Gareth Branwyn’s latest book, Borg Like Me, takes a slightly unusual route to tell us the story of his Cyborgification, a process that started, of necessity, when he was very young. By combining memoir-style segments with articles published in various periodicals ranging from my own MONDO 2000 through Wired, Boing Boing and Make, the book both reflects back on various periods in counterculture/technoculture and reflects them directly via writings that appeared at the time.
The result is surprisingly coherent. It’s also a serious read that touches on some dark and difficult days. Gareth loses control over his body and he loses his wife, first to the touring life of a rock musician and then to suicide. Through it all, his spirit of romanticism, experimentation, curiosity and hackers/tinkerers’ ethics persevere.
While the articles included stretch well into the present era, Borg Like Me revolves around the “cyberculture” of the 1990s, a period of great “irrational exuberance” about a coming mind-expansive, generous and hackerly culture. Some of this culture we see around us today in the form of hackerspaces, maker meet ups and the radicalism of projects like Wikileaks and Anonymous. Other aspects of it — the sense of exuberant joy, the confidence, the playfulness, and, yes — even some of the silliness that comes along with all that — seems to be lacking.
In this short conversation, we talk about his book and reflect back on the ‘90s and forward towards the ever more present future.
RU Sirius: For you, becoming a borg was a necessity, but in some ways you’ve turned it into an area of exploration. For those who don’t know, say a little about how you ended up cyborged and what it did to you and for you.
Gareth Branwyn: Well, I like to tell people that I’m part man, part machine, and part mouse. I have an artificial hip, a rebuilt heart, and I self-inject a “biological” each week (for a severe form of spinal arthritis) that’s made out of tweaked mice proteins. I’ve had this form of arthritis since I was kid, so I’ve been heavily (pharmaco) tech-mediated most of my life. I am literally animated by science! Without the drugs I take and procedures I’ve had, I’d be bedridden, or more likely by now, dead. I may be literally post-human. As I say in the promo to my book, I’ve become “increasingly cyborged in my attempts to remain human.” But I think we’re all borged at this point, heavily tech-mediated and net-leaky.
RU: As I see it, the so called cyberculture of the 1990s is at the center of your book. What has lasted from that scene? What has not lasted that should have? What are we happy to be rid of? And what has lasted that we should maybe get rid of?
GB: Yes, ‘90s cyberculture plays a huge role in my book because it played such a huge role in my life. It was really that period in which I came into my own and put myself on the map (um… to the extent that I’m on the map).
I was on a panel at this year’s SXSW, with Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow, and Chris Brown. The topic was basically “Whatever happened to cyberpunk?” I argued that many of those involved in ‘90s cyberculture became the architects of maker culture. Once hackers got into physical computing and not just programming and networks, they had physical “hacks” they wanted to show off. This required getting together in person. And they needed/wanted expensive tools they couldn’t individually afford. This led to the growth of hardware meet ups, Maker Faires, and hackerspaces. And, of course, MAKE magazine (which Mark Frauenfelder and I were heavily involved with – even David Pescovitz, Cory Doctorow, Sterling, Richard Kadrey, Kevin Kelly, and others have contributed to MAKE). I also think that the whole cyberpunk aesthetic of hyper-mentality and the denigration of the body (“the meat”) eventually needed a corrective; cyberpunks wanted to get physical again, get their hands dirty.
The thing I think we lost is that original revolutionary fervor, that sense that we were changing the world. The maker movement came along and had that too, but I think it’s in the process of losing it; getting watered down, going commercial (in a way that loses sight of the original meaning). In the last chapter of my 1997 book, Jamming the Media, I talked about this as being an inevitable process. Anything different, radical, an affront to the status quo, is going to eventually become mainstreamed, commodified. But in Jamming, I argued that, in a networked age (at least on a so-far free and non-pay-to-play net), you can route around things once they become normalized, watered down. I quoted Leary’s “If you don’t like the song they’re playing you can pick up and move it to a different groove”). Good things, things that threaten the status quo don’t last. And probably shouldn’t. So, for instance, it was inevitable that a crazed cultural, publishing experiment like Mondo would die. But the thing is that it was never really replaced with anything equally creative, crazed, and subversive. I love that quote that someone once said about Mondo 2000: “You picked up a copy of Mondo and it went aflame in your hands.” When’s the last time a magazine or website or other media exploded on contact?
RU: Did you feel aligned with the sort of hyper-utopian “we’re gonna mutate everything” exuberance of early ‘90s cyberculture as advocated by Mondo 2000 (in its earlier years) and Timothy Leary and so on? I know you point out how much we did succeed in impacting the future, but then… things still suck, maybe more than ever. How do you navigate the clear successes with the broader disillusion (if you do feel any disillusion)?
GB: I don’t really think of myself as an optimist so much as a capital-R romantic. To me, being a romantic isn’t necessarily believing in the inherent goodness of people or the inevitability of some utopian future, it’s in the veneration of and dedication to such ideals regardless. I ONLY want to live in a world where people are creative, intelligent, kind, and dedicated to enriching culture, and where technology is used in the service of making the world a better place (and figuring out how to sustain the planet and how to get us off this rock so that we can swarm when the time comes). So, I’ve tried, in my own small way to dedicate myself to such things. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the ultimate practicality of such a worldview. It’s just the mindset that inspires me. It’s like, with the rather utopian visions of the maker movement – the idea of creating a world where “everyone” is a bit of a designer, engineer, artist, and hacker who can identify problems in their lives and create solutions for them. That’s a very lovely idea. I think it’s not likely to actually happen, but striving for it has certainly introduced way more people to the idea and amazing things are coming out of it. As I talk about in Borg Like Me, I came of age in a utopian community. We wanted to build a new, “ideal” society. People used to visit and turn their noses up at that and say: “That’s naïve, there’s no such thing as an ideal society.” And I would say: “Maybe. But by shooting for that ideal, we’ve made things a hell of a lot better for ourselves, in ways we wouldn’t have had we not reached for it.” I think so-called cyberculture and the maker movement are, at least incremental, improvements.
RU: Continuing on the “We’re gonna mutate everything” theme — I think the Maker scene is an awesome cool expression of DIY, but I also see it as a sort of step back from the more revolutionary expectations some of us had for cyberculture, cyberpunk and so on. It sort of reminds me of when the psychedelic revolution and the new left revolution were storming the gates of power in the ‘60s and then a lot of people decided we can’t really change everything, so let’s go off and be as autonomous as we can in small communities or among our friends and so on. Any thoughts on this?
GB: One of my current projects is being a Research Fellow at George Mason University. Right after I left MAKE as its Editorial Director, I got a grant to study the wider, long-term implications of the maker movement. What I settled in on was the idea of surveying all of the DIY movements of the 20th century, from Arts and Crafts, to post-WWII GI DIY, to Whole Earth/homesteading, to punk DIY, to the maker movement. I’m looking at how these movements emerged, what they hoped to accomplish, what impact they actually had, and what happened to them. And, if there’s any way, in a networked age (where the net routes around damage), to circumvent the inevitable processes of toothless commodification and dissolution. My suspicion, in that last chapter of Jamming the Media, was that there’s little you can do to thwart this process, short of picking up that needle and finding a new groove. I still have the same suspicion. And the sad part is, I don’t see a lot of that creative cultural DJing going on. It’s a lot of the same fucking song. But I’ve heard from a lot of people who’ve read my book that they found it very exciting to get a hit of that exuberance in early 90s net culture. May it inspire a thousand new and wildly different tunes. That would make me very happy.