Fringe Wayback Machine: Brain Shapiro revisits online predictions from 1995 in A FEW THOUSAND UPGRADES LATER

In 1995, there was no Google or Facebook or Amazon, no smartphones or tablets, nothing to upgrade or download. But there was an Internet with email and chatrooms and simple websites. That year, master’s student Brian Shapiro asked six folks their thoughts and predictions on computer technology and the internet, creating an Anna Deavere Smith–style theater show from the transcripts. His subjects included Larry Harvey (the founder of Burning Man) and author/media theorist/cultural critic Neil Postman.

Brian is revisiting his 1995 show this Fringe with A FEW THOUSAND UPGRADES LATER. He tells Phindie about the original show, version 2.0, and what we’ll be doing online in 2035. [London Grill, 2301 Fairmount Avenue] September 3-18, 2015; fringearts.com/a-few-thousand-upgrades-later.

Brian Shapiro, creator of A FEW THOUSAND UPGRADES LATER.

Brian Shapiro, creator of A FEW THOUSAND UPGRADES LATER.

Phindie: What was your first exposure to the World Wide Webs?

Brian Shapiro: My first exposure was while in graduate school in Austin (at least that’s what I remember). It was the first time I was required to open an email account, as up to that point I was totally off-line. The first websites that drew my attention were news websites, more specifically, newspaper web sites. I was attending graduate school in Austin and I used to web to keep up with new and events in San Francisco (where I had moved from). In this way, I always felt connected to my adopted home town.

Phindie: What was your idea behind the original production in 1995?. 

BS: The original production actually served as my masters thesis in speech communication from San Francisco State University. We had studied Anna Deavere Smith’s techniques, and I applied that to this work. The motivation behind exploring computer technology was more about my own fears and concerns about how all this stuff was going to impact our ability to “authentically” communicate. I was an idealisitc 20-something unsure of his place in the world and saw computers as something that would have me feeling more even more unsure of that place. So, in essence, I was a technophobe, but I knew I wasn’t alone.

Phindie: How did you meet the people you interviewed?

BS: Everyone with the exception of Neil Postman was recommended to me via mutual acquaintances. I was lucky to get Larry Harvey. At the time Burning Man was “small”—only 5,000 participants—so getting in touch with him was as easy as a phone call. With Dr. Postman, I was a fan and had reached out to him and he agreed, so I flew out to NYC for the interview.

Phindie: How were the predictions and the show received at the time?

BS: The audience enjoyed it. It was a one-off done at San Francisco State, and some of the participants attended as well. It was interesting for them to watch themselves being portrayed on-stage. In particular, the daughter of one of the subjects was a bit uneasy about seeing her mom being portrayed, because she told me she saw herself in my portrayal of her mother. A strange moment, but spoke to the power of this type of theater.

Phindie: What were some of the most prescient predictions?

BS: The biggest prediction that actually came through was that how one represents oneself would become more meaningful that the actual self. I think we’ve seen that with sites like Facebook, where the crafting of one’s identity may not be an accurate reflection of who the person really is, but rather of how they would like to world to see them.

Phindie: How about the most off-base?

BS: That online users would be able to protect their identity and that any information revealed would only be voluntary. We all know that is not the case now.

Phindie: What made you decide to relaunch the show?

BS: Twenty years later seemed like a good number to work with. Also, with work and family responsibilities, I had less time to develop a new show than I did last year. I only got to perform this show once, so to do it again, and add some more current social commentary, was a big factor for me.

Phindie: Where do you think technology will be 20 years from now?

BS: So hard to know. It will be even more pervasive, if that’s even possible, and more and more “mundane” tasks will take place electronically. As long as technology remains the economic machine that it is

Phindie: Which websites do you visit the most? 

BS: Mostly news sites, such as Huffington Post, SF Chronicle, Philly.com, LA Times, places where I live/have lived that remain relevant in my life. I do some shopping on line via Amazon, and use Gmail and Yahoo!. Check Yelp for reviews. Used to use Grooveshark, until they shut down. Otherwise, I really am not a big website person.

Phindie: Do you have any other picks for the Fringe?

BS: Dishwasher: the piece where the guy comes to your house tells a story and cleans your dishes. It may seem a bit kitschy, but I like things that are different and establish new avenues for performance.

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.