Mark Dery Interview

Approaching the on-ramp for the Twenty-first Century, a variety of new ideas and technologies that could radically change life as we know it are poking their little vat-grown heads up and demanding our attention. From science and from science fiction, the trends and tools that will shape tomorrow are being hammered out right now, by roboticists, posthumanists, industrial musicians, body artists, "way new" journalists, and all the other digital romantics who together have created what author and cultural critic Mark Dery calls "cyberculture." Dery's new book, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, takes a long, close look at the fringes of fin de siecle society, where "the 90's are the 60's upside down," and the sex-and-drugs-and-rock-n-roll ethos of the hippie counterculture has been fully digitalized.Q: Escape Velocity examines the future scenarios of Eric Drexler, Hans Moravec, Terrence McKenna, etc. Which ones do you think are most likely? A: McKenna's wired Eden, where "we all live naked in paradise but only a thought away is all the cybernetic connectedness and ability to deliver manufactured goods and data that this world possesses" is certainly the least likely. It's an eschatological fantasy for cyber-hippies that reconciles the counterculture's Rousseauistic vision of "getting back to the Garden" with the digerati's dream of a post-scarcity technotopia of eternal leisure, made possible by artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. Drexler's vision of a nanotechnological future certainly sounds tenable, at least as imagined in his book Engines of Creation, but as a laissez-faire futurist he conveniently neglects the downside of a future where we are virtually immortal by virtue of microscopic machines that repair our cells and clean our arteries. The obvious question is: Who's going to build these devices -- the same beneficent corporations who gave us Bhopal, the Love Canal, and Three-Mile Island? Do we really want the Exxon Valdez disaster in our bloodstreams? Moravec, a confirmed libertarian, likewise gives little thought to the socioeconomic landscape in which his "ultra-intelligent" machines and infomorphs -- human minds, "downloaded" to computer memory -- will sit.The problem with all of these visions is that while they have the glossy, streamlined look of science, or at least science fiction, when we open up the hood we find that they conceal age-old myths --transcendentalist fantasies of breaking free from limits of any sort, metaphysical as well as physical. This is what I call, in Escape Velocity, "the theology of the ejector seat, which preaches a seat-of-the-pants escape into an archaic Paradise Lost or a futuristic Paradise Regained." Also, they're commodity futures: they render the technological landscape in exquisite detail, but leave the human factor, with its power relations and social forces, entirely out of the equation. This tendency reaches its apotheosis in the Jetsonian Tomorrowland of Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital, where the globe-trotting wired elite have digital butlers and supercomputing cufflinks but never is heard a discouraging word about the ever-widening chasm between rich and poor, the globalization of corporate monoculture, the depredation of nature, and all the other problems for which there seems to be no quick, point-and-click fix.Q: "Placing our faith in an end-of-the-century deus ex machina that will obviate the need to confront the social, political, economic and ecological problems clamoring for solutions is a risky endgame," you write in Escape Velocity. So where should the digitheads be placing their faith? A: The first step toward finding a way out of this place begins when we take a flamethrower to Gingrichian-Tofflerian laissez-faire futurism, which entrusts our collective fate to the tender mercies of the marketplace, or New Age cyberbole that would have us pin our hopes to a millennial blastoff. We have to relocate our cultural conversation about the promise of technology in the noisy, dirty here and now and begin to build a progressive, pragmatic futurism. Q: McKenna, RU Sirius, Stelarc, et al are fascinating characters, but do you think any of them will be seen in retrospect as leading figures of the Information Age? Mark Pauline and SLR are getting the kind of respectful attention now that Julian Beck and Living Theater got in the 60's. Thirty years later, Living Theater doesn't make it on to too many top ten lists of 60's culture shapers. Who are the true contenders for greatness in the current scene?A: Well, your question collapses the distinction between "leading figures of the Information Age" -- which in the Encyclopedia Britannica sense would mean Info-Medici such as Bill Gates and silicon robber barons such as Rupert Murdoch -- and "true contenders for greatness," a phrase bathed in the aura of noble ideals and lofty aspirations. The two strike me as somewhat antithetical. As I note in the introduction to Escape Velocity, I chose to concentrate on fringe computer culture, rather than the corporate mouthpieces and cyberpundits who have Wired for their bully pulpit, because I wanted to take back the future from the technocratic elite who traditionally monopolize our cultural conversation about technology, refocusing our discussion on the ragtag and bobtail swept along by Alvin Toffler's Third Wave. Rather than focusing on the "culture shapers," I wanted to a shed a little light on those being "shaped" -- in the mainstream, but mostly those on the margins, just beyond the glare of the media spectacle, on the receiving end of consumer culture. This, to me, is where the zap and crackle of cultural voltage is---in the high-tech subcultures who have taken as their slogan William Gibson's cyberpunk maxim, "The street finds its own uses for things," turning technology to perverse, sometimes subversive ends, using it in ways never intended or even imagined by its manufacturers. I'm not trying to be evasive, but whether or not rogue roboticists like Mark Pauline and Survival Research Laboratories are "true contenders for greatness" doesn't interest me; "greatness" is about turning humans into monuments and, ultimately, embalming time itself -- Lenin's mummified body, in its glass sarcophagus. Q: So who is building "a progressive, pragmatic futurism" here and now? Is there anyone, on the fringes or in the mainstream, who is headed in the right direction?A: Well, the "progressive, pragmatic" tag has been adequately earned, on occasion, by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I'm heartened, as well, by the efforts of Gary Chapman, who directs the 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin -- a research and education program whose goal is to involve ordinary people (codeword: the masses) in the science and technology policy-making usually regulated by political powerbrokers, corporate wirepullers, and the expert elite. Q: You've written that "...the US has pursued the utopian promise of industrial modernity with a missionary zeal unlike that of any other nation ..." but it seems to me that you could just as easily slot "Japan" into that sentence. And these two missionaries, America and Japan, have converted most of Asia. Right now cyberculture is as American as Hollywood. Is that going to change? Could Japan - or any other Asian country - take a leading role? A: Japan's conversion to a fundamentalist faith in technology seems to have taken place almost overnight, amidst the radioactive rubble of Hiroshima. This is, after all, the country that was trying to start forest fires in the U.S. with bombs made of paper and bamboo, floated over on the jet stream, even as the U.S. was dropping atomic bombs on Japan. Of course, as Frederik L. Schodt makes clear in Inside the Robot Kingdom: Japan, Mechatronics, and the Coming Robotopia (a book that helped me make sense of the Japanese cyberpunk movie, Tetsuo: The Iron Man), contemporary Japan is second to none when it comes to unswerving faith in high-tech deus ex machinas and the onward and upward march of progress. In the '80s, Japan, Inc. became synonymous with computer culture -- so much so that the "samurai management" craze that swept the anxious American managerial class was paralleled in cyberpunk science fiction by dystopian futures in which American empire was but a threadbare memory, English had been mongrelized into the Japlish spoken by Blade Runner's street trash, and Japanese multinationals, or zaibatsus, held global commerce in their rapacious grip. Obviously, there's more than a little of Sax Rohmer's yellow peril in these forebodings -- unsurprising in light of cyberpunk's roots in hard-boiled fiction and the dark dreams of Japanese economic ascendancy that cast a shadow over Reagan's Morning in America. But now that mounting social and economic problems have begun to corrode the bright, shiny myth of Japan as robotto okoku, the Robot Kingdom, it has seemed (at least to American eyes) less a minatory, matte black vision of things to come than a melancholy symbol of a downsized present.Q: How important is "millenium fever" to cyberculture? Is it just a coincidence that the Internet has achieved critical mass at this particular historical juncture?A: As I argue in Escape Velocity, "millennium fever" -- which I call techno-eschatology -- is the unfortunate conjunction of the durable belief that the oceans will boil and the stars will fall from the sky when the counter zeroes out and the cybercultural article of faith that we are about to jettison the human body, the planet Earth, and all the other forces that constrain us, like the burnt-out third stage of a rocket, as we attain escape velocity from the 20th century.The spread of "millennial fever" has more to do with uncritical masses than critical mass. It's hardly a coincidence that visions of slipping through a millennial wormhole, into a parallel universe of sweetness and light, appear at a time when America is wracked by culture wars, when public space is fast being privatized and segregated in the name of "redevelopment," and when media-fed fear of crime has led working-class urbanites to incarcerate themselves in prison-cell houses while upscale suburbanites retreat into privately policed gated communities. In the ever more Hobbes-ian reality of late 20th century America, heady dreams of engaging millennial warp drive have an obvious appeal. But it's important to remember that they're bedtime stories for cyborgs, no realer or more relevant than the Californian cult of Unarius's cherished belief that if we all "vibrate" at a higher frequency, the Intergalactic Confederation will send a fleet of flying saucers "to help this rapidly dying world...to teach mankind a better, a higher and happier way of life." Q: "Fever" aside, the millennium itself -- the bare historical fact -- seems to exert a psychological pressure on a great many people. There is a perceived need to get ready for big changes. I wonder if this offers a partial explanation for the intensity of the public's interest in the Internet, and for the mad corporate scramble for Web presence, which doesn't make much sense from a purely business point of view. A: I know I'm wreaking havoc on your thesis, here, but few "bare historical facts" are just that -- ineluctable engines of change, rocketing headlong into the future with human affairs hitched to their fiery tails. Too often, the invocation of a "bare historical fact" -- in this case, the end of the 20th century and the dawn of the millennium -- is a way of lending the weight of an irresistible historical force to a political ideology or an economic power grab. Public interest in the Net didn't spring, full-blown, from the brow of a bearded prophet of New Age cyberhype (although Mondo 2000 style cyberbole has yoked that interest to the millenarian visions you mentioned). An advance guard of free-market futurologists and soundbite cyberpundits, accompanied by the inevitable advertising juggernaut, have struck that spark and fanned it to a fever pitch. If the history of advertising teaches us anything, it teaches us that consumer desire, whetted by seductive images of the Good Life, is made, not born.This is not to say, of course, that the liberatory promise of on-line self-publishing, virtual communities, and universal access to an infinity of information are smoke and mirrors; only that "public interest in the Net," as promoted by corporate media, has less to do with communitarian visions of an electronic commons and more to do with a direct marketer's dream of push-button consumption in a theme-parked, on-line Mall of the Americas -- hardly the disembodied grok-topia envisioned by New Age cyberpundits like John Perry Barlow.As for the gold-rush scramble to stake corporate claims in the unreal estate of cyberspace, I suspect it is inspired less by popular delusions and the madness of crowds (the title, in fact, of a marvelous book about "millennial fever" through the ages, among other things) than the corporate desire to have at least a few chips on every number on the roulette table, no matter how high the odds against some of them may seem at the moment.Dery is currently writing The Pyrotechnic Insanatorium, "a collection of essays about fin de millenium America." He welcomes email at markdery@well.com. His Web page is at http://www.well.com/user/markdery/

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