My Life in the Bay Area Art/ Alt/ Internet/ Politics Scene, and Intersections With Peter Eckersley (1978-2022)

Posted by Lydia

I wanted to simply write about Peter, and then I realized that I couldn’t seem to write about him without writing about my life, our shared social context, this Bay Area world. There is a shared milieu that can be hard to describe. I care so much about our community, and Peter did too. In the end I didn’t know how to write about him without writing about my life and this world as well.

At the first memorial last night (there will be more) one of Peter’s close friends asked me if he and I ever dated. As far as I know neither of us ever had a strong interest in dating, and we weren’t each other’s closest friends either. There was something there, but we never talked about it, and I guess I’ll never know if he felt about me the way I did about him, especially since (as we learned after his death) he gave so much intimate emotional support to so many people. Some of my friends have texted me things like: “I’m sorry, I know you loved him,” and I can certainly say this, without reservation. I loved Peter. I felt extraordinarily lucky to know him, and proud to be his friend.

I met Peter in my early to mid twenties, just after I returned from Peace Corps service in 2010. I took my first visit to Burning Man right after I got back, and then visited San Francisco for a couple of months, trying to suss out my next move. I stayed in Peter’s home because he lived with one of my closest friends, in an apartment near Alamo Square. It felt like Peter and I bonded right away.

In part this was because we were both spending tons of time thinking about how to do the right thing. Returning from Peace Corps is an intense process for just about everyone who goes through it. For me it involved a lot of anger and distress every time I re-noticed the wealth around me; I had to learn to let those feelings go. But also, I had desperately missed the USA, especially alt culture and internet culture, as exemplified in the Bay Area community of which Peter was a beloved member. 

So part of my readjustment was that I felt mad and confused about First World excess all the time. Peter totally got how I felt about inequality and social justice and was always willing to exchange intense commentary about society, the sorts of topics and experiences that I needed help processing, but that would ruin the mood if I tried to bring them up at parties, because they were far too grim.

At the same time, I ran wild and did all the things I’d missed while I was away. I took psychedelics, went to Burning Man-style outdoor festivals, attended unconferences and visited hackerspaces, danced at goth clubs and did whatever it is we do at BDSM clubs. Peter was often with me in the mix. He wasn’t at the BDSM clubs, but was absolutely dancing at the goth clubs.

At the time I had a blog about sex and gender and feminism and culture, which was rapidly becoming well-known. It was unclear whether this was useful for anything. The word “influencer” wasn’t in common parlance, and there was no obvious way to earn serious money from my blog. I wrote under a pseudonym. And although my main topic was sexuality, free speech was a big deal to me. I chose my pseudonym, Clarisse, by naming myself for the ingenue in Fahrenheit 451.

While he had wide-ranging policy and philanthropic interests, Peter’s job at the time was to work on internet freedom and privacy for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This was how I learned this was a policy area one could work on. And inasmuch as there was anything resembling a “guild” or any protection, at all, for indie bloggers on the margins, much of that protection came from the EFF. These white-hat hackers, lawyers, activists, and internet heroes felt like my people. I was so grateful for their efforts that I got my blog readers to donate to the EFF. I admired Peter and loved getting him to talk about his work.

Censorship and protecting our privacy was a constant concern for those of us in the sex-positive blog world. On one occasion, while I was giving a university talk about my blog, I attempted to pull up my website on the projector screen, only to find that it couldn’t load because it was censored by that same university’s internet. And I think it was Peter who, around that time, found me a sweatshirt that said “Nobody knows I’m famous.” I remember us laughing about it.

He liked to gossip but was also good at keeping Real Secrets, which makes sense for a privacy advocate. (Many years later I invited him into the Latitude Society almost as soon as I joined myself.) He’d tease me sometimes by saying, when I asked him how his love life was going, “I can’t tell you, you’re a writer.” Eventually we’d bond over that too, but those aren’t my stories to tell. Peter is in my book about pickup artists, which is also about romantic philosophy; he’s not a named character, but he has several lines of dialogue. At one point in the book he sees me leaving a goth club with one of the PUA guys, and looks at the guy and says: “You get her home safe.”

A funny story from back then is that Peter taught me to ride a bike. I hadn’t learned as a child because I had nightmares, and a minor accident the first time I tried to learn. In my twenties my hipster friends were always (lovingly) making fun of me because I couldn’t go biking with them. And yet no one could figure out how to teach me — when people tried, it just didn’t take. One sunny afternoon, Peter took me to Golden Gate Park, and he taught me, and it took.

Later, I had a terrible bicycle accident that broke my neck, almost killed me, and Peter felt guilty for being the one who taught me how to ride. He used to joke that “our fates were entangled” because of this. I milked it and got him to buy me drinks. But really I think it was an example of what a good teacher he was. The fact that he was able to teach me despite my accident-prone lack of coordination was impressive.

After my accident I experienced a rapid priority recalibration. I had health insurance — thank God — but the week before my accident, I had almost canceled my insurance, because it was one of my biggest expenses, and I was earning so little money with my writing. I’d spent most of my twenties managing an antiquarian bookstore, doing activism, and writing, but in my panic I refocused on getting a Real Job With Health Insurance like, immediately. I was terrified, and Peter was one of a small number of people who helped me through it.

The upside of looking for a Real Job was that it was a solid reason to move to San Francisco, where the tech industry was vigorously hiring and where I hadn’t previously been able to afford to live. The downside was that I couldn’t exactly afford to live there yet. I remember sitting on top of Bernal Hill one night with Peter while I cried, and talked about how scared I was, and how stupid I felt for having spent my early twenties doing all this not-earning-money stuff, and how I wasn’t sure whether I could qualify for the fancy tech jobs that seemingly all my Bay Area friends had. He calmly talked me through it, insisted that there were jobs I could get, that I just needed to take time to reason about the job market and then go for it: “I want to see a list of jobs,” he said.

(It’s reassuring and perspective-giving, actually, to look back at that time, because I was afraid I’d made a series of reckless decisions that had ruined my life. Peter and others said that I hadn’t, and in retrospect I in fact had not.)

In stories that came out since Peter’s death, I see how common this thread: How he cared for others, taught others, mentored people in his community, and helped us find our way when we felt lost. Many have noted that he was the 8th person to sign the Giving What We Can pledge, but it wasn’t just money he gave.

How to describe the world we shared? Although it changed with the pandemic, it’s still here. There is a culture that Peter and I both love (loved) and that we both strove (strive) in our own ways to protect. We stayed with it in part through our work and in part through sheer raw enthusiastic participation.

I remember Peter sitting a few feet away from me on the night that I, high as a kite on LSD, improvised a short story named for the audience prompt that inspired it: “Foxes Have Nice Tails.” After I told the story someone said, “Wow Lydia,” and I said, “That’s what they don’t pay me for,” and I was finally able to laugh through my heartbreak, the heartbreak Peter and others from our community had helped me manage, about what in this world is deemed worthy to earn a living and what is not.

I want to celebrate Peter’s technical work by telling you about it, but I’m not the best person to summarize it because I don’t understand how it all functions. I know I benefited from it, though, and I can attest that some of it is world-famous, and it should be. So I guess you can just go ahead and search the web for it? And some is summarized here. He also did some less famous creative writing. Here are some poems he wrote (I’m not linking to the place these are recorded because I’m not sure the community wants that link to be public, but if anyone thinks I should link to it, please let me know):

Our quest to prevent side effects
Went well
Except that it had side effects

Like the way love leaves twists in the rope
Of human frailty
Or the way that large events cause small events
To take on greater significance
Not just in our heads
But because we’re poking

At the dark robe of causality
Which isn’t really soft
Or even felt with sensations of any sort at all
So we built puzzles
We built toy universes
To sort through them at
A hundred thousand glimpses per second
Not quite reassuring
But a machinery of metaphysical experimentation
To harness our doubts

Or this, which does a good job describing one corner of our scene, and I guess was actually a text message exchange, but its recipient thought it was poetic enough to be a poem and I agree:

I keep meaning to write poems
Life here seems to have the wrong shape, or something, to stop and do so.
After saying farewell to friends after a long dinner I returned home to find a dinner party.
Already past dessert but people lingered for many hours, as though the etiquette protocols were undefined
Eventually, I got into a good closing argument, really an argument, with someone who insisted that the most altruistic thing that could be done was to fund anti-aging research
It was a satisfying thing to really argue about

Or this, which was read aloud at his memorial, and references a famous thought experiment about AI ethics, which involves AI turning everything into paperclips:

Some say the world will end in fire
And technically that’s true
Unless we slingshot our planet
With Jupiter’s momentum
Billions of times
The Red Giant Sun is coming for us

But ‘round here we’re fonder
Of cuter apocalypses
Personally I’m kind of fine
If I’m turned into paper clips

Honestly, I suspect it’s just an aesthetic judgment call
To pick pock-marked human flesh
Over elegantly folded steel
Though I hope
If that’s the way we go
The robots make the fancy kind
With a colourful plastic lining
Around each loop of wire

And I hope they get to thinking
About all kinds of stuff they’ll need
To make their paper clips ecstatic
To make their stationery fantastic
To make pencil cases
The size of star systems
To wrap soft paper
Around each moon

Eventually there would be things we disagreed on. Peter was a religious and spiritual skeptic. I remember sitting in the living room of one of the co-living spaces where we lived together, one evening after I started believing in God, and him telling me he was partial to the Gaia hypothesis, but that he didn’t believe in God. He argued his belief was more in line with Occam’s Razor and that Occam’s Razor was the basis for science. “What about the scientific method?” I asked.

We also had some intra-liberal/ left disagreements, the type you might see between a feminist and a less ardent feminist. But these were nothing compared to me getting more interested in right-wing and reactionary ideas.

(This is where the politics starts, y’all. Trigger warning. I’m warning you! If you want to skip the politics, then scroll down to the section that starts “Oh Peter.”)

By 2020 I was well past the point of being scared that I couldn’t make a living in tech, and indeed, my career had astonishingly looped back around to writing: I’d achieved some minor respect as a media/tech innovator and commentator, and had launched my own media organization. I was, and still am, intensely interested in polarization, concerned about the future of my country. I’d done quite a bit of research on how polarization works in the media. Much of what I learned was out of line with what was becoming “conventional wisdom:” For example, there is no good evidence that polarization is being driven by digital/ social media, and indeed, there’s evidence that it’s not. As part of this I’d gotten curious about right-wing media and perspectives and was tracking some relevant organizations, but I hadn’t like defected or anything. So I had some small disagreements with “my tribe,” but despite these disagreements, at the beginning of 2020, I still considered Blue Tribe to be directionally correct and myself to be a serious member.

It wasn’t even cancel culture that did it, though I know that’s a core issue for lots of liberals and I understand why. I had lots of experience with cancel culture by 2020, but I defended the phenomenon as necessary. (One might argue that I was semi-canceled many years ago, when I was still deeply embedded in the social justice internet. One could argue that Peter also was semi-canceled once upon a time, but that’s not my story to tell.)

By early 2020, I had deleted all my Twitter archives and removed most of my writing as Clarisse Thorn from the internet, because I saw the cancel culture phenomenon escalating to the point where I concluded that any exposure of our pre-2018 writing was a risk best avoided by anyone on Blue Tribe, given widespread willingness to score “victories” in our interminable internecine warfare by taking everyone’s past statements out of context. But this was self-censorship — though one might argue that it was a chilling effect — it did not result from direct attack or censorship by anyone else, and so I continued to defend cancel culture at the time, for after all how else were we to take down the worst predators in society?

I still think about this irony sometimes: I did something I thought I would never do, took down almost all my own work from the public internet, because I feared “my own team.” Now that I spend a lot of time with Red Tribe people, many assume that I destroyed my archives out of shame. Some people have said or implied that I now repudiate my sexual history or my social justice history or feminism or what have you. But I feel no shame about any of that, and I frankly resent it when people suggest that I do; deleting Clarisse Thorn was a sociopolitical maneuver at the time, pure media industry self-defense. 

Then the pandemic happened. And all the escalations of American political polarization that followed. This was when Peter and I started really arguing. I felt betrayed and devastated by the behavior I was seeing from the mainstream media, social platforms, academia, and NGOs — not to mention government and intelligence. It moved me rightwards. Peter “joked” that I’d been “radicalized to the right wing,” and although I think it’s problematic that words like “radicalization” are now normal to describe people acquiring any amount of right-wing perspective, I understood why he said it, and I loved him for continuing our conversations regardless of his unease.

The thing that did it for me was how the riots, the escalating crime and violence across America, was covered by the media in 2020, or rather mostly was not covered. The worst argument Peter and I ever had was during a month he lived at a co-living space that I co-founded in 2020. I’d been in Minneapolis-St. Paul during the riots earlier that year, for totally random reasons (I was there for family reasons and didn’t go on purpose to witness the riots), and after that I started reading Brian Burrough’s book Days of Rage, which covers some disturbing history in American domestic terrorism. Peter and I fought in our shared living room about how to interpret rising violence across America, and that history.

His perspective was one that made perfect sense for a Blue Tribe civil rights advocate. He was extremely concerned about systemic racism and police violence and state power and rising authoritarianism and how the police could be involved. I’m not saying his perspective didn’t make sense to me. It always did, and furthermore I was grateful that he was willing to explore how and why we might yet disagree.

Anyone who has experienced a rightwards shift while located in Blue Tribe culture knows how disorienting and alienating it can be. One’s entire community becomes a profoundly emotionally unsafe environment. It’s not just because you can lose your job. It’s also because you can lose your friends, family, and community. I felt safer when I wrote publicly and in detail about my personal sex life than while contemplating a public statement that I believe the police should not be defunded. But I felt mostly safe talking about it with Peter, and I had enormous faith in his overall moral compass, such that even when he joked about me being “radicalized” and even when we fought, I still felt like we were trying to communicate.

One point where history has proven me correct was the Hunter Biden laptop story of late 2020. My instinct at the time was that the story was true, Peter’s that the story was misinformation. Even if the story had been false, I believe it was censored and discredited in a way that was almost guaranteed to escalate the alienation of Red Tribe from the mainstream media. That the story turned out to be incontrovertibly true puts me in an America I never expected to live in.

If you had told me in my twenties that America would become a place where sex-positive educators would be less likely to experience coordinated institutional censorship than centrist conservatives, I would have had a hard time believing it. But that’s where we are today, and it feels like a shrill screaming “Danger Danger Danger” siren in the back of my mind all the time.

I couldn’t believe Peter, of all people, would argue in support of censorship in the form that I was watching it happen. Yet, although history proved me correct that the Hunter Biden laptop story was factual and not misinformation, I can think of other times history proved Peter correct. 

One example that comes to mind is a small arts organization in which we were both involved, years ago. Peter saw early that there was an escalating authoritarian trend in the organization and that it would be deeply hurtful for basically everyone who was then involved. He came to me and said that he thought I was the only one within the organization capable of challenging that trend, and that if I did so he would back me. I demurred, and he quietly left the group.

Years later — after seeing the incredible emotional damage done to many people who participated, including myself — I concluded Peter had been correct. This piece of personal history is one that has obvious larger potential reflections today, and I think it about a lot. It’s a different siren, going off in a different space in my mind.

Peter was one of the first to hear about it when I met the man to whom I would eventually become engaged and who would father at least one of my future children, but it wasn’t because I told him on purpose. One night, Peter called because he’d heard that I broke up with my ex. The breakup had happened right before I met my fiancé, and word traveled slowly during pandemic times. So by the time Peter called to check in on whether I needed post-breakup emotional support, I had already started the new relationship. 

I had no plans to tell anyone who I was dating yet, but wanted to get Peter’s sense of what would happen to me in our community if I got publicly associated with the neo-reactionary movement. I had the feeling it wouldn’t be gentle.

I told him I was mostly okay post-breakup, and then:

“Peter, what if I turn into a reactionary?” I asked.

Peter sighed. “You’re not a reactionary. You’re just upset, and it’s understandable.”

“Okay. What if I dated a reactionary?” 

“Okay,” Peter said. “But don’t date the Urbit guy.”

I was so surprised and delighted by his intuitive leap that I began to laugh — I mean, seriously, zero other people would’ve been able to guess the identity of my new guy, it was such a staggeringly bizarre outcome. I didn’t want our scene to know the identity of my new partner yet, and with most people I would’ve been able to laugh it off and change the subject. But Peter was too quick for me, knew me far too well. “Are you laughing because you’re dating the Urbit guy?” he asked. I couldn’t lie to him directly. So I admitted it.

I’m grateful that Peter and I recently got an afternoon together one-on-one. I picked up some food we thought Peter could eat and brought it over to his place and listened to him vent about gastric symptoms while I complained about pregnancy. Should we have known he had cancer? How could we have? He’s only 44…. He was only 44. 

In that conversation I got to talk to Peter about fascism, a topic I dare discuss with few people these days. At any given moment when I log into Twitter, the far right might be calling me a whore, and/or the far left a fascist, and I don’t get the sense that basically any of the people who scream at me in public (or sometimes in private) have much sense of what those words mean. I mean, I know a lot about sex work, and it is clear that when individuals on the right call me a whore, they’re not operating from even a half-decent analysis of sex work. I get the same sense about individuals on the left calling me a fascist, but I know much less about fascism than I know about sex work.

God knows I disagree with Red Tribe about a large number of things, but we obviously have many agreements too, and the longer I connect with that world, the more bizarre it seems that everyone from me to my fiancé to centrist Republicans to people with swastika tattoos keep getting described with a word coined to describe an early 20th century Italian political movement. At the same time, I want to have a good grasp of legitimate criticisms. I can’t talk about this to most people because so many now assume that I am a crypto-fascist who is trying to concern troll, that my goal is to confuse those on the side of light about my evil hidden agenda. But I genuinely would like to define our terms and get to know this territory better, because I want America to be a good place to live and I also happen to genuinely believe in our founding principles.

This is where I’m at: While I don’t think most right-wing humans are fascists, I do worry that there could occur some disastrous recombination of the political ideas currently floating around that would lead to much the same place. This is a good example of the kind of conversation I could have with Peter, the questions and fears I could discuss calmly with him and very few others.

How can we square this circle? How can these currents flow together into a thriving country, a thriving world? A common observation about my current position is that lots of people expect me to “switch sides,” but having now spent quite a bit of time with both “teams,” I see myself reflected on the “other team” about as much as I do on “my team,” whatever those words mean at this point. Oh Peter, why aren’t you here to help me feel this out and think it through?

At the first memorial, one of the speakers said: “He’s there in the conversation and in the counter-argument.” Oh Peter. Is this my conversation with you, still? Is it my counter-argument?

Oh Peter, my friend, for some reason I can’t stop thinking, where are you now? I heard that your final request was to have your brain vitrified (in a jar with a sticky note with the words “Scan Me”) so that you might someday rejoin this vale of tears. Somehow our friends moved the necessary mountains to make this procedure happen, and it was reportedly expensive, and amazingly inconvenient, but no one doubts it was worth it to fulfill your dying wish. So many people in our community are invested in material immortality….

Inasmuch as I’ve wanted anything like it, I’ve reflected on spiritual immortality. I have never seen the appeal of material immortality until now, only now because maybe — just maybe — it would give me a chance to talk to you again. As soon as I heard you’d died I realized how heartbroken I was to think you’d never meet my child. Material immortality is looking pretty good….

I’ve been lucky so far, haven’t lost anyone I loved this way until now. I didn’t realize how much time I’d spend irrationally trying to imagine where you’ve gone. Where are you, and why can’t I go there? I guess if this is the usual experience, it explains a lot about the world’s most successful large-scale organized religions….

Peter, I remember how you figured out that you could playfully mess with me by saying “Goodbye forever” when we were parting — thereby invoking, perhaps, some abandonment complex I might or might not have. This inside joke got to the point where you’d arrive at events, say hello, and then say things like, “I’m already looking forward to the moment I can leave you and break your heart.” You once said you hadn’t understood BDSM until you observed how fun it could be to toy with this sort of psychological tendency of mine. Your “Goodbye forever” game made us both laugh at our mutual reaction for years but this time it’s real, or is it?

Unitarian Universalists don’t go in much for notions of Hell — though I believe that Heaven and Hell have reality and value as metaphors, and perhaps as actual spiritual locations — but if there were one thing that would absolutely convince me unbelievers don’t go to Hell after death, it’s that there is no way you are there, Peter. I will not accept that God would send you there. 

I spent the weekend at a conference down in Monterey, and it was lousy with dolphin symbolism: Conference rooms named after dolphins; dolphin statues. I once read in a Guy Gavriel Kay book that in the ancient world, dolphins were believed to carry souls of those who have passed. (Kay writes fiction, but I just looked it up and it was a historically recorded belief.) Over the weekend I kept feeling like I’d brushed up against your spirit. Was that your voice? I can hear your laughter….

When I heard you might be dying I was already in Monterey, so I made a short video message of myself for our friends to deliver in the hospital. Then I thought: I don’t want Peter to see my stupid face right now, and especially not my stupid crying face, I want to send him footage of this beautiful peaceful surf instead. So I made a new video with no face, no obvious crying. The ocean, the abyss.

On the night you died, I’d just met a new friend, one of those friendships that feels almost instantly deep, an immediate mind meld so beautiful I almost can’t believe it. He and I spent like four hours talking one-on-one right after we met. He’s young and brilliant and he’s aiming to work on tech policy and his main interests are some of the same issues you worked so hard on. Oh Peter, he gave me hope and I want him to succeed, whether in this arena or at whatever he concludes is the right thing to do, because he thinks deeply about how to do the right thing.

Oh Peter. I’m scared, for myself, and for my baby, and for my country. If you were here you’d reassure me that none of my recent, extremely off-the-wall decisions have ruined anyone’s life. We’d talk about the ways this world can change and we’d help each other cope with trying.

I love you, my friend. I’ll miss you so very much.

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Sorry to hear about what happened. (You don’t know me, but I loved your earlier book as Clarisse Thorn.)

I don’t know Gibran that well, but if poetry can help, here’s a bit of Housman:

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.

And here’s a bit of Kipling (‘If’):

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

Good luck in this difficult time.