Combining Extreme Distrust and Spastic Bursts of Blind Faith… What New Edge Culture has to say about Today’s Schizophrenic Information Society
By Dorien Zandbergen
“This magazine is about what to do until the millennium comes. We’re talking about Total Possibilities. Radical assaults on the limits of biology, gravity and time. The end of Artificial Scarcity. The dawn of a new humanism. Highjacking technology for personal empowerment, fun and games. Flexing those synapses! Stoking those neuropeptides! Making Bliss States our normal waking consciousness. Becoming the Bionic Angel.”
If it is the task of a magazine editorial to inform readers in clear language what to expect in the pages to come, this editorial of the first issue of Mondo 2000 in 1989 didn’t quite live up to its promise. It bent the minds of the readers in an uneasy twist: while making far-reaching claims about the promising, even spiritual nature of technological futures to come, its hyperbolic style begged the reader not to take such claims seriously. Critics have often tried to unveil the “real message” underneath such New Edge double-sidedness. Yet, I argue here, the paradoxical style of New Edge shows us exactly what it means to live with the unresolvable tensions of today’s information society. And the 1960s hippies were there to see it first.
The editorial of the first Mondo formed the overtures of a magazine that baffled through its irony, incomprehensible language, screaming images, and particularly through the collision of many different, oppositional modes of thought. It flirted, for instance, with the utopian idealism and spiritual longings of the 1960s as well as with the technological entrepreneurialism of the 1980s; and it was nostalgically romantic at the same time that it was futuristic and high-tech. So one ad recommended digital image enhancement software as a tool for conveying “the shamanic experience;” and Mondo contributor Timothy Leary claimed that “spiritual realities for centuries imagined” could perhaps now “finally be realized” through the “electronic-digital.”
Such a fusion of New Agey spirituality, tribalism and nostalgia with an entrepreneurial, futuristic and technology-loving attitude was not unique to the magazine, but was part of a larger Californian culture some key members came to think of as “New Edge.” One element of this New Edge culture was electronic dance events — raves — wherein Earth Goddesses were worshipped while geeks spun electronic music and beamed fractal-shaped artificial life forms onto the walls. In flyers for such events, as well as in magazines, manifestos, cyberpunk fiction and conferences, information technology was both advertised as a clever tool for individual empowerment, and was seen itself a self-evolving higher form of consciousness. Today, such a blend of attitudes still characterizes the annual Burning Man festival, and tech-psychedelic events like the Mindstates conferences.
Not surprisingly, scholars and other commentators who have looked at this confusing blend of attitudes and worldviews have struggled to interpret it. Regarding Mondo 2000, the art critic Vivian Sobchack wondered — in a 1990 article for ARTFORUM International: “What was being enacted here, what was really being sold?” “At first sight,” Sobchack answered herself, M2 seemed “somehow, important in its utopian plunge into the user-friendly future of better living not only through the chemistry left over from the 1960s, but also through personal computing (…).” Yet Sobchack eventually judged the magazine “the stuff of a romantic, swashbuckling, irresponsible individualism that fills the dreams of “mondoids” who, by day, sit at computer consoles working for (and becoming) corporate America.” “Combined with an ‘unabashed commitment to consumerism,’ its political idealism leads to an ‘oxymoronic cosmology of the future,” she wrote.
Sobchack’s reading of Mondo 2000 belongs to a broader line of commentaries that look with suspicion at the way in which Silicon Valley technologies have acted as vehicles for “countercultural” utopian and liberal messages. Most of such critical writings treat the hippie rhetoric with which Californian technology enthusiasts promise the latest high tech invention to offer individual empowerment, social unity, a clean environment and democratic freedom as no more than a smokescreen; shielding from view the actual selfishness, greed and exploitative nature of high tech practice. Often these critiques have been accompanied by nostalgic looks at a countercultural past where intentions were “pure” and products of liberation were “untainted” by corporate cooptation and mainstream hype.
Differences are often noted — for example — between the ethos of open sharing that characterized hacker culture in the 1970s and the secretive sphere of nondisclosure and patenting that characterizes technology development today; or between early 1990s Virtual Reality where people were actively and creatively involved in interactive online worlds and later VR theme parks where the technology was now used for quick consumption and entertainment; or between the creativity of the first websites and the standardized sites today. In similar fashion, one might reflect on post-countercultural communal experiments such as Burning Man. Each year, participants and organizers of this desert city go through cycles of anxious self-criticism. Can a festival that attracts 50.000 participants still be called subversive? Despite the ethos of radical self-expression and creativity, don’t the majority of visitors come to passively consume the scenery? What about the pollution caused by the festival… and what does the fact that most of its visitors are caucasian say about its universalistic, inclusive ethos?
Such questions, I believe, are important. Yet, if they lead only to the cynical conclusion that we are here dealing with coopted and contrived forms of once authentic cultural practices, we forget something crucial. While critical thinkers scrutinize New Edge culture for how it is actually conservative, mainstream and selfish rather than progressive, subversive and socially responsible, they don’t take into account that New Edge positioned itself at the pinnacle of a cultural environment that cannot adequately be accounted for in such familiar binary terms. Starting from this point of view, in my recent dissertation “New Edge. Technology and Spirituality in the San Francisco Bay Area” I have sought to understand this dimension of New Edge: the extent to which it gives voice and form to a cultural moment that is still ill understood in all its tensions and experiential contradictions.
Taking Control Over Perception and Evolution
My study of New Edge begins in the 1960s and ’70s, amidst a network of people, ideas and organizations, all of which cannot easily be characterized in terms of distinctions between counterculture and corporate culture, spiritual or scientific orientation, and technological or rustic-romantic focus.
Take the Human Potential Movement at Esalen, inspired by Aldous Huxley’s notion that there are “still a great many potentialities — for rationality, for affection and kindliness, for creativity — still lying latent in man.” Huxley believed that “since everything has speeded up so enormously in recent years, that we shall find methods for going almost as far beyond the point we have reached now within a few hundred years.” In their pursuit to “produce extraordinary things out of this strange piece of work that a man is,” therapists and intellectuals at Esalen were inspired by Eastern spirituality as much as by cutting edge science and technology. As Esalen historian Walter Truett Anderson writes, they even turned “the flowing together of East and West, the ancient and the modern, science and religion, scholarship and art” as a guiding principle.
Or think of the entrepreneur Stewart Brand, who initiated the famous Whole Earth Catalog as a compendium filled with tools and intellectual baggage — both rustic and high tech — with the intention of helping “hippie” communards in their pursuit for self-reliant living. Although the Catalog supported a culture that imagined itself to ‘counter’ the corporate mainstream, Brand was open about the fact that the Catalog itself was an “advantage seeking” product, financed through investment aid from his parents, and by means of stock bought in his name.
Anticipating the boundary-crossing New Edge culture were also academic scientists like Gregory Bateson and Norbert Wiener whose interest in cybernetics became foundational for thinking about human-computer interaction as it also became entwined with other strands of holistic thought.
Not to forget the Merry Pranksters, a group of hippies that formed around the writer Ken Kesey, who wholeheartedly embraced the blinking, speedy consumer goods that postwar America had to offer while their attitude began to involve, as Tom Wolfe wrote about them, “the main things religious mystics have always felt, things common to Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and for that matter Theosophists and even flying-saucer cultists. Namely, the experience of an Other World, a higher level of reality. And a perception of the cosmic unity of this higher level.”
What connected these networks of people was an aspiration for human empowerment and positive global change that came from humanity’s heightened perception and understanding. This understanding was to come from the growing availability of chemicals such as LSD, high tech tools and exercises that were able to compensate for the otherwise poor perceptive capacities of humans. In his famous essay “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley called the human brain a “reducing valve” that, in everyday life, only allows a “measly trickle of consciousness.” Huxley talked about mescaline as a tool that could “reopen” humanity’s door of perception — it made people aware of the “totality of awareness” or “Mind at Large.” Similarly, the Whole Earth Catalog invested strongly in the idea that high tech could bring about just such a growth of awareness. The very name of the Catalog was, in fact, inspired by the greatest technological achievement of that time — a picture of the earth as seen from the Apollo, which appeared on the front cover of each edition. As John Markoff put it: “He [Brand] realized that an image of the whole earth might inspire others to have a more complete sense of man’s place within the planet’s ecology and all of the implications that flowed from such a view of the world.” The paradoxical hope was that in its union with high tech, man would restore holistic and more complete ways of seeing and experiencing that it had learned to forget in the course of modern life. Also, biofeedback equipment — which measures heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration or brainwaves and feeds such information back to the user as a way of making her aware of her level of relaxation — was advertised in 1970s manuals as a technique for obtaining a “real knowledge of the self” — a knowledge that “has been lost by humanity over centuries by civilization.”
Both the use of psychedelics and high tech endorsed the experience among these early pioneers that they were godlike in their potential for comprehending reality. “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” as Stewart Brand famously stated in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog. “Being as gods” meant, among other things, not only having greater perception but being able to take part in evolution itself. Additionally, this idea cut across spheres where spiritual practices dominated and where high tech pioneering took place: at Esalen, new forms of therapeutic practice such as “Rolfing” came to be thought of as the “first conscious attempt at evolution made by any species in modern times;” while at the Stanford Research Institute, the computer scientist Douglas Engelbart employed the term “co-evolution” to describe the “symbiotic, co-adaptive learning process by means of which humans and computers develop as one intelligent system.” Whether one was taking psychedelics, hooking oneself up to a biofeedback system, logged on to mainframe computers, or taking part in consciousness raising sessions at Esalen, a pervasive sense thus existed within these networks of tinkerers that humans were taking control over their own evolutionary development.
The World Slipping Away
What makes this belief in the capacity of high tech and science to turn people into all-knowing gods so interesting to me is that it combined with a very contradictory notion. In the course of all those practices — psychedelic or technological — whereby people extended and sharpened their ability to perceive and intuit the truths of the world, the world itself seemed to slip away and disappear from view. With perception meaning not so much the ability to touch things with the hand or to taste with the mouth, but to see patterns of connections as they were translated into information by cybernetic machines or to experience synchronistic connections between events across time and space, the world came to be constructed increasingly in invisible, untouchable, and imperceptible terms. “We are migrating from a world governed primarily by the laws of thermodynamics to a world governed primarily by cybernetics — a weightless world (…) whose events are the impinging of information on information,” wrote Stewart Brand in the Catalog. “We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves,” read another entry in the Catalog, in response to the cybernetic work of Norbert Wiener, Buckminster Fuller, the eclectic scientist, guru of the counterculture and main inspiring figure for the Whole Earth Catalog sketched a similar vision of the world when he wrote: “In World War I industry suddenly went from the visible to the invisible base, from the track to the trackless, from the wire to the wireless, from visible structuring to invisible structuring in alloy.” As a result, Fuller wrote, engineers and scientists have “lost their true mastery, because they didn’t personally understand what was going on. If you don’t understand you cannot master.” The writer Susan Sontag even called the “present cultural condition” one in which “Western man (…) has been undergoing a massive sensory anesthesia.” Sontag ascribed this “anesthesia” to the fact that scientific and technological developments have changed the daily environment of human beings into one “that cannot be grasped by the human senses.” And Californian therapist Peter Marin wrote: “What is real becomes still harder to touch, to sense, to act upon.”
Peons in a Simulation Game
Today, in the way that people all over the world are seeking to come to terms with the hopes and fears of living in an “information society,” these two oppositional experiences play an equally large role. Together, they make it impossible to settle permanently on the question of whether information technology gives us more or less understanding of — and creative power in — the world. Software such as Google Earth and the powers of parallel computing may give the illusion that we can see, think and self-evolve better — even better than earlier gods. At the same time, crises wrought by computer automated stock trading; the invisible ways in which small devices in our daily environments communicate with each other about personal details we didn’t even know were there; or software so complex that not one programmer is capable of debugging it; make us feel as if we are but peons in a simulation game wrought by alien powers. All over the world, opinion leaders, think tanks, politicians and educators wrestle with the question of what kinds of ethics and moralities should guide our decisions regarding technology development and use. Yet, they are increasingly at a loss because they are unable to permanently identify and locate the sources of power they are confronted with. Claims about the empowering capacity of high tech are canceled out by claims about loss-of-control… and vice versa. For instance, certain thinkers have emphasized the potential significance of self-enhancement technologies to be used by women for “self-determination.” Yet others wonder what self-determination means when technologies injected in the body work incomprehensibly, through programs created in secretive ways by globally dispersed teams with no one being clearly and visibly accountable for the outcomes.
Advanced technologies today don’t only appeal to ourselves as rational autonomous self-determined beings and as divine creators of our own fates, but also embed us in out-of-control worlds that act godlike in their totalizing powers, magical complexity, pervasive invisibility and unaccountability. In order to live happily in this world, we need to be able to use high tech tools to understand and act rationally in the world, but we also need to trust a system that we cannot understand and that is immeasurably bigger than we are. In other words, we need to both act as rational human beings and also as believers. It happens that, in western societies, these two attitudes have historically been seen as incompatible. “Belief” — the capacity to trust in a higher power and to give oneself over to it –—is generally associated with “irrationality” and “religion.” And religion has come to be seen as the absolute opposite of science — which is characterized by objective rationality; the idea that individual humans are able to logically comprehend and control their environment. To imagine a rational human being will believe in a system he cannot perceive nor understand is difficult, yet it is this paradoxical attitude that is being solicited from all of us if we are to live in this world without being continuously anxious and paranoid.
“If You Think It’s All A Joke You Miss the Punch Line”
What made New Edge culture and its 1960s antecedents significant, I believe, is precisely that it accounted for these two different experiential dimensions of living in today’s world. And I suspect that we could understand the irony of MONDO 2000 as well as the many playful aspects of New Edge culture at large, as ways in which this is done.
The irony of Mondo 2000 invited Sobchack to wonder what the actual, real message of the magazine was. She concluded that it was one of the aspects that made the magazine disingenuous in its idealism. “M2 sits squarely, and safely, on the postmodern fence, covering its postmodern ass, using irony not only to back off from a too-serious commitment to its own stance, but also to unsettle the grounds from which it might be criticized,” Sobchack wrote. For Sobchack, the irony of the magazine was proof of its nihilistic and uncommitted stance. Yet, taking into account the historical context in which New Edge emerged, I think it is more accurate to understand this irony as a way of being radically inclusive, committed to extremely different attitudes to technology simultaneously: the ironically hyperbolic tone of the first Mondo 2000 editorial, for instance, forcefully calls for faith in the power of technology to bring salvation from scarcity and other human sufferings, and simultaneously allows a rational and objective stance vis a vis this faith. Its “New Edgy” ironic posture allowed the magazine to conjure up worldviews very similar to what was being proposed in New Age circles, while also including distant, skeptical, rationalistic stances. Irony here works in the way that the literary theorist Michael Saler describes it; as a way to “reconcile enchantment with the rational and secular tenets of modernity.” It provides, he writes, a “ludic space in which reason and imagination cavort, neither succumbing to the other.”
Raves, Virtual Reality environments, postcyberpunk fiction, MMORPG’s and the Burning Man festival continue today to provide similar ‘ludic’ spaces where the unspeakable is allowed: namely the combined presence of “religious” attitudes with rational distance and skepticism. Whether through the celebration of parody cults, performance art, hyperbolic language or ironic self-mockery, play and serious devotion combine, deep connections occur that are fleeting and temporary, and one is absolutely certain of the deep Truth while being in absolute doubt about it. Here, one can be like a typical worshipper of “Bob” — God of the parody cult The Church of Subgenus, as described in one Mondo edition — displaying a “puzzling attitude combining extreme distrust, forced or at least reluctant worship, and sudden, unexpected spastic spurts of blind, unquestioning faith.”
Some may interpret such irony as taking no actual position, but I believe it expresses the desire to take all positions at once — to embrace and accept the logically incompatible realities, perspectives and experiences that are part of the current information society. As such, the best of the worlds of religion and science come together — the capacity to be subjected to a god and to be a god yourself; the cathartic experience of letting go of ego, of giving yourself over to a larger entity on the one hand, and the godlike experience of being individually empowered and able to create your own destiny on the other. As such, it offers a temporary and appealing release from the anxiety and paranoia that befall many people today and that comes from not knowing what you see, what you know and who is actually in control.