[Air-L] Rest in Peace: Steve Cisler

Jeremy Hunsinger jhuns at vt.edu
Tue May 20 07:40:51 PDT 2008

Begin forwarded message:

> Resent-From: nettime at kein.org
> From: t byfield <tbyfield at panix.com>
> Date: May 19, 2008 11:15:46 PM CDT
> Resent-To: Nettime <nettime-l at kein.org>
> To: Nettime-l <nettime-l at kein.org>
> Subject: <nettime> Steve Cisler
> Steve Cisler passed away on Thursday 15 May, from a medical  
> condition he'd
> known about for several years, which had worsened over the last  
> several
> months. His wife, Nancy, said that he was with his entire family --  
> which
> had grown in the last few years -- and that he was relaxed and  
> accepting as
> his health faded.
> Steve spent much of his life in what's become Silicon Valley, and he
> sometimes talked about how he had seen it turn from almond groves  
> and dusty
> roads into an intricate suburban sprawl. He lived there when  
> computing was
> a small scene, and, I guess because of his curious and easygoing  
> style,
> became sort of famous among Silicon Valley's famous -- not that he  
> ever
> showed any interest in fame. On the contrary, he cared very deeply  
> about
> everyday settings and people, and he had a knack for finding the  
> exceptions
> and difference on the fringes of computers and networking.
> These interests led Steve into the delicate, nebulous field of  
> community
> networking. At its best, it was guided by the some of the fine  
> ideals that
> shaped the rise of computing: mainly, the hope that new technologies  
> could
> enable organic forms of social mobility. Though he'd probably  
> chuckle at
> the idea that he was a pioneer, he was -- of the kinds of values and
> approaches that, happily, have become familiar as "appropriate" and
> "sustainable."
> It seems strange to say so, but I don't think Steve was an idealist.  
> There
> were only a few times that I ever saw a hint of tragedy in his  
> thinking.
> For example, I remember him talking pointedly about how new forms of  
> media
> were driving misdirected urbanization as people (especially the  
> young), led
> by grotesquely glamorized images of urban life, conclude that rural  
> life is
> "intolerable" and abandon it. But dystopian trends lay far beyond any
> difference he could hope to make, so he mostly reserved his  
> skepticism for
> community-oriented projects and initiatives that had gone awry. When  
> he
> talked about them, it was with a hint of frustration -- and patience  
> for
> the people who he felt had lost their way. He usually balanced that  
> out by
> talking about what he loved most, idiosyncratic projects and  
> settings where
> people had pieced together new and old techniques and technologies in
> engaging and creative ways. But these weren't ideals, they were  
> examples.
> If anything, Steve was a pragmatist.
> A few years ago, I joked to a friend that Steve was a "walking  
> Wikipedia":
> not a heroic project to redefine knowledge but an endless reservoir of
> impressions and  observations. But it wasn't really a joke. Steve  
> had an
> amazing range of experience from his work across several continents,  
> much
> of it in developing areas (very much including the rural US). He  
> thought
> very intently about what he'd seen and heard, and he appreciated  
> most of
> all the idiosyncratic people and settings that triumphalism and
> transformationalism have no time for. Given the context that defined  
> much
> of his life -- the rise of networks small and large -- his ways of  
> working
> had a quietly contrary or even polemical side; but he won't be  
> remembered
> for that. Everything he said took a very genial form -- a friendly  
> chat
> about some friendly chat he once had. Stories -- hearing them, telling
> them, it didn't matter -- were a big part of what he did and how he  
> did it:
> informing, guiding, encouraging. If "small is beautiful" is a  
> cliche, then
> he was a walking cliche; but it isn't, and he wasn't.
> For all his stories, though, he never seemed to present his own life  
> in a
> narrative form, so there are a few odd things I know about him, but  
> I don't
> know where or how they fit in. At some point and in a surprisingly  
> early
> context, he advocated to Native American tribal elders that they  
> develop a
> ".ind" top-level domain -- a hilarious idea that could have had  
> enormous
> impact. He worked as a librarian for Apple's speculative Advanced
> Technology Group, which did incredible work -- various QuickTime
> technologies, HyperCard, and advanced in speech recognition and  
> synthesis
> as well as handwriting-recognition software).
> As a young man, he served in the US Coast Guard; I think it must have
> whetted his appetite for travel, and showed him a world that, in an  
> age of
> airlines and the internet, fewer and fewer see -- of disparate small  
> worlds
> joined by the sea they share. And he enjoyed traveling around the  
> western
> US; I think those landscapes also shaped his view of the world --  
> expanses
> where you see how small you are, how small everything is, and how  
> immense
> the sum of it all is. In the last years, somewhere between few and  
> several,
> he'd taken to bringing an inflatable kayak when he traveled to  
> conferences
> and paddling around cities all over the world.
> Steve's involvement in nettime dates back to a time when the list  
> was still
> a family of sorts, and one that he enjoyed very much. His  
> involvement in
> the list tapered off around the Next 5 Minutes 4 conference as his  
> interest
> turned to what eventually became his last major endeavor, the Offline
> Project: an effort to understand why, or maybe how, many people and
> organizations "that are not directly using the Internet to learn  
> about them
> and how they cope in a world that is increasingly interconnected." I  
> won't
> pretend to know in any detail what he learned through his research,  
> but two
> things he told me have stayed with me. First, that many people have
> positive reasons for living as they like, with no regard for the  
> clatter of
> technical advance; and, second, when he stopped using email and the  
> like,
> how quickly many of his connections and friendships dissipated. For  
> someone
> who dedicated much of his life to community networking in remote  
> areas,
> this fragility must have said a lot -- but I don't know what,  
> because he
> never elaborated on it.
> Beyond years of emails, which now seem strangely immaterial coming  
> from
> such a material guy, I have a surprising number of physical objects  
> he's
> given me over the years: a few bottles of wine he made with family and
> friends, some seeds for some curious local kind of squash, a vanilla  
> bean
> (from Uganda, I think), and a few recipes -- for a West African stew  
> and a
> ciabatta that turned out really well. These came over a period of  
> several
> years, simple gifts of whatever was at hand, but together they say a  
> lot
> about who he was and how he lived.
> I was lucky to be able to get together with him a few times a year. In
> times past, that, and a bit of correspondence, would have made for a  
> normal
> friendship; but in a time when communicating is so much quicker and  
> easier,
> it seems like very little.
> I'll miss Steve very much.
> Steve's friends were very far-flung, so feel free to forward this. If
> anyone sends me messages about Steve, I'll assemble them and make sure
> they end up in the right place.
> Ted
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