I know, I know, you don’t have to tell me every journalist from Wired to ArsTechnica has used that headline construction. But it works, because when your accomplishments personified, furthered, documented, and disseminated the defining cultural movement of an age, you just can’t put it behind you.
And so it is with Ken Goffman, known to fans around the world as RU Sirius, editor in chief of Mondo 2000, the definitive magazine of the New Digital Age in the 80’s an 90’s. It began as High Frontiers in the fateful year 1984, had a name change to Reality Hackers four years later, and in 1989 switched to the now-iconic Mondo 2000 identity, a glossy magazine featuring an idiosyncratic but culturally resonant mix of surrealism, science, technology, culture hacking, occasional do-goodery and psychoactive experiments that came to be known as Cyberpunk.
The Internet Archive has been running a project to grab digital copies and make them available. You can check that out an participate on their site.
We checked in with Goffman, who left the magazine in 1993, via email to get a temperature check on contemporary culture and the promises both fulfilled an unfulfilled of a weirdly innocent and hugely influential cultural movement. Links were added by The Cryptosphere and not endorsed by Goffman.
The Cryptosphere: How would you describe yourself to someone who had never read your work?
Goffman: I’m not sure I would want to describe myself. That sounds like something you do for a job or for a dating site or like that. In his autobiography, Alan Watts wrote that he was a fraud, which people took as a terrible confession that should lead you to dismiss his writings and talks. But if you understand Watts and his discourses on Taoism and Zen, then, of course he was a fraud, as are all of us.
As social beings, we’re performative. Whether there is something essential behind that, how would we know? We might trick ourselves into experiencing something essential. There’s some evidence that in the absence of affirmations from other social beings, we’re nobody and nothing.
Having said all that… I grew up in Long Island and then as an adolescent upstate in Binghamton New York – hometown of Rod Serling. Which it definitely is. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Binghamton had some of the most interesting freaks.
I have three different sources of hand pain, which keeps me from doing a lot of what I do, which is write or edit. I’m trying to take care of my home life and figure out how I can regain creative opportunities. I’ve always written or edited a lot at one sitting… to get into the proverbial flow… and that’s been disrupted. It’s hard for me to do the same thing in a fragmented way.
What are you spending your time on lately? What do you find really exciting in the intersection of technology and culture right now, if anything?
The most hopeful thing relates not so much to art or creativity per se but to community… and that’s the global growth of hacker spaces and maker culture and stuff like that. Hacker spaces are everywhere. This is a kind of distribution of a cultural DIY sensibility that was very localized and avant garde during the ‘90s.
Regarding art, to me, the excitement about the intersection of tech and art was sort of an ‘80s and ‘90s thing, because that intersection hadn’t been fully accepted yet. So to see something like Laurie Anderson’s United States or SRLs demonic machines or to see someone make what we would have called a cyberpunk or cybercultural statement gave a certain type of thrill because it was distinct. They were informing a broader culture that didn’t yet get it that we were becoming fully embedded in technology. There’s always an aspect in which when something cultural is exciting, it’s personal for me because I want to cheer it and let people know about… to be able to say this speaks for me or this is what you need to understand. Now that we’re fully embedded in a tech based culture, there’s less frisson around the intersection of tech and art.
Now, I would tend to have more of a muted sense of excitement for a creative work when something sort of poignant and gloomy makes a statement I feel needs to be made… like Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, which I thought almost nobody got, but I saw as a powerful work about the replacement of life by data. I wrote about it here.
I do follow anything in technology that looks like it could abolish scarcity — including scarcity of time, imagination, options and so on. Not so much the cultural expressions of that, but actual developments.
I think that what people in the West express today is poisoned by austerity… particularly the expressions of a sort of brutal optimism one hears from some rising transhumanist voices. I think there is a very slim hope that there could be a sudden re-emergence of a celebratory and liberating humanism/posthumanism if technology changes the material conditions radically enough, but the political and philosophical trends… and the weather conditions… don’t bode well.
What publications do you read regularly, and what do you like about them?
I like Dangerous Minds. They connect with my lifelong obsessions with various aspects of freak culture. It feels fairly intimate if not necessarily novel. It’s sort of funny that some of us still get that little dopamine rush from another thing about William Burroughs or Kenneth Anger or Lydia Lunch or Dali ad infinitum.
For far out tech news, Singularity Hub does a good job. I don’t go there that often, but I find myself there because I’m following somebody else’s tweet.
Like so many people, what I read and see is fragmented, following a link someone else dropped somewhere, so I don’t really identify with publications or periodicals. I’d like to. I’d like to make one that I could identify with… to have that reading-it-from-cover-to-cover excitement that some people tell me they had with Mondo. I mean, we used to fuss over the order of articles in an issue the way one would fuss over the order of songs on a vinyl album back in the day… you’d organize a certain flow or vibe that made it feel conceptually coherent in a loose sort of way. I tried to do that with the flip book versions of h+ magazine that I did back in 2008 – 2009 but I think maybe nine people gave a fuck. People just read the individual pieces when they were posted blog style.
If you were publishing Mondo 2000 now, what would be the top stories you’d want to cover, and why?
It’d have to be Mondo 2100 or Mondo 3000. I’d go for some tableau from Guillermo Gomez-Pena perhaps. Here’s a border crossing boundary-dismissing Mexican and American performance artist who infuses his work with cyberpunk and transhumanist influences and who hardly anybody in those worlds knows about. In fact, I’m sure that those parts of the world that have been relegated to the fringes are where the cultural excitement is. There’s an African cyberpunk trend. Eastern Europeans seem really engaged with exploring and searching for liberating aspects of technology and the street finding its own use for things. Mondo means world in Italian, but Mondo 2000 was very American. Mondo 2100 would be irascibly global.
What was your favorite Mondo 2000 story or series? I think mine was the profile of Fiorella Terenzi, the Italian astronomer/musician, for the sheer awesome ambitiousness of her project.
I love Fiorella. She’s still doing stuff in Miami and L.A.
I don’t know if I can pick out a single thing because it was the totality that pleased me. I’m really fond of the really odd things that don’t fit to techie expectations like having interviews with Daniel Johnston or William Vollman or Queen Mu’s gonzo anthropological explorations of tarantula venom as an intoxicant. Stuff that didn’t even try to fit the genre we were mainly associated with. Wired would never have done stuff like that.
We have so many different ways to communicate now: podcasts/radio, video, websites, books, magazines, newspapers (they still exist!), chat/IRC/hangouts and more. Some were predicted back in the day (remember when video phones were going to be the Next Big Thing, till we all realized we’d have to put on clothes and comb our hair before answering the phone?). What communications platforms do you think hold the potential for facilitating the greatest real understanding? How can they be used to oppose the increased militarization and adversarialism we see in daily life? If indeed they can.
It’s kind of cool that Virtual Reality seems to be getting another pass. I haven’t gotten to check out Oculus Rift or anything like that, but referring back to some of my earlier more jaded comments about art and technology, real quality VR could be a kind of breakthrough. If it feels like we’ve exhausted all the potentials of media and even of the physical world for art that can “shock and awe” us, maybe VR can take us somewhere new.
As far as militarism and so forth, I don’t think any technology is going to resolve that problem. Again, I think there’s a slim hope that we could climb down from this paranoid and mean spirited epoch if the situation would change in a real material way.
How far away are we from the technological singularity? Is it good news or bad news?
I don’t believe in the technological singularity. I also don’t believe that there won’t be a technological singularity. I’m agnostic. It could come soon or not at all. I’m inclined to think that it would be good news, because the other options are so desperate. Again, anything that can change the human situation in a real material way is cautiously welcomed.
I don’t think we want to replace ourselves, so I don’t see it as that. That just comes from a particularly dour moment in our culture (which, admittedly, may extend indefinitely.) I think given an opportunity to have really powerful transformative technology that could produce a sort of utopian situation, we would probably ultimately use it in a good enhancing way… sloppily… with some fuck ups… but it would be better than not having that opportunity at all.
Let’s talk about the concept of transhumanism. We’ve seen cyborg technology used for good, in reconstructing functional limbs and neurological pathways, and for evil. What can we do to ensure we don’t doom ourselves in the process of advancing?
Well, we didn’t know that spewing carbon would doom us, but we still like to guilt trip about it. I don’t know. Some of it is political. We can’t trust authority or the pursuit of profit to produce a good situation. We can’t trust “The People” either, but we have to provide people with more opportunities to get smarter and more sophisticated so that we can evolve a participatory open source group intelligence that guides political decisions and can keep millions or billions of eyes on all systems so that glitches and fuck ups can be caught. I’m not hugely optimistic about any of this, but there is a trend towards voluntary collaborative sharing as an emergent property of techno enthusiasm that may form a new “third way” alternative to authoritarian states and hypercapitalism.
Featured Image Cover of Mondo 2000’s User’s Guide to the New Edge by Gord Fynes on Flickr. Additional image of Ken Goffman by M2 on Flickr.