by JC Gonzo
While Gareth Branwyn may have confessed to having “…never been all that interested in technology,” he has always been on the forefront of cyberculture. His crucial involvement with futurist authorities like bOING bOING, Mondo 2000, Wired, and most recently as Editorial Director of MAKE Magazine, Branwyn has lead the way for Makers, DIY techies, and free-thinkers around the world for over thirty years. An always watchful frontiersman, he wrote the first book about the Web, helped coin key internet jargon, broke New Media ground with the HyperCard publication Beyond Cyberpunk!, and even ignited Billy Idol’s infamous foray into virtual reality in the 1993 album Cyberpunk. Branwyn’s contributions are difficult to catalog, sprawling throughout multitudes of print and web publications, not to mention regular appearances on MSNBC’s The Site and other programs. In 2013, Branwyn launched the Borg Like Me project; a crowd-funded “best-of” essay and article collection painstakingly compiled by Gareth himself, including ones never-before published. The Kickstarter campaign successfully exceeded the desired goal and now the book is readily available on Amazon.
Borg Like Me & Other Tales of Art, Eros, and Embedded Systems reads more like a memoir than a compendium; the 30+ pieces form a meta-narrative of a life jacked-in to a world left-of-field. Branwyn shares his musings on robotics, virtual reality, occult mysticism, underground icons, and good ol’ geekdom with the sincerity of a love note. Much like many of the publications he’s been involved with, the collection serves as a guidebook for subversive cornerstones and counter-culture evolution. Read about a radical, young internet and discover unexpected parallels from seemingly disparate topics. From William Blake to Star Trek, Robert Anton Wilson to Blade Runner, Trent Reznor to Jack Parsons … Borg Like Me is a treasure trove of alternative thought and lifestyle. Physical complications and romantic ruminations provide challenging obstacles, making Borg Like Me an engaging and dynamic account rather than just a day-glo list of accomplishments. This honest and personal approach illustrates the intimate relationship humanity builds with technology and media. The marriage of meat and machine is currently in a unique space where it stands as a philosophical debate for some, but a daily reality for many. Gareth, now a ‘borg himself after his hip surgery in 2000, shows us the way as a fearless investigator into uncharted, fascinating territory. We conversed with Gareth via e-mail about the release of his new book:
You’re considered a living guidebook for subversive culture and all things DIY. You found your way by following other guide lights – from personal friends to artist heroes, or as you call them, saints. Today, everyone shares their personal lives, opinions, tastes online in a relentless stream. How does the counter-culture sustain its beacons without being enveloped by so much noise?
GB: That is a wider issue that ever signal now faces – being overwhelmed by the noise of EVERYONE being a channel, a publisher, a journalist, a videographer, etc. It’s definitely tough and things are hyper-segmented at this point. When I was publishing my zine, Going Gaga, in the early 90s, I did an issue called “Pocket Universes.” It was based on a realization I had that the niche-group gathering potential of the net, and video and fantasy gaming sensibilities, would allow us to increasing create our own online tribes, game cultures, virtual social clusters, etc. – what I dubbed “pocket universes.” Again, I had no idea how pervasive this would become and never could have foreseen some of the more bizarre sides of this, like third-world gold farming and game up-leveling for sale.
Maybe I just continue to be the cockeyed optimist, but I’d like to think that someone who is doing anything truly interesting and unique will rise to the top, via word of mouth, social media heat, coverage in the blogosphere, etc. An example of this might be Bandcamp or SoundCloud. I mean, I’m thrilled that these services exist and nearly anyone can record and publish music. But I hardly ever just go there and graze the offerings. I rely completely on recommendations from friends, social media mentions, music blogs, etc. And 80% of what I sample, frankly, usually sounds the same to me. But once in awhile, someone will send me something that’s really fresh and exciting. When that happens, I almost immediately share it with friends, post it to my social media channels. And on Bandcamp, I buy the recording. The same thing goes for blogs, zines, podcasts, new hardware hacks, etc. I guess I do believe in “If you build it, they will come,” whether that’s foolishly naïve or not.
You catalogue so many aspects of the internet’s early history. In “The Electric Cottage: A Flashforward” you cite the experience of your young son, Blake, being totally unaware of the historical newness of the tech he was being raised as a fascinating moment of self-awareness. You also talk of the “unconscious carry,” our all-in-one devices casually forgotten in pockets and bags; a calculated prediction turned daily reality. Do you think it’s important for younger generations to be aware of the internet’s DIY beginnings, subversive tendencies, and tech’s more cumbersome days?
GB: Absolutely. I think we completely take the net for granted now, and especially post-web youth think it was always this way. It was not, and it won’t be if we don’t fight to keep it as open and unregulated as possible (Hello, Net Neutrality). One of the most flattering things that anyone’s said about my book is that it’s a refreshing and inspiring reminder of the early spirit and enthusiasm that pioneered the web in the first place and that it will hopefully inspire readers to reclaim some of that enthusiasm. That would be a dream!
You’ve seen so many ideas, fantasies, and nightmares come to fruition at a rapid pace. Your response to virtual reality being used for social good versus corporate gain is “it will, like all technology before it, be used for both.” Have you been surprised by any of the twists and turns cyber-culture has taken in your lifetime? Any predictions on the looming future?
GB: Well, speaking of VR, it’s amazing that I wrote the piece you’re referring to (“The Radio Days of Cyberspace”) for my zine, Going Gaga, in 1991. I thought VR was just over the horizon. I never could’ve imagined that, here we are in 2014, and fully-immersive VR is just now emerging (maybe), via hardware like Oculus Rift. Only 24 years late! So, that tells you something about predicting the future.
And, in terms of tech almost always being used for both good and ill, take micro drone technology – it can be (and is being) used to spy on people, to extend the snooping eyes of the State, but this tech is also being developed and used by people to watch the watchers (e.g. when the NYPD tried to stop Occupy protestors from photographing police activity, protestors flew in drones, instead).
I guess the main surprise would be the all-pervasive nature of the internet/web/mobile computing. I mean, my parents probably spend nearly as much time as I do on the web, their cellies, streaming iTunes/Netflix, etc. I don’t think I ever would’ve imagined that. And in more recent tech developments, I’ve closely watched the development of desktop 3D printing from almost day 1 (Bre Pettis of MakerBot got his start working for MAKE). Seeing the rapid rise of that whole product space in such a short period of time has been amazing. It also shows the leveraging power of open source development and an engaged global community coming together to bootstrap an industry – one that could have significant long-term implications. We really could be looking at the next (desktop) industrial revolution.
On becoming “cyborged” by replacing your hip, you say the subjective experience of it was “worlds away” from the philosophical musings on merging meat and machine. In the long run, despite its difficulties, you champion the process. Did undergoing that experience reshape how you approach investigating topics you’ve not encountered on a personal level?
GB: Hands down, my hip replacement completely changed my life. Honestly, I think I did real damage to my physical self, my lifestyle, and my marriage by putting off my replacement for probably 5 years after I was told I needed one. So, I felt sort of like a chicken-shit idiot once I had it done and saw how relatively straightforward and manageable it was. I was very gungho, near-evangelical after my hip replacement experience. But since then, I’ve had too other (unrelated) operations and I almost died after being given the wrong blood at the hospital. This has tempered my enthusiasm for modern medicine quite a bit. But the trade off is, without it, I probably couldn’t walk and would likely be dead by now. So, you spin the wheel, you take your chances.
I’m not sure how much it was specifically my hip replacement experience or just getting older and wiser/more cynical, but I try not to get too unreservedly sucked into B.S. (Robert Anton Wilson’s shorthand for “Belief Systems”), including my own. Tearing another page from Wilson, I consider myself a “multi-model agnostic,” which is where you try and be “open to anything, skeptical of everything.” You’re not only agnostic over issues of faith, but also politics, culture, history, everything. So, I think that simultaneous openness and skepticism/B.S. detection informs everything I do (or I try, anyway).
Self-devised ritual is very important to you. You begin the book with your own Morning Invocation of the Muses prayer and later share your own take on the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. As someone who spends a lot of time online, is there a place where ritual practice coincides with virtual life? Can they?
GB: I was raised Roman Catholic and have always had an undeniable soft spot for high paganism. When I was a teen, I became a Wiccan, but I was always most attracted to ceremonial magic, the theatricality of it. I love ritual gesture and the marking of significance that ritual seeks to encode. I was amazed, in going back to doing the LBRP–after not doing it since my witchy teens–how intense and fulfilling it is for me. I really dig that ritual and approach it as my own little Wagnerian solo opera. It’s really fun, energizing, and it really does alter my state of awareness. I got so into it a few years ago, I even thought of proposing teaching a class on it at a local yoga studio – as a kind of Western yoga/mytho-poetic performance art.
In terms of whether virtual space can be ritual space, I don’t see why not. All conceptions of space ultimately live in one’s head, so I don’t know why anything online, in terms of ritual, can’t be just as meaningful and potentially potent as anything in the meat world. In fact, for the past five years, I’ve been writing an occult thriller and it has a character in it, a chaos magician, who’s also also a brilliant cryptographer and hardware hacker. He’s obsessed with the idea of using the distributed powers of the internet to magnify magical intent. He’s also convinced that the qabalistic tree of life is actually a circuit diagram and that by building real electronic circuits using qabalistic principles, powerful and spooky things happen. It’s a fun idea to play with.
Your piece on the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, “Building Spaceships out of 5s and 6s,” was written for the still-unpublished print continuation of bOING bOING, Issue 16. Is there still hope for this up-in-the-air issue? Additionally, is there still a place for independent print magazines in our increasingly digitized world and challenging economy?
GB: That’s a good question. I still think it would be a really cool project. I firmly believe that we’re in the beginning swells of a nostalgia wave for all things 90s internet and fringe culture: cyberpunk/cyberculture, birth of the Web, the zine movement, mail art, etc. I think my book is coming out at exactly the right time for all this. So, a print bOING bOING project of some sort might make sense.
In terms of small press/zine publishing, I think we’re going to see something of a return to that. For Borg Like Me, I’m releasing a series of companion chapbooks (two out so far, Gareth’s Tips on Sucks-Less Writing and Tears in the Rain). I didn’t expect the production of them to be so nice. I got them done at my local Minuteman Press and they look amazing. And not too expensive. It’s been great to get regular orders for these and to customize each copy (and envelope) with my own rubber stamp art. It’s a fun throwback to my zine and mail art days. I don’t know how financially successful one can be, but I have a feeling that small, niche print mags might have a sustainable future. And now with crowd-funding, you can grow your audience and get them to invest upfront.
What was it like having to select which essays represented you the most? Was compiling this book itself a notable life experience?
GB: It was tough, mainly because the lion’s share of what I’ve written over my 30+ career has been about the high technologies of the moment. Most of that doesn’t make for very interesting reading now. So, once I discarded most of that, it was hard to find 300 pages of material that was both relevant and strong. And because Borg Like Me is something of a lazyman’s memoirs, with long intros woven throughout that put the published pieces in context, I needed to use material that fit that narrative constraint as well. I also wrote a number of new essays to fill in some of my personal backstory and events that I hadn’t really written about previously (e.g. the Billy Idol story, the making of Beyond Cyberpunk!, the death of my wife).
The process of leaving the editorial directorship of MAKE, going back to freelancing, crowd-funding and self-publishing this book, has been amazing. It’s been very challenging, certainly scary at times, but it’s something I’m thrilled to have done. This is a book that I’ve been wanting to put together for at least 5 years, and I knew I would never have the time/energy to do it while having a real job. It’s been an extraordinarily liberating feeling to live as an artist again, to follow my muses, and to try and figure out how to sustain myself in the carbon-based world while doing so. I hope I can continue on this path.
Do you find it easy being so open and honest with your life? Have you ever felt like you’ve shared too much?
GB: This was a huge issue for me and this book. Being perhaps too open and oversharing are big issues for me. I wish they weren’t, but they are. You know, when Allen Ginsberg has his “visit” from William Blake in his Harlem apartment in the 40s, he came away from that encounter believing that the most useful and radical thing you could do as an artist was to be as unguardedly yourself as possible, to be as wonderfully weird as you are – that we do life itself a disservice by hiding who we are and by not encouraging other people to unfurl their own freak flags (as we proudly fly ours). I really tried to take that idea to heart with what I revealed of myself in this book, by allowing myself to be this vulnerable. Because I was so nervous about this, I basically didn’t allow myself to think about it until after the book was done. And as soon as I was done, and as I was about to hit the upload button at the printer’s, I instantly got sick to my stomach. I’m sure some people are going to hate this book and feel angered by the fact that they “didn’t sign up for heart rending,” as one person put it on my FB wall. But I needed to do this book. The reason why I didn’t want to go through a traditional publisher is that I wanted to create the exact book I wanted to make, with few other considerations. I think I did that (and I hope the nausea will go away eventually 🙂
So, what projects are next for you?
GB: I have a number of projects in the works. I’m now working on the third chapbook in the BLM Chapbook Series, The Eros Part. Subtitled “More Writings on Love, Sex, and Muses,” it includes material I thought might be a little too out there for the majority of my readers, so I decided to bundle this content separately. I’ll probably do two additional chapbooks in the BLM series. I had a whole “reality hacking” series in the book that I ended up pulling for space. Called “Operation Mindfuck” (or “OM”), these ten essays were little how-tos on hacking your brain and subverting consensus reality, in the spirit of Robert Anton Wilson. I think I’ll do these in an “Operation Mindfuck” chappie. My Gareth’s Tips on Sucks-Less Writing has been such a hit that I’ve started working on a “Tips for Sucking Even Less” 2nd volume with more tips and material optimized for today’s indie publisher. The original “Sucks-Less” essay was written over 15 years ago, at the dawn of the blogging revolution. Altho I updated it for the BLM edition, it could use updated content. I’ve learned a lot more about the craft of writing in those 15 years.
I’ve also been doing book reviews for WINK, the new site by Mark and Carla of Boing Boing and Kevin Kelly of Wired/Cool Tools. I’m loving that gig. I’m also working up some pitch ideas for more books. While this book project was as DIY as I could manage, I want my next book to be the opposite. I’m trying to come up with a topic that I’m really interested in, that could have wide, mainstream appeal, and I’m going to try and place it with a big publisher, get a hefty advance, etc.
I entered this whole crowd-funded, self-published, printed-on-demand (POD) project as an experiment. Are these technologies and services ready for prime time? Does it make sense for an already successful author to use them? What are the trade-offs? So far, I don’t know what my ultimate conclusion is. The process was fascinating, exhilarating, eye-opening, exhausting, and maddening at times. It was A LOT of work. We’ll see how the sales go and if I’ll come out ahead over going with a traditional publisher. I can tell you that I am thrilled by the final product, the quality of on-demand printing, the way the book turned out. I always wondered what it would be like to have control over every aspect of one of my books and whether I could create a final product that I unreservedly love, that I would want to buy. I’m so happy to say that I achieved that. Now we’ll just have to see what everyone else thinks.