by Olga Drenda
I answered some questions from Olga Drenday which was then translated into Polish, edited down and included here. This is the full interview in English.
Olga Drenda: In Poland, Mondo 2000 remains fairly obscure – Douglas Rushkoff’s Cyberia was published (where I learned about you from), and later I bought back issues of the magazine, but can you explain in short – what was the incredible serendipitous gathering of future-oriented people that made the entire thing possible?
R.U. Sirius: I understood that there was an association between psychedelic counterculture and high technology before I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area from a relatively backwards city in upstate New York. I started a magazine called High Frontiers that was about these associations, also taking some influence from punk rock and the more futuristic new wave thing that had happened in music counterculture. We emphasized the psychedelic drug interests in High Frontiers but soon discovered that many of our biggest (and wealthiest) fans were in the oncoming computer tech industry — hardware, software, theory… what have you. It became a very large social scene in the Bay Area and we changed the magazine to emphasize the magic that could be done with technology, particularly digital technology. We changed the name to Reality Hackers and then to Mondo 2000.
In San Francisco, there was this thing called the Digital Be-In, that would take place during an annual Mac (Apple Computers) Convention that honored the original hippie be-in and tied it to technoculture. In 1990, it was suddenly HUGE and Todd Rundgren and people from George Lucas’s ILM and all kinds of heavy hitters from the computer industry were there.
Meanwhile Mondo 2000 developed its own party scene that tended to be more for the hardcore hackers and weirdos but we were also dropped in on by some widely known people.
OD: How did you imagine the future, and which promises did the internet hold back then?
RU: I understood that the Internet was a dissipative force for both good and ill even back then, but I thought we would cope with it better than we have. The idea that the means of communication was being decentralized… that everybody gets to have a voice in the world seemed to imply a whole new type of society where people couldn’t be dominated by big authority or big capital — that somehow the solutions to a lot of social and political and economic troubles would simply emerge by the sheer force of mass participation in this global brain or this collective global dreaming.
We also thought we would have popular and accessible fully immersive Virtual Reality that would challenge people to be very creativity in the online world. We didn’t imagine the commercialization of the space being so insistant or overwhelming as it’s been, or the roping off of the vast people into “gated communities” like Facebook.
And finally, there was such a sense of acceleration amongst those of us in the culture that some of us expected nanotechnology to end economic scarcity and death within 10 – 20 years, so rather than being a locale for stress and livelihood and social reputation, the internet would be a place for play and creativity and messing about with identity.
OD: Do you think that we, as humans collectively, stopped believing in the future? If so, when and why? And what about yourself?
RU: A lot depends on the weather. We know it’s too late to stop some of the bad effects of climate change and it doesn’t look like we’re going to try very hard, but I don’t think we can predict with any precision how bad it’s going to be. We’re also stuck inside an economic debt paradigm that is holding outward expressions of the best of the human imagination as well as the possibilities for a more celebratory culture in check. We’re being squeezed — at least we are in the West — and it makes for a hostile culture.
I always hold out some hope. My newest project is called “Steal This Singularity.” The website is here. I certainly think that, logically, technology is still the leading edge pointed towards clean energy, distributable wealth, paths toward satisfaction and ecstasy that don’t require overconsumption and overproduction and so on. But I’m ever more skeptical that humans will take that path intelligently. It’s more likely, we will seek harm, maybe even consciously. There’s an appetite for destruction, I’d say.
OD Speaking of these – the cyberpunk template in literature and film didn’t seem to survive much beyond 2000. Do you think it has a chance for a revival? (by the way – have you seen the ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ game trailer?)
RU: I think you see it today in comics or graphic novels like those of Warren Ellis and some of the stuff that gets done by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and, I’m sure, some people I’m not thinking of at the moment. The Blade Runner sort of dark and threatening urban/gothic Science Fictional motif seems to be fairly ubiquitous in a lot of films and tv shows (at least here). I don’t know that we would call cyberpunk cyberpunk any more. (I haven’t seen the game).
OD: In the days of ‘Mondo 2000’ the internet was seen as a mind-expanding tool. Now (at least in my opinion) it increasingly resembles television – gravitating towards passive reception rather than participation. What are your thoughts on this?
RU: Yes. I think maybe I’ve spoken to that. Twitter of course is a prime example of just pointing people at cool shit, much of it probably for viewing or listening to. Primitive BBSs like The Well encouraged deep, sometimes very wordy conversations amongst smart people. I think something will come along to lure the smart people back into something like that again, if we ever get our time back.
OG: What is your opinion about current direction of the media development? Last few years have seen a radical shift of form and content – increased interactivity, multimedia approach, more concise writing designed to fit shortening attention span etc.
RU: On the one hand, some types of genius can be expressed via these approaches or in fact via any approach, but I have a prejudice for the long form — the novel, the album that you listen to as one piece all the way through and so forth. I think the tragedy isn’t mainly on the creative end but on the receptive end. When I was young, you had to make an effort to seek out cool shit. Once you got that thing… the first issue of Punk magazine or Crash by Ballard or whatever it was, you were going to take it home and savor it… and you were going to be patient with it, because there weren’t a lot of other options being shoved in front of your face every few seconds. Now, rather than seek stuff out, the person on the receiving end has to shove massive amounts of stuff out of the way in order to pay any attention to anything. This leads to a kind of dismissiveness that causes brilliant stuff to get lost, and to get lost rudely.
OD: How do you imagine the media in 20 years from now?
RU: Assuming we’re not in an apocalyptic environment, I would guess that, unless things change politically and economically, it will be more of the same at higher levels of intensity. We’ll eventually get those immersive Virtual Realities, but rather than the expressive sharing of imaginations that people like Jaron Lanier and Timothy Leary imagined, it’ll be a competition for attention with all the vulgarity and mindlessness that implies. On the other hand, if we get to post-scarcity and the option of leisure, which is what I’ve campaigned for all my life, we could see a real democratic expansion of expressions the likes of which we can’t imagine today. It could get pretty meditative, I have to warn you. It could get pretty John Cage-like.
But I’m talking about content and maybe you’re thinking of form? We may have implant to implant communication, direct input of virtual environments, entirely intuitive production technology so that individuals with high imaginative but low technical skills can do the things they dream without requiring help.
OD: Did your attitude towards new technologies, especially internet, change? If so, how and why?
RU: I think I spoke to that already as regards the internet. I still hope that radical technology will lead to an end to scarcity and human enhancements, such as intelligence increase, altered states without any downside, the end of most diseases, enhancement of senses and so forth. I still think all that is quite plausible, but they may be delivered in an oppresive or sinister context as many of the cyberpunk SF authors showed us. I always allowed for the dystopian projections, but one could be more glib about them in an earlier time.
OD: In your ‘Steal this Singularity’ project you present your very own ideas for transhumanism – can you explain it in short?
RU: A lot of what you hear from the mainstream culture of transhumanists and singularitarians are reassurances of how good things are and how they’re only going to get better. I think we’re in an utterly rigged system today (globally, but also here in the US) in which the virtual panopticon is completed, and while dissident thoughts still exist and, in a sense, broad skepticism towards the political and economic dominators has never been greater, this total surveillance society is finally an irresistable form of intimidation that impacts what people will say and how and whether they will dissent and protest today and, I think, will ultimately lead to a culture of near-total deeply imprinted self censorship and behavioral constraints (well beyond the few desirable constraints). I also see that the digitization and ephemerization of capital games wealth in a way that advantages financial institutions and, in fact, those who control the flow of — and our understand of — currency. (I suspect that Europe’s LIBOR scandal will prove to be the tip of the iceberg. I suspect that there’s direct skimming of currency in the tens of trillions) This gives the finance plutocrats and kleptocrats nearly unlimited power.
So I don’t think everything is good today and I don’t think they’ll get better unless we insist on transparency in currency and big capital and roll back expressions of authoritarianism. (Because it’s probably too late to roll back individual transparency i.e. megasurveillance, we need to develop a culture that de-emphasizes censorious judgment and a politics that limits the punishing mechanisms of the state). We also need to bust out of the paradigm that some futurists hold that the stock market will be with us forever and that finance will continue to be a central emphasis for most people after we have advanced AIs, actual production nanotechnology and so on.
I think most people would choose to organize there lives around participation in other games and other forms of play and shouldn’t be forced into societies in which finance is hugely consequential. I think the goal of transhumanism and singularianism should be to liberate human beings from forced labor — and I believe that wage slavery is slavery, after a certain level of technological development. (I realize that living in a formerly Marxist country like Poland that the 20th Century philosophy that used this language turned out to be quite oppressive, but this is an extremely different context and, anyway, I don’t embrace absolute economic egalitarianism.)
I also think that people in this transhumanist cultural milieu think that the greatest good is to get as close to pure logic as we can. And I think that maybe we want that from our machines but we don’t want that for ourselves. In my statement on behalf of STS I write, “The well-rounded posthuman should be able to wail like a banshee; dance like James Brown; party like Dionysius, revolt like Joan of Arc and illuminate the irrational like Salvador Dali.” I think the value we place on doubling information intake, which has its place, shouldn’t control who we are and how we feel.
OD: In your opinion: which new technologies are the most promising, and which ones – the most dangerous?
RU: Anything related to brain implants or drugs or mind control — self control or other control — strikes me as the most promising and the most dangerous. That we can alter our needs through self-selected implants, drugs, noninvasive optogenics so that we are less prone to addictions related to overconsumption and the corresponding impact that addiction has on the environment; that we can activate different reward patterns in the brain that give us the feeling of being high and having peak experiences without seeking those experiences out through brutal competition and warfare; these things offer a way towards new kinds of cultural games and satisfactions. Timothy Leary actually suggested that this was the purpose of psychedelics and stimulants. That they’re “brain reward drugs,” which is why industrial capitalism and communism couldn’t tolerate them. They give you the reward without the industry. But they do imply the possibility for creative games and voluntary communities of mind. Brain implants and other types of neural self-control make such things even easier to achieve and control… and to have on the fly in an active life, as opposed to laying on the couch out of your head for eight hours.
But, of course, implants will probably come with advertising… an ecstatic release of neuropeptides tied to the latest Apple gadget. Well, your implant will probably only work with the approved gadgets anyway so…