ACCELER8OR

Jun 28 2012

NeoPsychedelia & High Frontiers: Memes Leading To MONDO 2000 (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #21)

 

“The rising popularity of MDMA and other designer psychedelics. The developing scene around intelligence drugs and nutrients. The psychedelic roots of Apple computers.  The psychedelic garage rock phenomena that was mostly focused in L.A.  Even recent releases by Prince and Talking Heads…”

Yet another excerpt from the upcoming book, Use Your Hallucinations: Mondo 2000 in the Late 20th Century Cyberculture.

R.U. Sirius (early 1985:  I had come to San Francisco to start the neopsychedelic movement. And even before the first issue of High Frontiers went to press, I heard that there was a new psychedelic rock movement afoot. Some bands were emulating the style of ‘60s garage psychedelia — stuff like The Seeds, 13th Floor Elevator, Blues Magoos, Electric Prunes.  The beginnings of this scene had been labeled “the Paisley Underground.” I read that an L.A. band called The Three O’Clock was sort of rising to the top of the scene so I bought their record, disliked it, and gave it a bad review in that first issue — comparing it unfavorably to what I considered smart psychedelic music — stuff you’d actually want to listen to while tripping like Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy by Brian Eno or The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein by Parliament Funkadelic.  Not that I was averse to… if you will… exploiting every pop cultural indicator of the coming of neopsychedelia in my quest.

And, with the release of issue #2 of High Frontiers, we had a calling card worthy of some media attention. We (mostly Lord Nose and myself) started promoting the idea that there was a “neopsychedelic” resurgence going on.  Several journalists and media outlets took the bait.

We (well, mostly me) gave them a kitchen sink of evidence that something novel was afoot. The rising popularity of MDMA and other designer psychedelics. The developing scene around intelligence drugs and nutrients. The psychedelic roots of Apple computers.  The psychedelic garage rock phenomena that was mostly focused in L.A.  Even recent releases by Prince and Talking Heads; a sudden plethora of trippy MTV videos; and the playful, upbeat, sci fi, expansive themes running through the new wave radio stations from bands like the B52s and The Thompson Twins (Yes, I would even employ such dribble as the Thompson Twins in my plot for world mutation), we told them, indicated a developing shift in the zeitgeist.  Lord Nose would add a note of earnest shamanic gravitas to my pop culture spinnings and, all together, it worked.

We got coverage in San Francisco’s leftist weekly, Bay Guardian and an article by Laura Frasier for the wire service PNS wound up in several daily papers, including Long Island’s main outlet, Newsday (Laura would become a friend and, for a while, Lord Nose’s lover).  There were even still more outlets, long forgotten.  It was our first small flurry.  The viral meme, “neopsychedelia,” was injected into the body politic.

We decided to throw a giant party for the issue and the new psychedelia in San Francisco.   Tongue firmly piercing cheek, Lord Nose came up with the idea to call it the Neopsychedelic Cotillion Ball.  No doubt, he was having a bit of a giggle at the expense of Alison’s upper crust breeding and quasi-Victorian stylings — as she was replacing Mau Mau as the third dominant figure in our little karass and — at the same time — playing with Ken Kesey’s famous “Acid Test Graduation Party” that had spelled the end of the Merry Prankster era.  We secured this wonderful large venue called “The Farm” and started contacting bands and speakers to see who would appear… for free…

Somerset Mau Mau: I didn’t have much to do with that.

R.U. Sirius: Mau Mau and X knocked on the door at Alison’s house one day to complain about the naming of the Neopsychedelic Cotillion.  They said it was alienating to acid veterans in the Haight and hardcore street mutants in general . It sounded too bourgeois.  I found that bizarre, given that these guys over in Marin were even more relentlessly absurdist than we were, that they would have taken the title sort of literally.

 

We got an incredibly positive response when we asked people to perform for us.  We had 5 or 6 popular local bands, including The Morlocks, who were the kings of the local garage psych thing. They were like 10 years old (Ok, maybe like 19). .  And we set up panels on quantum physics and psychedelic drugs and maybe a few other things.  Wavy Gravy agreed to MC.  The freakin’ voice of Woodstock for our neopsychedelic rally!

Lord Nose and I went to see Wavy at his famous Hog Farm house in Berkeley to ask him to MC. It was the first time I’d ever been there.  He had the Big Pink cover on his bedroom door.  His bedroom door was kind of a collage of all sorts of memorabilia of the counterculture and the Grateful Dead, but that 11” x 17” thing dominated.  (When I saw him a few years ago, he told me it was still there.)

About a week before the event, I was invited to appear on the Michael Krasny Show on KGO. Two hours long, on Sunday night, it was the Bay Area’s biggest talk radio show and I was going to be the only guest.  I woke up that morning with a monstrous cold — cough, fever, the whole package. Early that evening, I downed a triple dose of cough medicine and hit the BART from Berkeley to downtown San Francisco.  This was before I was familiar with the effects of Dextromethorphan; a hallucinatory dissociative that’s in many commercial cough medications.  By the time I exited the BART, I was cross-eyed and painless; relaxed and floating; and my mind was… lucid — full of thoughts and quips about neopsychedelia and the magazine and the oncoming event.

I was damn good, if I do say so… quick, self-amused (this annoying tendency actually tends to come off well on radio), and perhaps a bit too fearless.  Krasny seemed to enjoy bantering with me about the perceived dangers of mass psychedelic use versus the wonders of a psychedelic movement and about politics and culture and whatever came up.  My tongue and brain were loose and careless.

Then the phone lines opened up to callers.  In between calls from people asking for drug advice and wanting to know details about the magazine and upcoming party, there were numerous angry calls from people upset that Krasny would even have this glib freak on his esteemed show advocating for psychedelic drugs and displaying bad attitude towards God, Mom, Apple Pie, and Patriotism (or whatever the hell I spoke about in my ripped and fevered mental state).  Finally, just a few minutes before the show’s end, a man with a deep angry voice thundered across the airwaves, “Tell that asshole we’re gonna kill ‘im.  We’re gonna shoot ‘im.”  Krasny fell into a rage.  “Nobody makes death threats on my show!  I’ve never had a death threat on my show!”

Exiting the station to make the 4 block walk back to the BART, I was a bit less fearless, but, as I remember it, there weren’t even any cars rolling past as I made my way.  And, anyway, on the radio, no one can tell what you look like.  (And they couldn’t Google you yet.)

When I got back to her place, Alison exclaimed: “That was incredible!”  It was the first time she’d been thrilled by one of my public appearances; in fact, up until that point, I think she had her doubts about my mental dexterity.  (Those doubts would occasionally reoccur, maybe deservedly so.) Anyway, that’s how I know that the whole thing didn’t just seem good to me because the Dextro was flooding my brain with Serotonin.

I was stunned the following Saturday as hundreds of  paying customers — most of them young — flooded into The Farm for the event.

It was an incredible venue; large, with an upstairs section.

Scrappi DuChamp:  I went to that. I was really fascinated by the place… It was an animal auction house… it was like an auction for slaughter, basically, of livestock, run by hippies. I thought that was pretty amazing. It was under a freeway or past a really old part of San Francisco that was still sort of undeveloped.

R.U. Sirius:  Wavy was on and enthusiastic.  The psychedelic drugs panel was colorful, as Zarkov, the libertarian investment banker, appearing in a dramatic disguise, denounced his fellow panelists for trying to get psychedelics sanctioned by the government for the exclusive use of psychotherapists.  And we quietly passed out capsules with threshold doses of the still legal designer hallucinogen 2cb, which definitely added a cheerful intelligence and intensity to the affair…

 

…  R.U. Sirius: The “Neopsychedelic renaissance” continued apace, with major features in High Times and other long forgotten zines, radio interviews and so on —with High Frontiers often touted as the reigning representation.  It seemed that I was blabbing to someone in the media about it at least a couple of times a month.  Soon word hit us that people on the L.A. garage psychedelia scene were being drenched in high quality LSD and were diggin’ on High Frontiers. Greg Shaw’s Bomp Magazine was at the center of that scene and he sent us his back issues (which we were already buying, anyway) and suggested we come for a visit. Jeff Mark and I arranged to go down there.

Jeff Mark: Winter Solstice 1985, R.U. and I took a trip to Los Angeles. The “Neopsychedelic Revival” was by then a real phenomenon. Tom Petty had released “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, including the Alice-in-Wonderland video — videos themselves were still new then, recall. Newsweek had even done a feature piece on the L.A. manifestation, focusing on Greg Shaw who was putting together some L.A. neopsychedelic ‘zine. R.U.’s intention was to make contact and build a bridge; the Pranksters’ visit to Millbrook, no doubt, in the back of his mind.

So we hung out for a while with Greg. I think we did a little sightseeing, and then that night we went to see some bands being promoted by him. The space the bands would play in, around the corner from Hollywood & Vine… well, you can’t call it a club. It wasn’t that, it was just… a room. The entrance was at the top of an external staircase, from which I could see underneath the building, noting with some trepidation that the second floor was supported by a bunch of those steel jacks that builders use to keep a weak ceiling from collapsing. And this would be holding up a couple of hundred dancing humans. I think this might even have qualified as an early form of rave, had that term yet been coined.

There were maybe four or five different bands, each doing 30-45 minutes or so, and the first thing I noticed was that, in keeping with the whole “Neo-Psychedelic Revival” thing, each of them did a version of “White Rabbit”. OK, that’s an exaggeration; one of them didn’t. The next thing I noticed was that the bands each seemed to be made up of the same seven or eight people in varying combinations of four or five.

So, anyway, the building didn’t collapse, and we retired after to some other location lost to history for a party. Everyone was high on MDMA, of course. As the evening progressed, I engaged in conversation with several very nice people, and by way of introducing each other, the usual “so what do you do?” kinds of questions arose. Now, I had a straight job at the time, civil service, thoroughly boring. But the people I spoke with described themselves as “make-up artists” or “costumers” or writers or artists of one flavor or another. I began to realize that vocationally, each of these people depended on all the others, networking (another not-yet-coined-term) to get to work on someone’s project about something; their livelihood depended on their social contacts.

Now, when you think about it, this was Hollywood; that’s how Hollywood works, that’s how creative communities, particularly those in collaborative crafts, operate. That’s how they produce. Obvious to many, but news to me. The pattern-recognition subsystems of my mind began to assemble what I would come to call my “Theory of Scenes”.

A few months later we returned, with Lord Nose, to participate in this event that featured a couple of local bands, and somebody wheeling out Sky Saxon  from the Seeds (“Pushing Too Hard”).

Nose was showcasing these black t-shirts with the yellow day-glo anti-happy face or whatever the fuck that was (I still have mine, but it no longer fits…) (ed: Sacred Cow Mutilators t-shirt). And it struck me that the 200 or so people at that event, which included almost everyone we’d met in December, comprised the whole of the “neopsychedelic scene” in L.A. That was it. That was all of them. 250 people tops, and they were getting all this media attention. And I realized that’s how it probably was in ’65, as well; there was the Whiskey á Go-Go scene, one or two other places; a dozen or so bands with some duplication among their personnel, various friends and hangers-on. In the Haight, the same thing. There was the Fillmore, and the Matrix, the Diggers, the Oracle, and it was all the same… what, 300 people? It applies elsewhere also. There’s the NYC comedy scene (which in the 70s gave us SNL, and is now focused around The Daily Show), the Boston Harvard/National Lampoon scene, the L.A. Conception Corporation scene (whence came Spinal Tap). All of these basically, at least in the beginning, were not much more than groups of friends. Even in politics. One of my disappointments as I’ve gotten more sophisticated about politics is the realization that so much of what happens in a place like Washington D.C. takes place in what appears, anyway, to be a social environment, which is why it reminds us so much of high school. And this was, largely, how “Mondo” functioned within the context of the Berkeley New Age “Scene”.

R.U. Sirius:  Greg Shaw and this guy from a band called Dead Hippie volunteered to throw a High Frontiers party in L.A. so we went back down there a few months later.  The Dead Hippie guy was intense. He had sort of a Charlie Manson look and a stare to match and seemed to be searching for some sort of gut wrenching apocalyptic truth. Other that that, he was nice. We hung out for a while as the party was being set up until it became clear that we had no responsibilities other than to man our booth, sell magazines and t-shirts and take home some money.

One peculiar memory: we split for a while for dinner and drinks and somehow struck up a conversation with this crewcut military-looking young dude.  When we told him what we were in town for, he tried to convince us to ditch the benefit show because it would be more interesting to drop acid and play paintball at some arena a few miles away.  It was his favorite thing.

As with the “Cotilllion,” the L.A. High Frontiers benefit was massive, with bands like Thelonious Monster (I was already a fan) and members of Black Flag who were doing this sort of metal psych as a side project. Sky Saxon jumped on stage with everybody.  This being L.A., everybody looked perfect, particularly the young girls in their tight short skirts.  After hours of watching hundreds of these chicks stream though, the massive doorman/bouncer finally cried out, “I’ve got a sheet of acid for the first chick who will drain my cock.”  I seem to remember him being approached by a volunteer.

I really didn’t connect with anybody other than one porn star-gorgeous chick I’d met the last time around, and her attention was divided between myself and several others taller, darker and more handsome.  It was a whole different vibe, not only from the San Francisco party but from the previous hangout in L.A., which had more of a gently androgynous fashion-y pop vibe — all retro Nehru shirts and flared striped pants.  Now the scene had become psych metal. They’d gone from Strawberry Alarm Clark to Blue Cheer in a matter of weeks.

 

Previous MONDO History Entries

Psychedelic Transpersonal Photography, High Frontiers & MONDO 2000: an Interview with Marc Franklin

Gibson & Leary Audio (MONDO 2000 History Project)

Pariahs Made Me Do It: The Leary-Wilson-Warhol-Dali Influence (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #3)

Robert Anton Wilson Talks To Reality Hackers Forum (1988 — Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #4)

Smart Drugs & Nutrients In 1991 (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #5)

LSD, The CIA, & The Counterculture Of The 1960s: Martin Lee (1986, Audio. Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #6)

William Burroughs For R.U. Sirius’ New World Disorder (1990, Mondo 2000 History Project Entry # 7)

New Edge & Mondo: A Personal Perspective – Part 1 (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #8)

New Edge & Mondo: A Personal Perspective – Part 2 (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #8)

The Glorious Cyberpunk Handbook Tour (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #9)

Did The CIA Kill JFK Over LSD?, Reproduced Authentic, & Two Heads Talking: David Byrne In Conversation With Timothy Leary (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #10)

Memory & Identity In Relentlessly Fast Forward & Memetically Crowded Times (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #11)

The First Virtual War & Other Smart Bombshells (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #12)

Swashbuckling Around The World With Marvin Minsky In How To Mutate & Take Over The World (MONDO 2000 History Project #13)

FAIL! Debbie Does MONDO (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #14)

Paradise Is Santa Cruz: First Ecstasy (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #15)

William Gibson On MONDO 2000 & 90s Cyberculture (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #16)

Ted Nelson & John Perry Barlow For MONDO 2000 (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #17)

R.U. A Cyberpunk? Well, Punk? R.U.? (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry # 18

The New Edge At The New Age Convention (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #19)

The Belladonna Shaman (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #20)

Aug 22 2011

Combining Extreme Distrust and Spastic Bursts of Blind Faith… What New Edge Culture has to say about Today’s Schizophrenic Information Society

“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.

Oxymoronic Futures

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.