published in 'Rolling Stone' (June 15, 1989)
THE BOY crouches beside a fence in Virginia, listening to Chubby Checker on the Rocket Radio. The fence is iron, very old, unpainted, its uprights shaved down by rain and the steady turning of seasons. The Rocket Radio is red plastic, fastened to the fence with an alligator clip. Chubby Checker sings into the boy's ear through a plastic plug. The wires that connect the plug and the clip to the Rocket Radio are the color his model kits call flesh. The rocket Radio is something he can hide in his palm. His mother says the Rocket Radio is a crystal radio: She says she remebers boys building them before you could buy them, to catch the signals spilling out of the sky. The Rocket radio requires no battery at all. Uses a quarter mile of neighbor's rusting fence for an antenna. Chubby Checker says do the twist. The boy with the Rocket Radio reads a lot of science fiction - very little of which will help to prepare him for the coming realities of the Net. He doesn't even know that Chubby Checker and the Rocket Radio are part of the Net.
ONCE PERFECTED, communication technologies rarely die out entirely; rather, they shrink to fit particular niches in the global info-structure. Crystal radios have been proposed as a means of conveying optimal seedplanting times to isolated agrarian tribes. The mimeograph, one of many recent dinosaurs of the urban office place, still shines with undiminished samizdat potential in the century's backwaters, the late-Victorian answer to desk-top publishing. Banks in uncounted third-world villages still crank the day's totals on black Burroughs adding machines, spooling out yards of faint indigo figures on long, oddly festive curls of paper, while the Soviet Union, not yet sold on throwaway new-tech fun, has become the last reliable source of vacuum tubes. The eight-track-tape format survives in the truck stops of the Deep South, as a medium for country music and spoken-word pornography. The Street finds its own uses for things - uses the manufacturers never imagined. The microcassette recorder, originally intended for on-the-jump executive dictation, becomes the revolutionary medium of magnizdat, allowing the covert spread of suppressed political speeches in Poland and China. The beeper and the cellular telephone become tools in an increasingly competitive market in illicit drugs. Other technological artifacts unexpectedly become means of communication, either through opportunity or necessity. The aerosol can gives birth to the urban graffiti matrix. Soviet rockers press homemade flexi-discs out of used chest X-rays.
THE KID WITH THE ROCKET RADIO gets older. One day he discovers sixty feet of wierdly skinny magnetic tape snarled in a roadside Omtario brush. This is toward the end of the Eight-Track Era. He deduces the existence of the new and exotic cassette formate: this semialien substance, jettisoned in frustration from the smooth hull of some hurtling Vette, settling like newtech angel hair.
Rocket Radio - an Article by William Gibson