“Cyberpunk today is mainly like a Pantone chip in the Pantone culture-wheel. ‘Those pants are sort of cyberpunk.’ ‘That video has a sort of retro-cyberpunk feel.’”
We were honored that William Gibson agreed to talk to us for the upcoming MONDO 2000 History Project book about MONDO… and about the ‘90s cyberculture in general and how it looks today. The interview was conducted by Simone Lackerbauer (with my kibitzing). These are a few fragments.
Gibson was incorporated into the first “cyberpunk” edition of the magazine via a somewhat devious route, as discussed here.
ABOUT CYBERPUNK, MONDO & UNDERGROUND MAGAZINES
Underground magazines had been very important to me. I started with Mad and Cracked, which may not have been formally underground, but were, initially and in terms of context, decidedly off-center, and I remember buying the issue of The Realist with the pornographic faux-Disney centerfold. MONDO 2000 was clearly an underground magazine, and as such I was definitely glad it was there.
I had never thought that the “cyberpunk” label was particularly a good thing, but it obviously wasn’t going away too quickly, so I’d generally shrug and go along with it. I doubted the immortality hackers were going to live forever, the idea of smart drugs didn’t do anything for me, but the attitude was fun. Just the fact that the thing existed, and popped up on fairly normal magazine stands, was cheering.
I’d say it was arguably the representative underground magazine of its pre-Web day. It was completely outside what commercial magazines were assumed to be about, but there it was, beside the commercial magazines. Could that even happen, today?
Posterity, looking at this, should also consider MONDO 2000 as a focus of something that was happening, rather than exclusively as a broadcast-point. It was a brave magazine, but it was also a magazine of its day. Stuff was happening all over, with no Internet to pass it instantly around.
MONDO & TIME
I wasn’t surprised by the rise of Mondo. Something was clearly afoot, memewise. I wondered about the thing’s durability. Winding up on the cover of Time – what does that do? How alternative is something that makes the cover of Time? Of course, that was when Time was still Time, sort of, but I also wondered, after that, how seriously one should take Time? It wasn’t as though I ever read it, ordinarily.
MONDO & WIRED
Wired never felt like Mondo, to me. It never felt like an underground magazine, but neither did it occur to me that it was MONDO 2000 tuned down for straight people. I’d assume the difference had more to do with the business model. They definitely had one.
I think that whole scene in the 90s was in some ways the cultural equivalent of all the glorious hype of the Space Age. The iconic babe in the VR goggles and gloves! Iconics, heroics… The difference would be that the end result was somehow akin to the invention of habitable space!
We’d bump into one another on the VR rubber chicken circuit. Barcelona, Linz, Venice… He was really great to have at your table. Kept the evening in flux. And people would come up to him and give him drugs, which he’d give to someone else, usually a perfect stranger, as soon as the gifter was gone. He said that this was a win-win proposition, as the first person could now say that he’d given drugs to Timothy Leary, and the second person that Timothy Leary had given him drugs. I never saw him look to see what was in the envelope.
THE VR & SMART DRUGS HYPE
Evidently we didn’t need either one, at least not as we (sub)culturally imagined them then. We do, in fact, now constantly inhabit a sort of blended VR, but we now assume that we don’t need the goggles as long as whatever’s on the screen is sufficiently engrossing. And the distinction between real and virtual continues to blur. The virtual is colonizing the real, but generally in ways we don’t notice. VR was predicated on a notion of real/virtual that now seems very last-century. Our grandchildren won’t be able to readily imagine where we were at, with that one!
Smart drugs were something I read about. After my time. Had I ever encountered anyone who struck me as 20 IQ points up from where they ordinarily were, I’d have paid it very close attention. (It’s difficult to imagine what that would even look like.) But if it was just a sort of temporary cognitive fine tuning, I didn’t find it that intriguing.
ON WRITING THE NEW “CYBER” SF
Whatever I did emerged from the need to find a way to write SF that I could stand to write, that I could live with. That led me to replace outer space with cyberspace, and everything I’ve done since has grown out of that. But I had the advantage of almost accidentally having latched on to the most powerfully emergent technology of my day as a subject.
REGARDING THE ’90S UTOPIANISM
I never though that cyborgs and virtual worlds were particularly utopian, so I’ve never been disappointed. The world is always more interesting than some futurist’s vision. If you think it’s not, you’re not really looking.
The Singularity has always sounded to me like a secular version of the Rapture. It seems to fit very neatly into that same God-shaped hole. We’re been there before. I like us better when we aren’t.
NOT A FUTURIST
I don’t have thoughts about the future. I probably have fewer than the average person. I’m not a fortune-teller. I construct very large, highly inaccurate models in my head, built from memory and random junk, and run them. Sometimes they seem to have predicted things, in some very vague way, that happen later, but I don’t think of that as prediction. It’s closer to augury, and I can’t do it without, so to speak, pulling the entrails from a real bird. Otherwise, the last thing I am is someone who walks around knowing what the future’s going to be.
Cyberpunk today is mainly like a Pantone chip in the Pantone culture-wheel. “Those pants are sort of cyberpunk.” “That video has a sort of retro-cyberpunk feel.” We know what that means. If someone says “her attitude is very cyberpunk”, I don’t think we’re as certain of what’s meant. I’m not sure what this means, but I do think it indicates something. In a cyberworld, there’s no need for the suffix, and ours is a cyberworld. In a cyberworld, cyberpunk is punk. But it’s not punk if you call it “cyberpunk”.
WHO WE ARE
Who we are is largely who we meet. Cities are machines that randomize contact. The Internet is a meta-city, meta-randomizing contact. I now “know” more people than I would ever have imagined possible, because of that. It changes who I am and what I can do.
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