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Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century.

"Do you believein math?" a caller asked Mark Dery during Jerry Brown's Pacifica talk show, We the People. Talk about your tough questions. Say yes, and half the audience pegs you as an anti-Gaia techno-fascist. Say no, and the rest dismiss you as yet another brain-fried "cyberdelic" wannabe. It was a no-win situation, and Dery stammered a vague, no-win response--an unexpectedly wimpish "I don't understand what you mean." Kind of a surprise from someone whose writing is anything but timid, but Dery's excuse--that "Jer-Jer's constant interruptions" had thrown him of fhis stride--is eminently acceptable. Still, the irony is sweet. Had Dery been on his game, he might have realized that the seemingly idiotic question cut straight to the heart of Escape Velocity, his invaluable contribution to the ever-burgeoning cybercrit canon.

The question should be: Do you believe in technology? Are you one of us-that cabal of smart-machines-will-save-us-all, insert-computer-into-orifice-of-your-choice Wired digerati? Or are you one of them--the monitor-smashing, if-it-hasa-circuitboard-it-must-be-the-enemy, technology-is-doom neo-Luddite dissenters? Or do you, as Dery does, understand that such dichotomies are flawed from the get-go--that the first thing one must grasp about computers is that they are not, in fact, binary? Cyberculture is not black and white, one or zero, this or that. What it is, actually, is a mess.

Escape Velocity is a packet-switched plummet through punctured flesh, digital brain-jack dreaming and muddled politics, a fiber-optic foray through crowds of teeming cyberpunk poseurs and Terminator 2 morph-junkies. And if the messiness confuses, one nonetheless feels safe in Dery's hands--you have to trust someone who eschews "cyberdrool" from the outset and then later coins the word "cyberbole" to describe what everyone else is doing).

So forget for the moment the constant clash between the pros and cons. Kevin Kelly (executive editor of Wired) versus Kirkpatrick Sale gets old fast, anyway. Dery's tour of the cybercultists--the Extropian posthumanists and digi-sex teledildonistas, "body art" mutilators and Mondo 2000 boobies, robot monster mad scientists and "submolecular shamans"--is a journey through regions where technology is neither placed on a pedestal nor staked through the heart: "Most of them," writes Dery, "regard the computer--a metonym, at this point, for all technology--as a Janus machine, an engine of liberation and an instrument of repression." Of course Janus was only a two-faced god-perilously close to a binary superbeing. Dery's a believer in "polyvalent" phenomena--there are almost always more than just two sides to his explorations.

Fear not, though. He may have read all the post-structuralists, but he rarely lapses into pomo relativist fence-sitting blather. He has an argument to make. He repeatedly expresses a subdued admiration for those who reftise, in the words of socialist feminist cultural critic Donna Haraway, the "demonology of technology"--those who, like master robot maker Mark Pauline of Survival Research Laboratories, recycle or appropriate outright the products of industrial and military culture." He saves his strongest language for the "techno-transcendentalists"--those whose "visions of a cyber-rapture are a fatal seduction, distracting us from the devastation of nature, the unraveling of the social fabric, and the widening chasm between the technocratic elite and the minimum-wage masses."

Belief in the cyber-Rapture constitutes, for Dery, evangelism of "a theology of the ejector seat." For the believers in the techno-millennium, technological acceleration has proceeded to such a point that humanity is about to be launched into a great unknown. The attitude of Australian performance artist Stelarc (who has a passion for piercing his body with hooks and suspending himself in precarious positions) is typical: "It is time to question whether a bipedal, breathing body with binocular vision and a 1,400-cc. brain is an adequate biological form. It cannot cope with the quantity, complexity and quality of information it has accumulated."

Poppycock. Or as Dery more eloquently puts it: "The misguided hope that we will be born again as `bionic angels,' to quote Mondo 2000, is a deadly misreading of the myth of learus. It pins our future to wings of wax and feathers."

"We live in overstimulated times," writes Dery, quoting Nicki Brand, the smoldering talk-show host from David Cronenberg's s.f./horror fantasy masterpiece, Videodrome. And you thought television was obsessed with sex and violence. Try cyberculture. Ponder the latest thing in tattoo-fashion: "biomechanicals" that reveal robot innards pulsating just beneath the skin. Contemplate the "reasons that many of us worship at the stations of the Nautilus" to make our bodies harder, more like a machine, more inhuman. Click on down through the CD-ROM game Virtual Valerie, a strip-tease masturbation exercise that Dery dubs "a sort of pervert's progress."

It is not as if any of this is really new, of course. Body mutilation? Been there, pierced that. Dery quotes artist D.A. Therrien on torture machines in the Spanish Inquisition "designed to slowly inflict pain, using screws and pulleys and tremendous force, enabling the victim to find the purity within his own religion. During that period, some of the best engineers in the world were developing devices to help people renounce the demons within-the barbaric thoughts, the primitive urges." Nor is cybersex a newborn techno-babe. "Freudian readings of the psychosexual symbolism of overheated machinery are hardly a recent development; the sight of camshafts thrusting ceaselessly, of hydraulic fluids squealing through small orifices under high pressure, quickened pulses early in this century."

But it is difficult to deny that techno-escapism has come into its own in these finde-siecle days. The camshafts thrust ever faster. The microprocessors are multiplying like mad. The "digital revolution" has stormed the Ministry of Propaganda. Down with the old flesh. Long live the silicon soul. "If religion," concludes Dery, "is the opiate of the masses and Marxism the opiate of the intellectual, then cyberspace is the opiate of twenty-first-century schizoid man, polarized between mind and body."

And as with all opiates, the pipe dreams are spectacular. Even Dery, who specializes in taking all things seriously, can't resist some balloon-puncturing-as when he ruminates on Douglas Rushkoff's thesis, in Cyberia, that humanity is poised for global consciousness: "Precisely how the fiber-optic interconnection of the number of humans equivalent to the number of neurons in the human brain will give birth to a planetary consciousness is left to the reader's imagination." In other words, hog-wash. And Dery reserves special scorn for the true believers in cyber-salvation: "Thus, we are drawn to the inescapable conclusion that much of what passes for post-humanism is in fact egoism leavened with a dash of technocratic elitism, whether it is Mondo 2000's dictatorship of the neurotariat---the `shrapies, mutants and superbrights in whom we must place our 'faith' and 'power' or the Extropian triumph of the overman."

Nicely said, but Dery is perhaps too kind to the Mondoids and Extropians. Are they worth the attention? As with malfunctioning computer programs, one wonders if they even merit debugging. Certainly, the creators of Mondo 2000 magazine rarely took themselves quite as seriously as their critics. Dery's rationale for tackling the court jesters of cyberspace is best summed up by his quotation from the science-fiction writer J.G. Ballard, who declaims: "Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute."

But who is really doing the dictating? Not Mondo 2000, currently in publishing limbo due to a consistent failure to attract advertising dollars. The posthumanists are a weak straw person to counterpoint Dery's frequent allusions to the greater societal problems being submerged by the digital deluge. Dery would have done better to load more fully into his sights the real target--Wired-style techno-positivity. It isn't as sexy, and it long ago lost its subcultural cachet, but as far as social reality is concerned, Wired's aestheticizing of techno-politics is the real "Mechagodzilla."
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Author:Leonard, Andrew
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 3, 1996
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