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Monday, March 02, 2015

And a Television Series Called PREY

Back seventeen years ago when I was 47 years old, a TV series named PREY came along and it changed my life.

That may sound like a rather odd statement for a supposedly mature human being to make, but it also happens to be true.

It all started innocently enough...

In January of 1998 I was working in a university IT department. I was married to Ben (still am). The first human genome was close to being sequenced. And at the time I had finished two career moves and had started to make room for some avocational interests in my life before starting on a masters degree; I had taken a photography class at the community college a few years earlier and had joined a local writer's group named "The Odds and Ends."

In the years preceding I had become a mostly apathetic TV viewer (probably from years of either studying or working at night). There were always a few good shows I enjoyed whenever I had the time, but nothing that compelled me to tune in every week. Anyway, on January 15, 1998, a new television series on ABC aired with a very playful premise about the theory of evolution:
Ad for the original series, copyright ABC
A speciation event of major proportion has once again occurred on earth, resulting in two species of man occupying space on the planet at the same time. The series poses the question: what would happen in that case? Of course the age-old question the series also rekindles is "What happened last time?" Whatever became of Neanderthal man when Cromagnon came on the scene?
In Prey, the species that supercedes us is discovered by a young postdoc Sloan Parker (played by Debra Messing), a bioanthropologist who is working in a university research lab.

There were SO many things about this premise that resonated with me. I had worked in a university research group. As a child I lived with my parents in married student housing while my mom and dad each earned a ph.D. in paleontology and geology, respectively. I had also experienced a considerable amount of  cognitive dissonance in my formative years; I grew up pulled between science and faith, particularly when it came to the theory of evolution. So it just felt like this show had been written with me in mind!
(Which sometimes made it difficult for me to share it with other people - in many ways, this was MY show - and because it was so deeply personal, opening my mind to the ideas of others was perhaps one of my first and foremost points of personal growth from this experience. Or another way of framing it is that I had always been an only child - sometimes I felt that Prey had given me lots of siblings to argue and bicker with. ;) But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's get back on topic.)
At the time the show aired, our writers group was collaborating on a round-robin story, and for my contribution I started writing along with the series. I also went out on this still-fairly-new thing called "the internet," discovered a fan community, and started joining in on conversations about the show. It was my first experience using the computer as a communication tool outside of email. To my surprise and delight, members of the show's creative team would occasionally visit the fans' message board. Having grown up in an era when communication with the TV set was strictly one-way, I can't tell you how amazing I found this. But my amazement didn't stop there. Like the Berlin wall, barriers started crashing down all around me, especially after Prey started airing its way around the world.

To make a long story short, Prey didn't even last the season before ABC canceled it. Also the fans' message board was experiencing some technical difficulties and threatened to go out from under us, leaving us forever lost in cyberspace. So that's how I (somewhat reluctantly) became a webmaster who for ten years provided a stable infrastructure so that the international community (35 countries in all) could keep in contact to collaborate and campaign to bring Prey back, people who for the most part had never met each other (but many of whom eventually did meet in real life). How could I say no? I kept trying to stuff this series back into its place so I could move on with my life, but it kept taking on a life of its own. Let me clarify. I did not already know how to provide this type of support -  which involved securing either a free or cheap and ad-free reliable host; locating and then paying for rights to use Darryl Burgdorf's beloved WebBBS CGI script (with funds the community itself had donated); and then implementing this CGI script. I had to learn how to do all this. I made it part of a final project for a class I was taking for my master's degree. And I wasn't the only one of the community who took on the learning of new skills. In fact, the technology, multi-media, communication, leadership, and writing skills the netizens of the PREY community forged were formidable; and their creativity and energy and enthusiasm (and generosity), boundless - there was always a kind-hearted soul willing to make and send tapes of the episodes at the frequent request of newbies who came seeking them. (As a community, we were even motivated to reach out and donate to more traditional causes - e.g., world hunger, environmental preservation, animal welfare, etc., as well as to try to take care of our own members when real life required it.)

 Forty thousand years ago,
the most advanced species on Earth 
was wiped out 
by a powerful new life form... 
Now another new species has evolved-- 
stronger, smarter, and 
dedicated to our annihilation. 
Leading the fight against them 
is Dr. Sloan Parker, 
the bioanthropologist 
who uncovered their existence. 
Once again, 
it's survival of the fittest...
and this time 
are the Prey.
Weekly Lead-in to the SeriesThe Prey Campaign's Version

We actually did have some success getting the networks and the media to listen to us and to respond. We are the reason ABC aired the remaining episodes of the series and we are the reason the Sci-Fi Channel aired a cross-over event in its series The Invisible Man, as a symbolic gesture to resolve the cliff-hanger in which ABC left PREY (the series ended with one of the major characters Tom locked in a cage; one of the fans had  the brilliant suggestion of deluging the Sci-Fi Channel with keys). Members of our community were published in the LA Times and the Indianapolis Star, as well as in other newspapers and online news sites.

Vidcap of a Sci-Fi Channel pop-up that appeared during that network's airing of Prey (provided by a preymate at the fan community message board)

For me, the girl born in 1950 when computers were mainframes as big as barns and there were no desktops, ipads, smartphones, or even calculators, this was just all so irresistably seductive, I couldn't stop myself if I'd wanted to. I found myself giving interviews to reporters from the office and from home; talking to television producers online; being published in editorials and otherwise getting experience in grassroots empowerment; and communicating and collaborating with like-minded people from around the world whom I had never met face to face. (Until the year 2000 that is, when we all -well many of us, anyway-converged on the Agamemcon 2000 Sci-Fi convention in Burbank, California one weekend, Ben, Mom, and I carting the cage Ben had built for the display table through airports across the country.)

So since I couldn't quit this PREY phenomenon, I did the next best thing which was to try to fit it into my life alongside my other duties and obligations, and to find ways to apply it to my fields of technology and instructional design. And perhaps I somewhat succeeded; I was notified recently that my Getting in Touch with Technology abstract is currently among the top 25% viewed on Slideshare.(it's rather odd that 1,851 views over a period of five years would be considered a significant number on a website as large as SlideShare's, but hey - I'll take any love for my work I can get, lol!). :)
As a segue, after President Obama was elected in 2009, his Change is Coming movement wanted people to meet in groups and continue the grass roots involvement. This was all computer-mediated, and with my PREY experience, I immediately recognized what needed to be done and organized a kick-off meeting of people in Greater Lafayette (at Barnes & Noble, before Christmas), which helped lead to the establishment of the organization YWCT (Yes, We Can, Tippecanoe) which still exists today.
Anyway, much yet remains to be told of the story of Prey and of the Prey Campaign. Artifacts of our  history remain all over the internet yet today (see list of links below). In my opinion, the impact of this series deserves to be known and preserved as an interesting bit of internet history, especially in the wake of 911 which kind of caused everybody to retreat back into their own countries and national identities. Eventually I'd like to see all the messages and photos and stories and other creations by the preymates that I have either printed or received through the mail or archived digitally go to some ... internet museum to be made forever available to anyone interested in studying online communities. Ours was pretty amazing. This blog post only touches the tip of the iceburg; when you take into account the collective experience of all the different, interesting, talented, funny, likeable, kind-hearted, and intelligent people who were involved with PREY and with the Campaign, the story goes deep.

In closing, I guess I would like to briefly revisit the that question many people have asked me and that I still sometimes ask myself:

What is it about this series?

Well, for me, I think it was both the topic and the timing with the World Wide Web. And that it brought fun to Cognitive Dissonance. Let me explain. As hinted in the beginning of this article, my life was full of cognitive dissonance, as I suspect most people's are - and resolving cognitive dissonance consumes a fair amount of energy. For me personally, I was in a good position in life. I had made my choices and settled down. I was happily married and productively and gainfully employed for nigh on 20 years. But in settling down to this happiness and opportunity, I didn't realize that I had left vast parts of me behind that I guess I needed to reconnect with in order to move forward. That's where Prey and computer-mediated-communication (CMC) played in: they added yet another surprising and transformative dimension to the desk-top computer revolution which had already so changed my life and become the key to my livelihood and success in my adult years.  But before PREY, technology wasn't social, and technology didn't let me out of Lafayette, Indiana.

The other part was the Cognitive Dissonance the series addressed for me personally. World War II and the GI Bill had brought together the unlikely combination of my parents, Mom from religious rural Indiana, Dad an agnostic New Yorker whose family had immigrated from Italy. As already mentioned my parents earned phDs in paleontology and geology. After that we moved all over the US and also lived in Mexico and South America following Dad's mining geology career. In 1963 when my parents divorced, I went to live with my Indiana grandparents and didn't see the New York side of the family until my college years. During that time I had become a devout Christian and attended a religious and conservative school Bob Jones University. So with my parents' scientific training, the clash of different cultures, and my own religious convictions, I was always trying to resolve something or other - and there always existed a tension between faith and science, particularly between creation and evolution.

Well, that kind of explains the draw. Fast forward about twenty or thirty years and along comes PREY which brought a surprising and fun twist to the whole dilemma for me. Jaw-dropping delight, in fact. Playful, as the series has touched on some interesting questions over the years that cross into many different fields:
Who are your Gods? And, whether your gods hail from the field of science or from the realm of faith, how much of humankind's history is deterministic and how much  of it is by choice? Is our existence always dependent on some incontrovertible tyrant (kindly or otherwise) or is there another way of seeing god and ourselves? What would cause a new species to evolve and what could the new adaptations be? If a new species were stronger and smarter, how could you write them in a way an audience could even understand their thoughts and language? Wouldn't their entire cognitive process and resulting language be incomprehensible to us (read George Miller's The Magic Number Seven Plus or Minus Two). What if a new species' magic number were, say  ... fourteen ... or even an order of magnitude?
The series sometimes tips in favor of a more hopeful view of our future and sometimes toward another. Part of what drew me in was writing along with the series for the round-robin Who'll Who'll Stop the Rain when I was in the writer's group. The computer and message board cemented the bond for many of us. In fact it forged a bond that holds til this day - as many of us, here in the Americas, and across the pond still keep in touch, albeit now on FaceBook both in our individual accounts and on the PREY page. :)


Want to find out more about PREY? Try these links:
A Message Board thank you from Bill Schmidt, series creator

Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it's the only thing that ever has. (Margaret Meade)

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