Phil Agre, missing
November 25, 2009 8:10 AM   Subscribe

Phil Agre, online pioneer that ran the Red Rock Eater News service (predating most blogs) has been missing for about a year. Former colleagues believe it could be a mental breakdown or a walkabout and they've begun a controlled search using social networks with a goal of simply finding out if he's ok.
posted by mathowie (23 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for posting this mathowie. I was an early reader of RRE and hope that Phil is OK. It is possible he just wanted to disappear. Regardless, if he is OK and wants to remain unfound, let's hope he sends a message to someone that he is OK. He was very influential in the early to mid-1990s.
posted by camworld at 8:17 AM on November 25, 2009

The second link requires a google login? That's peculiar.

I hope they find the guy, or an explanation of what happened. He's one of those groundbreakers from the early days.
posted by hippybear at 8:22 AM on November 25, 2009

RRE was hugely influential on me. I like how the third link characterizes RRE as an email precursor to blogs, and how unusual it was in its time. I missed it when he stopped writing it. I also had the pleasure of spending a couple of weeks in Budapest with Phil in 1996, teaching at a summer school. Very, very smart guy, a little prickly, but interesting and thoughtful and quite generous.

I sure hope he's OK. I've had too damn many smart friends go a bit crazy and threaten their health. Jorn Barger went missing and that turned out alright, maybe the same will happen with Phil. It's hard for me to imagine people who were so Internet-centric just going offline.

I've been thinking about this off and on since the UCLA police report came out, trying to figure out how to post it to MeFi. Thanks for doing it, Matt.
posted by Nelson at 8:44 AM on November 25, 2009

Speaking of Jorn B., his Wikipedia entry has quite the wild-man photo of him from 2008.
posted by Creosote at 8:50 AM on November 25, 2009

I'd never heard of RRE before this post, but it seems like Phil was an intelligent and interesting person. I hope that everything turns out alright for him.
posted by codacorolla at 9:00 AM on November 25, 2009

I hope he's OK, but if he wanted to disappear, I hope people don't find him.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:15 AM on November 25, 2009

This is really disturbing and I pray all is well with Phil. I was wondering as recently as last month what happened to him and had checked his UCLA page. I was an early subscriber to Phil's RRE list in the 90's. He's one of the people who made the early Internet (well email anyway) interesting and useful. RRE was one of those gems where you could see the sparkle of possibilities for the online future. Phil is intelligent, articulate, polymathic, and eccentric-- the kind of person who could produce a daily email blast that would be sure to wrench your attention from whatever silly work you had to do. He produced fascinating academic bibliographies that gave me a lot of good reading direction in wide array of fields. I still look through his bibliographies. I've saved some and there are some posted in the archives of RRE. If you never read RRE, a slow stroll through the archives will not be unrewarded. Come back Phil--unless you have something better to do.
posted by leonard horner at 9:16 AM on November 25, 2009

I too was an early reader of his materials and hope that there is a happy conclusion to this story. I remember, oddly, that he (like me) had a fascination with inexpensive but useful pens and he ran a lot of material making critiques upon all sorts of pens. His focus upon the inexpensive pens might say something also about the man. He dismissed expensive fountain pens as too costly, showoffish, and inefficient.
posted by Postroad at 9:17 AM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've been thinking about making this post for a long time, and I'm glad someone finally did (I couldn't, because I'm a grad of his department though sadly Phil was missing during the entirety of my time there).

Agre is an incredible writer, a brilliant guy, and I'm sorry I never got the chance to meet him because there's a lot of very concerned people that I respect very much who are looking for him.

I want to add, looking at the 'mental breakdown or walkabout' link ("I've been out of the academic circuit for years, that's my excuse, but I don't quite understand how those in the loop could have let this happen")that there have been people looking for Phil for quite some time now, and his being missing was VERY much noticed in the department and I'm sure among his family as well. The whys and wherefores of the search are complicated, to say the least, and admittedly I know very little of it and all of that secondhand.

If you do know anything about Phil's whereabouts, here's the UCPD Crime Alert [pdf] with contact information as well as a variety of pictures of him.
posted by librarylis at 9:18 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

had a fascination obsession with inexpensive but useful pens ftfy
posted by leonard horner at 9:20 AM on November 25, 2009

I read about this on the Chronicle of Higher Education the other day. Here's hoping that no news is good news.
posted by ob at 9:33 AM on November 25, 2009

I think it very likely that Phil would be a MeFi reader. I hope he sees this and realizes what an influence he had and how much he is missed.

I think about Phil every time I go into Staples to buy some pens.
posted by charlesminus at 10:00 AM on November 25, 2009

Throughout my years doing user support, I always kept a printout of Agre's "How To Help Someone Use A Computer" tacked to my bulletin board and would re-read it from time to time. Anyone who has user support in their job description should learn..nay memorize..every single word of it.

I genuinely hope they find him alive and well.
posted by briank at 10:02 AM on November 25, 2009 [8 favorites]

If he wanted to disappear, he's done it all wrong. If you owe people money, eventually they're going to write it off. But if people care about you're well being they're going to keep looking until there's no hope left.

So if you're going to dissapear, give the person you think is most likely to mount a search an encryption key in person (it doesn't have to be very complex since you're using it as a parity check, not a security measure) and then send them periodic encrypted messages saying "I have decided to dissapear for a while. I do not wish to be found. I am alive and well."
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:44 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Makes me think of how _why, the guy who did a ton of Ruby stuff (including _why's Guide to Ruby, and Shoes) just up and disappeared one day, taking all his domains with him.
posted by inigo2 at 10:56 AM on November 25, 2009

I think it very likely that Phil would be a MeFi reader.

Funny thing, I was a RRE subscriber from about 1998 onwards and I remember there was a time we overlapped at UCLA, right before I left and right after he got there. I urged him to try blogging and tried unsuccessfully to arrange a lunch with him some day, and I used to send him links to interesting early MeFi threads.

Somewhere, there's an old RRE email where he mentions MeFi and urges readers to check it out "despite the hideous color scheme". I always remembered that.
posted by mathowie at 11:42 AM on November 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

Oh man.

I was an early RRE subscriber while still in grad school and I always looked forward to Agre's musings, his essays on topics like how to "become an expert" and how to network in academe and, of course, loved his reviews of cheap pens. He was reaching people in a positive and substantive way before blogging, before social networking sites, before most people had even jumped on the Web.

It was (maybe?) in 1999 that I spoke at a conference at Harvey Mudd College where Phil Agre was also speaking and I looked forward to the chance to make his acquaintance face to face. I'd thought, I suppose, that since he'd been instrumental in helping me figure out how to get along in academe that it'd be easy to strike up a conversation, but alas it wasn't. He was--as the folks who've started this search point out--reserved, very private, and withdrawn. I have no doubt that he wouldn't at all remember our brief interaction.

I've thought about him periodically over the years and wondered what he was up to as RRE went dark and his academic output did as well. I hope he's OK and finding a way to live in this world . . .
posted by donovan at 12:04 PM on November 25, 2009

In addition to RRE, Phil also had a really terrific article on developing and using social networks. I certainly hope he's ok.
posted by jasper411 at 12:35 PM on November 25, 2009

I loved reading RRE, and think about Agre every time I buy a pen. I hope he's okay.
posted by ntk at 12:38 PM on November 25, 2009

I hope he just took some time out to read all of those books he used to put on his list. Before there was GTD, Phil was the master of "someday/maybe".
posted by sagwalla at 12:51 PM on November 25, 2009

I still assign "Networking on the Network" to my students. Phil's compassionate and intelligent writing made me want to write and kept me afloat when grinding out my disastertation. It is painfully ironic that someone who wrote so lucidly has lost themselves in this manner. I wish Wired would write about this rather than their silly experiment in dropping off the grid.
posted by mecran01 at 1:02 PM on November 25, 2009

I didn't get where I am today by conforming to other people's expectations of me.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:24 AM on November 26, 2009

Never heard of him before this post, which is a damn shame, since I was a student at UCLA in the mid-90s, but I am adding my voice and energy to the collective that's wishing he's OK.

Also adding him to my already crowded reading list.
posted by yiftach at 12:23 AM on November 27, 2009

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