Cyberia: The Future Is Now, 20 Years Later

64645.jpg~originalOne of my favorite recent pastimes – simply because technology writing is now old enough – is to dive back into future-leaning writing of the 1980s and 1990s & see how things turned out.

It turns out that book sales in the Bay Area are full of such ‘artifacts’. And Douglas Rushkoff’s Cyberia – originally written in 1992, and published in 1993/1994 – is writing that deserves looking at, more than 20 years later.

The original hardcover description of the book on Amazon explains of Cyberia: “In a vivid journalistic portrait of the underground trendsetters of the 1990s, Rushkoff ventures headlong into cyberspace–the weird and unmapped terrain of hackers, smart drugs, virtual reality, cyberliterature, and technoshamans.”

So yep, the meat of Rushkoff’s book actually delves deep into some of his own journalistic and personal interests – in particular, the ‘smart drugs‘ movement, as also showcased in crossover cyberpunk magazines like Mondo 2000.

But the first 50 pages or so of Cyberia are an overview of the burgeoning early ’90s technology scene, and an attempt to forecast where it may go. Rushkoff is known for coining terms like ‘viral media’, and while much of the book feels very much ‘of its time’, these pages are worth analyzing and highlighting to see how things actually turned out. So let’s do that:

The intro to the second edition of the book, reprinted on Rushkoff’s official website, is almost apologetic, commenting: “A lot has happened in the year or so since I wrote this book. More than usually happens in a year. Thanks to technologies like the computer, the modem, interactive media, and the Internet, we no longer depend on printed matter or word of mouth to explore the latest rages, innovations, or discoveries.”

This is fascinating partly because this feels like ‘bet-hedging’ and a partial apology for – what, how things have changed between 1993 and 1994? And wow, how much more have things changed in the 20+ years after that was written?

And yes, some of Cyberia’s passages seem partly quaint now, for example in this section on hacking: “Most purposeful hacking is far less romantic, and is done simply to gain access to systems for their computing power. If someone is working on a complex program or set of computations, it’s more convenient to use some corporation’s huge system to carry out the procedure in a few minutes or hours than to tie up one’s tiny personal computer for days.”

On the one hand, this clearly feels very dated – everyone has a heck of a lot of CPU power nowadays. (Certainly enough to use computing power to solve a lot of ‘common problems’ – if not complex password-hacking brute force, etcetera.)

But on the other hand, worms and botnets continue to use a similar principle for mass attacks on servers – attacks that would not be possible just on one machine. So while Moore’s Law helped with the power thing, the ‘hack other machines for more power’ concept is still very much going on.

Another place we find more major echoes of today is in the description of an online troll (yes!) called Stink, who turns up in the Deadhead forum on the WELL & harasses female WELL members with nuisance private messages. David Gans, who is the ‘host’ of the Grateful Dead forum, “realized that giving Stink the silent treatment isn’t working… and decides to put Stink into a ‘problem shell’. Whenever he tries to log on to the WELL, he’ll receive a message to call the main office and talk to a staff member. Until he does so, he is locked out of the system.”

Fascinating to see some of the troll issues on today’s Internet mirrored 20+ years ago. Even more interesting that the troll is eventually tracked down to a regular – and normally immaculately behaved – WELL user called Bennett, who was “venting his ‘alter ego’… Free of his regular identity, he could be whoever he wanted and act however he dared with no personal repercussions. What had begun as a kind of thought experiment or acting exercise had soon got out of hand.”

This particular Cyberia chapter ends with the following: “Do the psychology and neurosis of everyday real-life human interactions need to follow us into cyberspace, or is there a way to leave them behind? Just how intimate can we get through our computers, and at what cost?” There’s a hint of techno-utopianism in this conclusion, but also a hint of danger – and a couple of decades later, I think a bit more of the latter than the former is in play, online.

It’s also entertaining to read about the first go-around of Virtual Reality (VR), in full bloom in the book. VR practitioner Marc De Groot raves about the format as follows: “Virtual reality is a way of mass-producing direct experience… in the beginning there were animals, who had nothing but direct experience… then the Gutenberg Press happened, which was the opportunity to mass-produce symbology for the first time… we’re now able for the first time to mass-produce the direct experience.”

Of course, we now know that VR disappeared from the mainstream for nigh on 20 years after this book was written, and is now back full force – largely due to the tech being much better and more reproducable en masse. But the whiff of hype – and finger-pointing over hype – is tangible even in Cyberia.

One priceless quote from VR pioneer Jaron Lanier in the book illuminating where we were at the time – and perhaps where we are in 2015, given the Palmer Luckey cover meme-ing of a week or so back: “There’s two levels of virtual reality. One is the ideas, and the other is the actual gear. The gear is early, all right? But these people from Time magazine came in last week and said, “Well, this stuff’s really overblown,’ and my answer’s like, ‘Who’s overblowing it?'” Youch!

If you break through the hype (and yes, Timothy Leary is advocating passionately for some kind of VR breakthrough in subsequent pages, perhaps a sign VR was high on the hype curve at the time) there’s some good and still relevant takeaways in here.

In particular, Rushkoff notes: “The illusion of VR worked better the more I could control my movement. As scientists have observed, the more dexterity a person experiences in a virtual world, the sharper he will experience the focus of the pictures… In Cyberia at least, reality is directly dependent on our ability to actively participate in its creation.”  For those who’ve tried Valve/HTC’s Vive, you might agree, like me, that movement and full participation with hand controllers is the ‘step into the light’ that VR needs – and Rushkoff is dead on.

Somewhere things go a little further offbase in Cyberia’s intro, though, is in the conversations about UC Santa Cruz’s Ralph Abraham & how fractal geometry is the door to all kinds of human breakthroughs. To wit: “Abraham argues that cyberian interest in the pagan, psychedelic, spiritual & tribal is not in the least contradictory to the advances in computer technology and mathematics… the success of Cyberia, according to the bearded technosage, will depend on our ability to put these disparate elements together.”

Quite apart from the fact you should never trust a ‘bearded technosage’, we’re floating back into the fascinating area of psychedelic influences on computing, which was incredibly well covered by John Markoff in his book ‘What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped The Personal Computer Industry‘.

Two generations later, we can see that the initial spark did, indeed, come with lashings of hippie bravado. And much as I love Kai’s Power Tools, the ’90s ‘technoshamanism’ fad, although briefly fascinating, seems to have had far less effect on the already heavily corporatized computer business than that vital first ’60s/’70s research period did. (Although it did produce some music I’m extremely fond of – go, The Shamen!)

Yet it’s ultimately silly to nitpick. Books are subjective opinions, and Rushkoff clearly had (and no doubt has!) views and agendas. Writing about things _does_ sometimes make them more real.

And Cyberia is a fascinating snapshot into a second ’90s cyberhippie dawn – perhaps localized, but a briefly shining one – where an optimistic collective believed we were going to break through into a new virtual reality. We’d be free from cynicism and powered by side effect-free ‘smart drugs’, and everyone could merge with the singularity and become effortless, joy-filled virtual children of light. With Benoit Mandelbrot presumably leading the virtual nation.

In reality, we have a heck of a lot more trolls and a heck of a lot less technoshamans, but I feel better – and happier – for having looked back with Rushkoff.

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