No Domain: The John McAfee Tapes
© 2021 Mark Eglinton
When the talking heads begin rattling on about notable deaths of 2021, they will mention all manner of useless, uninteresting people — politicians, athletes, pop musicians. They will not mention John McAfee, who after months on the run from multiple states and various criminal organizations, was captured by the Spanish and succumbed to ‘suicide’ in his lonely prison cell. He lived hard, fast, and brilliantly — embracing chaos in his own life and almost exulting in it, until at last it got the better of him. He entered the public domain as a self-made tech millionaire, riding the wave of his antivirus software, and decades later would be more notable as an eccentric fugitive, whose paranoia or zest for life led him to live abroad and frequently abandon everything to start again — who made his return to the United States by mocking the media’s presentation of him as a druglord with a harem. John’s is a voice which has been silenced — but not quite, for here we have a collection of interviews in the last year of his extraordinary, singular life, getting another look into this mind that occupied the line between genius and insanity.
No Domain is not a formal biography of McAfee, but a collection of interviews between himself and Englinton that were given with an eye to creating an authorized story of the man’s life. The interviews are given sporadically, as McAfee was on the run at the time, and Englinton ties them together with a narrative detailing his struggles to make progress getting a self-professed paranoiac to trust him — and to trust what the subject was telling him. McAfee grew up in a troubled household, with an abusive father who beat him and committed suicide when he was but a teenager. Something of a math prodigy, McAfee quickly realized he could game college by reading and mastering the textbooks quickly, then spending his time partying and making money on the side. This philosophy continued as he aged; in his twenties, he accepted training as a computer programmer back when executing a program meant manually flipping switches on a computer control board. His talents here led him to work at numerous high-profile companies, and at each he employed the same strategy that worked in college: knock out the work quickly, then focus on drugs and women. As computer technology matured, McAfee became fascinated by the appearance of the first computer virus, and crafted a way to detect and remove it from affected machines. This was the beginning of McAfee Associates’ VirusScan, which would catapult him into the realm of the super-rich and allow him to become the….colorful character of the 2000s.
McAfee, throughout these interviews, presents himself as someone who was devoted to Living — not merely existing. He couldn’t abide a 9-5 grind, to live every day according to a preordained pattern. He chased highs, through a wide array of illicit substances and women, and once he had money, explored his creative side by sinking money into developing properties throughout the world. Some were more art projects than functional residences. McAfee often appears to be a creature of impulse, attempting to solve social problems in Belize and Hawaii through massive expenditures, and invariably attracting the wrath of local powers and authorities who didn’t like this strange outsider throwing his weight around them. His time in Belize was particularly…dramatic, as he was compelled to hire a security force the size of a small army to prevent retaliation from hurting those he was trying to help. (That’s his story: what passes for authorities in Belize claim he killed his neighbor.) Eventually the chaos forced him out and back to the United States, where after some political activities, he is targeted by the IRS for not paying tribute to the state — for ten years. Such was the path that led him to living on a boat and eventually being arrested in Spain.
I was disappointed that there’s almost no content on McAfee’s warnings about the technocratic surveillance state, and the exposure American IT infrastructure has to cyberattacks. These were what first drew me to McAfee, and kept me interested despite realizing he was….troubled. In many ways, his was not a life I’d model mine after, and yet I valued him for his frequent warnings about the rising surveillance system, his full-throated advocacy for cryptocurrency to thwart the corruption of money by states and banks, and admired him for his continued defiance of the state. They killed him in the end, as no state-gangster can abide someone who doesn’t cower under Ozymandias’ glare, but his spirit lives on. While this is not the biography of McAfee his fans might hope for, it’s a welcome release.