• sf life
July 5, 2000
news | a+e | sf life | extra | sfbg.com


Cyberculture 2000
Net pioneers R.U. Sirius and Justin Hall look back, forward, and sideways.

NOW THAT THE bottom has dropped out of the dot-com market, we've got time to sit back and philosophize about when the so-called Web revolution was in its infancy. How did we get to here from those weird early-1990s days? The Bay Guardian tapped two of the city's best-known cybercounterculturalists, R.U. Sirius and Justin Hall, to discuss their perspectives on the last decade of digital experimentation and new media hype.

R.U. Sirius is the consummate cyberprankster who was wired before there was a Wired. Starting in 1989, his magazine Mondo 2000 invented the ideas of hip geeks and computers as revolutionary tools. M2's influence peaked in late 1992 with a Time magazine cover story, and since then Sirius has been sharing his attitude and experience with newbies through the occasional book and oddball media projects too numerous to list.

Now Sirius has his own little red book, The Revolution: Quotations from Party Chairman R.U. Sirius, published by Feral House, and a Web site called the Revolution (the-revolution.org), all in the service of his "Mock the Vote" write-in campaign for president.

Justin Hall, one of the early writers for Wired, saw the potential of the Web to carry a wide range of human communications. His site Justin's Links from the Underground (links.net) has been keeping track of the wild and the deeply human online since January 1994.

Over time the site has morphed from a link list and Web log into an expansive hypertext rendering of his mind and experiences. More than 2,000 pieces of HTML and counting!

Hall has worked for a few Web companies, including HotWired, the first commercial Web magazine, and Electric Minds, the first community portal. He's now trying to expand his understanding of electronic entertainment with a stint at Gamers.com, an enormous online gaming database.

R.U. Sirius: The great thing about the early-'90s cyberculture was that we got to make it all up. As far as anybody reading Mondo knew, hackers were probably as busy working on implants that would install encyclopedic knowledge in users' brains as they were working on encryption for a digital shopping mall. Instead of preparing to go public and rake in bucks, we were preparing for a singularity after which human life would be beyond current comprehension. It was bullshit, or at least massively premature, but it was hella more fun than our current relatively grim reality. It was mostly a consensual hallucination between us and our readers.

I imagine you might have similar feelings about how the early Web pioneers saw things around '94.

Justin Hall: The Web pioneers I met in 1994 were storytellers and communitarians. The people stuffing carpetbags with money came later. The Web was slow and difficult and strange enough that only people with a strange gleam in their eyes were attracted to it. That and there wasn't any money in the Web then – you could even register domain names for free.

It was exciting to be into the Web then, and to come to San Francisco. The only people I met on the East Coast who knew jack about Internet stuff were pretty hard-core geeks. They were fun to talk to, but they didn't get into the culture stuff. And the culture was where it was at! It was clear to me that the Web could be the world's culture vessel. It wasn't until I came to San Francisco that I met people who were thinking in similar terms.

Because so few people seemed to know about these media rules changing and the immense access to publishing power offered by the Web, I felt some urgency to share these ideas. The Web publishing club was too small. Many of the people I met that I still stay in active touch with from those early Web days were the people who felt that sharing the technology was as important as using it themselves.

Some of that spirit is alive today, although the influx of opportunism has crowded the excited eye-gleaming cyberculture fringe out of the Bay Area. It was probably bound to happen. If you really love something, you want to see it shared, set free. It seems the Internet is finally widely accessible – I get a CD offering totally free Web access in my postal mail once a week.

RUS: It's easy to forget that the Web had that brief period where there were no commercial sites at all, and people did all kinds of strange and interesting and stupid stuff with that space for the hell of it out of weird obsessions or whatever. And they were, in a sense, necessary for laying the foundation for the commercial Web, because the Web wasn't some kind of unoccupied territory; it was fucking nonexistent until people evoked it into existence by creating what the business geeks call "content." So all that early goodwill and enthusiasm has, in some sense, been exploited.

Douglas Rushkoff made the point rather strongly in a column about the denial-of-service hacks against Yahoo! et al, saying that the Net was a noncommercial space that has been colonized by e-commerce. There was no consensus really that commerce should be allowed, never mind dominate. Colonization is perhaps a strong word for a situation where you can still generate your own space and do what you like in it. But all the recent congressional laws and the actions of the Justice Department are aimed at protecting those interests, rather than the free communication of the commons.

Of course, there are all these people running around screaming about how the Internet is the greatest thing since DNA and others who think it all just sucks totally, and then there are freaks like you just taking it and having fun with it. I think there are interesting political implications to the apparently apolitical act of people doing stuff for fun that runs through our culture right now, if you want to get into it.

JH: Almost a year ago I started work for another Internet start-up. When I joined, we had the proverbial 23-year-old CEO and a crowded room full of geeks staying up too late. Months later, it's over a hundred people and more aged executives repurposing their careers from older media.

This was all happening during the time when people expected to start getting rich from all this exchanging of B.S. over the wires. What reassures me is that no matter how efficient the computer might make us, people still love to send e-mails with enormous raunchy movies attached. As fringe as life outside of large corporations might seem, it's amazing that people who work in companies keep themselves stimulated during the day with some truly useless stuff.

So ultimately, whether you proclaim yourself a "fungineer" and push for the radical fun or you just keep your head down in a company and try to do your work, it's guaranteed that someone you know is going to try to get you to use the Internet to distract yourself.

Some of the technological developments are scary – like snooping software and severe content filters, but as far as I can tell, the distractions are winning over the tight asses. And while I celebrate that from a fun point of view, rejoicing in chaos, I worry that this technology might ultimately leave us unfulfilled, so mired in entertainment that we won't know how to spiritually sustain ourselves when the power goes out.

Meanwhile, I think many of the Internet people are still having fun working hard at stimulating jobs, unless they were in it for the money, in which case, they deserve the bitter dissolution of their consensual Nasdaqian hallucination.

RUS: We have people fucking around at corporate jobs, but we also have all this independent, creative energy surging throughout the culture. We see it on the Net, in dance culture and other musical forms, independent film, publishing, ad infinitum. So I'm thinking that an increasing chunk of culture in America has a pretty cool sort of postcapitalist anarchic kind of implicit politics. So culture has good politics, but politics still has shitty culture. I'm interested in resolutions to that problem.

My project, the Revolution party, in a sense, comes out of the question, What kind of politics would independent culture have, if it had any? And it seems to me it's not exactly libertarian, because the economic interests are sort of populist. But it's sort of antipopulist in the sense of being nontraditional and antimainstream, so it has a very strong interest in maximizing individual liberty. I think there might be an interesting new political synthesis unfolding out of that sensibility, with the Net linking it together. On the other hand, it's a bit peculiar that people will throw extraordinary time and energy into their dance scene or subculture, worrying and arguing over its purity and its rights to party and complaining about bands that get big record contracts, but they won't do squat about the quality of their jobs or environments or police abuse.

Even at the cybercultural level, it's the political issues that remain compelling. All the old issues we dealt with in Mondo keep coming back in new forms. Like one of our strongest interviews was with Richard Stallman about the Free Software Foundation and about free software and all that. That was an ongoing area for exploration for us in the early 1990s. Stallman was saying that it's impossible to control nonphysical property when it can be easily and nearly infinitely copied, and easily distributed. And now we've got Napster and Gnutella, and we've got GNU/Linux. So we see these interesting oppositions still happening and in some sense getting stronger.

One of Stallman's strongest points was that when something is that easy to share, you create a downright un-neighborly situation when you try to stop people from sharing. It's like if a bunch of people were over at my house, and I had a chocolate chip cookie and a cookie replicator, but I said to them all, "Go buy your own fuckin' cookies. I signed a consent agreement." Everybody would say, "Don't be such a dork." And that's one of the inherent problems with intellectual property on the Net. The Net is more like one big room than like a mall. So if I want to borrow your CD and listen to Metallica, well, electronically you're right next to me. So it comes down to peculiar legalisms trying to inject themselves into what we do while we're just hanging out together. That's hard to accept and hard to enforce.

JH: Napster has been exciting to watch because there's a clear enemy to pure Internet fun – the RIAA is trying to take our music dispenser away. And schools banning Napster – there are actually kids putting up Web pages to organize protests and petitions. So it takes an immediate political threat to awaken people's sense of injustice and according will to power.

Most people are happy to be consumers – the rewards of modern material society are terrific these days. Never been better. But much of the most fearsome legislation is pushed through Congress and the courts by corporations – the gatekeepers of property. Most people don't mind that arrangement, that is, until the tide of law turns ordinary people into outlaws.

Reading the news, it seems as though being a "cyberpioneer," in the early-'90s sense of things, may soon be a crime. A young man was arrested for developing software code to watch DVDs on his Linux machine. Soon they'll be throwing people in jail for having MP3 servers, for sharing music with their friends.

There are plenty of people who steal from artists and their pimps. I remember hearing once about a Buddhist notion that when you plant your crops, you should factor in the birds who will eat your seeds and the hungry local people who might steal from your field. I have the feeling that large corporations are already making the money they need, regardless of fan redistribution. If that fan redistribution becomes a problem, they should embrace it somehow. Right now they are trying to legislate and litigate it away, and they are alienating increasing numbers of people. Bad move.

GNU/Linux more purely represents the exciting ideals of early techno-culture – DIY, sharing, decentralization. It's an operating system with some socialist-anarchist politics. It's amusing to watch as companies jumping on the Linux bandwagon come upon the idea of "open source" and try to synchronize that with their more traditional notions of intellectual property and systems of control. It rekindles my hope that this technology might still serve human liberation.

Most of the time I operate with some blind faith in the inefficiencies of the system and technology to keep property laws away from art and fun, but when I think about history, people are capable of some pretty dumb stuff. Especially when people are sleeping. Or when they're retaliating. Either side could be the idiots – for every radical hacker who alters a Nike Web site to talk about sweatshops, there are 40 idiots honing their skills by screwing with small community Web servers.

RUS: As a professional writer and occasional publisher, I don't celebrate easy copy and distribution painlessly. I mean, it is sometimes galling that the tech geeks are getting rich while those who supply creative content are generally just about getting by. But I celebrate it as a necessary crisis point for rethinking and ultimately rearranging the limits of property rights. And it comes just in time, because now they're patenting the genome.

I think there are probably some domains in which private property is freedom and encourages experimentation and other domains in which it really constrains basic, natural friendly behavior and interesting work. It's not easy to sort out. And I don't think we can rely on the nature of technology to sort it out for us. That's the basic early-1990s technotopian mistake, believing that the nature of the technology will ultimately overthrow corporate tyranny as well as state tyranny.

Of course, I had my period of being really pissed off about the corporatization of cyberculture all the way back in the mid '90s, when Mondo was, in essence, cloned and watered down by Wired. Now I sort of see the cyberculture experiment as a partial success. I think we injected a little speed into a very empty and flaccid time, culturally. People tend to forget the sense of torpor, the sense of nothing new under the sun that dominated the '70s and '80s. Now many more people are energized, even if only to fight the techno-society or to run away. And I kind of miss the early Wired. At least [Wired publishers] Louis Rosetto and Jane Metcalfe were authentic technophile nuts. That gave it some originality.

You found working for HotWired a relatively positive trip, didn't you?

JH: As a 19-year-old, working at Wired was a total blast. I grew up in Chicago and spent a year at college near Philadelphia, and the people I met who were most into computer culture were people I hung out with on BBSs located pretty far away. So in 1994 coming to Wired and meeting a whole company halfway filled with geeks was incredible. Here was this place where people were pierced and dyed and there was a parrot and thumping music all the time and weird books and visiting cybercelebs. There was a hum in that office; people were working hard either to put out the magazine, or the online folks were trying to figure out what to do with this new thing "the Web." For an understimulated young man it was like coming home. I used to spend most of my days in that office, from early in the morning until late at night.

I was hired as an intern because I had a funny home page and because I knew about most sites on the Web (there weren't many back then). The people that hired me, the people that I hung out with, they were inspired people who were excited about building a site for the wired community. If you could connect all these bodies through technology, you could channel culture and cool shit 24-7, from anywhere in the world. It was a heady time – expansive thinking about technology.

Someone on the other side of the offices realized that this Web site shit could actually make some money, and so some more business-minded folks were sent to watch the crazy kids. Our focus shifted from inclusive community building and Web reflection to being an arbiter of cool – an online magazine instead of something more resembling a portal perhaps.

It was sad to see all that potential used in a traditional way. Wired, the people running it, it all began to seem elitist. Here were these mind-blowing tools for sharing information, and Wired still wanted to post only brief snippets of what was wired and tired. There was so much else to do with the technology and the culture and the people online! And I could do it on my own.

I was hired because of my site Justin's Links from the Underground. I had been keeping track of the wild side of the Web. Sex, drugs, and weird Web sites – a young man's fancy. During my time at Wired I spent many hours a day keeping my site up, surfing the Web on the cool, fast machines, using the full-time fast Internet connection. I think I remember hearing that even after HotWired launched, I was getting one-third the amount of traffic HotWired was, and I had no promotions, no staff, and not much of a burn rate.

Eventually I moved from covering links to building out a reflection of my consciousness – a remembrance of things past in some ways, a mind map. So much fun to build that! And not to have to go to meetings about it or worry about whether people were looking at it or not. A place to experiment with technology. I have had so much fun building my Web site – working on a page, getting a picture up there with some text, and then publishing it that same day – I've always felt as though I am a part of a living miracle when I can get the word out like that. My feelings of enthusiasm for the Web haven't dimmed one iota, but I find that working on the Web professionally is much more of a give-and-take.

It's amazing to me that Web companies have come and gone, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to build up expensive content databases. And I'm chuggin' along, one guy, hand coding my own massive content database – less dynamic, but more sustainable.

You've had a few jobs over the years. You dig working?

RUS: Aside from freelance, I'm mostly considered unemployable. My editorial ideas apparently don't intersect with the sorts of publications that have capital. Perhaps they fear that my best ideas would provoke legal responses and scare off advertisers. So after being employed by Mondo through 1993, I wasn't really employed until last year, with GettingIt.com. What was cool was that GettingIt was (actually it still exists, but with a smaller content flow) basically a sharper, more refined, slightly more conventional realization of Revolting!, the Web zine I tried to launch in the mid '90s – the basic idea being a hip tabloid for so-called Gen X. The other distinction, though, was that Revolting! went sort of over the top in its provocateur actions, like rotating 24 corporate banner ads used without permission on the cover page over a photo of Charles Manson sticking out his tongue, and blatantly violating Wired's copyright of the term digital revolution and Radio Shack's claim to sole rights to the word Shack.

While it's not my intention to blow myself up as an early adopter of anti-dot-com disgust, Revolting! was also largely about making that statement. It wasn't about the destruction of the culture and housing market of the Bay Area, because that came later. So it was more in reaction to the pseudohip soullessness of the golden nose rings, and the right wing libertarian übergeek class, some of whom are still my friends, so it's all kind of complicated and perverse. To tell you the truth, the right libertarianism didn't bother me that much until 1994, when Cyber-Newt Gingrich took over the country. Seeing some of my own rhetoric about techno-based boundary dissolution appropriated in order to decentralize the social welfare state while deregulating the corporations came as a bit of a shock.

But I don't want to just bounce from one side to the other. We have way too much oversimplification about techno-culture being good or bad going around. And I suppose that's a big motivation for the Revolution project. Aside from the other issues I hope to have the opportunity to deal with, I figure this foray into politics provides me with a context and a responsibility to do the complicated job of explaining what a truly progressive technophilia can be. And I don't want to denounce the more interesting fever dreams and visions of Mondo or even Wired. I think that would be a terrible loss at a time when the imagination is so under attack. And I'm also just so tired of cheap cynicism and the reflexive put-down, which is so easy that I do it myself for pay.

In fact, I'll tell you something about my relationship to work. I finally figured out how to successfully pitch articles to high-paying periodicals. Basically, if it looks like the piece is going to be implicitly snide and snarky, it's a hit. Oh, and around 1993 I figured out how to retool my public presentation for the next generation – amp up the self-deprecating humor! It's so easy and obvious. The way I see it, in response to some of the New Age hippie silliness of the boomers, the younger generations strive mightily to avoid foolishness, which bluntly speaking is a really tight-assed conformist approach to life. Self-deprecating humor sort of inoculates you against genuine foolishness. If you seem earnest, or if you're just flat-out being silly, you can be an authentic fool. But if you admit to a certain amount of foolishness in a knowing way, you're not foolish; you're very hip and clever.

But I don't want to play only that game. And there is still much to be said for how early-21st-century science and technology can fire our imaginations, and yes, even enhance communication and community. So color me deeply ambiguous, as ever.

JH: I was taking the BART on a Sunday morning across the vast expanse of the East Bay. I was sitting there engaged in my Neo Geo Pocket Color, a brilliant but discontinued electronic auto-amusement device. In downtown Oakland these three people got on. One young guy had funky facial hair, a little goatee thing, and he was wearing some kind of skullcap and a linen shirt. He was with a girl with cool glasses and some kind of expansive pendant on her plain white clothes. They were with an older man, talking. Something about the cross-generationality of that group, and the young folks' getups, made me feel as though they were a part of some religious group. I looked at myself, sitting alone in a colorful suit, with my gaming machine, and I thought, maybe I should get involved with a religious group, you know, for the community. I was just musing, you know. And then I overheard the girl ask the older gent, "You like Oracle? We've had security issues." I nearly ripped my teeth out. I definitely went back to playing my game.

The early Web created such an exhilarating time. There was something I believed in enough to want to share it with other people. Since realizing that techno-connectedness wouldn't save the whole world quickly, I've wanted to see what else could motivate my daily movements. Being financially independent and wealthy before 30 is only a motivation when I think about not wanting to continue taking orders as I age. Otherwise there's no religion that appeals to my rational mind, and techgnosticism loses its luster as a belief system each time I think through the paving of the world.

So until I get it all figured out, I'm very happy to live in Oakland where there are all shades of people, many of whom don't know Oracle from tarot. I wish the media had more inspiring heroes than the salespeople for contemporary capitalism.

I used to think I could help save the world if I got people to build enough personal Web sites. Now there's Geocities, my wish has come true, and Mahir has arrived as the Immaculate Conception of the personal home page revolution. He wants to kiss everybody. So did I – I wrote more when I was hornier. Now I have a job that eats at my sexual energy, my creative energy – I'm learning politics deep between the cubicles. It's fun, but I'm starting to think about being alienated as a laborer. I think about how it would be nice to have a job where I stood up for more than 20 minutes a day. Where I walked places. Where I got to talk to people face to face more. Maybe I should work for a PIRG?

At least I get to use my brain. Actually, what I get to do is stimulate myself. All day long at my desk, with a radioactive box strapped to my aching eyes. It's a weird life, and I'm trying to live it fully; once I understand it and evolve past it, I can go discover what's better than this, somewhere on a mountainside that will probably be condos by the time I get there.

return to top | discuss this article in altcity