Special Issues: 30 Cyber Days
Clown Prince of the Digital Counterculture
The evolution of a bohemian, technohip subculture within the vibrant and elastic digital culture of today was mediated by two important events. One was the opening of the Internet. The other was the appearance of Mondo 2000.
The early Internet derived much of its ambiance from a strange hybrid of 60s counterculture and 80s libertarianism. Mondo 2000, a glossy periodical that evolved from an earlier neopsychedelic zine, incorporated this sociopolitical sensibility and blended it with their own peculiar sense of post-punk irreverence, drugged-up pranksterism, and high style. The result was a new cultural trend, or at least the media-generated illusion of one.
It was 1989. Computers were seen as tools of High Geekdom. Mondo, however, portrayed the new technology as sexy, hip, and powerfully subversive. And as Captain Picard might say, they made it so.
It was Bart Nagel’s unique computer-enhanced graphic style that pushed Mondo 2K over the top, making it something of a phenomenon in the early 90s. However, the real meat was in the cheerfully irreverent exploration of nascent technoculture and the evolving computer underground from the perspective of the writer/editors, whose handles were R.U. Sirius, St. Jude, and Queen Mu. Besides displaying strangeness and charm, early Mondo was the only popular representation of the hacker ethic, described by author Andrew Ross as “libertarian and crypto-anarchist in its right-to-know principles and its advocacy of decentralized knowledge. [It] asserts the basic right of users to free access to all information. It is a principled attempt, in other words, to challenge the tendency to use technology to form information elites.” [Technoculture 116]
Despite being non-technical, Mondo 2000‘s original Editor-in-Chief, the iconoclastic prankster R.U. Sirius, saw clearly the broad implications of the hacker ethic and incorporated it to his bag of tricks. He began hanging out on the WELL, at that time a little-known Bay Area conferencing system that attracted writers, hackers, artists, poets, and publishers from all over the world. He started a topic on Mondo 2000 in the Hacking conference on the WELL, which evolved into the once-vibrant, now defunct Mondo 2000 conference.
In 1993, Sirius split from Mondo 2000. Since then, he’s contributed his increasingly acerbic scribblings to publications ranging from ARTFORUM International to Wired to Esquire Japan. In 1994, he recorded an unreleased album called IOU Babe for Trent Reznor’s Nothing Records with his conceptual-art rock band MV Inc. (formerly called Mondo Vanilli). He has also co-authored two books with St. Jude, Cyberpunk Handbook: the Real Cyberpunk Fakebook (Random House), and How to Mutate and Take Over the World (Ballantine).
As this interview was completed, Sirius told me about his new website, called “The Mutate Project”, that includes a public forum on “how to conduct a guerrilla war against the censorship of the Internet… and other stuff.” However sirius this may sound, you can bet it’s always somewhat tongue-in-chic. Mondo to the Core
CTHEORY: Did Mondo 2000 just cycle out? Or do you think, in a perfect world, you could’ve held the cultural edge and continued to produce quality content?
R.U. Sirius: Mondo had its moment on the tip of the wave. But I think that a certain combination of our editors and art people could have launched the truly corrosive assault on computer and media culture that was implicit in Mondo at its best. I think it’s silly to chase the edge. It’s much more interesting to explode it… as well as the mainstream. It’s better to be inspired than wired.
CTHEORY: When you’re associated with the neophile fringe there’s that expectation that you’ll always be remaking reality, though. Finding the next frontier…
RU: Right. But I don’t worry so much about the “neophile fringe” or the cult of newness, believe it or not. I’m more interested in passion and philosophy, sex and subversion… you know… those old-fashioned values. This macho sort of posturing about being the fastest, most technohip, way-ahead person around gets really tiresome. It was sort of funny to me as the Mondo 2000 thing got going that some people really thought that I should feel ashamed because I’m not an authentic hacker. Really, who gives a fuck? I’m not an auto mechanic either. I just feel compelled to do various forms of communication and make art about the things that intrigue me.
CTHEORY: It seems that Mondo tried to be digital culture while at the same time slam dunking it.
RU: Yes! My book How To Mutate & Take Over the World does that also. HTM&TOW is both the next stage and my personal kiss off to the so-called cyberculture.
We were always horribly ambiguous. Even our hortatory, wild-eyed, faux-utopian opening statement from the first issue (which, incidentally, the academic types insist on keeping in circulation as proof of our naivete), was more an exercise in poetic extravagance then something to live and die by. So I rode the Virtual Reality hype and the smart drugs hype, but I also made a lot of cynical statements about them. Throughout the early 90s, I repeated the line “I’d rather watch Ren and Stimpy on caffeine than experience virtual reality on smart drugs” in all my lectures and interviews, to try to detach from excessive identification with disappointing infant technologies. It’s a very true statement, by the way. But ironic distance also quickly becomes banal… and that spells exhaustion. Let’s not talk about exhaustion. What can you say, really?
CTHEORY: There have been many rumors about your reasons for splitting from Mondo in 1993. What’s the real, unexpurgated story?
RU: I split primarily because I wasn’t the one at the controls, and I could feel the thing spinning out of control and couldn’t do anything about it.
Unless you were inside Mondo, you couldn’t possibly understand what it was like. Read Alice In Wonderland and the collected works of Kafka as though they were instruction manuals for how to succeed in business, for starters. I’m not interested in magnifying the details though. I love everybody involved.
You know, only an absolute nut would have supported and helped to create Mondo 2000 when it started in 1989 so what the hell. And I’m a complete lunatic myself so I can only be thankful. I’ve always been through the looking glass.
Cyberpunk: Threat, Menace, or Marketing Concept?
CTHEORY: Speaking of the past, let’s talk about the c-word. Mondo 2000 was a focus of a superficial “movement” that called itself cyberpunk, after the literary genre. But like Mondo, it seems to be gasping for breath. The sf writers who were reluctantly responsible for the meme seem kind of relieved. But you released a book called The Cyberpunk Handbook in 95. What’s your take?
RU: Bruce Sterling didn’t want to have anything to do with it when we interviewed him back in 89. He said he was “taking down the neon sign.”
All labels are just conveniences and anybody who takes them too seriously is a fool. But the compulsive need to jettison a label might just be one aspect of taking it too seriously. Does the label help you to communicate a certain aesthetic or a set of generally held beliefs and attitudes? Are you searching for a new label just because somebody told you that it wasn’t hip to use this one anymore?
I’m terribly trendy myself. I’m easily pressured by the tyranny of hip. So I had resolutely forsworn against the use of “cyber” in any form. But then I was offered a mercenary opportunity by Random House to assault the cyberpunk concept – in other words to help write a book called The Cyberpunk Handbook. It was their idea. I wanted to get the advance for the book and then change the title, but by the time we got the advance, Jude had written a whole bunch of great stuff about cyberpunks. And you know, fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.
CTHEORY: Cyberpunk was really just a marketing term from the word go.
RU: Art movements usually are. Gibson, Sterling and company saw an opportunity to market a genre, which is how you move product in a dense media culture. People need the various classifications and subclassifications to know where to go, because there’s too much stuff. The cool thing about the cyberpunk genre is that it’s been pretty elastic. Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, Mondo 2000, ravers, SRL, underground hackers, Gibson, Leary… it provided a pretty big tent for people to hawk their wares from.
CTHEORY: But cyberpunk seems to be dying now as a marketing concept. We thought we were in on the ground floor and, next thing we knew, we were buried under the basement – coopted by a larger commercial mainstream. The big question seems to be whether the Internet will become completely corporatized. And if it does, will there be alternative channels?
RU: Well, it’s a legal matter now. A heavily censored net will make any sort of alternativeness difficult. But there’s no easy division. Push comes to shove, the media corps have to sell our pre-packaged little revolts-into-style for us because there’s a consumer demand that isn’t going to go away. Things are too unsatisfactory and people need to spit it up. Or, in other words, the corporate sponsors will want to put their little logos on everything.
CTHEORY: A favorite example being William S. Burroughs in a Nike ad.
RU: You said it! Would I do a Nike ad? I would! And does that weaken my stance? It does!
CTHEORY: And do you care?
RU: I don’t! Really, heroism is a spectator sport. Fuck spectators. Anybody who doesn’t factor a need to pay rent and to have pleasures into whatever expectations they have of anybody else can go to fuck. I hate expectations of any kind.
CTHEORY: Subversion never completely succeeds but neither does the attempt to squash it.
RU: Subversion by its nature parisitizes whatever it attempts to subvert. But subversion isn’t really subversive any more. I mean, you can do the most outrageous shit, and people’s ability to react is just flattened. The greatest hope for subversives is William Bennett and the Christian Coalition and all that. They are trying their best to make subversion subversive again… god bless ’em!
Trapped in a World He Never Made
CTHEORY: You seem to be into paradox. Leading cyberculture while slamming it, practicing raw capitalism while critiquing it in the process. This paradox seems to run through much of the culture jamming stuff.
RU: Well, anybody who doesn’t believe that we’re trapped hasn’t taken a good look around. We’re trapped in a sort of mutating multinational corporate oligarchy that’s not about to go away. We’re trapped by the limitations of our species. We’re trapped in time. At the same time identity, politics, and ethics have long turned liquid. It seems that what we have, at least among the sort of hip technophile population, is an experimental attitude. An experimental attitude is one of not knowing, otherwise it’s not really experimental.
Also, most people try so hard to put their best face forward, right? I mean, if you’re writing a righteous political statement on Monday and you’re hyping your ass and talking to the lawyers on Tuesday, you’re not going to emphasize Tuesday. You’re not going to emphasize your own corruption. Except I tend to, because the deal is what’s real. If I can make one claim, it’s that I’m the most anti-purist motherfucker around.
CTHEORY: I was talking to former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson at a party last night. He was talking about the corporate monopolization of media. If five major corporations control all but the tiniest media channels, then they control the flow of information. In an information economy, that’s the flow of life. That’s why the corporate/government interests want to control the Internet. To them, it’s just one of the several media distribution channels. Zines and pirate media may continue to exist, but they’re nothing against the corporate powers.
RU: There’s some complicated dynamics there, between corporate interests, government interests, popular interests, and individual liberties that aren’t so easily sorted out, but I’ll say this from my little corner of the universe. If you have laws against “obscenity” and “indecency” in an open channel like the net, you’ve effectively silenced the non-mainstream, non-conforming voice because, sooner or later, this is the medium where it all converges. That’s not some kind of Wired-style technophilia, that’s just a fact of life. Sooner or later it all converges around an extension of telephony. Now, corporate media is a tremendous sponsor of alternativeness, but they can survive without it. Or they can pressure artists to tone it down. So it’s the independents who are going to be crushed by this, as usual.
However, the net is a terrific environment for guerrilla warfare. It’s a great jungle in which to hide and from which to make attacks. And your attacks are by nature communicative. That’s what a big chunk of HTM&TOW is about.
CTHEORY: I think that effective “guerrilla actions” in a mediated environment will have terrific subtlety. Have you any examples of this kind of poetic terrorism from your own work?
RU: I hope that HTM&TOW is the answer to that question. One idea we propagate is that media hackers have to be really fucking great entertainers. That’s the key. When you pirate television time, for instance, it should be such a fun thing that people are waiting at their VCRs for the next one.
I remember having an underground paper in high school. As soon as the Principal announced over the loudspeaker that kids weren’t allowed to have it, everybody wanted one. As soon as the kids saw that it was playful and funny, they wanted the next one. Of course, adults tend to view anything that isn’t dull with suspicion, which is a problem.
Bigger than Satan? R.U. Sirius for Anti-Newt!
CTHEORY: You clearly embrace a lot of contradictions. But what is it that you hope to accomplish? Is there, in any sense, a positive project?
RU: The R.U. Sirius project has always been largely about re-energizing the forgotten “ideology” of the 60s revolt, primarily the notion of post-scarcity liberation. I hesitate in tying myself to the 60s mast, but we’re not talking Paul McCartney or George McGovern here.
OK… post-scarcity was basically a premature post-industrial vision of a cybernetic culture in which alienated labor and scarcity was all but eliminated by technology. This had an enormous influence, sometimes explicit and sometimes subterranean. If you go back and investigate the writings of the Yippies, the Diggers, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who led a near revolution in France in 1968, and various other political radicals, the ones that didn’t get absorbed into old fashioned Marx-Leninism, you find this theme over and over again. The machines of loving grace.
This isn’t utopian, by the way. I’m anti-utopian. I don’t believe in totalizing philosophies or perfect happy endings. But it could be helluva lot better than it is now.
CTHEORY: This is like [anarchist subculture figure] Bob Black’s vision of ludic society.
RU: Actually we’re in a very perverted version of a ludic society, in the sense that what’s driving technological evolution is shifting from warfare to information, communications, and entertainment… better games, greater bandwidth, film projects the size of military invasions and entertainment corporations the size of medium nation states.
CTHEORY: An extension of the Japanese postwar economy.
RU: Yes. Big business with everybody so seriously dedicated to play that they never get a chance to…
CTHEORY: Play is work.
RU: Right. In so many ways, our society explicitly strives to be the direct opposite of the ideal. It’s pretty funny. On the other hand, this speed-of-light hell-on-wheels that we’re living in seems to make for a lot of creative energy. There’s something to be said for the stress that makes us all want to kill each other and make really cool web pages.
CTHEORY: Notions like the end of work and scarcity are very obscure right now. Why do you think they’re relevant?
RU: All you have to do is look at the situation to realize that it’s the only relevant political position for anybody who isn’t rich. As the result of automation and internationalization, the economic power of ordinary people, which used to reside in the “working class,” has completely disappeared – which, incidentally, is why a lot of people have little reason to be thrilled by the relative democratization of media communications that Wired and Mondo have touted. Also, the virtual economy has overwhelmed the “real” economy of goods and services… at the cutting edge of capitalism, you’re in a pure “transacting” economy of derivatives, currency exchanges, options and so forth that has displaced economics. Networked electronic trading is very much its own unique ecology. “Money” is being made not in the investing itself but on the abstraction of the transacting of conceptual wealth. Tremendous profits can be conjured from the consensual hallucination that a transaction that doesn’t necessarily have to happen might accumulate (for example) interest at a later date.
The important thing here is that not only doesn’t capitalism require as many workers, it doesn’t require as many consumers. An economy that trades in pure abstraction is self-sufficient. It can satisfy itself building hallucinatory fortunes that can be cashed in for ownership of property and advanced techno-toys for your wired elite. It’s all just bits and bytes really. It’s a trick. But it conflates nicely with the logic of late capitalism which is to eliminate that which is superfluous, in other words the formerly working class people who are no longer needed as workers or consumers. That’s what downsizing is about… killing the poor. This is not even a slight exaggeration. This is exactly the trajectory of late capitalism, and specifically of the Republican revolution.
Anyway, grant me that we’re in a situation where workers are increasingly superfluous. I don’t have the figures on hand, but some extraordinary percentage of those people who are employed work for temp agencies. Hazel Henderson told me that 60% of the American people are either unemployable, unemployed, working temp, or working without benefits or job security. A week after she said that, I saw Labor Secretary Robert Reich on television saying more or less the same thing, but the figure was 70%. But a recent poll shows that something like 95% identify themselves as middle class. Hah! They’re not middle class.
What you actually have, in vaguely Marxist terminology, is an enormous lumpenproletariat. In other words, non-working or barely-working poor. I mean, this is the most oppressed country in the Western world according to all kinds of statistics. The Reagan Revolution turned the average American into a citizen of the third world. And here comes Newtie to finish the job.
People identify with the middle class though… they’re temp workers with televisions, cd players, and hip clothes and hairstyles.
The only alternative to a world of human refuse, serfs and slaves abandoned by an increasingly self-sufficient corporate cyber/media oligarchy is a revolution of this lumpenproletariat (the formerly working class), based not in neo-Luddite refusal but in desire, a desire to live. Which means that the essentials should be given away free, unconditionally. This notion is of course completely in opposition to the current political discourse, and probably goes against every instinct in, say, the average Wired reader’s brain. I’d like them to just think of me as the anti-Newt.
Cyberculture (a meme that I’m at least partly responsible for generating, incidentally) has emerged as a gleeful apologist for this kill-the-poor trajectory of the Republican revolution. You find it all over Wired – this mix of chaos theory and biological modeling that is somehow interpreted as scientific proof of the need to devolve and decentralize the social welfare state while also deregulating and empowering the powerful, autocratic, multinational corporations. You’ve basically got the breakdown of nation states into global economies simultaneous with the atomization of individuals or their balkanization into disconnected sub-groups, because digital technology conflates space while decentralizing communication and attention. The result is a clear playing field for a mutating corporate oligarchy, which is what we have. I mean, people think it’s really liberating because the old industrial ruling class has been liquefied and it’s possible for young players to amass extraordinary instant dynasties. But it’s savage and inhuman. Maybe the wired elite think that’s hip. But then don’t go around crying about crime in the streets or pretending to be concerned with ethics.
It’s particularly sad and poignant for me to witness how comfortably the subcultural contempt for the normal, the hunger for novelty and change, and the basic anarchistic temperament that was at the core of Mondo 2000 fits the hip, smug, boundary-breaking, fast-moving, no-time-for-social-niceties world of your wired mega-corporate info/comm/media players. You can find our dirty fingerprints, our rhetoric, all over their advertising style. The joke’s on me.
CTHEORY: Clearly there’s a fragmentation of community and dissolution of soul. We all sort of slid into it as cyberfoo was co-opted and the Internet was transformed into digital Las Vagueness, but what are you going to do? Do you have a political agenda or a performance agenda?
RU: My main agenda is to explode constricting illusions, whether it’s bourgeois propriety, expectation, shame over sexuality, or the money system. Also, in Freudian terms, I’m at war with the cultural superego in favor of the disencumberment of the libido, the id, and the ego…definitely in that order – which connects me to the surrealist and dadaist traditions. Anyway, I don’t acknowledge any separation between a political agenda, a performance agenda, a pop agenda, a theoretical agenda, a radical agenda, a survival agenda, a sexual agenda…
My activities right now include getting attention for the book How To Mutate & Take Over the World, which I believe is an actual act of sabotage against the plans of big media/technology business, for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. The book announces itself as an act of sabotage on the surface, and fails as that, again on the surface. Wait and see how it unfolds.
At the same time, I believe that I’m finally prepared to give expression to a complete alternative, revolutionary philosophy for the next decade. I’m prepared to deal with both deconstructions and visionary alternatives regarding the money system, cyborgization, virtualization, media, violence and violent media and art, censorship, uncertainty, extropianism or the transcendence of ordinary life, sociobiology, race, gender, sexuality, drugs, individualism and community. I’m ready to put forth a digital age politic that embraces the goals of both liberalism and libertarianism. I believe this will come together with the help of collaborators over the next year or two, and will be presented on The Mutate Project web page.
Nobody has exploded the meaning of the money system or really produced a visionary sociopolitical agenda for a post-industrial economy. It can be done. And I’ll do it, with some help.
You know, I see all these media and software people making and spending millions and millions of dollars, and all of these millions of dollars being pissed away on mediocre films, mediocre magazines, peabrained rock bands, stupid Web sites – it makes me sick. Give me one million fucking dollars and I’ll bring you major cultural and political change within four years. The few people who really know about Mondo 2000 and what we did with very tiny resources will know that I’m being megalomaniacal but I may be right, everybody else will think I’m just being megalomaniacal. But I’ve grown a lot since Mondo 2000. Get me behind the wheel of another vehicle and Wired will be eating my dust. I want to be bigger than Satan.