12 Days of Significance (36)

By: William Gibson
January 5, 2018

One in a 2017–2018 series of posts reprinting stories originally written — by 12 HILOBROW contributors and friends — for Josh Glenn and Rob Walker’s 2009–2010 anthropological-literary experiment SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS. See below for more info about this ongoing project.



In 1969 my friend’s dad was a Pentagon technocrat. My friend said that when his dad came home with a new tie-tack, it meant there was a new weapon in the works. Not that there would be a new weapon, but that there was now a coterie of guys in the building who thought the idea was cool enough that they’d wear the tie-tack. It started with the tie-tack. If you couldn’t get the über-geeks to wear your tie-tack, your project wasn’t going to get off the ground. You had to demonstrate that your weapon had fans, and these guys didn’t wear t-shirts. My friend said that Soviet spies should hang out at malls and supermarkets in McLean and take micro-telephoto pictures of tie-tacks. Because it was all there, revealed, this utterly top-secret quadruple-classified shit, on a background of plaid madras. And you could be sure that the weapon of mass destruction depicted there was really the very latest thing, because, he said, it was uncool to wear them once they became a done deal, just as it was uncool to wear them if they definitely weren’t going to happen. What you wanted to demonstrate was that your tie-tack depicted something that was liminal, something still in the Dreamtime.

I imagined that David, my friend’s dad, had one of those ’50s dad boxes on his dresser. Where he kept his doohickeys. Cufflinks. Whatnot. And in David’s box was a fistful of tie-tacks, their little anchor-chains hopelessly tangled, a secret history of Pentagon blue-sky imagination.

He was a good guy, David. In 1969 he told me that what was going to happen with the Soviet Union was that it was going to go bankrupt. He said they were cooking the books, fooling themselves that their economy worked, that their system made sense. He wasn’t talking politics. He was an engineer. He was absolutely right, though I confess I didn’t buy it. I couldn’t imagine a world without the Soviet Union. He called it. The only thing he got wrong was the food riots. In the end, they weren’t necessary. In the meantime, he said, we just had to hold them at bay. With tie-tacks.

This ashtray, I imagine, came from somewhere further along the Hawk missile system’s developmental span. Ashtrays aren’t liminal. When you’re passing out ashtrays, you’ve actually got a product. When they passed a little spring-topped jewelry box, closed, to one of the über-geeks, that confidential “check this shit out” moment, it wasn’t a product, it was a glyph, something there but not there, half-juggled from the Dreamtime.

A fossil from a future that you knew might not even happen. Dashing, enigmatic, unworn. Not yet tangled in the darkness of history’s dad box, with the dead boys and the lost stupid war they died in.


SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018). 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE . ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.

CURATED SERIES at HILOBROW: UNBORED CANON by Josh Glenn | CARPE PHALLUM by Patrick Cates | MS. K by Heather Kasunick | HERE BE MONSTERS by Mister Reusch | DOWNTOWNE by Bradley Peterson | #FX by Michael Lewy | PINNED PANELS by Zack Smith | TANK UP by Tony Leone | OUTBOUND TO MONTEVIDEO by Mimi Lipson | TAKING LIBERTIES by Douglas Wolk | STERANKOISMS by Douglas Wolk | MARVEL vs. MUSEUM by Douglas Wolk | NEVER BEGIN TO SING by Damon Krukowski | WTC WTF by Douglas Wolk | COOLING OFF THE COMMOTION by Chenjerai Kumanyika | THAT’S GREAT MARVEL by Douglas Wolk | LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE by Chris Spurgeon | IMAGINARY FRIENDS by Alexandra Molotkow | UNFLOWN by Jacob Covey | ADEQUATED by Franklin Bruno | QUALITY JOE by Joe Alterio | CHICKEN LIT by Lisa Jane Persky | PINAKOTHEK by Luc Sante | ALL MY STARS by Joanne McNeil | BIGFOOT ISLAND by Michael Lewy | NOT OF THIS EARTH by Michael Lewy | ANIMAL MAGNETISM by Colin Dickey | KEEPERS by Steph Burt | AMERICA OBSCURA by Andrew Hultkrans | HEATHCLIFF, FOR WHY? by Brandi Brown | DAILY DRUMPF by Rick Pinchera | BEDROOM AIRPORT by “Parson Edwards” | INTO THE VOID by Charlie Jane Anders | WE REABSORB & ENLIVEN by Matthew Battles | BRAINIAC by Joshua Glenn | COMICALLY VINTAGE by Comically Vintage | BLDGBLOG by Geoff Manaugh | WINDS OF MAGIC by James Parker | MUSEUM OF FEMORIBILIA by Lynn Peril | ROBOTS + MONSTERS by Joe Alterio | MONSTOBER by Rick Pinchera | POP WITH A SHOTGUN by Devin McKinney | FEEDBACK by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FTW by John Hilgart | ANNOTATED GIF by Kerry Callen | FANCHILD by Adam McGovern | BOOKFUTURISM by James Bridle | NOMADBROW by Erik Davis | SCREEN TIME by Jacob Mikanowski | FALSE MACHINE by Patrick Stuart | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | UNBORED MANIFESTO by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen | H IS FOR HOBO by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FRIDAY by guest curators