The Tao of Tech
By Gary Singh
RECENTLY, I joined local video engineer Mark Hager on the first trial run of a literary tour through a slice of Silicon Valley underbelly that no one talks about. We'll call them the Ancient and Mystical Brotherhood of Union Stagehands (AMBUS) who toil away behind the scenes at all your favorite arena rock shows and grand-scale conventions and industrial events. Yes, the same crew of riggers, ironworkers, A/V techs, lighting designers and their ilk who bump into each other backstage at Shoreline Amphitheatre at least partly overlap with the folks running cable and troubleshooting satellite feeds behind the scenes at conventions and high-tech product launches. Hager, a Bellarmine graduate, is possibly the first one to ever write a book about the lifestyle. Boom! Backstage Pass is now complete and available at www.boombackstagepass.com. Aside from juicy gossip about high-tech celebs and rock stars, the book is filled with flashes of what life was like at the beginning of the dotcom bubble:
Data projectionists were suddenly so important because Silicon Valley had just discovered PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation software. I discovered that I could make unbelievable amounts of money by just moving slides around, and leave the tweaking to someone else, so I quickly made myself a PowerPoint expert. This put me right in the crest of the Silicon Valley wave. A common joke asked, "How do you bring Silicon Valley to a standstill? Invent a virus that crashes PowerPoint." I saw all the best (and worst) business plans, marketing models, and sales projections, and they were all accompanied by the same pie charts. I saw the good and the bad, the truthful and the deceitful, the inspired and the expired.
For another leg of Hager's literary tour, he took me through the McEnery Convention Center and the backstage confines of the San Jose Civic Auditorium, both heavily featured in the chapter titled "Rehearsing." In that chapter, Hager tells the story of a rehearsal for the original launch of Microsoft's Explorer browser, which took place in those two venues. During those years, any new Microsoft product was certain to draw ridiculously large crowds, so even though Bill Gates was speaking to a crowd of 3,000 in the Civic Auditorium, Hager and the rest of the crew were required to set up and operate all the "overflow rooms" across the street in the Convention Center to accommodate media and/or VIPs who would either not make it inside on time or simply get locked out at show time.
Joey, Zed, Big Dick and I were the main crew for the biggest overflow room, Hall 2, which held several thousand. Dick was the job steward, I was in charge of the satellite feed from across the street, Joey was in charge of local computers, and Zed was in charge of the projectors. Yes, we broadcast by satellite just to go across the street. Such excesses were common. We had spent the whole day before building a full corporate stage with set pieces, curtains, sound system and event lights below two large screens that would show Bill from across the street. No one would ever speak from our stage, it was merely dressing for a signal that was bouncing though orbital space from across the street, all for an anticipated overflow audience that might not show up."
On a more philosophical note, Hager also explains that the hurry-up-and-wait rhythmic nature of setting up, working and tearing down a gig is just a microcosm of the larger-scale booming and busting of Silicon Valley itself. Everything is an organic, interconnected whole with the Tao flowing through it. "The best technician was like the ancient Taoist master, surrounded by the virtue of wu-wei, or 'non-action,'" he writes in the book. "In other words, 'doing nothing, yet leaving nothing undone.'"