A Cyberspace Odyssey

A search for meaning and identity on the blurred boundary separating virtual and physical space - the Internet as a religious experience.




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Text

Virtual space has existed, in various forms, for millennia. The latest manifestation is a virtual reality we experience through wires, switches and routers rather than stood inside a circle of stones.


An anaemic sun was barely visible through the early morning mist; as Summer Solstices went June 21st, 1994 was disappointing. Even so the Druids for a day standing on Silbury hill must have thought the watery sunrise spectacular as whoops and cheers were audible a kilometre away in Avebury. It was here, amongst the standing stones, for reasons less celestial, I was stood on that unseasonably cold, damp morning. I wanted to get inside of the minds of the people who, four thousand years ago, dragged large slabs of rock across Britain to construct this primitive temple; why suddenly wooden poles stopped working for them. The proximity of graves suggested a belief in an existence independent of flesh. But only those who saw these stones pulled upright really knew. Only they had the mind-altering experience of being first to believe in the existence of a primitive virtual world. All who followed, the generations that stood at this portal anchoring virtual space in the physical world arrive here as unquestioning believers. As do modern day Druids and after watching the re-enactment of a ritual rendered meaningless by centuries of reinterpretation of the true nature of virtual space, I left Avebury unenlightened and uninspired. An hour later I was back doing my day job - installing two computers in a nearby school.

Bookholtz Realschule

The PCs were connected, via ISDN telephone lines – what passed for broadband in 1994 – to computers used by pupils of Realschule Bookholtzberg in a small German town called Ganderkesee. Communicating with each other using text, voice and digital video the two groups of teenagers were tasked with jointly creating an online newspaper consisting of news gathered from their respective communities. This was a pre-internet age Facebook, although in 1994 Mark Zuckerberg was still learning Basic language programming on his father’s computer.


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Digithurst hairstyling system

The 1980s saw an explosion of companies using low cost personal computers to gain a foothold in the high tech market. Our plan was to write software that would enable a computer to ‘see’ objects and we did develop a technology to detect brain tumours although, until the late 1980s, our biggest selling product was a video editing system for hairdressers.


When founded twelve years earlier my company, Digithurst, had plans to use microcomputer technology as a digital visual cortex. With research gleaned from the Swiss engineering company, VBB, and East Germany’s Robotron, and the help of a student from a local technical college, we launched our first ‘vision system’ in 1983. Robotics, our target market, proved both limited and illusive so we diversified into scientific and medical imaging, satellite surveillance software and even tried sign-making. Our most lucrative product was a ‘try before you cut and dye’ video system for hairdressers - a must have for large salons in Germany and Austria during the 1980s. This application alone generated over a million pounds, most of it profit; enabling three people working from and office in the back of my garage to achieve an international presence without the aid of external finance.

In 1986 we developed hardware to display a live digital video feed within Microsoft windows. The project was funded by Reuter’s, who were planning to incorporate the hardware and software in their next generation of trading terminals. The timing was unfortunate, the final launch coming in the wake of Black Monday. Even so technology which, in the age of YouTube we now take for granted, caused a minor sensation when demonstrated to Reuter’s management. Unfortunately, we could think of few applications outside the financial services sector. A marketing manager who suggested video in a pop-up window would be ideal for watching porn in the office was rewarded for his accurate insight with a scowl from his boss. Apart from using it to make hairstyle editing more user friendly we did nothing with the technology until the following year.


Digithurst teletext

A by-product of the Reuters project was computer hardware and software that captured Teletext data and displayed it as part of a dynamic multimedia publication. Few people showed any interest apart from Teletext’s lawyer, who threatened us with legal action if we continued stealing their client’s content. Despite this we persisted with our vision of what newspaper publishing would look like in the digital age.


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Digithurst online newspaper

All the news that’s fit to digitise


Westminster Press, in the 1990s one of Britain’s major local newspaper publishers, invited us to present our on-line news concept at their in-house conference on digital publishing then offered to fund a trial. Had Westminster’s contribution, £100,000 and the support of its editorial staff, been the limit of the resources available the trial would have been little more than an exercise in digital publishing. However funding from an EU research program took the experiment to another level.

The EU Commission were encouraging the use of broadband communications in remote rural communities. We were managing a project which linked the town hall administrations of Ganderkesee in Germany and Chateau du Loir in France using video conferencing supported by multiple ISDN connections. The aim was to create what the EU Commission termed ‘broadband islands’ across Europe. The French partner pulled out after a dispute reminiscent of the one in the fictional town of Clochemerle. Instead of abandoning the project we offered up St John’s School in Marlborough as a broadband island and diverted the 1.5 million Euro into our on-line newspaper project. Unconventional, but in the early 1990s oversight of EU research funding was minimal; something which eventually cost several EU Commissioners their jobs. For now, however, this is how I came to be in Avebury on the longest day of the year.

Two weeks earlier I had been stood at another megalithic site; this one at Stenum a village three kilometres from Ganderkesee. Like their contemporaries in Avebury, the Beaker people seemed to believe in an existence transcending the physical; one unencumbered by the frailty and impermanence of human flesh. The stone structures here once housed the physical remains of ancestors and perhaps the Beakers too thought their ancestors had a place in a newly discovered virtual would. How compelling virtual space must have seemed to people who believed it held the promise of eternal life.

A definition of Cyberspace is the point in our universe where, when communicating electronically, the conversation takes place. The teenagers co-working on the online newspaper were predictors of the virtual universe’s big bang. There already existed online services such as CompuServe and AOL but their chatroom paradigm was anchored in the physical world; access was via dial up modem, it was like putting a note on the fridge door. With the always on video connection and automated translation the school children of Marlborough and Ganderkesee now had a collective and multidimensional telepresence. That point in a distant galaxy where a telephone conversation took place was about to explode and become a universe in its own right.


Digithurst broadcast news

The newspaper employed a broadcast, rather than networked, distribution model.


Meanwhile, back in physical space, the completed publication was routed through the editorial offices of the Swindon Gazette and Herald then broadcast in much the same way as Teletext. Digithurst had provided hardware and software enabling the publication to be read at various locations in Germany and Britain and, during a conference in Coventry, the title was launched as Europe’s first on-line newspaper. While, in retrospect, this was a technological dead end at the time Sky broadcasting had built an interactive service using a combination of broadcast and telephony. We were also aligning ourselves with Microsoft and Oracle who both championed the domestic television set as a multimedia device.


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1990s Facebook

The 1990’s version of Facebook - while Mark Zuckerberg was still in short trousers


There was another first, a manifestation of a phenomenon now familiar to users of social media. Only a small group of young people took part in the newspaper trial but, even so, we observed an early example of trolling during an experiment carried out by our project partner, The University of Bremen. The two groups of young people communicated first for two hours via video link followed by one hour using text messaging alone. Once visual contact was lost the attitude of the two groups changed. The girls found themselves excluded and the boys became more aggressive with exchanges between the two groups becoming increasingly xenophobic and misogynistic. For this we had to thank the people who built that monument in nearby Avebury.

Those first Summer Solstice celebrations must have been a carefree and relaxed affair; a break from a day to day existence during which the threat of violence was ever present. Life was often short and brutal. Predators and members of rival tribes lurked in shadows. Nature favoured the alert and those capable of responding aggressively to any perceived threat. We are all descended people who survived because they got their retaliation in first. Turning off the video-link plunged our users into virtual equivalent of primeval darkness. Included in our report on the trial was the observation that visual telepresence should form the basis of all networked interpersonal communication. As we produced computer video systems this suggestion was thought self-serving. Unfortunately, most communication in cyberspace would be carried blindfolded and for the descendants of people who suspected every tree hid a predator the Internet became a forest of shadows.


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1990s Facebook

A room is merely a virtual space someone conjures out of their imagination and confines within physical walls, AOL's chat rooms were a mirror image of this concept in virtual space.


In parallel with the online newspaper trial I was conducting a personal experiment in telepresence. We manufactured our computer hardware in Springe in Lower Saxony and in the forest to the north of the town was an abandoned hotel called the Steinkrug. I was seeking a retreat, an escape even, and made an offer for the property. Unfortunately, the owner was unwilling to sell. Digithurst was expanding and having already built one office for the company I now found a piece of land south of Cambridge and built a replica of the Steinkrug Hotel. The two buildings, the original and copy, became the testbed for the experiment. Standing in the reception of our new building I imagined myself stood in the Steinkrug in Germany. Likewise, when in Germany, stood in the deserted hotel I mentally placed myself in the office in Britain. A screen in the reception area of the building in Britain displayed, on a continual loop, the two buildings morphing into each other. Unlike the office the hotel had no labyrinth fired onto the tiled floor which, should anyone ask, suggested the complexity of micro-electronics. The Foucault’s pendulum swinging above it represented the processor’s clock. In truth, as the virtual space between the two buildings appeared occupied by something dark and needed Ariadne on hand if the panic button was pressed. The pendulum provided a much needed reference to a fixed time and place in the physical world.


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Three Journeys Into The Labyrinth

Three Journeys Into The Labyrinth predicted of the age of social media. Three virtual world interpretations of a series of real world events.


Increasingly my time was divided between developing technology and understanding what was happening during my excursions into virtual space. Analysts usually start out by asking a patient to say the first thing that comes into your head. It was along these lines I wrote the book ‘Three Journeys Into The Labyrinth.’ It was based on a stream of consciousness inspired by events leading up to the construction of the replica of the Steinkrug hotel its use as a portal into virtual space. Also finding its way into the text were accounts from my time in Cologne during the 1970s. Featuring heavily was a fascination with the Red Army Faction, which made no sense at the time. The text was edited into three stories. At various points the three fictional narratives intersected, and I hoped these nodes would provide the answers I was seeking. But this search extended beyond the book.

Susan Blackmore, a parapsychologist, had recently written a book, ‘Beyond The Body,’ based on her own research into out of body experiences. I combined a meeting with Inmos in Bristol, who produced the microprocessor we used in some of our products, with visit to Susan at her remote moorland cottage outside Bath. I also travelled to Oldenburg in Germany, ostensibly to discuss multimedia technology with Bernd Steinbrink, an expert on new media technology. Of equal interest, however, were Bernd’s insights into the life of Adolph Freiherr Knigge a leading member of the Order of the Illuminati and his connections with the Steinkrug hotel.

Then there was Hexenhammer, also known as The Malleus Maleficarum. Written in 1486 by clergyman, Heinrich Kramer, whose treatise on witchcraft, based on, prejudice, superstition and misogyny was used to justify the torture and execution of tens of thousands of women. Kramer, discredited in his native Austria, should have remained a footnote in history. However Gutenberg’s press, developed forty years earlier, saw Hexenhammer reproduced in large numbers; for the next two hundred years it outsold the bible. Parallels with the role cinema and radio played in the spread of fascism during the twentieth century were obvious. It seemed innovations in information technology, holding forth the promise of enlightenment but bringing with it something darker. Were my experiences, as recounted in ‘Three Journeys into The Labyrinth’ the result of subconsciously becoming aware of something evil that resided in virtual space? Or were these merely the 21th century version of those tales our primitive ancestors told while seated around the campfire; an attempt to explain something we had seen moving amongst the shadows.

My research led me along some very unconventional paths; with good reason the first two ‘journeys’ in the book were entitled ‘Circles of Conspiracy’ and ‘Circles of Madness.’ But as an engineer I was attracted by the idea of the simplest explanation being the most likely. My mental journey between the two buildings followed much the same route as those teenagers took when working on their newspaper; except as mine was a solitary experience and any trolling was self-inflicted. And so there became a growing realisation that the minotaur in the labyrinth and Ariadne were one and the same. Again, applying the logic of an engineer, as I was the only one in the room all that existed in my virtual world had been created from information collected in the physical world. I had journeyed into a virtual world carrying baggage; unfortunately, not all of it packed by myself. Rummaging through my night bag I discovered something dropped into it by my father.


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Space, both physical and virtual, is necessary for an individual to develop an identity and sometimes there is an absence of either


After it was hit in the skies over Berlin the RAF bomber flew in wide arc over the Brandenburg countryside and, in a desperate attempt to gain height, dropped its payload onto what, in the darkness, must have looked like farmland. Most of the bombs sunk into soft sandy soil; only one exploded, the one that hit my grandparent’s house. My father returned from the Eastern Front to find the house he helped his father build had been reduced to fragments of wood, brick and glass. The family had been due to move in the week after the raid but would now spend their last Christmas together in Altlandsberg’s mill. By April 1945 my father was fighting in the battle of Berlin. He became a member of the mythical Steiner army, made famous by numerous ‘Downfall’ YouTube parodies. Around the time Hitler was scammed on eBay by the Prince of Nigeria my father had joined a disorganised retreat towards the Elbe. He expected the American Army who would push the Red Army out of Western Europe and to be home in Berlin by Summer. But president Truman had other plans and my father spent the next three years in various POW camps during which time his mother died of malnutrition.

My father’s relationship with his mother had been particularly difficult. He was born left-handed, which in 1920’s German regarded as something of a taboo. His mother, a short-tempered woman believed a combination of physical and psychological persuasion would cure her son’s affliction. My father sometimes spent the day with one hand tied behind his back being told he was a useless embarrassment. His mother’s low opinion of him, and the guilt he felt because he had not been in Berlin to protect her, gave rise to a toxic mix of emotions which my father assuaged with an innovative form of denial.

Once free my father purchased a piece of land on the edge of a small village in East Anglia and to the surprise of his English in-laws, and most of the other residents of the village, set about building a house. This was not something a farmworker did on their own, especially one recently arrived in the country. But he had done this before, with my grandfather, and here was a chance to reboot his life. And while the Druids had the Summer Solstice my father had Christmas. This was the day the bridge between his old life in Germany and his new one in Britain would be repaired. The day the portal between the physical world where his new family resided and the virtual world where the memory of his mother as kept, would magically open.

Many men refer to their wife’s as, ‘mother,’ but in my father’s case this is exactly how he saw the English women he married; both her physical appearance and temperament were similar to the woman who dies amongst the ruins of Berlin. While our house was a tribute to my grandfather the family dynamic of its occupants owed much to my grandmother. While she was unable to usage my father’s guilt, my mother was quite content to play the role of the women responsible for it. This symbiotic relationship meant my sister and myself grew up devoid of maternal affection. It was much like living in a house full of siblings; all of us wanting something none of us were capable of giving.

Perhaps those Druids felt deflated if, come the, solstice clouds sun the obscured. Christmas was certainly a disappointment for us, especially for my father. He had built the house but it stayed resolutely fixed in the British countryside. It had not transported him back to Berlin and his mother did not congratulate him on his ingenuity as she stepped through the door. The attempt to turn back time had failed. It was not Christmas 1944, we all faced another year with the ghost and my father distracting himself by building something else.

My introduction to ritualistic raising of stones, the construction of buildings for people who existed only as a memory, came with the birthday present of wheelbarrow. From the age of eight much of my free time was spent mixing concrete and carrying bricks. The mantra was ‘succeed or die trying’ and by the time I was eighteen it was clear, by any material measure, we had succeeded. Unfortunately, material gain was never the goal and still being alive at the end of the day bought with it a sense of failure. The feeling that I was trapped in a no man's land of nihilism between the physical and virtual world was not helped by my father being one of those rare people who felt no pain. He was impervious to heat or cold and ignored cuts and bruises. Once, when hit in the eye with molten metal while welding he carried on working for the rest of the day claiming he could ‘get it fixed later,’ (on this occasion the ‘fix’ involved six weeks of treatment in Moorfields eye hospital.) It was possible a childhood spent transposing left to right had left my father’s brain unable to identify where pain originated. Certainly, something had created a separation of mind and body which dulled his senses and left him with an ambivalence towards, or even a contempt of, his flesh.

Rarely were my father and I physically separated by any great distance although mentally we were miles apart. He once told of the garden he tended while held prisoner; how he imagined it was Berlin. I started out a muddy field Cambridgeshire in 1962 with a person who was reconstructing a house in the Brandenburg in 1944. Fifty years later I was still part of a mind game in which my role was ambiguous. And with that ambiguity came a gradual erosion of identity.

There was no coercion, I was not forced to help my father. We lived an insular life in an isolated rural community and far as I could see this was a normal childhood. It was everyone else’s life that was directionless and without obvious purpose.

“You and your father rarely speak to each other.” My wife commented, thinking it strange two people could work with each other all day and only say ‘pass the hammer,’ ‘more bricks’ or ‘the bleeding seems to have stopped, so I’ll carry on.’ In retrospect this was an indication of how potentially corrosive the relationship with my father had become and how disastrously it would end. Not that I ignored any avenues of escape as they presented themselves; after all that is how I came to be working in the computer industry.


Enigma machine - an ill fated early version of Twitter

My father using the case of an Enigma machine as a card table. Computers were a taboo subject after he belatedly discovered this early version of Twitter had been hacked by mathematicians at Bletchley Park


Until my early teens my father helped me with my school homework, we would sit at the kitchen table solving mathematical problems. One evening he threw down his pencil saying, ‘That’s got me beat, you’re on own with this.’ Finally, I had something that was uniquely mine and would retreat into my bedroom and study. Much later computing would put me further out of reach as my father was an ardent technophobe. Having spent the second world war typing on an Enigma machine he was resentful that people as outwardly incompetent as the British had gained access to his data; that he had been Tweeting to all the world with ‘location’ turned on.

On leaving university in 1976 I was surprised when my father suggested I spent some time in Germany and had found me a job in Cologne. He also gave me the address of someone I might want to contact during my stay. This person, it transpired, was the girlfriend he planned to marry had he returned to Germany instead of staying in Britain. Not for the first time, or the last, my father was employing me as some sort of proxy.

After returning to Britain I founded Digithurst although running a company was more a hobby than a career. It provided an excuse to keep building because a rapidly expanding high tech companies constantly outgrow their offices. That expansion was much due to that ‘succeed or die trying,’ ethos as being in the right place at the right time with the right product. But as we prepared to enter the online age something changed; there was a loss of both the focus and aggression required to maintain momentum. The reason for this increasing inertia was hinted at in the text of ‘Three Journeys into The Labyrinth’ although it was to be a second book ‘Fahrenbrink’ that provided the Eureka moment.


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Westminster Press

The beginning of the long slow, digital, death of the newspaper publishing industry


By 1994 Britain was two years into a commercial property crisis triggered by events on the other side of the world. The Asian crisis hurt UK financial institutions who had invested heavily in the so-called Tiger economies. Banks and investment houses were calling in loans, cutting overdrafts and raising interest rates. In this battle any company mortgaged commercial property risked becoming collateral damage. Hence several floors of Millbank Tower were vacant. The reception area too was empty, save for dissembled office furniture. But the top floor was occupied and stepping out of the lift into Pearson’s headquarters was like entering a gentlemen’s club that was suspended over post apocalyptical landscape. But I was not there to admire the view; this was a final attempt to interest the newspaper industry in our online publishing technology.

Six months earlier, when the trail ended Westminster Press lost interest in the project. Something had to be done in response to the imminent arrival of digital publishing; but now they had done it. According to the company’s business analyst there was less happening in the virtual world than we had assumed. Unsurprisingly Westminster’s journalists had little enthusiasm for user created content. Editors felt user interaction would be limited to online letters page and their newspaper’s highly lucrative premium rate number sex and joke chatlines. Little wonder reader interaction has proved so corrosive for local newspapers. In desperation I took the concept to Pearson; Westminster’s owner. Halfway through the presentation, which was not going well, I began wondering what people used instead of PowerPoint in 3000BC.

The effort and resources used to drag massive rocks for hundreds of miles, rolling them on logs and floating them on purpose-built barges, must have been immense. Labour was diverted from farming to construct the monument and excavate earthworks. The payback would have been long, perhaps decades, but worth it. Power, wealth and influence would accrue to any tribe controlling access to a gateway into a mystical virtual world. While there were already monuments built from simple wooden posts, with stone came permanence; an opportunity to translate first mover advantage into a monopoly. The problem I had, which Druids did not, was that my client already had power, wealth and influence and was a dominant player in the local newspaper market; a cash cow requiring very little investment or changes to its business model.

The 1980s has been good for local news publishers. A decade when people thought there was no longer such a thing as society, the age of individualism. The local newspaper had become one of the last institutions holding together rapidly fragmented communities. There was a great deal of affection for, and loyalty to, the local rag. This was also the age of opportunity. People were encouraged to buy their own houses and start their own businesses and as estate agents and small companies promote themselves locally advertising revenue grew. Apart from community magazines Westminster Press faced little competition. And as it was assumed the reader’s choice of title was based as much on aesthetics as content then best to invest in colour presses rather than online publishing. While the online world beckoned in 1994 it was a mere speck on the horizon. Received wisdom was, accurate as it transpired, that local newspapers would endure a lucrative twenty-year death. On-line news made a bad fit with the short termism that gripped British industry. Within two years Pearson had sold Westminster Press to NewsQuest as part of the consolidation that would see a slow motion implosion of the local newspaper industry.

I was hoping Pearson might have applications for our news distribution technology in other parts of its business. But it had recently purchased Future Publishing, whose titles included a computer magazine called .Net, so was already familiar with the Internet. As popularity of the World Wide Web grew the Financial Times went online, providing readers with access to source data on which news articles were based. However as the cost of accessing the Internet via a dial up modem was prohibitively high and it was felt the Financial Times was the only title people would pay to read on-line.

The local newspaper industry proved unable to transform its audiences into a virtual community. First readers, then advertisers, migrated to Facebook. Titles survived by cutting costs and sourcing news from social media rather than buying it from news agencies or using teams of reporters to gather it. As content generation was centralised titles became less relevant locally. Content was designed to provoke responses below the line in the hope subscribers sent stories viral on Twitter or Facebook. Rather than informative and encouraging cohesion within communities they served local newspapers have become a divisive and combative form of entertainment. The mantra ‘think global and act local’ has been replaced with ‘think local and act tribal.’

To avoid becoming a cesspit of racism, misogynistic abuse and misinformation Facebook employs powerful algorithms and thousands of people to monitor user interaction. Few local newspaper publishers can finance that level of moderation so are now either scaling back below the line comments or, in some cases, ceasing to be interactive. Those that still attempt to compete with social media are, like social media itself, becoming increasingly shrill.

My involvement in the industry ended long before it entered its death throws and gave up all hope of becoming a gateway into virtual space. By the end of 1994 I had moved on.

Digithurst, like the owners of Millbank towers, struggled in the wake of the Asian crisis. For us the downturn delivered a triple whammy. Building our own offices had allowed us to ride the property market. Valuations rose during periods when R&D costs were high which meant developing new products had minimal impact on our bottom line. Now, part way through an R&D program, property values fell and the asset side of the balance sheet shrank. The video in windows technology we developed for Reuters, and incorporated in our own products, was now available from far east manufactures embedded in a single processor. With these chips Asian companies were building low cost computer peripherals. A state backed manufacturer, based in Singapore, produced over 10,000 video graphics cards before going bust and dumping the entire production run into the market at fire sale prices. Our bank was one of the institutions that indirectly financed our competitor’s largesse. A relatively stable business environment became a game of musical chairs and our bank was determined it would be sat on the last chair in the room.


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Digithurst Picturebook

The Internet made it possible to transfer AI functionality from the PC onto a server and create a network that is both intrusive and impossible for the user to turn off


No longer competitive in the computer hardware market we put more effort into producing software. Applications, originally given away free with graphics cards, were rewritten and sold as standalone software packages including the multimedia browser on which the online newspaper was based. Called ‘PictureBook’ the next version of this browser employed AI algorithms to identify content likely to be of interest to the user. In this respect PictureBook was more advanced than Netscape’s browser as well as anything Microsoft has developed since. These ‘web’ browsers used IA algorithms running server side rather than on the PC. A difference that would have a profound impact to the way the Internet developed.

As PictureBook could also be used to edit content I fed the text of the ‘Three Journeys into the Labyrinth’ into a PC then use the software’s AI feature to identify the points where the three narratives intersected. This exercise in computer aided self-discovery inspired a second book, ‘Fahrenbrink.’ Essentially the ‘Fourth Journey,’ this time the setting was the deserted Steinkrug hotel; here, as author of the first book, I was held prisoner and interrogated by various characters from the tree stories. The aim was to produce an allegory of the computer’s deconstruction of my text to illustrate the potential intrusiveness of AI technology.


Fahrenbrink

The second book was partially computer generated, with text of 'Three Journeys Into The Labyrinth' fed into a computer and analysed using a set of AI algorithms


Up until this point one node within all the narratives had been difficult to explain. Three different scenarios in the first book were inspired by the short time I spent in Cologne. While there I took an interest in the increasing violent urban terrorist movement and fictionalised accounts of the killing of a German industrialist found their way into ‘Three Journeys into The Labyrinth.’ The software was able to link these three nodes and I discovers my father was had not been alone in using others as proxies.

Most my generation wanted clear blue water between themselves and Germany’s past and realised this was impossible while our fathers were still alive. Subconsciously we regarded patricide as the path to liberation. The murder of Hanns Martin Schleyer by terrorists satisfied this fantasy. Perhaps I should have been more careful what I wished for.

One evening, before leaving for Germany, I visited my father in hospital. He was recovering from a bronchitis and almost as an aside he confessed he saw his respiratory problems as the beginning of the end. Despite what he thought he was not dying; it would be another fifteen years before he succumbed to COPD. But the realisation he no longer regarded himself as indestructible, that he too was vulnerable to the frailties of flesh, came as shock. At this point I should have taken note of something else common to all three narratives in the book, that they all envisage my own demise. While this was a turning point, a realisation that I would eventually be free, it was also the day I simply gave up.

Fahrenbrink altered my attitude to high technology, I saw a darker side to this AI controlled networked world that, years later, companies such as Cambridge Analytica would exploit. Telling was that, unlike ‘Three Journey’s into the Labyrinth,’ I wrote this second book using my own name rather than a nom de plume. Even then I still believed that, as in my experiment, the AI software that carried out personal profiling would run on the user’s computer rather than a server buried deep in data centre on the other side of the world. Only I was privy to the data that was used to create Fahrenbrink and only I chose what was extracted from it and presented to the world in a fictionalised form.

Today, social media users have no way of knowing how their streams of consciousness are interpreted by Google, Facebook and Twitter. Using programming tools such Python a first-year psychology undergraduate can recreate the Fahrenbrink experiment by accessing social media posts, with or without the connivance of Facebook or Twitter. What we have learned about profiling and manipulation of voters prior to elections only scratches the surface of what is being done to users of the Internet.

Attempting to explain where the Internet was about to take us was hampered by the lack of evidence. All I had was my own experience, a rather bizarre experiment with the two buildings and the book Fahrenbrink. The unconventional use of our browser was demonstrated at a conference on computing aided psychology. However, the concept was too abstract, too personal, too unscientific and wondered if I was really trying to sell the concept or seeking help.

For a second time I presented the online newspaper concept in a room at the top of a tall building. Like Pearson, the EU commission were unimpressed; expressions of disbelief where simultaneously translated into three different languages. We had turned the EU’s concept on its head and instead of building a trans-European network radiating best practices from its hub we encouraged anarchy at its edges and partied on the beach of those hallowed broadband islands. I included every buzz phrase that came to mind: ‘harmonisation,’ ‘cross boarder cooperation’ and ‘social cohesion’ to name but a few, but the audience as unmoved. The EU communications research program was dominated by telephone operators (telcos) and multinational software companies and the broadband island concept was designed with these in mind. Our young online newspaper journalist’s use of broadband cannibalised revenue telcos earned from overpriced voice connections. Uncontrolled innovation at the edge of networks threatened to open up telephone networks to small software companies. A representative from IBM criticised the absence of industry standards, in particularly those which were keeping his company’s competitors out of communications software market. Our project was ‘red flagged’ meaning work had to stop until we fell back into line.

As a demonstration of how woefully lacking the Broadband Island concept was in the Internet age the project was a success. It just came too late for Europe’s software industry, which was sacrificed to protect the profits of national telephone operators.


10

Virtual Reality or Virtual Extinction

’Virtual Reality or Virtual Extinction’ was not as pessimistic as the title suggested, but neither was it the sort of essay the CEO of a high tech company, confident about the future, would write


The project did restart, but without Digithurst. The research that inspired Fahrenbrink was condensed into an article I hoped would make it accessible to a wider audience. Published in magazines in Germany, Holland, France and Britain, ‘Virtual Reality or Virtual Extinction,’ was not as negative as its title suggested. It postulated that virtual space opened up by the increasing use of networking would become a place where conflicts were resolved without causing death and destruction in the physical world. It would provide a growing repository of knowledge, accessible to all. But there was a dark side of this Eutopia, although not one involving robot assisted, or initiated, genocide. Instead I foresaw impact of modern communication technology on human consciousness leaving us marooned in wasteland between the virtual and physical world.

We are consciousness because there is latency within complex bundles of nerves, such as the brain. The world as we perceive it is the world as it was 13 milliseconds ago. Consciousness is merely our memory of what is happening now. As the Internet is made up of numerous complex networks, it too could be regarded as ‘conscious’ - an interesting question for Alexa or Siri. While unlikely the answer would be ‘yes’ our tendency to believe complex machines can reason has shaped our relationship with computers. Even if networks are not conscious in the biological sense their ability to mimic human consciousness radically alters our perception of both them and the virtual world they create; even more so if our connection to them is near permanent.

The early nineteen nineties saw the first wave of Internet euphoria; not the time for anyone, especially the CEO of high-tech company, to give voice to doubts. Having been invited to speak at the Television Conference in Edinburgh I found myself involved in a heated debate with a BBC executive waxing lyrical about the Internet and the brave new world of digital broadcasting. I pointed out that no one would turn on a nuclear reactor without performing a few elementary tests so, given its potential impact, we should take care with this new multimedia broadcasting factory. The audience warmed to this idea and the executive lost his temper, claiming that, as with conventional television, there was always the off knob. I often wonder how minutes a day he now spends without broadband connectivity.

There were similar exchanges at other events; I had become the token luddite on conference panels, a foil for the digital cheerleaders, and increasingly found people mesmerised by the rising sun difficult to distract. Meanwhile Digithurst was slowly dying, mostly through neglect. A fear of what the future holds encourages a person cling to the past; the only reason I was trying to keep the company afloat. Digithurst had served its purpose and now mortality rather than high technology would free me from my father. Opportunities still presented themselves. We received a call from CERN requesting we modified our PictureBook browser to enable it to display web pages. Three years earlier I would have flown to Geneva, with a software engineer in tow, on the off chance this thing called ‘the World Wide Web’ caught on. But the days of succeeding or dying in the attempt were over; my father’s take on existentialism had lost its appeal.

While the future was a dark void I could still retreat into that virtual space between our office and the Steinkrug Hotel. But even this space now felt less secure and I suspected the building, my crowning achievement, was not all it seemed. After all, wasn’t my father trying to build a portal into his former life in Germany, a shrine in which he could remain in contact with his deceased mother. Again I felt I had been used.

We had developed video hardware for Robert Bosch, who used it to transmit digital X-Ray images and this provided the German division of Digithurst with a foothold in the growing computer aided radiography market. It would be over a decade before the NHS went digital by which time Digithurst UK had closed. The PictureBook browser software met an ignominious end; used to display advertisements on lottery terminals.


11

Virtual Futures 95

In retrospect one of the most important computer conferences of the 1990s. Early pioneers returned from cyberspace to warn future explorers there were mantraps and monsters in this brave new world. Few outside the conference hall listened, still fewer took notice.


In his book ‘Virtual History’ Niall Ferguson describes the shortcomings in attaching historical significance to near trivial events. It is tempting to think one phone call could have brought Digithurst’s browser to the market ahead of Netscape’s. That all the data collected during Internet browsing would be retained on the user’s PC rather than a server. That we could delete our online identity at will and, at a time of choosing, recreate our virtual world identity. That, and me enjoying a Pacific Ocean sunset from the veranda of a mansion in California, was never going to happen. But in my opinion, there was a single incident that did change the history of the Internet; Warwick University’s decision to close its Cybernetic Culture Research Unit.

Founded by philosophy researchers Nick Land and Sadie Plant the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) took an unorthodox approach to research and how it presented the results to the public. At times the CCRU’s Virtual Futures conferences took on the appearance of drug fuelled raves with deafening experimental music and videos created by performance artists from the cyberpunk community. The presentations during daylight hours were more measured and by mid-morning of the first day of Virtual Futures 95 I already felt vindicated. My own research into the nature of virtual space, unconventional as it was, had some validity and amongst like-minded people I felt less like Veronica Cartwright in the closing scene of ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ Even the demise of Digithurst felt less of a loss.

The conference attracted philosophers whose work would become increasingly relevant during the Internet age. Manuel DeLanda theory of self-organising materials predicted the Internet as a disruptor. He used the life cycle of sedimentary rock as a metaphor for the replacement of real-world networks by virtual networks. For one moment I was back in Avebury on that miserably cold morning the previous June, finger pressed on a standing stone which was porous and damp to the touch. Porosity saved the stones from being broken into pieces and used as building material. Instead they have been left to erode; slowly, in geological time, they will be reduced to small grains of sand and washed into the sea as silt. Under the weight of the ocean this silt will be forged into a single homogenous structure; the rock will have returned to its original state.

DeLanda believed the Internet would accelerate the erosion of established economic, social and political structures and, in doing so, set us free. Unfortunately, this freedom would be short lived and only enjoyed by a selected elite. If everyone was freed from the structures binding them these structures would no longer exist, creating something of a paradox. De Landa saw the re-organising of society during the Internet age resembling the formation of layers of sedimentary rock. It was left to Franco Berardi of the University of Bologna, to take this analogy to its logical conclusion, believing DeLanda’s stratification would see political structures emerging in the virtual world which closely resembled fascist structures found in the physical world.

Few of the delegates at Virtual Futures were concerned by the possible emergence of Cyber Fascism. Cyberspace was merely a playground for performance artists and cyberpunks. It was being used as a laboratory by an elite group of philosophers experimenting with post-Marxist, post-capitalist and post-Deleuzian concepts. The Virtual Futures 95 program stated as much and despite the growing popularity of the Internet most speakers at the conference saw their virtual world remaining unsullied. Mackenzie Wark believed that, after the failure of the super data highway, on which the EU’s misconceived Broadband Islands concept was based, future attempts to commercialise of cyberspace would also come to grief. According to Wark it had proved impossible to anchor in the physical world references to anything in virtual space. Even so companies were staking a claim to parts of cyberspace and championing this commercialisation was John Browning.


Following John Browning’s resignation as editor of Wired Magazine emphasis shifted from a philosophical examination of cyberspace to the cataloguing of software and gadgets used to gain access to this virtual world.


A cheer went up when it was announced Browning’s presentation had been cancelled. The man who had turned the cyberpunks bible into an open invitation to corporations to fill the virtual world with space junk had resigned as executive editor of Wired UK. Browning’s resignation was a battle won but, in some respects, the war was already lost. America On-line released its users onto the Internet and, once in cyberspace, the walls of their chatrooms evaporated into a cloud of pixels. Freed from this earthbound paradigm ‘net newbies’ cooked burgers on Bunsen burners in the philosopher’s laboratory and stored pornography on the stage were the cyber punks once performed. The elite, who now had to share the Internet, referred to AOL users as ‘Arseholes On Line,’ and, worst was to come. Following the Newbies into cyberspace came all manner of commercial organisations. Cyberspace was no longer a laboratory for post-capitalist theorists but, instead, a shopping mall for capitalist practitioners. There then came the venture capital funded Dot Com boom and at last the world understood how our distant ancestors were persuaded to drag large rocks across open countryside for no apparent commercial gain.

While the Internet had liberated political thinkers and technocrats all it would offer the masses attempting to follow was fear uncertainty and doubt. Conventional social, political and economic structures would be eroded, and people grounded within these structures set adrift. A spacewalk in cyberspace is fun until you realise you are no longer attached to a spacecraft. People would become disorientated; questioning every aspect of their identity and desperately seeking security in new structures. As DeLanda’s theory on self-organising material suggested stratification would be rigidly hierarchical and Berardi’s warning of the emergence of cyber fascism would prove pertinent. But that was a decade in the future and most of the delegates at the conference clung to the idea that what happened in cyberspace stayed in cyberspace, even though James Der Derian thought different.

Der Derian predicted the growing weaponization of the Internet; it was after all an extension of ARPANET, a US Defence department project. The premise in my article ‘Virtual Reality or Virtual Extinction,’ that the Internet would virtualise all conflict, unravelled as Der Derian spoke. He saw conflict leaching out of cyberspace and manifesting itself as new form of real-world warfare. Online games would morph into software to pilot remotely operated drones. This video game style warfare would desensitise both the perpetrator and those observing the conflict. It would also become increasingly difficult to differentiate the imagery of real conflict from war movies and video games. In the online world news would become just another form of entertainment. This modelling of the physical world on artefacts created in cyberspace struck me as intriguing; reminiscent of my father’s rendering of dreams in bricks and mortar. It also recalled the extract from Plato’s Timaeus included at the end of ‘Three Journeys into The Labyrinth,’ describing the relationship between eternal and perfect world of forms.

The conference was not confined to philosophy and numerous sessions were dedicated to technology. One speaker suggested that, in the future, there would exist software so compelling people downloaded it onto their computer even though, once there, it would steal all their personal data. I guess this person is now living in a mansion in California, perhaps next door the Reuters manager who predicted video for windows would create a market for online pornography.

Even the breaks were informative and there was much to learn from eavesdropping on the conversation between De Landa and his band of disciples. One delegate suggested exposure to cyberspace would elevate human consciousness. De Landa’s response was hardly re-assuring as he believed man’s level of consciousness was bound by biological constraints, that it had plateaued and while it might shift from one state to another it would remain on the same plane. Personally, I still adhered to the view that consciousness like any other attribute of the human body would decline through lack exercise. But we had been here before in the 1960s.

We were told LSD expanded our minds, lifted us onto another plane of consciousness. But the drug merely reduced the ability of receptors in the brain to filter information. Now we had the Internet; an information firehose flooding our brains with data. The more we knew the less we understood. Overuse of LSD caused psychosis; rather than lifting us onto a higher plane of consciousness our senses were dulled. Would the Internet do the same?

Google did not exist in 1995 and it would be a decade before the revolutionary new way we processed information caused structural changes to the human brain; ten years before we started thinking in metatags. Little did we know that a post-Wittgenstein monster was about to break out of cyberworld’s laboratory and for us in physical space there would be no escape. Perhaps we could unplug our broadband routers, throw away our smart devices and go live in a cave. But leaving the online world, where in the future we expected every to reside, would condemn us to a hermit like existence in the physical world. The future, as viewed from the conference hall, was of a virtual space where an image of the world was manufactured and forced on the physical world. And this image of the world would be whatever those who controlled virtual space deemed it to be. Physical space would have to adjust to this manufactured truth. All that was missing from this prediction of a dystopian future was Donald Trump’s Twitter feed displayed on the screen at the front of the room.

The shared digital image would see us increasingly viewing the world through electronic devices and nothing in the physical world existing until it was referenced in the virtual world. We would function a single ommatidia in a compound eye connected to the visual cortex of a meta-man. Our perception of what is aesthetically pleasing would be determined by the number of likes an image of it received on social media.

Like the first Druids to see the sun rise between the stones at Avebury we were about to experience a once seen, never forgotten, transformation. The Internet would change us, we would never be the same again; mankind, as it existed before this communication revolution would become extinct. For most of our stone age ancestors, gathered at Avebury every solstice, the celebration was merely an entertaining ritual. Few would have appreciated the power now concentrated in hands of those who controlled this gateway into the virtual world. For us too technology once thought entertaining would be used to exert social and political control. The Internet would become prison, confining us by building walls in our minds.


Guardian articles link to Facebook servers

Readers of the Cambridge Analytica story on the Guardian's website are covertly connected to a Facebook server. br>


With childlike naivety the behaviour of Cambridge Analytica was revealed to a shocked and horrified public. It is unlikely anyone attending the Virtual Futures conference in 1995 would have been surprised by the so-called misuse of personal information. This was how companies colonising cyberspace envisaged the Internet and the World Wide Web working. Commercially, the only way the Internet would work. Every scroll, click, spinning wheel, swipe left or right is designed to manipulate. What started out as simple tools to search the World Wide Web would reengineer human cognition. We would be incapable of turning the Internet or changing the way it operated. Looking for a platform on which to protest the misuse of your personal information? The best of luck with that; readers of the Cambridge Analytica story on the Guardian's website covertly have their browser connected to third party web sites - some of which harvest data; ironically one of these belongs to Facebook. Ten minutes browsing the World Wide Web sees you parting with more personal data than the Stasi collected from the average East German in a year.

Was our virtual future written in stone? Had, in the lead up to the Dot Com boom, Virtual Futures grown into a mainstream high-tech conference then, perhaps the Internet would have developed in plain sight. Perhaps it would have remained under the control of the user. Instead it has evolved in the shadows; a surveillance machine in the guise of an entertainment system. Instead we have been crushed like sedimentary rock under an ocean of data.

The demise of the Virtual Futures conference was due, in part, to Nick Land’s troubled relationship with Warwick University. Some of CCRU’s activities were deemed a little too exotic for a business orientated institution. In an interesting parallel with my own research the CCRU carried out an investigation into the connection between Cybernetics and the occult. Following the closure of the CCRU Land persisted with his research into acceleration, concluding that the Internet would take us into a post democratic age. He now occupies the same philosophical space as Steve Bannon and the Alt-Right; except Land merely describes mankind’s condition whereas Bannon exploits it for the benefit of political movements.

With Digithurst gone there was no way to use anything learned at Virtual Futures 95 to extend my own research. In fact after the conference my involvement in technical aspects of all things cyberspace came to an end. An interview I gave to a journalist from Wired might have opened doors, but the UK edition of the magazine closed, and the article was never published.


12

The say a man is not complete until their father dies. But this assumes the identities of the two have not, over the years, become so enmeshed they are almost impossible to untangle. br>


The weather during that weekend at Warwick University had been hot and humid with clouds clamped down on the campus like the lid of a pressure cooker. The storm finally broke during my journey home; lorries sucked spray off waterlogged roads and lighting strikes illuminated the surrounding countryside. In the summer of 2012 I am, once again, travelling through a storm, although this time by train. Wind hammered the rain against the windows and rocked the carriage and for a while it seemed the whole train was suspended in the clouds. At the Belgium/German border the storm moved north and by the time I arrived in Berlin the rain clouds were emptying themselves into an already flooded river Elbe.

After Digithurst closed I started a publishing company which produced reports on renewable energy and the use wireless technology in healthcare. I had also written two novels one of which I felt unable to publish. Since 2009 I had been trying to come to terms with the death of my father. The unpublished novel was part of this process; unsuccessful as it turned out, so I was back in the virtual world, playing mind games again.

Grief counsellors, or at least the one who I was referred to, suggest a final meeting with the deceased brings closure. Each party decides what parts of their relationship they are keeping and which parts they are prepared to let go. It had been a mistake to divi up our lives at the same table where my father I and battled with my maths homework. Halfway through the negotiations he sighed and threw down the pencil ‘you’re on your own with this’ he said, then scooped everything off the table and was gone. Left staring at an empty table I notice she was still there; the slight built woman with a fox fur draped around her neck. I had honestly thought the ghost belonged to my father not me. Obviously, she was the ‘this’ he was referring to.

Feeling tricked my first reaction was to blame my father for a problem that was both mine and existed only in my head. While he was alive too much what should have separated us overlapped. Too little of myself developed independent of him. The rock had hit the bottom of the hole and the rope attaching it to my ankle was fifty-six years too short. I was beginning to suspect I was suffering from Cotard's syndrome, convinced it was me, rather than my father, who was dead. As existential problems go believing you no longer exist is particularly challenging.

The first rule of mind games is there are no rules. The loser is not compelled to accept the result but can keep playing until they win. I had chosen to meet to meet my father in place where I was vulnerable; the next time I would choose a location where he was disadvantaged.

The little I knew of my father’s wartime experiences was gleaned history books and eavesdropping on his conversations with his colleagues. One incident mentioned on several occasions occurred shortly after the battle of Berlin. Already in danger of being outrun by the Red Army and finding himself on the same road as a column of Russian trucks my father hid in a barn. All the trucks rolled by save one which came to a halt with a punctured tyre. For what he said felt like a lifetime, but was probably less than an hour, an engineer changed the tyre while the Russian soldiers sat beside the road. My father’s experience on the Eastern front taught him what to expect if captured on his own. There was a tense moment when one of the soldiers broke away from the group and approached the barn. The trickling sound and smell or urine, while unpleasant, indicated the Russian was less interested in what might be in the barn than finding somewhere to relieve himself. With the road clear my father continued his journey and eventually surrendered to the US army. It was in that barn he was vulnerable; a frightened teenager trapped for a lifetime with plenty of time to reflect on the fate of his mother back in Berlin. So, the location for the next meeting with my father had been decided although finding the barn would prove challenging.

My father’s regiment had been almost wiped out in a battle with the Red Army near Budapest. His 500 strong reconnaissance battalion was reduced to himself and fourteen others. When his regiment was sent north to defend what is now Gdansk my father remained in Berlin where he helped rebuild and re-equip his battalion. In late April this half reconstituted, and still unarmed, battalion was rushed north by train to join the rest of the regiment following its evacuation by sea to Peenemünde. Less than an hour into the journey the train came to a halt as the Red army had crossed the Oder and broke through the German lines near Angermünde. Gotthard Heinrici was carrying out a survey of what remained on the Eastern front and noted in his diary that he met a group of soldiers from my father’s battalion recently disembarked from a train at Eberswalde and scouring the town for weapons. I now had the first waypoint for my Garmin eTrex.

My father joined the mythical Steiner army and camped in field near Joachimstal and following news that the war was over joined the disorderly retreat west. Working out the exact route any one soldier took to the Elbe was not easy and here I was dependent on anecdotal evidence.

In 1971 my father returned to East Germany for the first time since the second world war. Driving South from Hamburg he should have driven along the corridor to Berlin. This was not the time you wanted to hear the phrase ‘I know a short cut.’ He tried navigating the same roads along which he fled in 1945. Unfortunately what had previously been open countryside south of Templin was, in 1972, the site of Eastern Europe’s largest Soviet airbase; for a second time my father had an unfortunate encounter with a truck full of Russian soldiers. The day after arriving in Eberswalde I walked through Joachimstal and then along the length of the runway of the former Templin airbase; by then a solar farm, car racing circuit and Siemens self-driving truck test track. The second night of my journey was spent in a small village called Grunewald.

After the regiment’s medic and diarist was shot while being chased through woodland near Fürstenberg there were no more written references to father’s battalion. Even so I did know the next waypoint was on a road near Rheinsberg.

A family friend has served in the British army as a driver and, after being captured at Dunkirk, spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Poland. In May 1945 he was on a death march across north Germany. Both he and my father spent a Sunday afternoon studying a map and found the stretch of road where in 1945 they had been briefly walked side by side. Rheinsberg is also the site of a now disused nuclear power station. Deciding to walk through, rather than around, it I became caught on the barbed wire on top of a gate. While freeing myself I gashed both hands pulled a muscle in my leg then, landing on the railway tracks below, injured my back.

Somewhere close to near Perleberg the remnants of my father’s regiment went into combat for the last time; battling its way through the Russian lines to surrender to the US Army at Lenzen. The fighting was nowhere near as intense as it had been in Hungary. No one in the Red Army wanted to die in a war that was over; especially after finding themselves in the world’s largest timepiece emporium.

I limped into Lenzen, by then I was minus a toenail and covered in insect bites; one of which was care of a tic (a week after returning to Britain I was diagnosed with of Lyme’s disease.) Still, I was in pursuit of my father so expected a certain amount of discomfort. It was just unfortunate I had reached the Elbe without finding the barn.

The next day I headed north intending to cross the Elbe at Dömitz. Pains in my leg and back forced me to take frequent breaks, one of which was at a restaurant which had just finished serving lunch. Hung on the wall were pictures of the building during the DDR era and a casual enquiry about one of these prompted a story of the sort I had heard several times on my walk from Berlin. I listened to the description a world that had stopped; of families in a state of suspended animation. Joining me at my table the owner told of the years her parents looked out across the fields at their restaurant; inaccessible as it lay within the border security zone and gradually falling into disrepair. As this story unfolded, I realised, sitting in front of me was the ghost my father left in my care. There is nothing supernatural about this, I was simply projecting onto this woman attributes of a person who resided in that strange virtual world my father and I once shared. The ability to manifest herself in the physical world was something she acquired even before my father’s death. The illusion was usually short lived but, even so, distorted my relationship with women. On this occasion the illusion persisted. Then I saw through the window of the restaurant, next to the road at the rear of the building, a wood and brick barn.

My father had no sense of humour, he did not do irony, so I resisted the temptation to relieve myself on the barn door. I sensed him watching me through the narrow gaps between sun-bleached wooden slats. Probably frightened, so rather than pushing against the barn door I waited. There were no Russian trucks, just a shimmering heat haze rising from the road and Swallows sailing over wheat fields and snatching insects from beneath willow trees.


The ghost in the barn

Like our ancestors, who trekked to the standing stones at Avebury, we sometimes seek resolution in places where the virtual and physical worlds overlap.


He looked younger than I had expected, only nineteen, young enough to be my son. And that was the point of this elaborate charade; a software patch removing the lingering memory of a domineering father and rewriting a corrosive family dynamic.

It was highly unlikely this was the barn, my father’s hiding place could have been anywhere between Eberswalde and Wittenberg. But then I’m sure when Druids built portals into their virtual world little heed was paid to the geological structure of the rock. All I had sought was a visual cue, a prop for this trick. But I was winging it and still uncertain how this game would play out in the end.

My father seemed in a hurry, I guess he knew some of the bridges across the Elbe had been destroyed. He was heading for the river in search of a crossing point and as we passed the window of restaurant, on a whim, I nodded towards owner inside clearing tables, the woman reminiscent of my grandmother. I muttered under my breath, ‘see, she’s safe,’ and this seemed to work.

Although I could sense my father with me when I arrived in Dömitz we parted shortly after crossing the road bridge. He wandered off into a meadow to bury a revolver, the one he kept hidden under his coat in case the Americans needed help fighting the Red Army. He did not come back. I felt liberated just as I had when stepping off the train at Köln railways station in 1976. But back then freedom was illusory, it was offered with strings attached. This time I wanted to be sure.

This mind game ended in a café in Braunschweig. It was here my father and I planned to stay while constructing Digithurst’s stand at an exhibition in Hannover. For him the opportunity to visit Braunschweig would make bearable a week surrounded by computers. He and was disappointed when I found more suitable accommodation in Springe. ‘You’re on your own with this now’ I was told over dinner on the second evening and the next morning my father was gone. Later I discovered he had travelled to Celle, a small town close to where we originally planned to stay. Likewise visits to the company’s office in Nuremburg would involve excursions to nearby Roth. On one occasion while collecting him I caught sight of the person he visited; another near facsimile of my grandmother. I think the search was continuing to death, and to make sure it had not extended beyond it I was waiting.

At any moment I would spot him amongst the passers-by as happened a lot after he died. Just maybe she would be with him but more likely he would be on his own. He would pull the chair from the other side of the table and sit down. “How was your week?” I would ask, as I had when he returned to Springe. And he would sigh and shake his head because, as with those visits to Roth and Köln, he had discovered only in the virtual world was it possible to turn back the clock and bring back the dead.

The street emptied and as the streetlights came on and I was left, sat alone, reflecting on the thirty years of madness that began as I stood amongst the stones in Avebury. Was the perception of my relationship with my father shaped by those experimental journeys into the virtual world, or was it the other way around? Did I see in an Internet generated cyberspace a reflection of the real-world experience of being trapped in someone else’s never ending dream. When all this started, as I stood amongst the awayday Druids in Avebury, I felt out of my comfort zone; a suit amongst Kaftans, a money man amongst people who traded beads. Sat in the café in Braunschweig again I felt self-conscious. What if, when I looked up from my coffee, everyone in the room was staring at the crazy person waiting for ghosts. Casting an eye around the room I realised my fears were un-founded. I was alone, all the tables were occupied by people from a virtual world staring at rectangular pieces of glass.

The ghost in the labyrinth