The Austin Chronicle

Postcards from the Fringe

Guerilla Media Collective Searches For the D.I.Y. Truth

By Brad King, February 28, 1997, Screens

Paco Nathan, president of FringeWare, Inc.
photograph by Kenny Braun

Granola Farmers meet Virtual Reality on 42nd Street." That's one of the phrases Paco Nathan, president of Fringeware, Inc., has used to describe an organization indefinable; a kind of mind-bending retail outfit where shoppers try on original thought for size along with counter-culture T-shirts. But the head honcho himself is first to admit his definition isn't quite as user-friendly as it could be, precisely why FringeWare Review -- a zine functioning as just one part of the three-tiered business -- carries the warning label, "We are persistently difficult to explain to many people in your life..." For instance, one issue of FringeWare Review might contain a compelling article detailing Timothy Leary's psychological analysis of human brain activity, a piece of cyber-punk fiction, and a news story regarding proposed legislation restricting the use of online BBSs -- this all wrapped neatly in a package containing some fake advertising (a little joke from the editors) and a mail-order catalog selling everything from the interactive "MacJesus" game (which, in the words of the game designer, gives you "an inside track when dealing with the Creator of the Universe") to less sophisticated sex games, audio cassettes, and rubber stamps ready to ink all correspondence with the message "I Grew Marijuana."

Besides manufacturing and maintaining a certain mystique about his pet company, Nathan is into the melding of real-time communities with the virtual community of the Net, and, of course, the other parts of the project -- a website (http://, a retail space on Guadalupe (recently relocated from the spot they shared with vintage store New Bohemia) which now functions as a bookstore, and a tech-consulting business too. But it's the thinktank aspect of FringeWare that carries over into each of its parts, aiming to reach into the next wave of information distribution on a grand lark. Herein lies the message and it's inherent disclaimer: FringeWare's cyberbuzz is purposely left subject to interpretation. And as Nathan's seemingly nonsensical definition illustrates, fringe dwellers seeking illumination would do best to maintain a little cosmic humor.

Even fellow tech-culture scouts seeking out reality/cybereality gaps on a daily basis get stuck on the prospect of categorizing FringeWare. David Pescovitz, co-author of Reality Check (HardWired, 1996), a compilation of essays from Wired's column of the same name and a contributing editor at the magazine bOING-bOING -- a career path similar to the one Nathan himself once trod -- describes the collective more by the characters involved than what they do. "For years, the FringeWare folks have been reporting back from temporary autonomous zones where riot nrrds, freaks, weird scientists, and other strange attractions run amok," he says. "But the best thing is that Paco and his colleagues don't take a hoity anthropological attitude and scribble notes from the sidelines. Instead, they're helping throw the party."

And what a party it is. These modern day Merry Pranksters are taking multi-media theory and applying it to the Net to create new forms of Real Time communities where netizens can make up their own rules, eke out a living, and have a little fun while they're at it. Along the way, the purveyors of this cyber-funk experiment drop jokes and metaphysical roadblocks to keep out those who might have less than a passing interest in the ride, and to keep those already riding the vibe on their toes.

Sort of.

the serendipity
of the meta-organism

FringeWare was just an idea in 1990. Nathan, who has been involved with computers since 1972, was then a contributing editor at bOING-bOING, a zine with a special brand of humor -- one part MAD Magazine and one part WIRED. When bOING-bOING made a turn in priorities and started working on publishing books, Nathan -- who also had a computer consulting business by then -- began to focus his writing time primarily on MONDO 2000, a serious high-tech fashion magazine with a slant towards cyber-cultures and the Rave. Investigating and writing about cyber-fringe culture soon bred an interest in the newly allowed possibilities of the free and open exchange of information allowed by the Internet. And late in 1992, in the back of Europa Books on 24th & Guadalupe, the FringeWare company was born as a small mail-order operation with a website and an e-mail list allowing mass distribution of all types of fringe culture information to those who were signed up on-line. "It was kind of a media collective," Nathan says, recounting the early ideas that drove the company into existence. "We saw a lot of changes coming and wanted to take advantage of that. It was really about exploring new media and selling things that we thought had fallen through the cracks, like the brain machines and smaller publications."

FringeWare still sells its fair share of products: alien-abduction ID cards, conspiracy books, taboo religious materials like The Satanic Bible, as well as hard-to-find foreign language books and works by literary giants of the Beat Generation -- Burroughs, Leary, and Kerouac. But FringeWare's real mission, first and foremost, is the dispensing of information. "Part of the idea of FringeWare was to give a marketplace and venue to hard-to-find material," says Patrick Deese, owner and operator of the recently opened FringeWare bookstore, "I mean, Barnes & Noble isn't going to carry this stuff." Deese joined the troupe for real after years of minding the small pile of mail-order materials in the back of Europa books where he worked as a salesclerk, while Nathan banged away on the computer building the web page and e-mail list.

And it was back during that time, when FringeWare's first commercial space was busy gathering hard-to-find, counter-culture consumer items for mail-order, that the business as a whole -- quite serendipitously -- began attracting an eclectic mix of participants inspired by FringeWare's free-thinking maxim. In what would be the first of a series of events that can't be traced to any certain training or skill but ended up shifting the focus of the company profoundly, Nathan met Jim and Jamie Thompson at a local Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) meeting. The couple are part-owners themselves of Small Works, a company which produces Internet security systems. In just a few months, as the dynamics of FringeWare began to shift and when Jon Lebkowsky -- an original co-founder -- left to pursue other endeavors in cyberspace, the Thompsons became majority stockholders in FringeWare and began work on the tech side of the business.

"For me it was an interesting group of people who were doing different things with Internet technology than I had done, and my thought going into it was to keep me on the edge," says Jim Thompson. "I thought it was a way of maintaining a newness and freshness, especially the weird tech world."

As it was, a legal development in this weird tech world would soon explode the company beyond the boundaries of the mail-order shop. The news-making arrest of Steve Jackson, whose Austin-based gaming company was shut down by the Secret Service, gave Nathan new insight into the possibilities and pitfalls of Net culture. Serving as a local correspondent for national tech publications including WIRED, Nathan the journalist kept readers up to date on Jackson as he sued... and won... his case against the federal government. Covering the controversial battle made Nathan a resident expert in the confusing legal aspects of this new medium, and gave him an advantage in his consulting business as well. "In 1992, having a website was like really weird," says Nathan. "I mean, doing business on the Internet, people were like, `Is this even legal?'"

The current FringeWare team still wasn't assembled by the time the 1993 SXSW Music Conference rolled around, but the event would be responsible for bringing another key convert to the fold, as well as a print publishing aspect to the business. As a SXSW showcase organizer, Nathan was in charge of putting on a multi-media presentation involving a Brain Machine, a device developed with Japanese technology that was supposed to help people concentrate their energy in an effort to make aliens among us reveal themselves (really it just gives your head a little electric shock). Also scheduled to appear, as a more tangible part of the showcase, was Dissemination Network (DIS-NET), an industrial band from Denton, Texas who utilized giant television screens, keyboards, tons of lights, and lots of media sampling in their performance.

"They sort of put all the techno-type bands in the one venue and called it a Rave," says Monte McCarter, then band member and photographer, who would soon leave DIS-NET to become an integral part of the FringeWare staff. As a fan of MONDO 2000, which Nathan was already involved with, the two tech-culture heads hit it off immediately, and a few weeks later when Nathan was set to cover RoboFest for MONDO, McCarter offered his photography services for the article. As it happened, Nathan was getting ready to launch FringeWare Review and he needed somebody to help out with the art. "I think I kind of surprised him, I was the first person to apply for a job," says McCarter, whose home is aptly littered with old videotapes, keyboards, computer equipment, and various samplings of art -- all tools of the trade for a designer of a zine aimed at the new media cyberculture.

In this fashion, these explorers of the fringe have managed to stumble across each other, establishing the sensibility that has since guided the business; a larger, driving force that pushes people into certain places, creates certain circumstances. "I don't really like to talk about it," says Casey. "It's like if you define it, it might go away."

Unsaid then, the members seem to agree that the mix and the method are working fine. Each staffmember operates their side of the business in the way that makes them happy; group board meetings are spontaneous and accidental.

Still looking for others experimenting with virtual communities, Nathan up and took off in late '93 and into '94, criss-crossing the states from California to New York. And that trip led him to meeting current FringeWare Review contributing editor Scotto, who at the time had hooked up with a group of drama students at the University of Northern Iowa. LERI, as they called themselves (named for the recently deceased acid guru), were an on-line psychedelic group developing the "net trip" where people from around the country log on... turn on... and wig out... firing messages back and forth to each other, expanding their minds and searching for the meaning of life. Apparently, right up FringeWare's alley.

Sort of.

The Revolution Will
Not Be Televised

So last year, when the FringeWare bookstore finally moved into its own home next to Mojo's on Guadalupe, a collective sigh went out. The move established permanency for the company -- a concept that might seem contradictory to a fringe philosophy of life. But if the group accepts anything, it's the concept of entropy. And now, after several years of hard work, getting their own space is exciting and challenging for them. With $60,000 worth of books on the shelves and 50-100 new titles being added on a monthly basis, the book retail seems ripe for success.

"Any fool with a database can make a list of books," says Deese. "We're trying to write reviews, scan in the covers and put in hyperlinks. In On the Road, Kerouac uses a pseudonym for Neal Cassady, but you can type in Neal Cassady [on the FringeWare webpage] and that book will come up."

Any reservations FringeWare had about attracting customers to such a strange storefront were quickly laid to rest as the kindred spirits came out of the woodwork in droves. "The first month we were open, a guy came in and bought ten books and was freaking out. It was our playlist. He was our target market," Deese says. The store itself, which serves as an outlet the average Joe can understand, has enticed browsers to take a deeper look into the philosophy FringeWare markets. "I don't think there's enough places that are putting information out," Deese says in the midst of one of his passionate rants about the need for knowledge. "It's like, `Hi, we sell chessboards and they are good' -- and that's where I think we are winning. We're attracting a lot of people who don't even know who we are, but they end up visiting our website."

And the organization continues to gain popularity and credibility in print. FringeWare Review, now boasting contributors such as R.U. Sirius, Erik Davis, and Erika Whiteway, who spearhead special issues on everything from feminism (issue #4) to chaos spirituality (#10), continues to bring its readers together in a "D.I.Y. love fest" where they can learn to live -- and conduct business -- in Net collectives.

So how does an alternative information peddler like FringeWare survive in the mainstream? Aside from the bookstore, which is just beginning to turn a very small profit, the organization also gets financial support from Nathan hitting the lecture circuit around the world from Austria to Canada expousing his cyberworld view. In addition, funds are amassed from the general computer consulting work that he and other members of the company contract out. But all the profits go into a big pot which is divied up among the different areas of the business. Despite FringeWare's successes, money remains a side product, the means to an end to keep the idea going.

"It would have been kind of a detriment for FringeWare, Inc. to come off big and make money," Nathan says. "We had time to really figure out what people wanted instead of us just doing what we liked. Besides, if we had made a lot of money right off the bat, it would have been like a feeding frenzy [for outside parties merely concerned with turning a profit]." That's the happy contradiction. FringeWare aims to make money, but not at the cost of compromise.

"When people come to our site, they are coming for information," Deese says. "Yeah, we want to sell them stuff, but what they are really looking for is information."

FringeWare has created a place where anything goes, where they, as the weirdest freaks of all, make it safe for alternative ideas to come together; a place to get information from the closest source possible. "[FringeWare provides] the notion of the temporary autonomous zone (TAZ) -- an arena that tries not to put too much of a spin on information," says Deese's assistant Scott Casey, who has been involved with FringeWare since back in the Europa days. "This is what [author and philosopher] Hakim Bey talks about. Immediacy. Get right up there close to it and check it out. Don't just trust what you hear about something."

So, the intrepid traveler daring enough to attempt to climb the mountain of information the FringeWare folks have assembled in their zine, throughout their bookstore, and on their web site -- while remaining able to laugh at themselves as they inevitably fumble along the electronic road -- will be serving FringeWare's great experiment to get people thinking again, even if it means hitting the edge of rationality. "There is so much that mediates between people and real information that can give you power," Casey says in one final prophetic and philosophical muse. "[FringeWare] is a medium to disseminate the most information with the least mediation."

So wherever FringeWare is accessed -- on the Net or in Real Space -- we can be sure that the new rules of chaos and information will be applied together in search for truth. Individual truth. A Do-It-Yourself kind of truth.

And I think I get it..

Sort of.

Brad King is a recent Austin émigré and freelance writer whose work has appeared in Cincinnati City Beat, and the midwestern music magazine, M00

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