Jul 29 2012

From Psychedelic Magazine With A Tech Gloss To Tech Magazine With A Psychedelic Gloss (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #23)


Another segment from the rough draft of Use Your Hallucinations: Mondo 2000 in the 20th Century Cyberculture.  Note that “the total fucking transmutation of everything” is established as a conceit early in the narrative, thus its use here reflects on a major theme.

…Meanwhile, we made a rash decision.  Despite High Frontiers relatively successful rise within the ‘zine scene (where 15,000 in sales was a pretty big deal), we decided to change the name of the magazine itself to Reality Hackers. 

It was my idea.

We’d been hipped to cyberpunk SF and I’d read Gibson’s Neuromancer and Sterling’s Mirrorshades collection.  His famous introduction for that book, describing what cyberpunk was doing in fiction — seemed to express precisely what a truly contemporary transmutational magazine should be about. Here are some parts of it:

The term, (cyberpunk) captures something crucial to the work of these writers, something crucial to the decade as a whole: a new kind of integration. The overlapping of worlds that were formerly separate: the realm of high tech, and the modern pop underground.

This integration has become our decade’s crucial source of cultural energy. The work of the cyberpunks is paralleled throughout the Eighties pop culture: in rock video; in the hacker underground; in the jarring street tech of hip hop and scratch music; in the synthesizer rock of London and Tokyo. This phenomenon, this dynamic, has a global range; cyberpunk is its literary incarnation… 

An unholy alliance of the technical world and the world of organized dissent — the underground world of pop culture, visionary fluidity, and street-level anarchy… 

For the cyberpunks… technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.

Certain central themes spring up repeatedly in cyberpunk. The theme of body invasion: prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, genetic alteration. The even more powerful theme of mind invasion: brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, neurochemistry — techniques radically redefining — the nature of humanity, the nature of the self.

The Eighties are an era of reassessment, of integration, of hybridized influences, of old notions shaken loose and reinterpreted with a new sophistication 

Cyberpunk favors “crammed” loose: rapid, dizzying bursts of novel information, sensory overIoad that submerges the reader in the literary equivalent of the hard-rock “wall of sound.”  

Well, then…

Also, Jaron Lanier was hanging around some, sharing his lofty goals for virtual reality; and Eric Gullichsen, who was teaming up to do some writing with Timothy Leary — with whom he shared a mutual fascination with drugs, extreme technology and Aleister Crowley — was already even a bit deeper in the mix, while dreaming his own VR schemes.  Various hackers like Bill Me Later and John Draper (Captain Crunch) were popping up with increasing frequency.  Hanging in hacker circles, we were also befriended by John Morgenthaler, who was getting very serious about the exploration of smart drugs.  Something was starting to surface.  Several small subcultures were drifting together, and some of these, at times, esoteric groupings included men (yes, men) who were creating the next economy.  Clearly, we were positioned to become the magazine of a slow baking gestalt.

Other factors played into this change.  While a strutting, pop-intellectual, irreverent psychedelic magazine (in other words, High Frontiers) could surely build an audience somewhat larger than 15,000, we probably weren’t all that far from our optimum, unless we wanted to stifle our Gonzo-meets-Camp writerly excesses and dumb ourselves down to something more like a High Times for psychedelic drugs.  Also, acid dealers didn’t advertise.  The number of potential advertisers for a magazine that revolved primarily around psychedelics was limited, particularly in this “just say no” period. Hell, dope friendly humor was even voluntarily eliminated by Saturday Night Live, the once-hip show inspired by a Lorne Michaels mescaline trip.    And then, admittedly, by emphasizing technology, we could, in theory, put a bit of a buffer zone between ourselves and “the man” — throw him off our druggy tracks while sneaking sideways into the center of the oncoming digital establishment, all the better to affect the total fucking transmutation of everything (bwahaha)… or maybe even make a livelihood!

Lastly, it had really been my intention from the start to create a magazine that (to slightly detourne the original subhead of High Frontiers) was balanced between psychedelics, science, technology, outrageousness and postmodern pop culture.  The psychedelic impulse had gloriously taken center stage for the first four years.  Now it was time to push into new territory.

To consolidate my thoughts about the Reality Hackers, I wrote a small manifesto (a list, really) titled:

What Are The Reality Hackers Doing

1: Using high technology for a life beyond limits

2: Expanding the effectiveness and enjoyment of the human brain, mind, nervous system and senses

3: Blurring the distinction between science fiction and reality

4: Making big bureaucracy impossible

5: Entertaining any notion — using what works

6: Infusing new energy into postmodern culture

7: Using hardcore anthropology to understand human evolution

8: Using media to send out mutational memes (thought viruses)

9: Blurring the distinctions between high technology and magic

10: Replacing nerd mythology with sexy, healthy, aesthetic, & artful techno-magicians of both genders.

With this, I was also aligning the magazine ideologically with a transhumanist agenda.  I’d attended meetings of a nanotechnology interest group hosted by Christine Peterson and, sometimes, Eric Drexler.  I started to see the actual dim outlines of a plausible “total fucking transmutation of everything;” with molecular technology giving us total productive control over matter for unlimited wealth; biotechnology giving us the potential for positive mutations in the human organism; and neurotechnology theoretically allowing us to maximize our intelligence — not too mention cleaner, better highs with no downside.

Of course, we were maybe throwing away four years building a brand but, if we were anything, we were impulsive.

Ken Jopp: Reality Hackers was, to me, inelegantly titled. Still, the cyberpunk thing was revving up.  The weekly tabloid in my town ran a cover story on hackers: teenagers who lugged computers into phone booths, and then, when nobody was looking, they made long-distance calls for free! This was subversive stuff. Off the Establishment! I bought the issue of Reality Hackers and adopted it and its kin as a cultural security blanket.  These proto-Mondo publications, arriving during the Dark Ages of President Ronald Wilson Reagan (666), were a source of what later would become hollowed out to form a tinhorn. I mean, Hope and Change?

Lord Nose: I think it kept getting more and more mainstream in hopes of getting on to the newsstand and getting advertisers. It was being slowly made more palatable — or seemingly palatable — for the corporate interests that had no taste. I mean, it was so different. High Frontiers had a very different thrust.

Jeff Mark: Those of us serious about psychedelic exploration continued. Indeed, there was considerable activity, particularly around Tim Leary and Terence McKenna, but the momentum was spent. People started worrying about making a living.  High Frontiers/Reality Hackers had to get their shit together. 


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)

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

“I’d Never Met A Libertarian Before” (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #22)


Mar 04 2012

Upgrading The Human Machine


I’m sure you’ve probably heard about the “man without a pulse” artificial heart recipient, who’s been in the news so much lately, but if you haven’t, Popsci has an excellent article on it here. I’m bringing it up today because it’s an illustration of one of the biases that we as transhumans will have to overcome to actually become “Trans” humans.

Which bias is that, you ask? The idea that the human body as it currently is constructed is either “perfect” or that any “enhancements” must mimic how the body currently functions. I can remember the projections once made about the Jarvik heart, including this “commercial” that made it into Robocop which predicted the “Jarvik Sports Heart” for the athletic heart patient. Yet here we are in the future predicted to have completely replaced transplants with engineered replacements, and the artificial heart that “beats” is still a fantasy. Why?

You might as well ask why we don’t yet have airplanes with flapping wings. Then ask yourself why nature never evolved birds capable of flying faster than sound. The answer is that nature doesn’t always come up with the “best solution” – just one that works. Just like Leonardo’s flapping machines never flew, a beating heart has not merely proven exceptionally difficult to reproduce, but has proven to be needlessly complex in comparison to the likely future solution, a heart that has no beat, no pulse, and which pumps blood in a continuous flow, via turbine based “jets”.

And as the article explains, there are people who have been living without a pulse for more than five years with no ill effects. One was even a Central American man who after receiving a “assist pump” disappeared for 8 months during which time his heart completely shut down, yet without any medical supervision not merely survived, but reported he “felt fine” which was why he never reported back to the doctors for a checkup. Think about that. Then compare it to a Jarvik heart recipient who was confined to bed and connected to an air compressor 24/7.

We don’t need a heartbeat to survive. Or thrive. In fact, shackled as we have been by trying to make a “beating heart” due to the bias of thinking we had to duplicate nature, we’ve spent decades failing to create that future predicted in the commercial above. The “Natural Solution” has proven to not be the “Only Solution”, merely the one that evolved and was never replaced because biology has never had the option of “temporary shutdowns” to install upgrades.

And, like so many other features of our daily lives, we assumed that just because it HAD always been that way, that it MUST always be that way.

And that is a bias that we will have to face head on over the next several years, as we continue to find solutions to various problems that have existed for so long that many people can’t even recognize that they ARE problems. For example, has it occurred to anyone that even the artificial heart above continues to suffer from this cognitive bias? As the article points out, a single turbine has been sufficient to allow people a normal life, so why is the twin pump design of the heart STILL being copied? Why stop at two? Why not a network of smaller turbines distributed around the body, with enough redundancies that even in the case of multiple pump failures (due to, say, traumatic injury) their ability to supply blood flow to the body would be unimpaired? Why needlessly duplicate the twin pump design of the biological heart? Why design a centralized system at all? Yes, the human body might be designed to operate with merely one single heart, but that system is not the ONLY option, as this artificial heart proves.

The same goes for numerous other systems in the human body. For example, the human eye has a blind spot due to the rather ridiculous fact that the retina is constructed in such a manner that the optic nerve is connected to the FRONT side of the retina, which not only requires the nerve to be transparent in order to allow light to reach the retina, but it passes THROUGH the retina to connect to the brain. In order to compensate for the blind spot of the optic nerve, the eye has to twitch to construct a composite image of what’s in the blind spot. In other words, YOU CAN’T SEE WHAT’S DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF YOU! And in low light conditions, you can’t see anything there at all because of the brains inability to gather sufficient information to form a composite. Want to see this blind spot in action? Stare at a fixed point for more than a few seconds and you will notice the details vanishing from the center of your vision. It’s a very well established flaw with human eyesight. And it’s merely one of hundreds of peculiarities that the human body is riddled with.

So, the question is, will future recipients of artificial eyes suffer this same curse? Will they be shackled by this same blind bias that insists that we MUST copy EXACTLY the solution that nature used, or will they be laughing at all us poor people still tied to nature’s mistakes? How many other systems in the human body could we improve on? How many will we refuse to improve? And how long will “improvements” continue to try and duplicate nature before they realize that nature doesn’t need to be duplicated? How deeply imbedded in our psyche is the belief that we can’t improve on nature? How strongly well we need to fight to overcome this rather comical insistence that we have to duplicate the solutions evolution provided before we allow ourselves to realize that those solutions are neither singular, nor always the most efficient, simply the best nature managed to provide over the course of our evolution?

Nature could never “stop the machinery” to rebuild from scratch. It HAD to go with what worked, and build from there. Yes, until now we’ve never had a choice, we simply had to accept what nature gave us. But that is no longer true, and growing less so every day. We no longer have a choice about refusing to acknowledge that we have a choice. And the longer we refuse to recognize that the “human machine” is not only upgradeable, but direly in NEED of upgrading, the longer we condemn ourselves to lives shackled by the limitations blind evolution created for us.

So in the end, the question is why would you choose a life of limits, when you could have a future without them? And once people begin to realize that this IS the fundamental question of human enhancement, and more and more people begin to overcome these limits, maybe that question will become why did we ever allow ourselves to be limited in the first place?