My First Digital Death: The Technology of Consciousness

by Rita J. King

Half a dozen years ago I was a beat reporter on the nuclear industry, and at the same time I was working on an independent project for which I was interviewing one person from each of the fifty states about how they perceived their lives in their states. My friend Patrick Huyghe, who at the time was an editor at Simon and Schuster, introduced me to one of his authors, Mac Tonnies, in an email.

Mac Tonnies, it turned out, was an absolutely incredible writer. His prose, focused on the relationship between human consciousness and machines, opened up an entirely new dimension in thought for me. Patrick left Simon and Schuster and started his own imprint, Anomalist. Mac decided to go with him. Over the years I realized that I was not the only person who perceived Mac as an interplanetary man of mystery with an exquisite eye for aesthetic beauty and truly groundbreaking ideas. Over time, we grew closer. We collaborated on ideas in Etherpad, which allowed us to write together and chat at the same time. As I segued out of journalism and started my own company, Mac's interest remained steadfast.

After five years of communicating constantly in the digital realm, Mac admitted that he was somewhat agoraphobic, afraid to leave Kansas City and yet hungering for the coastal life of New York or San Francisco. In a series of conversations in 2009, I convinced him to come to New York and visit. He feared that he would no longer be viewed as an interplanetary man of mystery but rather as a bald guy with two cats who loves to ponder extraterrestrial intelligence. It took me several weeks to convince him that I already saw him for what he was. After all, I had seen or heard an abundance of podcasts, videos, writings, photographs, enough of him to piece together the reality of his life.

In October of 2009, Mac asked me about a novel I'd been thinking about writing for a couple of years but didn't have time because I'd started a company that continues to grow. I told him that I didn't have time and he asked to see part of it. We signed into an editing tool and chatted while reading and writing. He absolutely loved what I'd written and gave me a spectacular piece of advice about how to pare back the narrative voice. He was a few days away from finishing his manuscript for Anomalist Books, "Cryptoterrestrials." On October 18, at the age of 34, Mac Tonnies sent two tweets on Twitter. One was a link to the Byrne/Eno song, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today," which is a song about death if ever there was one, and a message to me. Then he died in his sleep from an undiagnosed heart condition.

His death hit me viscerally, and as the days passed something amazing happened. Other people, people who only knew Mac in the digital culture, were gutted by his death. November is National Novel Writing Month, which means writing a 50,000 word draft in 30 days. I had told Mac I didn't have time, but I realized that as long as I'm alive I can find the time. So I completed my draft for National Novel Writing Month with the support of Mac's grieving friends. Mac's parting advice to me about narrative voice made all the difference in the way the story was told.

Now, his podcasts, videos, images and writings remain in the digital culture like fossil evidence in the geologic record. The internet becomes a time capsule and turns people's lives into memes. Mac Tonnies is a meme that isn't ready to die yet.

I created a short video for Mac, "Technology of Consciousness," which can be viewed here:

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