staring motionless at a screen. Mike holds up a finger. “Debugging,” Darwin says. We leave Mike in peace.
On the next shelf, Eva has swept herself a clean rectangle of rock with a twig broom that is lying at her feet. She is stretched out on her belly, tapping at a keyboard on the ground in front of her.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” I ask.
“I’m used to it,” she says. “Hold on, I’m in a conference.”
“We’ll come back,” Darwin whispers.
We edge around a curving outcrop, out of sight of Eva. Jacob Groen is leaning against the cliff face, scratching something out on a small handheld screen using a twig.
“Lost my stylus,” he says.
He sets the screen into a hole in the rock.
“I’ve been writing a memo and keeping an eye on the eagles,” he says, pointing.
We can see a pair of dark shapes backlit against the darkening sky, engaged in a game of aerobatic tag.
“Looks like â€˜catch the rat,'” he says.
We watch the eagles wheel and dive. Jack picks his screen back up and resumes writing.
“Do you each have your own equipment?” I ask Darwin.
The eagles rise together in a graceful arc.
“No,” he says. “We brought extra. We have a couple of big coolers back in the main cave. Everybody just takes what they need.”
Keeps the water out,” he answers. “Not that there’s any water.”
One eagle breaks away and dives toward the tree silhouettes on the mesa.
“Keeps the mice out,” he says. “Getting those coolers up here was a bitch.”
In Mountain View, I had asked Harold Tieren, Vessel’s vice president of engineering and thus the group’s boss, how he thought things were going.
“Unbelievable, actually,” he said, lifting a piece of sashimi into his mouth. “Productivity out of that bunch has just been off the scale.”
He took a sip of tea.
“Except for one time last winter when all their dried meat went bad and they had to spend two weeks on the hunt, it’s been ideal, just ideal, from our perspective.”
I asked him whether it wasn’t weird having one of his development groups so far out of communication.
“That’s just the thing,” he said, dipping a reverse-salmon-roe roll in sauce, “They’re not out of communication! It’s just like having them right here.”
I asked Darwin this same question. We were sitting on a rock eating dried jackrabbit pounded with some kind of berries, and drinking the Ol’ Holler bourbon I had lugged up here in my pack. Darwin tugged thoughtfully on a loose flap of hide on his fur hat before answering.
“It was easy to feel like everything was normal all last summer,” he said, taking a slug of whiskey. “I mean, we’ve got mail, phone, video when we want it. But after while, you know…”
He paused. We looked out at the sun setting over the hills on the horizon. “It’s just hard, you know? Everyone back in Mountain View, we can see them, we can talk to them, we can do our work…” He sighed. “It’s just… They don’t really understand.”
He took another pull at the whiskey bottle. “I mean, I ate pumpkin stew every day for six months last year. Six months!”
The horizon assumed a brilliant shade of lavender.
“I mean, there was this time last October, Caroline was slaughtering this Dahl Sheep she had killed, and well…”
We stared out. The evening star faded into view.
“…She took and ate the liver all by herself! You have no idea what that does to team dynamics. I mean…”
We looked over. Human shadows were moving a campfire that had just been lit.
“…She could have shared, you know? But try explaining that to your boss. He just doesn’t understand.”
He capped the bottle and handed it to me. We got to our feet.
Later, sitting around the campfire, I looked at the six of them and thought about what Darwin had said. The whiskeyâ€”the first alcohol any of them had seen in almost a yearâ€”had made the atmosphere seem festiveâ€”a real party. Mike and Eva were smiling and laughing happily, the firelight reflecting off of their tanned faces and tattered cotton and nylon clothes. But they had each other. What about Craig, Darwin, Jack and Caroline? Caroline seemed happy and well adjusted. She was the best hunter, the software development team leader. Craig was off somewhere on another ledge, working by starlight and battery power. He had been quiet all dayâ€”not much to say; hard to read.
And Jack was also a puzzle. He was strong, smart and resourceful. I had no doubt that he would soon crack the irrigation problem and free up half a day a week for everyone. And yet his contentment seemed somehow forced. I had seen him looking at Caroline, who struck me as being resolutely singleâ€”and he had taken a spear with him this afternoon when he went out to set jackrabbit snares. He may have been worried about coyotes, but still something didn’t seem exactly right.
A gale of laughter burst from the group. Craig had come in from his perch and was passing around a handheld monitor showing a video from last year’s harvest festival. The whole group was dressed in skins and feathers, and they were dancing around a huge fire, all smiles, waving gourds, bones, and ears of corn.
I looked at the screen and laughed too. Jack started pounding out a rhythm on the irrigation can, and one by one the team members all stood up to dance. As I joined them, I wondered how long this experiment with the new neolithic economy could really last. For all the portable, ruggedized computers, for all the miniature, weatherproof solar cells and satellite feeds, there were some things that the folks back in Mountain View really never were going to understand.
Stoned Magazine was a late-1990’s technoskepsis zine.