Here’s a (badly written) passage, in which I describe going home — and coming down — from my first party:
Even though my eyes were tired, I examined the foreign section of Oakland out of my window as we exited the parking lot onto Hegenberger Road and passed a gas station and a Denny’s. Most of the East Bay was unfamiliar, as I spent my days in the suburbs south of San Francisco. I’d driven to this part of Oakland, but only to see rock concerts at the Oakland Coliseum or Arena across Interstate 880, or to scoop up visitors at the Oakland Airport further down Hegenberger Road.
All I could hear was an inexplicable hum — a faint noise akin to a layer of sound that lingers a minute or so after a bell is rung. Dan, somewhat more alert than I — and I hoped so since he was driving — looked over at me from time to time but did not speak. I wondered if he knew I was trying to piece together and make sense of the night. The sun began to creep into the sky, past the high-rise condominiums and skyscrapers along the water of the Embarcadero, and even beyond the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. As light filtered into our car, Dan sped west across the top level of the Bay Bridge, through Treasure Island and toward San Francisco. The sparse traffic on the freeway at that hour on Sunday morning must have been different from the previous Friday afternoon’s traffic when carloads of families headed east to Yosemite, northeast to Lake Tahoe, or south to Los Angeles for Memorial Day weekend.
We drove off the bridge, passing exits to downtown and bright and flashy billboards for Coca-Cola and Yahoo! Large sports utility vehicles whizzed by, as well as shiny new upgrades of Volkswagen Bugs. Dan and I exchanged glances of disgust and chuckled, aware of the new presence of Dot Commers in the Bay Area, especially in Silicon Valley, further south where I lived.
My eyelids quivered again, and I closed them.
If you take away the music, the dancing, and the drugs, the constant in Ten Years in a Trance is technology. I tried to describe two very different ways I interacted with “technology” in the mid-to-late 1990s, within the rave and outside of it. I place “technology” in quotes because when I was 17, that’s the word I used to describe anything related to “Dot Coms,” or “the World Wide Web,” or those mysterious things my friends called “startups,” which I heard about more and more after I graduated from high school. Later, when I wrote these pages, I attempted to describe the physical presence of techno, of the sound itself, inside abandoned warehouses. Again, it all came down to “technology,” from synthesizers to drum machines. Perhaps in both cases I didn’t have the vocabulary or the knowledge. Or maybe I was still processing how my life, and how the world, was changing.
But I don’t feel any more comfortable writing about technology now than I did then. If anything, it’s even harder, because today there’s a word for everything, and everyone has an opinion, and everything’s been written — or at least feels that way. What could I possibly add to the conversation, I think every time I sit down to write.
But there were (and are) many different rave scenes around the world. Mine was sandwiched between the years of Wicked, sunrise beach parties, and San Francisco house in the early 1990s and the flashy, concert-like Skills events thrown at the Civic Center and proper venues from the early 2000s and on.
Our warehouse parties were special in their own way.
I have felt an in-betweenness — the straddling of pre- and post-internet worlds — in this part of my life, too.
In these manuscript pages, I wrote about how people boasted about the new ways they were creating, consuming, and controlling technology. Or waiting in line at Starbucks and eavesdropping on men who wore badges around their necks, talking about video games and programming. At the time, I lived in Redwood Shores, where Oracle and Electronic Arts made their headquarters, and drove a stretch of highway 101 each day where I was fed new billboards about computer software.
At night, at warehouse parties, machines were indeed taking over, but in a very different way. Instead, they interacted with us. They communicated with us. They came alive, and with their beat, so did we.
Within the rave, I felt a symbiotic relationship with the machines that produced dance music, which was quite a different sensation from how “dot com culture” made me think and feel about technology. In my manuscript, I wasn’t really sure what I was saying, but five years later, in an essay I was invited to write at Cyborgology, I attempted again:
Looking back, my experiences in the electronic dance subculture fifteen years ago were my first encounters with the augmented self. There was no distinction between the physical and the digital on the dance floor, and the future materialized through that world in ways that I struggled to understand.
Today, when my nephews play video games with the Kinect—a motion sensor device allowing them to interact with an Xbox with their bodies instead of a controller—I think back to the Bay Area warehouse rave scene in the years before the millennium, just before the movement peaked. Of how “technology” materialized in a sensory, eye-opening way. Of how the warehouse morphed into a massive machine, its insides rumbling and churning with sounds that were primal and raw. Of how we responded to techno through dancing, using our bodies to show what the sound looked like, but also how a machine seemed to be dancing with and leading us.
It was a world in which we truly played with technology—where the field was level, and where everyone, no matter who they were or where they were from, had access to it. I came back to this place each weekend, as if returning to a womb to be reborn as an upgraded being—to interact in a frictionless realm where we allowed machines to manipulate our bodies like yo-yos, and where we responded to their maternal calls.
It was a world in which we truly played with technology — where the field was level, and where everyone, no matter who they were or where they were from, had access to it.
This. This line resonates today, and it reveals what I truly loved about our scene.
Today, I see a San Francisco that I loathe. A sterile and soulless city. Rich, connected, but empty. I see a tech industry I cannot identify with, and am reluctantly part of. Plugged in, having instant access to pretty much anything with the click of a button.
I follow the evolution of “EDM” and today’s dance festivals: People facing a stage. Consuming an audiovisual experience. Hiding away in VIP tents. Programmed and expected to hear a drop.
And then I dream of nights when everyone actually danced, together. Where the sound was faceless, coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. Where everyone was the same in the dark. And where a single moment stretched for five hours — and you worked for your high.
This thread I began to weave, ten years ago, feels even more timely now.
Featured image was taken at 5Pointz in New York City.