Phil Agre, a friend and former UCLA professor who I've often mentioned on this blog, has gone missing, and some of his friends are organizing an informal search of the streets. As far as anyone knows, he had some sort of severe mental breakdown and is presumed to be homeless somewhere in LA.
Phil was one of the smartest people I knew in graduate school. More than smart, he had the intellectual courage to defy the dominant MIT sensibilities and become not just an engineer but a committed critic of the ideology under the surface of technology, especially as it was applied to artificial intelligence. He was a leader of the situated action insurgency in AI, a movement that questioned the foundations of the stale theories of mind that were implicit in the computational approach. Phil had the ability to take fields of learning that were largely foreign to the culture of MIT (continental philosophy, sociology, anthropology) and translate them into terms that made sense to a nerd like me. I feel I owe Phil a debt for expanding my intellectual horizons.
Phil was a seminal figure in the development of Internet culture. His Red Rock Eater email list was a early predecessor to the many on-line pundits of today. Essentially he invented blogging, although his medium was a broadcast email list rather than the web, which didn't yet exist. He would regularly send out long newsletters containing a mix of essays, pointers to interesting things, and opinions on random things. He turned email into a broadcast medium, which struck me as weird and slightly undemocratic at the time, but he had the intellectual energy to fuel a one-man show, and in this and other matters Phil was just ahead of the times -- now the web is stuffed to the brim with outsized personalities, but it wasn't so back then. Here's one of the last recorded posts on RRE, on Vaclav Havel, which includes an explanation of what Phil termed "issue entrepreneurship". I picked this out at basically at random from the archives, and it typifies the insight, clarity, and urgency of Phil's writing:
What is needed and missing in the United States is the other major component of Vaclav Havel's life story -- the intellectual seriousness that believed down deep that the world is made of ideas and that the health of a society depends on the health of its language. ... Civilization cannot survive when language becomes the terrain of a thoroughly instrumentalized political war. Vaclav Havel and his colleagues won a contest of decency against the dead hand of an authoritarian system that had nothing living inside it. Today's authoritarians are altogether more resourceful. Today's civil society will have to discover a correspondingly deeper meaning in its own ideals.Some of Phil's better-known essays include:
- What is Conservatism and What is Wrong with it? - cuts to the heart of our present politics.
- Networking on the Network: an early guide to using the Internet to build intellectual communities and careers.
- How to Help Someone Use a Computer - excellent practical advice. This particular bit I use all the time: "Whenever they start to blame themselves, respond by blaming the computer... When they get nailed by a false assumption about the computer's behavior, tell them their assumption was reasonable. Tell *yourself* that it was reasonable."
- The Practical Republic - An examination of the importance of social skills in the creating of citizenship
The tragedy is that for all his intellectual engagement and instruction of others in social skills, something seems to have gone wrong with Phil's own social life. The energy he poured into his writing seems to have left him little to spare to form close relationships -- or something like that, something that allowed him to slip away from the society about which he had so much to say. It is somewhat mystifying that a UCLA professor with a huge Internet following could just vanish with nobody noticing, but that is what seems to have happened. When Phil's voice suddenly ceased a few years back, I assumed he had decided to focus on a book or some other major project. Apparently everyone else made the same assumption. I've been out of the academic circuit for years, that's my excuse, but I don't quite understand how those in the loop could have let this happen. It's a stunning indictment, but I can't say exactly of whom or what.
This reads too much like an obituary. I hope to hell it isn't, and that Phil finds his way back from wherever he's gone off to. We still need him.
[update: the news as of early 2011 is that Phil is in good physical health but wishes to be left alone; the people who were searching for him are going to respect that wish.]