On March 26th, 1997, 39 people in matching black sweatsuits and Nike sneakers were found dead in a rented mansion in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe. They were members of a marginal religious group called Heaven’s Gate — a “cult,” in the frenzied media parlance of the 90’s — and they had committed suicide, cleanly and methodically, by ingesting large doses of phenobarbital and vodka. Their motive, profoundly misunderstood by pretty much everyone not directly involved with the group, was to hitch a ride to the “Next Level” on a heavenly spacecraft positioned behind the rapidly-approaching Hale-Bopp comet. In a very real sense, they did not believe themselves to be committing suicide; they merely saw themselves as abandoning their fallible physical “vehicles:” a radical extension of a commitment they had spent years developing while living in isolated compounds in Salt Lake City, Denver, and the Dallas Forth-Worth area, before moving to their final resting place in Southern California.
Heaven’s Gate is a fascinating group, a religious sect that defies our perceptions of cult-dom in strange and interesting ways. What intrigues me the most about them, however, aside from the controversy and mystique of the suicide, is their complicated relationship to technology. While we all remember the Nike sneakers, what most people don’t know about these 38 devotees and their leader, Marshall Applewhite (known to them as “Bo” or “Do”), is that they sustained themselves, financially and socially, by making websites.
From the early 1990s until their deaths, they ran a reasonably profitable web design company called Higher Source, churning out innocuous sites for organizations like the San Diego Polo Club. The Higher Source site (now-defunct, but available on Archive.org if you’re feeling industrious) proclaimed — and this should maybe have been a red “crazies” flag for potential clients — that “individually and collectively, we have focused on outgrowing the artificial limitations this society has programmed all of us to accept in personal conduct and task efficiency…we can produce at a level of efficiency and quality unequalled in the computer industry.” Even more interesting is that although the business was characterized by Heaven’s Gate as state of the art, it was, by all accounts, far from cutting-edge.
A technical communications specialist quoted in a 1997 CNN story on the subject put it this way: “They weren’t very good Web designers. I don’t know what kind of money they were making. They have white outlines on the edges of the text that kind of mooshes it against the background.”
When exactly they first became mixed up with computers is unknown, but it must have dated back some years, probably catalyzed by their fascination between emerging communication technologies and space travel. Furthermore, their love of computers became totally absorbed into their idiom and ideology, as well as the way they conceptualized their beliefs. Patricia Goerman’s awesome MA thesis, “Heaven’s Gate: A Sociological Perspective,” delves into this issue in some detail. Goerman points out that in their writings, Heaven’s Gate members “discuss their use of ‘N.L. (Next Level) Base computer language,’ as a way to express their ‘higher level’ of understanding of Biblical and other ideas as compared with the average human…they say that those who have the same ‘computer program’ or ‘software’ will interpret…statement[s] differently than the average human.”
It’s not surprising that the burgeoning Internet technologies of the mid-1990s could have been so easily adaptable to this kind of cultic mysticism. After all, all great paradigm shifts usually engender some kind of religious sentiment or fervency, either in reactionary fear or evangelical embrace. The web explosion must have seemed like a great harbinger of change, as well as a perfectly suitable — or alarming — metaphor for New Age notions of connectivity, to anyone thinking of the big picture.
It seems bitingly ironic that, while the media in the 1990’s scoffed at Heaven’s Gate’s loony dreams of space travel and the Internet, their ideas aren’t that far from the truth anymore.
10 years ago, extrapolating the web into the realm of space travel was the rhetoric of purple-shrouded cult members. Now, there is sheer muscle (and brains) behind the development of an interplanetary Internet — NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSCS), which includes all the world’s space agencies as well as 100 industrial heavy-hitters, and even Vinton Cerf, who invented the Earthbound Internet’s TCP/IP protocols.
Of course, there are some huge differences between the 1.0 Internet as Heaven’s Gate knew it and the interplanetary Internet — namely, in terms of its difficulties. On Earth, two computers connected to the Internet can only physically be a few thousand miles apart, tops. So, packets of data shooting along fiber-optic cables at 186,000 miles a second only take a paltry few fractions of a second to get from one computer to another. The delay is so infinitesimally small as to be negligible, no matter how much we complain about the download speed of our Office bittorrents.
But when you factor in distances such as, say, the 38 million miles from Earth to Mars, that same little delay doesn’t look so negligible anymore. At this point, we’re talking several minutes or even hours for a radio signal to reach a receiving station, assuming the line-of-sight isn’t blocked by another satellite, an errant meteor, or some floating space junk. In the foreseeable future, an Interplanetary ‘net rigged from NASA’s Deep Space Network of antennas to all kinds of microsatellites floating in constellations around the planets just won’t be able to duplicate the real-time immediacy of the one we have on Earth.
You may rebut, quite reasonably, “Why in the hell do we need the Internet on Mars? That is still a totally insane notion.” That is as fundamental a question, however, as “Why do we need a space program?” and the answers are probably wildly relative to your stance on the issue. Still, one look at the Mars Pathfinder mission (which, coincidentally, was big news only a few months after the Rancho Santa Fe suicides) elucidates the technical need. When NASA sent the first rovers to Mars, they gave us a highly-anticipated, detailed look at a long-mysterious planet. However, data from the Pathfinder trickled back at an excruciating rate of about 300 bits per second — about 200 times slower than even an average computer with decent Internet on Earth can transfer data.
With the advent of interplanetary Internet protocols, however, researchers at JPL’s Mars Network think the transfer rate could eventually get up to about 1 Megabyte (8,288,608 bits) per second, allowing us Earthbound lugs to take virtual trips to Mars and other salient spots in outer space.
If only Applewhite and his crew had waited a few years, they might have been able to visit Hale Bopp without ditching their Earthly vehicles.