Twitter, Facebook and Tor relay networks have helped evolve revolutionary democratic movements—but we should never forgot the benefits of a good old postal service.
It may be the digital era’s time for revolutionary communiqué, but what we really need with a great sense of urgency is a real-life Tristero.
Tristero was the fictional creation of Thomas Pynchon as seen in his labyrinthine novel “The Crying of Lot 49″ (published in 1966). The symbol of Tristero is a muted post horn, which can be seen on buildings, in garbage bins, bathrooms, bus windows, etc. The mail boxes can be found underneath overpasses and other unlikely places, disguised as garbage bins and labeled W.A.S.T.E. (We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire). In this way, communication amongst Tristero loyalists and all manner of other folk can be transmitted and received via an underground network through America as well as Europe and in more distant locales.
Tristero’s fragmented history is uncovered by main character Oedipa Maas, whose old boyfriend Pierce Inverarity has supposedly died and made her executor of his will. Within his documents lay the seeds of Oedipa’s obsession with unraveling the Tristero mystery. As the novel progresses, Oedipa and the reader begin to wonder if she might be hallucinating the whole experience.
Now with the synopsis of “The Crying of Lot 49″ and Tristero out of the way, on to how it can be applied to America and the world’s current situation.
None can deny that Twitter, Facebook and Tor relays and other forms of digital communication have been instrumental in organizing certain national populations for protests or even revolution. Some of these forms can be anonymous, of course (such as the Tor relays or the chat rooms used by the Anonymous collective), but as Mubarak’s internet blackout proved in Egypt, people cannot always count on a functioning internet connection. Governments might also black out electrical grids as a pre-emptive attack in a revolutionary ferment.
It occurs to me that if the current democratic trend in America continues—the rich get richer, retreat behind gated communities with private armies, and the US government acts as an accomplice—we must face up to the possibility that if it becomes necessary to extricate ourselves from the status quo (some already argue for this reality), we must have in place other lines of communication.
And although Tristero is a fictional organization that has fallen into some disarray and is more of a curiosity in “The Crying of Lot 49,” it illustrates the possibilities of communicating secretly without the benefit of the internet’s instantaneity. It also presents us with one of the counterculture’s first memes—the muted post horn. It appears everywhere like the V symbol in Paris during World War II (itself a mark of the French Resistance). The profusion of the symbol encourages dissidents that the movement is growing while reminding authorities that they cannot be everywhere and they might very well be surrounded.
And just as the US Postal Service will take a letter from Florida, across rivers, mountains and prairie, all the way to a tiny home situated in a remote valley, so must these underground postal services be able to do the same. Such logistics are absolutely necessary.
And just as the US government is building underground internet for dissidents to circumvent censors and blackouts, those Americans with such capabilities should be at work on similar projects now—ready for any eventuality. Like the US State Department’s project, we should have portable devices that would allow us to create the internet anywhere and everywhere, in conjunction with an underground postal service.