I learned the story of Moses Smith at Marina’s salon, some weeks after Victor and his friends started MySky. Moses was a San Francisco legend, like the Emperor Norton, only blind instead of mad, and still rich. Moses was working at the Cambridge firm of Bolt Beranek and Newman in the late 1960s, when they won a government contract to construct a computer network which would stand a chance of surviving a nuclear war. The network was the ARPANET, which was, as you probably know already, the parent and precursor of the Internet.
It isn’t clear what part, if any, Moses played in the ARPANET’s development. Ted believed that he came up with the idea of packet switching, i.e., the decomposition of messages into little pieces or ‘packets’ which are passed by various routes across a network, and reassembled at their destination.
Moses was drinking in a Cambridge bar, Ted said, when someone told the old story about the blind man and the elephant. Moses was pissed off—why did blind men always get the short end of the stick, or elephant, or whatever?—and he set out to prove that the blind men knew the elephant better than the seeing guy did. He came up with a scenario in which the seeing guy, on his way to tell someone about the elephant, is hit by a truck. Splat. A few minutes later, one of the blind men is crossing the same street, and the same truck, going in reverse now, runs him over. The rest of the blind men have meanwhile gone home by different routes, as blind men will, so they live to tell the story of the elephant to anyone who will listen. Distributed knowledge is robust. In this way packet-switching was born.
But Ted’s information was unreliable.
Anyway, he went on, the network changed Moses. He came to believe in the distribution of knowledge not only in computer networks, but in all modes of existence. This belief, as Ted explained it, had two components: on the one hand a reluctance to tell anyone the whole story about anything, and, on the other, a belief that groups of people functioned as packet-switched networks, in which a single message, unknown in its totality to any member of the group, was distributed. In Moses’s view, the whole world was a network, and there was a message, or messages, passing through it, which had been broken into human-sized packets, to ensure the message’s survivability, in case parts of the human race should be destroyed.
In the grip of this belief, and, it was rumored, also under the influence of LSD, Moses authored an infamous paper on extra-network routing, in the wake of which he lost his security clearance and with it his position at B B and N. But he did not give his idea up.
With money made in computer stocks, he funded airline-reservation agencies, credit-record aggregators, data-mining firms, genetic-sequencing laboratories, anything that would help him to test this hypothesis, that human beings not only were, but meant, if only you had the technology to read them.
It was beyond paranoia, almost to the point of being religion, and it transformed Moses from a strange but harmless engineer into something more like the dark spider of venture capital. If you took his money, Ted said, you were building a web with a center, and at the center of the web: Moses Smith.
I told Ted how Victor and I had met him, and how Victor was now—I guessed—involved with him somehow.
Ted grimaced. “Do you know what he makes you sign? It’s not just a non-disclosure agreement. It’s a non-disclosure of non-disclosure agreement. Which means that, not only can’t you talk about what you’re doing, you can’t talk about the fact that you can’t talk about it. Wrap your head around that.”
“How do you know? I mean, if one of the conditions of signing one of these things is that you can’t admit to signing it?” Ted looked at me pityingly. “Not everybody signs.”
The next time I saw Victor, I told him what Ted had said. Moses Smith was bad news. “Didn’t you have to sign a non-disclosure of non-disclosure agreement?”
Victor laughed. “You are fussy like an old woman. Besides, your information is wrong. I did not sign this document. Just a regular agreement. Also, MySky is not competing with the Internet.” He beamed with secret knowledge. “You will see,” he said. “Just wait.”