ACCELER8OR

Jun 05 2012

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

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Dammit! I’m over here presenting some MONDO 2000 material — some of which has some real content that may be worth chewing over… and meanwhile the net goes gaga for someone publishing the off-the-cuff “R.U. A Cyberpunk” parody from a 1993 edition.

Oh well. Glib amusement and fast attention rules, and I haven’t exactly been striving for deep cultural criticism in these posts… nor am I going to in this one… so I may as well go with it.

When we called the first edition of MONDO 2000 the cyberpunk issue, I don’t think we really had a persona in mind (although Larry Welz did present Cherry Poptart‘s friend Elle Dee as a cyberpunk in that issue).  Rather, I think we saw it as a sort of memeplex that would be pretty well expressed not only by interviewing 4 SF writers who were identified with the C-Punk genre (and I don’t think they actually called themselves cyberpunks… maybe some of them were happy to call themselves cyberpunk writers… John Shirley, maybe?); by interviewing the guys behind Max Headroom, by hipping people to Processed World and the latest from the Subgenius; by having mysterious articles on wicked computer hacks by “Lady Ada Lovelace” and “Michael Synergy.”

But did we really know anybody who would stand up in leather pants and shout, “I am a cyberpunk?” I think maybe Synergy was the only one in our circle who embraced the identity. Outside of Synergy, I don’t remember any of the outlaw type hackers we had the occasion to interview or hang out with adopting the ID.

Later, Chris Hudak, the cool looking dude in the “R.U. A Cyberpunk” thing seemed to embrace it. And a little later, St. Jude, myself and Bart Nagel were hired to create Cyberpunk Handbook, which was a humor book about how other people could get a clue and become cyberpunks. Eric Hughes, sharing the cover with Tiffany Lee Brown, identified as a cypherpunkbut that was a semi-organized group with a definite goal to overthrow everything with encryption technology.

I don’t know. I throw it open. Are you now or have you ever been a cyberpunk?

Here are a few brief and rather random quotes from some of the people interviewed for the upcoming Mondo book saying stuff about cyberpunk.

Mark Heley (started Toon Town, a successful group of “cyber” oriented rave promoters in the early ’90s)

It was the beginning of the period we are still in, pretty much. Nobody really knew what the web was back then or what enormous potential it held, people in the Mondo scene knew and were going at it full force. Emergent technology is still a huge area of cultural change. The cyberpunk people made it a movement and an identity, the scene grew to be a substantial part of a long history of bohemian culture that runs against the grain. This time it was armed with the internet, smart drugs, ubiquitous technology and the ubiquitous interface we still love and live in daily. It both began and predicted the times we live in.

 

Rudy Rucker (SF writer, Math writer/teacher, software developer, coauthor of MONDO 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge)

I couldn’t believe it. February 8, 1993, the book (“New Edge”) was featured in Time magazine! And it was the cover story. And Bart did the cover photo and there was a full page picture of Queen Mu and R.U. The cover said “Cyberpunk.” I thought: YEAH!

The Mondo thing wasn’t as hard. It was softer. Because they weren’t actually learning. Though most of the cyberpunks weren’t either, but I had a feeling like I was learning how to be a C programmer… an assembly language. I was getting into it in a hard machine-edged kind of way. And Mondo was more of a hippie thing. I’d say cyberpunk was a little more punk. In Mondo, there was this flowers and psychedelic thing… taking vitamins to get smarter. It didn’t have exactly the same feel as cyberpunk.

Stephan Ronan (Beat Historian, Mondo writer)

…that was my first visit to the Mondo house in the hills of Northside and in my account I describe it as a “technogothic citadel.”

Don Joyce (of Negativland) and I had done an Over the Edge program a few years earlier entitled “Cyberpunk” with novelist Richard Kadrey and science fiction poet Andrew Joron (and John Shirley on tape). By this point I was being to tire of the term. I had red in FACE magazine a writer predicted “technogothic” would replace it… so I went for it. Around then a letter was published… It said the letter-writer had been to Mondo house and it was hardly the “technogothic citadel” he had been led to expect. Ha! See how myth-making works?

 

Walter Isaacson (Author, former editor of Time)

I saw Wired, when it came out, not as a competitor but as a complement to MONDO 2000. I think some of the cyberpunk spirit has been lost by the commercialization of the web and the desire to get ad revenue.

 

There are also some William Gibson comments on the topic here.

 

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)

Dec 23 2011

Gibson & Leary Audio (MONDO 2000 History Project)

Here’s a little treat for the Christmas season.

In the process of organizing the MONDO 2000 History Project, I’m gathering up some rich media to post on the website version when it’s all complete.  What you have here is a fragment of a conversation between Timothy Leary and William Gibson.  Warning: You may need to listen to this through headphones to catch it all.

Download the audio file.

Backstory

We were working on our first Mondo 2000 issue. It was going to be the cyberpunk theme issue and we’d gotten interviews with the major cyberpunk SF writers, except Gibson. Gibson’s management wouldn’t put us in touch with him.  And then we heard that he was coming to the Bay Area and we turned up the heat, but his press agent had him set up for interviews with major outlets only and we were nobody and it was just a brick wall.  So somehow, Mu wound up on the phone with Leary complaining about this and Leary offered to let us transcribe a tape of him and Gibson in conversation about ideas for the game spinoff that would accompany the release of the film of Neuromancer — all of this being planned then — back in 1989.  Leary was going to lead the development of the game… at least conceptually. (Well, it was all conceptual, ultimately.)

So, the next day, we all showed up at a Gibson appearance in Berkeley radiating some kind of weird intense energy and Gibson was drinking warm beers and glancing nervously over at us while he signed books. We probably looked to him like some weird cult preparing a kidnapping. And after the line of autograph seekers cleared out, Mu strolled up with this insane bezoomny rictus grin that she has and told him that we were running this interview that Leary had done with him.  And he literally held the side of the desk like waves were making him seasick and shouted, “That was no interview!  That was a drunken business meeting!”

The article ran and Gibson eventually became friendly.  This edit from the tape features Leary and Gibson talking about the characteristics of Case (from Neuromancer) and then they go on to talk about William Burroughs.  I recommend listening through headphones.  Gibson’s voice is rather quiet.  There is also at least one other male voice that you’ll hear and that would be someone from Cabana Boy, the Production Company that had the rights to Neuromancer at the time.  If you hear a female voice, that would be Barbara Leary, who was Timothy’s wife at that time.

I recently interviewed Gibson for the MONDO project and he had this to say about his vague recollection: “I dimly remember being annoyed that that was going to be published. Mainly because I hadn’t been asked, I imagine.”

Edit: Now with cleaned up audio!
Download the audio file.

learyGibsonMP3_cleaned "learyGibsonMP3_cleaned"

 

Nov 23 2011

Of Leather Wasps and the Inevitable Sex Component: Cyberpunk Heroines in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Other Fiction

“Damaged, cyberpunk heroine”, “bisexual cyberpunk avenger”, “horny, cyberpunk hacker”… these are your Google results for Lisbeth + Salander + Cyberpunk, as featured in film reviews courtesy of Movieline, Telegraph, and the increasingly horny and irrelevant Rolling Stone (not a fan of the latter, sue me.)

But I am a fan of la protagonista cyberpunk, that bad ass mutha hacktivist/erotic dynamo, who wields her personal traumas as revolutionary fuel rather than continue breast-feeding a chauvinistic society by posing her pierceless, inkless, and character-bereft/Barbie body type (typically while naked but for elongated reptiles or butchered mammalian follicles) so that the dominant gender of the world might beat off before buying whatever alcoholic beverage the Kardashians are pimping and illegally squander finances that don’t belong to them.

Curiously, only a handful of non-film review, Googleable commentary make the connection that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander is cyberpunk.  So what is a cyberpunk exactly?  Those of you who frequent Acceler8or or have partied with RU would know this already, but another search of ye ol’ engines will find you transhumanism virgins the following definitions:

*  “…hackers, rockers, and other cultural rebels, clinging to a cult of individualism in a culture characterized by corporate control and mass conformity. [Those] adept at appropriating the materials of popular culture and making them speak to alternative needs and interests… [who] also know how to tap into the vast digital database to access information about corporations and their secret conspiracies, or to spread resistant messages despite powerful mechanisms of top-down control.”  

* “…marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life [is]  impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.”  

*  “[individuals that are] manipulated, placed in situations where they have little or no choice… anti-heroes who call to mind the private eye of detective novels. This emphasis on the misfits and the malcontents is the “punk” component of cyberpunk.”

“[those who embrace and express the] “dark” ideas about human nature, technology and their respective combination in the near future.”  (This particular site goes on to clarify that: “Clearly, Cyberpunk is not an exact concept. Its meanings vary.”)

So from this we might conclude, a cyberpunk is something of a morphable, hacktivist samurai, enhanced by metal for cosmetic effect and/or simply to exist as more efficacious meat in a world controlled by abusive, self-interested CEO’s.  Not entirely dissimilar to the world we already inhabit.  How lurid indeed.

Fortunately, cyberpunks embrace the lurid —  Lisbeth Salander, in particular, with her dark clothing, dark past, and dark hair (though she’s a natural ginger). Her creator, Stieg Larsson, describes Lisbeth as a 24 year old woman with the stunted body of a primal adolescent, who nonetheless moves with the focused speed of a tarantula and who can successfully integrate amongst neurotypicals when necessary.  I could remark on his further description of her as “Asian-looking” as being redundant to having said she resembles a perpetual teenager, but that might make me sound like the racist I sometimes am.

Is it cyberpunk to be racist?  It certainly isn’t progressive.  But neither, necessarily, are the topical projections for a cyberpunk heroine.  An image search for “cyberpunk” will get ‘cha this.  Note, if you will, how many topless, pantsless, or pigtailed schoolgirls you see here.  Of course, Hollywood reckons the concept of cyberpunk be safe enough for middle America (i.e., Trinity from the mutedly palatable Matrix and whoever-the-hell Olivia Wilde played in Disney’s Tron).  Yes, per the little boys running film studios and the other ones coding visuals of steel-enhanced flesh, you’d think all a cyberpunkess offers is an asymmetrical haircut, hard-on promotion, and novel alleys for fashion marketing.

But Lisbeth Salander (in the book, at least) doesn’t stop there- she demands societal accountability.  That’s why Larsson wrote the Millennium series (under the original title: “Men Who Hate Women”), to avenge the rape of a 15 year old girl witnessed in his youth.  Similarly, our protagonist Lisbeth Salander suffered abuse first by her father, then a host of other paternal figures.  Does she really need to be sexualized to the extent aspiring graphic novelists and Hollywood illustrators would have her be?  Will that reclaim the power taken from her by those who only (mis)valued her sexuality to begin with?

Now, the future should definitely be sexy; but it would have to be so through greater individual morphological tolerance, not just fancies of lady robots touching each other, or a uniform of long black trenches with slits up to Lady Gaga’s much-debated vagina.  Which brings me to the unavoidable comparisons between Lisbeth Salander and formative cyberpunk heroine: Molly Millions.

Both Stieg Larsson’s and William Gibson’s progeny work in security, prefer their coffee black, and enjoy sex at their initiation.  Both also have a sense of humor about their often-leather clothing:  Millions sporting cherry red cowboy boots with Mexican silver tips; Salander opting for t-shirts featuring ET and slogans like “Armageddon was yesterday – today we have a serious problem.”  And while Lisbeth isn’t modified for sealed eye sockets with computerized tickers and retractable scalpel blades, she was born to purpose.  Though disparate to Millions, who Gibson writes was born to “tussle” (“guess it’s just the way I’m wired,” Molly explains), Salander was born wired for photographic memory.

Yes, both were also employed as subordinate meatpuppets (albeit, Lisbeth not necessarily electively so).  It’s no wonder the cyberpunkess would employ sex for empowerment, but it’s so much more than being “deadly” and “hot”, as Gibson himself admitted (on tweets, apparently… perhaps the douchiest soap box since douche soap… boxes).  But even if Neuromancer was “the first time we had encountered a woman who was primarily a weapon,”  that’s all he saw Molly as, right?  Fortunately, Larsson didn’t limit Salander as such.  He wasn’t inspired by men in his birthing of Lisbeth, like Gibson seemed to be in how he modeled Molly after Bruce Lee and Clint Eastwood.  No, Lisbeth is something fascinating all her own — actually, most like a combination of Millions and Gibson’s Neuromancer hacker protagonist, Case.

So why build characters by just swapping gender roles?  Why not define new genders, where no one’s the weaker because it’s anatomically dickless.  Anything else is luddism, I say — particularly the lingering view of women as legal prey.  And even if luddism is innate (which I’ve sort of already proved by my Asian jab), surely it will be eradicated during enhancement, and rightly so.

Screw labels, Salander effectively communicates.  And so I arrive at this:

* Gibson said it in a short story somewhere.  “Cyberpunk is the stuff that has EDGE written all over it… Now ask me how I’d define EDGE.  Well, EDGE is not about definitions.  To the contrary, things so well known that they provide an exact definition can’t be EDGE.  They probably once were but now they aint.  SO DON’T TRY TO DEFINE IT!!!”

I reckon my cyberpunkess personality would first be modified to maintain a chemical serenity equal to that which occurs prior to falling asleep… which for anxious little me, is unfailingly when I achieve uptmost clarity (and prowess) of being.  I don’t personally care for leather (the wearing of it at least), but I’d probably consider some defensive augmentations, like maybe a kind of concentrated ocular laser that causes the assholes a female unavoidably encounters when walking just about anywhere in human view to suffer acute epididymal hypertension should they voice unsolicited vulgarities.

For further reading on “Formidable Female Protagonists in Science Fiction by Decade” 

Oct 14 2011

Is Stiff Academia Killing Mental Evolution?

One thing I have noticed about the Transhumanist community is that there is a division between the academic crowd and the consciousness expansion crowd. Previous Transhumanist movements have battled on idealistic grounds for the notion of what Transhumanism was really about. Was it the hard scientific outlook with the academic credentials and PowerPoints or was it the consciousness expansion outlook with the mind altering psychedelics and technological revolution? Was the hard academic current stopping the freethinking cyberpunk current from being viewed as Transhuman and was the freethinking cyberpunk current stopping the hard academic current from being taken seriously?

I used to say that the stiff academics were killing mental evolution and I completely sided with the freethinking cyberpunk current. Yet I have recently come to the realization that both currents of Transhumanism are equally important. As freethinking cyberpunks we need hard academics to build a sustainable movement or we will simply come off like a bunch of techno-hippies.

I do, however, wish to address a part of academia that has been upsetting me for a while. I’m talking about the anti-philosophy part which states that philosophy is irrelevant to Transhumanism because we now have technology. The “why have discussions on philosophy when we can build new machines?” people. They are the ones who are killing mental evolution because they dismiss philosophical discourse on the future as all talk and no action.

The last time I checked it appeared that philosophical discourse was required for action to exist in the first place. Would we be able to build new machines if we didn’t philosophize about technology? Why would we want to live in a society of robot builders if we couldn’t even theorize about what we were building? All talk and no action is a definite waste of time but all action and no talk is a cold society devoid of free thought and revolution. I feel that we need a mixture of both. We need the talk and we need the action. We need the techno-hippies who have just discovered LSD and Robert Anton Wilson to throw the raves and we need the MIT graduates to advance genetic research and throw the conferences. We need each and every person in this movement.

Transhumanism has split off into a bunch of different currents and in 2011 this has reached a level so meta-meta-meta that there are at least 30 different groups on Facebook for different currents of Transhumanism. Recently someone in the Singularity Network group asked a question to the effect of “why was I just added to 15 different Transhumanist groups?” Can we blame the hard academic elite or can we blame the petty infighting that every movement inevitably has to deal with? Should we be placing any blame in the first place or should we be embracing the splintering off of so many new movements?

In the end, I believe every MIT graduate was once a freethinking cyberpunk or — at the very least — they embraced these ideals in their youth. I also believe that every freethinking cyberpunk would benefit from a more academic education so they could turn their visions into realities via technology and scientific theory. The only thing killing mental evolution is the idea that ideas are no longer important because … “Hey! Check out those robots over there… and stop talking.”

Aug 31 2011

Transhumanism Against Scarcity: A Conversation with AnonymousSquared

“… why should anyone want to participate in an infinite unending marketplace.  What kind of human being sees that as the ultimate goal?

 

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by AnonymousSquared — a fellow who had read somewhere that I was thinking about writing a book titled “Steal This Singularity.“ (I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.)  He sent me a copy of his book-in-progress, which he calls “Transhumanism Against Scarcity.”   And while the book needs some work, it had some interesting ideas.  So I decided to have an email conversation with him.  Here goes more-than-nothing…

RU SIRIUS:  This discussion about ending human scarcity has a long and deep history.  Technologically, we may be moving in the right direction… towards molecular machines, desktop manufacturing, the digitization of everything.  But you say in your book that we’re headed in the wrong direction.

ANONYMOUSSQUARED:  I see two problems.  One is that environmental problems may intervene.  I don’t know if I can do anything about that.  The other problem that I see is a strain of libertarian absolutism that is fairly prevalent inside transhumanist circles and that is having way too much impact on politics in the real world. Maybe I can have some impact on that in a small way.

I don’t really have a beef with libertarianism per se… as a soft concept, finding our way towards a world with a lot less government coercion seems like a good thing.  I think the problem comes when ideals collide with the real world.  And you’ll notice that much of what I’ve written is focused on the world today, not on the future.  I thought of calling it Transhumanism Against Austerity, which is the way that global monetary policy is reintroducing scarcity into parts of the world where it had been all but eliminated.  It should be obvious to futurists that this is the wrong direction, if for no other reason than to avoid massive riots and an uprising of neoluddism.

We’re already very deep into a wildly technological time.  People notice stuff like artificial biology, bulletproof skin, the stuff that kids take for granted on their cell phones… people running around talking about robots overachieving us.  This is not lost on ordinary people.  And they’re looking around unemployed and with their homes “underwater” and medical costs rising and bankers getting free money from the government while they’re being asked to tighten their belts and they’re saying to themselves, “So this is what the techno-world is!”  Some of the people in this transhuman community have no idea what’s going to hit them.

RU:  The argument, of course, goes that the best way to end scarcity is to unleash an unfettered market.

AS: Sure, and you can’t argue with someone who is absolutely convinced that is the case.  It could conceivably even make sense at some point in the future, where a sort of tipping point is reached with nanotechnology and even the garbage pickers will be rich.  But it’s more likely that we need to think about how to get wealth to a majority of people who are economically superfluous… or we abandon them to penniless suffering.

The two main forces that are making most people economically superfluous are roboticization and globalization.  And of nearly equal importance is disintermediation of the intellectual creative classes.  Certainly corporations and business still need workers and people still want services and apps, but there’s a limit to all that.

The obvious one that everybody thinks about is that, with globalization, most types of work can be farmed out to places where there’s cheap labor, lower expectations and lower expenses.  Less obvious is that — with a globalized market, individuals are also superfluous as consumers.  So it’s the death of Keynsean economics, in the sense that global corporations and financing concerns feel no pain when Americans or Greeks stop spending.  And that’s because the possible market is so large that even with economies in recession, they’ve got more consumers than they’ve ever had before.

RU:  A few years ago, I was at a Singularity Conference and somebody whose name I forget gave a talk about robotization.  And he suggested that when robots can do everything that humans do faster, better and more efficiently, then we’ll have to give people what they need gratis.  And about a third of the audience booed him.  It was the only time I’ve ever heard a speaker get booed at one of these conferences.

AS:  Those people are against the future.  That’s the irony.  They’re trying to force ideas from the past onto the future and they’re doing damage to the present in the process.

I understand that in the 1970s, there was a lot of talk even among many libertarians that there was going to be this cybernetic age soon and people’s jobs would be replaced by machines… and how are we going to deal with that?  And they talked about the least bureaucratic ways to let people enjoy their lives after the machines take over… ideas like a reverse income tax or running some large centralized enterprise and giving everybody free stock.  It was just assumed that we wouldn’t leave people out in the cold when they were no longer necessary.  After all, as a society we wouldn’t be any poorer because the machine rather than the human is producing.  This seems so fundamentally human and obvious.  I think there’s been a massive dehumanization since then.

RU:  I lived through the seventies and they were pretty miserable.  Alienation with the internet is definitely less isolating and boring than alienation with it.  

Anyway, the popular argument with the idea that you have to help people who were replaced by technology is that we’ve learned that new technologies create new economic opportunities and new jobs and so forth.  I think it’s a partial truth that deteriorates as we go deeper into the postindustrial era, but it’s an argument that’s out there.

AS:  Well, we could go into the conventional arguments about actual income stagnation and insecurity but it’s all been said before and everybody has their arguments ready.  But I think anybody would have to admit that it’s already a weird economy. A big chunk of the market economy exist solely on the basis of the eventual expectation of advertising. How perverse is that… when you actually examine it? Where it really falls apart is when you have a billion busy little small entrepreneurs hustling some product.  Who has the attention and the need for what they have to offer… assuming it hasn’t already been hacked and distributed free anyway?  And why should anyone want to participate in an infinite unending marketplace.  What kind of human being sees that as the ultimate goal?

RU: Is there any reason to be optimistic?

AS:  Sure.  There are plenty of people with all types of ideological influences including libertarianism who are truly humanistic and want only to solve big problems ranging from scarcity to death. I want to ask them to be against austerity policies now. When you’re inviting people to be bold and excited and transhuman about the very extreme technological changes that are taking place, maybe it would be smart not to yank the floor out from underneath them at the same time.

Aug 07 2011

All Hail Mighty Caesar! Rise of the Planet of the Upgraded Apes

Rise One

Warning: Major Spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film and plan to… you may want to read only beneath the embedded video.

Grossing $54 million (and counting) during its debut weekend, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is well on its way to becoming a summer blockbuster.

Rise Two

But the star of the film is not James Franco, in spite of top billing.  It is actually the genetically modified, cognitively enhanced chimpanzee, Caesar — marvelously acted by Andy Serkis (you may remember him as the CGI-character Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy).  The emotional range and realism of Serkis’ Caesar shows how much CGI has matured. And Serkis is likely to receive an Oscar nod for his performance.

Anyone not familiar with the well-known Planet of the Apes franchise (and Charleton Heston’s famous line “Get your paws off me, you damn, dirty ape.” from 1968’s Planet of the Apes) likely does not own a TV set or have Internet access. The line, it turns out, is used again the 2011 reboot: rather than Heston’s human character getting hosed down in the chimp-run laboratory (read prison) of the original film, it is Caesar who gets hosed by a redneck keeper in a modern-day research facility looking more like an Abu Ghraib for chimps.

Of course, it’s hard to beat the 1968 original (the closing Statue of Liberty scene is a cultural icon, and the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2001 as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”). Some critics have already said “why try?”

But Rise of the Planet of the Apes is much more than just the reboot of a famous franchise, digitally updated for the Avatar generation.  It highlights the plight of chimpanzees in the wild, the human-like abilities of the great apes, the realistic possibility of an Alzheimer’s cure, and the equally realistic possibly of human pandemics resulting from genetic experimentation.

The film opens with a scene of a troop of chimps in the wild, reminiscent of the many National Geographic specials on Dr. Jane Goodall’s famous Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanzania. We are reminded of wild chimpanzee origins and their sophisticated social abilities.  The tranquility of the marching troop is quickly shattered, as economic reality comes into play and the chimps are brutally captured by African locals for sale as research subjects.

Rise ThreeTransition to the offices of the pharmaceutical company, GynSys, where James Franco plays a San Francisco researcher searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s, which afflicts his dad (John Lithgow). Will is testing his drug delivery vehicle, a virus, on chimps.  Will ends up adopting a baby chimp whose cognitively-enhanced mother was exposed to the Alzheimer’s drug. Will’s dad names him “Caesar,” and the little chimp quickly shows human-level intelligence as he masters his environment and solves difficult puzzles (this is the fun part of the movie).

When Caesar nearly kills a neighbor, he is sent to the local animal shelter, where the chief (Brian Cox) tells Will that the chimp will be kept in an open-area play structure and gradually reintroduced to the other chimps at the facility. Instead, Caesar is shoved in a fetid cage and mercilessly teased by his jailer (Tom Felton).  With one its many nods to the original franchise, we are fleetingly introduced to a young Cornelius, the chimp archaeologist (played by Roddy McDowall in the original 1968 movie).

There are some fun twists and turns during the final escape sequence over San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, which is executed by chimp leader Caesar with strategy and tactical deployment almost worthy of namesake Julius Caesar marching on Rome. Credit goes to Rupert Wyatt, director of the 2008 prison thriller The Escapist, for non-stop action and some lip-biting sequences.

In 2009, director Rupert Wyatt was quoted as saying, “We’ve incorporated elements from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes [1972, from the original franchise], in terms of how the apes begin to revolt, but this is primarily a prequel to the 1968 film… Caesar is a revolutionary figure who will be talked about by his fellow apes for centuries… This is just the first step in the evolution of the apes, and there’s a lot more stories to tell after this. I imagine the next film will be about the all-out war between the apes and humans.”

But beyond the drama, some serious transhumanist themes emerge: among them, chimp research (and animal rights in general), the use of pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers, evolution, and the possibility of a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Chimps, along with their (and our) cousins — the gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans — are endangered species.  According to the Save the Chimps website, chimps continue to be used for biomedical research today.  The use of chimps in such research has began to see a decline, although their use as models for hepatitis C research continued to interest scientists. Over the past decade there has been a modest decline in the estimated number of chimps living in research laboratories, from 1500 to 1100, largely attributed to the transfer of chimps from labs to sanctuaries.

Bruce Katz, Chief AI Scientist at ColdLight Solutions, suggests that cognitive enhancement is a kind of evolution, but not in a traditional sense, “because with cognitive enhancement we will be taking the first significant steps towards being a self-modifying system.” He points out that ordinary evolution develops at a glacial pace, and it is not at all clear that evolution can take us much beyond where we already are “in the smarts department.” Could/should chimps possibly evolve in this manner?

Slate Magazine points out that cognitive enhancers are already used off-label by people looking for a little cognitive lift: stimulants for ADD/ADHD treatment, like Ritalin and Adderall, and the anti-narcoleptic drug Provigil (modafinil). And some Alzheimer’s treatments, like Aricept (donepezil), may also help boost memory in people without dementia: “It’s not clear that they’re really cognitive enhancers for healthy people,”  said Hank Greely, a Stanford professor who studies law and the biosciences. “The evidence is mixed. And if they do help  they don’t seem to help very much. It’s not like [the movie] Limitless; they’re not turning into Superman.” A wonder drug like ALZ-112 in the Rise of the Planet of the Apes simply does not exist yet.

Putting aside the heady issues of cognitive neuroenhancers, evolution, Alzheimer’s cures, and chimp research, it is ultimately Andy Serkis’ Caesar, a product of special effects and motion-capture, that carries the film.  You’re never quite sure exactly where the human ends (and perhaps the character is a little too eerily human) and the effects begin, but Serkis aka Caesar gives the best performance in a movie with lots of fun sequences and some real science at its core.

Aug 03 2011

Jason Louv’s Queen Valentine: A Romance in Two Worlds

Jason Louv’s new novel Queen Valentine is a hallucinatory trip through the supernatural underbelly of New York City… as one reviewer put it, “Like Alice in Wonderland if Lewis Carroll had overdosed on the opposite of Prozac. A twisted, dark, comical take on the origins of our hopes, dreams and nightmares.”

Louv is best known for his three previously published three anthologies on consciousness studies, Generation Hex (which Grant Morrison called “Your invitation to the party that might just bring the house down”), Ultraculture and Thee Psychick Bible with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, and although the new book is a foray into fiction, it continues his themes of consciousness expansion, posthumanity, magic and the hidden occult side of the world. I caught up with him briefly by e-mail to discuss the new book.

RAY TESLA: So what is Queen Valentine?

JASON LOUV: It’s a novel exposing the supernatural underworld beneath New York, as seen through the eyes of a young woman who’s lost her soul working in advertising, and ends up stumbling into the world beneath. It’s a bit like Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race mashed up with “Mad Men.”

RT: Can you say more?

JL: Well, the premise is essentially this. In the middle ages, the people of Europe took it for granted that non-human beings — often called the Sidhe or the faery folk — were as real as humans, and regularly trafficked with the human world. Just like “modern” people sometimes claim to see UFOs or to have been abducted by aliens, in the middle ages people often claimed to have happened upon secret Sidhe kingdoms, to have been abducted to faerie land, or to have had their children swapped for faerie babies. That’s where we get a lot of European mythology from. And then we stop hearing about them as soon as the Inquisition and then the Age of Reason come in.

So the question is, what happened to those beings? And the answer in the book is, well, they did what lots of displaced people do. They emigrated to New York, or the settlement that became New York. And they’ve been living in secret catacombs and warrens underneath the city ever since, in their own shadow version of the city and shadow economy — along with their evil half, the Unseelie, who are like creatures created by pure nightmare energy. And after four hundred years, the Unseelie are tired of hiding, and they want to make a bid to subjugate the human side of the city.

RT: What were your main inspirations writing this?

JL: Having been involved both in advertising world and the supernatural underworld of New York.

RT: You’ve previously written about consciousness expansion and magic (Generation Hex, Ultraculture, Thee Psychick Bible) and about the transforming effects of technology on the soul. Do you see this as a continuation or a departure from those topics? Why the switch to fiction?

JL: Definitely a continuation. There’s only so much truth you can express about the hidden corners of reality in non-fiction or essay form before people start wondering if you’re making it up. The threshold is very low. With fiction, hopefully I can put it all in there and instead of that nagging voice in your head while you’re reading it being “I wonder if he made this up,” it might be “I wonder if any of this is actually true?”

RT: So are you saying there’s actually coded occult information in Queen Valentine?

JL: No. Certainly not.

RT: You’ve also written about transhumanism and posthumanity. Does that tie in with the book?

JL: In a way. The book is in many ways a critique of transhumanism from the perspective of the original guardians of the earth, the nature spirits who’ve had to adapt to our technological progress and find a way to live in the cracks like any diaspora culture. A lot of the tension in the book revolves around the different responses from different factions of the Sidhe to the direction humanity is going. There’s also a lot of satire of the Faustian need for physical augmentation. I don’t want to give too much away, but the crux of what’s being discussed is whether humanity will be allowed to manifest the kind of nightmare future that it seems to be hellbent on creating.

RT: Does that mean you have an essentially pessimistic view of the future?

JL: Not really. I’m a great believer in posthumanity. But there’s certainly a dark road that I see people heading down that I think they shouldn’t. I think if we keep pushing on things like genetically modified crops and voluntary surveillance social media there’s a good chance we could end up living a real shit of a situation. I’m disturbed on a daily basis by the fact that we’ve essentially allowed things like Facebook to turn our interpersonal space into a strip mall. And I see one tendency of humanity to become more and more soulless, more and more surrendered to mechanization and regimentation. But luckily we still have things like science fiction to create and advertise better futures. By any imaginary means necessary!

RT: What’s next for you?

JL: I’m done plotting the next book and on into writing it. I’d really like to get into wider media to educate more young minds. That’s what it’s about! I’d like to write some comics if they’ll let me at them.

Jun 26 2011

Developing Worlds: Beyond the Frontiers of Science Fiction

The future will not be a monopoly of the current superpowers, but lies in the hands of tech-savvy youth from around the world, trying desperately to survive at all costs in an increasingly asymmetrical world.


Imagine a young African boy staring wide-eyed at the grainy images of an old television set tuned to a VHF channel; a child discovering for the first time the sights and sounds of a wonderfully weird world beyond city limits. This is one of my earliest memories; growing up during the mid-nineties in a tranquil compound house in Maamobi; an enclave of the Nima suburb, one of the most notorious slums in Accra. Besides the government-run Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, only two other television stations operated in the country at the time, and satellite television was way beyond my family’s means. Nevertheless, all kinds of interesting programming from around the world occasionally found its way onto those public broadcasts. This was how I first met science fiction; not from the tomes of great authors, but from distilled approximations of their grand visions.

This was at a time when cyberpunk was arguably at its peak, and concepts like robotics, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence were rife in mainstream media. Not only were these programs incredibly fun to watch, the ideas that they propagated left a lasting impression on my young mind for years to come. This early exposure to high technology sent me scavenging through piles of discarded mechanical parts in our backyard; searching for the most intriguing sculptures of steel from which I would dream up schematics for contraptions that would change the world as we knew it. With the television set for inspiration and the junkyard for experimentation, I spent my early childhood immersed in a discordant reality where dreams caked with rust and choked with weeds came alive in a not-so-distant future; my young mind well aware of the process of transformation occurring in the world around me; a world I was only just beginning to understand.

I am only now able to appreciate the significance of this early exposure to high technology in shaping my outlook on the world. From my infancy I became keenly aware of the potential for science and technology to radically transform my environment, and I knew instinctively that society was destined to continue being reshaped and restructured for the rest of my life. Mind you, I am only one of many millions in a generation of African children born during the rise of the global media nation; children raised on Nigerian movies and kung-fu flicks; Hindi musicals and gangster rap; Transformers, Spider Man, and Ananse stories; BBC, RFI, and Deutsche-Welle TV; the Nintendo/Playstation generation. Those of us born in this time would grow up to accept the fact that the only constant was change; that the world around us was perceptibly advancing at an alarming pace; that nothing would ever remain the same.

Just as my limited exposure to advanced technology shaped my outlook on the world for years to come, the youth of the developing world today are being shaped by far more radical technologies to which they now have unprecedented access. The result is the rise of a completely different mindset from the ones that has dominated the developing world until very recently; a growing recognition among these youth of the immense potential for science and technology to induce tangible social change. The role of social networking in facilitating the Bouazizi and Tahrir Square revolutions is perhaps one of greatest testaments to that fact, but it is not the first, and far from the last. What happens when third world youth gain increasing access to technologies that were practically unimaginable just a few years earlier? What happens if this trend continues, say, fifty years into the future? And whose job is it to answer these questions? Science fiction writers, of course.

This train of thought leads to realization that the boundaries of contemporary science fiction lie not in the Wild Western frontiers of outer space, but in the forgotten corners of our planet. I created the AfroCyberPunk blog in order to share some of these insights and questions with the world. The overwhelming response it generated was the first indication that the literary world was beginning to take an interest, but there are more signs that we are at the beginning of a global awakening to the role of the developing world in the future of science fiction. My own novel-in-progress began as a cyberpunk thriller set in a future North America, simply because whenever I tried to imagine an African future I found myself having to deal with issues I wished someone else had already dealt with; having to answer questions I wished someone else already had. I realized that I had no groundwork; no foundation whatsoever, and that to imagine a future Africa I would have to begin from scratch.

From the first time Western civilizations came into full contact with the developing world until today, we have primarily been net consumers of foreign technology, and the result of this asymmetrical relationship is that the mechanisms for development and regulation of technology simply do not exist in our parts of the world to the same level of sophistication as they do in the developed world. We are now observing what happens when developing societies acquire thousands of years of technological innovation within the space of a few years. I can only imagine what goes through the mind of young boys in Nima today as they surf Facebook across 3G networks on smart phones, Skype with friends all over the world, or go shopping online with someone else’s credit card. We clearly are sailing headfirst into uncharted waters, and the mapmakers—science fiction writers of the world—are only now scrambling to plot the course of our future.

Since I began writing my novel more than two years ago, the story has undergone a transformation which parallels the same trend that I see beginning in science fiction; a bold move out of largely familiar territory towards the developing worlds on the frontiers of the contemporary imagination. This article from The Independent sums up my sentiments quite succinctly, citing Nnedi Okorafor, Ian MacDonald, Lauren Beukes, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Alastair Reynolds as writers whose award-winning works herald a changing trend in the settings of contemporary science fiction novels, while District 9 and Kajola represent noteworthy attempts by African movie-makers to break into the science fiction genre. Through the course of this decade, we can expect to witness the emergence of a new brand of science fiction; one which makes the developing world central — rather than peripheral — to its narrative.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the future will not be a monopoly of the current superpowers, but lies in the hands of tech-savvy youth from around the world, trying desperately to survive at all costs in an increasingly asymmetrical world. Youths from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa represent the single largest subgroup of the human population, and with the aid of advanced technology they will go on to shape the geopolitical destiny of our civilization. Science fiction has a lot of catching up to do in order to chronicle this new frontier in which the developing world plays a defining role; a frontier that has been neglected by mainstream science fiction for just about long enough. I’m proud to count myself among the new wave of writers exploring the immense potential of developing world science fiction, and I now look to the future with a renewed sense of anticipation, because the future I’ve waited for all my life is finally coming home.

Jun 23 2011

I Am A Mechanical Man: Robocops & Robowars

“Now, to some extent, we’re all Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop.”

Some movies ought to be left alone. Not because they’re no longer relevant… but because they’re too relevant. Jose Padiliha’s planned 2013 reboot of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterwork Robocop is one such transgression of cinematic and historical decency. In 1987, Robocop was science fiction. Now, it’s the nightly news. One wonders what a Robocop reboot would have to say about a world that’s now a lot closer to the original movie than we might like to admit

Robocop was a profoundly humanist film. It was Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s satire of American corporate culture, as he would later parody American imperialism with Starship Troopers — though the point of both movies was largely lost on American audiences easily distracted by the tongue-in-cheek hyperviolence. It was about Detroit as a microcosm of America. It was about American industry — both blue and white collar — becoming outmoded. It was about an Alvin Toffler Third Wave world in which cops, criminals and governments alike are just branches of corporations; corporations that fuel inner city chaos and wars of imperial expansion in order to keep the bottom line up. Robocop was about a world only slightly less commodified than our own — as tagged by the film’s running catch phrase, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”

Set in an exaggerated version of the Reagan/Thatcher era, much of the film’s narrative fascination came from observing a corporate, cybernetic police state, considered to be a science fiction parody of the then-current political climate, but science fiction nonetheless. A quarter century and two Bushes later, this is no longer the case.

Now, to some extent, we’re all Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop. Though we may not be physically grafted to machines (yet), we are welded to them in every other possible way, fused to them in consciousness, dependent on them not only to support or enhance almost every part of our existences but also to uphold an increasingly restrictive social order. We live in a corporate military state in which wars are conducted by robotics, in which Predator drones patrol our far-off imperial holdings and we patrol ourselves through the voluntary surveillance system called Facebook.

We are completely enmeshed and interwoven with technology, both as consumer and producer — reduced to being subjects of the narrative of “high tech” in which there is no longer a split between human and machine, but rather a split between “human machine” and “machine machine,” like the split between Robocop and his nemesis, the ED209 walking tank. Now humanity is not something that maintains opposition to “machine” but something that is performed within the context of “machine.” Some machines are considered human (for instance, Apple products) and some are not (Microsoft products), and we are only ever as human as the electronic experiences we choose to consume. Our social identities are subsets of these machines — a carefully cultivated Google trail; a mask worn within the mainframe.

Now, the corporatized police of Robocop seem prophetically accurate — quaint even. In a 2009 TED talk, the Brookings Institution’s P. W. Singer revealed that there are 5,300 unmanned air drones and 12,000 unmanned ground systems currently deployed in the Middle East by the United States military. These numbers are projected to skyrocket in coming years — by 2015, more than half of the army will be robotic. And that’s only the U.S. — 43 countries are currently working on military robots.

The soldier of the near future will look a lot like Robocop — consider DARPA and Raytheon’s combat exoskeleton prototypes. The ED209 isn’t that different from U.S. military robots already in development or deployment like the BigDog rough-terrain robot, much publicized on the Internet, as well as lesser-known tank or pack robots like the ACER, MATILDA, TALON, MARV and MAUD, and many others. Or Japanese company Sakakibara Kikai’s Landwalker, which looks pretty much exactly like ED209. ED209’s short-circuit from the beginning of the film, when it accidentally kills a corporate lackey. This, too, is now something that has occurred. In his TED talk, Singer describes a South African anti-aircraft cannon that had a “software glitch” and killed nine soldiers. Singer calls this “unmanned slaughter,” conducted by machines that are unable to comprehend the idea of “war crime.” Even ED209 squeals like a recognizable form of life when vanquished. However, Predator and Reaper drones are completely silent, providing no warning before they strike.

We have robots in the air — unmanned drones; the newly completed Anubis assassination micro-drone. We have robots in space — the recently launched, classified X-37B plane. And we have a whole host of other current or projected future weapons seemingly culled from 1980s science fiction films — spiderweb armor, liquid armor, invisibility cloaks, drones made to look like insects.

These are not merely efficient, emotionless killing machines. They are also instruments of psychological terror. They are the new face of the Panopticon— as Jeremy Bentham once examined (to the great detriment of everybody ever since, as it has become the model that our culture is to some extent based on), those who are made to think they are being watched are just as controlled as those that actually are being watched.

“We have them thinking that we can track them anywhere,” a former top CIA operations official recently told the Washington Post, referring to the psychological tactic of leading Taliban to believe that tracking devices for Predator drones could be everywhere and in anything. “That we’ve got devices in their cars, their houses, everywhere. They’re so afraid to stay in their houses at night they’re digging foxholes to sleep in.”

These machines are the implements of casual genocide. They are antithetical to human life, a betrayal of humanity, as they are a way to further remove the act of killing from anything that might be able to find remorse in doing so. Indeed, no one will even be able to find any meaning at all, even flat-out hatred, which would still be a human emotional response. Robotic war will be war conducted by spreadsheets. And, ultimately, such machines will hold no allegiance to any country, as they will be quickly copied by or even sold to the highest bidder.

This is where questions must be raised about the responsibility and power not only of arms manufacturers and their comrades, but also of science fiction writers and directors. Over the preceding decades, we have fetishized the machine. Art has concerned itself with the shock of new technology; with the process of becoming cybernetic. Artists have become spectators at the surgery, providing running commentary as we wait to see whether our culture will accept or reject its implants. Yet artists are more than just observers, reporters, and commentators. They are also creators. The narrative of robotic war, begun in science fiction and made real by defense contracts, might be seen, from a certain angle, as the progression of a single thing manifesting over time. Though art may be the play-acting of an idea, it can also, to some extent, be the testing of an idea — and if successful in its simulation of reality, can all too easily become reality.

On the other hand, counter-narratives to “technological progress” prove just as appalling.  The complete rejection of science represented by the Sarah Palins of the world is almost inconceivably brutal dehumanization — a complete subjugation to a reactionary, patriarchal, anti-woman, anti-human “god” — every bit as frightening as the narrative of cyborg hypercapitalism.

In A Cyborg Manifesto (1991), Donna Haraway wrote, “From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war… From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point.”

What would the real cybernetic shock be now? The grafting of more machine parts into our lives or the grafting of more human parts? Our lives are almost unthinkable without Internet connections, or without the oil brought home for us by the machines of war. To withdraw from either would be a far more potentially fatal shock to the system than the implantation of actual wetware cybernetics. An augmented reality optical chip, for instance, would only help facilitate our current condition, and would likely become socially enforced within certain economic brackets, just as smart phones were.

Can we create a non-alienated cybernetic world? Can we even begin to conceive of what that would look like? We can’t undo the past, but we can change the script of the future before it is acted out. Perhaps the challenge lies is finding new narratives that, instead of reacting against high technology, effectively reorient it towards serving human life — and humane values — instead of destroying them.

The Luddite back-to-the-land ethos of the early environmental movement has given way in recent decades to a vision of a more integrated future. Our most viable version of a livable future is the Green Cyborg in which technology and humanity meet halfway and start caretaking rather than dominating the Earth’s natural resources. This should be framed not as a return to neolithic, matriarchal values but as a forward synthesis of industrial technology and holistic thinking. This requires a simple shift in perspective from observing the world as a jumble of disconnected parts to observing it as an integrated system in which each part affects every other. It is a shift from seeing the world as parts in competition with each other to seeing it as parts striving for an emergent state of co-operative efficiency.

A liveable future lies not in a wholesale rejection of the cyborg process of becoming welded to high technology, but in remembering that we are already cyborgs — that we are already inseparably connected not only to each other, but to everything on the planet, including even the worst parts of postindustrial society and its byproducts and side-effects.

The challenges of this century will be cyborg ones. They will be challenges of synthesis — of discovering how to achieve balance within systems. We will work to establish an ever-evolving cybernetic balance within a frontierless, privacy-free, boundary-free, pluralistic world. This is not a New Age band-aid in which the easy answer is to simply realize that we are all one. Realizing that we are all parts of a single system is only the first step in effectively coping with and implementing that realization — work that may require more time than we have, yet which we must accomplish nonetheless. It is nothing less than the firm establishment and protection of our humanity and humaneness against all affronts to it; nothing less than remembering that we must use our tools properly lest we be used by them.

Robocop can’t be remade because it’s no longer the story of one comic book hero — it’s the story of all of us, left scratching our heads after the operation, struggling to integrate, hoping to one day remember what life was once like, left with the daily task of making sense and meaning of a mechanized world from which the only escape is that which we build from the scrapheap.