I have been struggling to figure out what it is precisely that interests me in all of the many subcultures which fascinate me. And I realized that for me they symbolized the link between technology and the transgressive impulse. I realized that for me they embodied the thing I had always felt about the attitudes of my Luddite friends. Technology is a weapon. It threatens the social order. More than words, more than ideas, it enables people to transgress the boundaries of their society. "If technology is outlawed, then only outlaws will have technology," and all that. Because technology is only an instrument, it can be used for domination. But these groups are using it, through the sort of aikido or jujitsu that William Gibson was referring to when he said "the street has its own uses for technology," to transgress against power. This is, I think, one of the roles technology may have played in human society, from the very beginning, starting with fire and the wheel. And, thank heaven, may always play.
However, pirate radio has faced a vociferous enemy in the FCC, who finds the idea of unregulated radio spectrum seizure dangerous to planes and ships, or at a minimum, highly likely to interfere with the licensed corporate Top 40 stations in the area... since most pirates 'skip' frequencies (after all, they're harder to trace that way), this raises the stakes of possible interference. The latest wave of pirate radio has come in the form of community low-power FM 'microbroadcasting,' with stations like Stephen Dunifer's Free Radio Berkeley aiming to spread their message over a small area. Radio pirates often laugh at the hypocrisy of an agency like the FCC, which sells off the airwaves to the highest bidder (when they are supposed to be public property), yet protests "spectrum scarcity" as the reason for shutting down pirate radio. Ham radio is allowed: it's OK for one-to-one communication using packet or pre-approved bands, etc., but you've crossed the line when you dare to transmit to large numbers of people - then you need to be profitable.
With the clandestine and scanner enthusiasts, we've entered a different realm, that of illicit listening rather than transmitting. Since 1990 or so, it's been illegal for scanner manufacturers to include the frequencies used by cellular phones in the 800-900 MHz band. Yet, it's quite easy often to purchase a kit to back-program those frequencies back into your scanner, and such kits are currently unregulated, so the eavesdropping goes on. It's all part of our move toward an "espionage society," with the government and law enforcement snooping on us, and us protesting the right to snoop them back with our video cameras and police band radios. "Who watches the watchman," as they say. Scanner enthusiasts seem to gravitate toward areas of mystery, like the "Area 51" Groom Lake military base in Nevada, hoping to pick up on some intelligible snippet of conversation which will give the place away. For that reason, "frequency guides" to such areas are hoarded treasures, since after all, such frequencies are supposed to be, well, top-secret.
With the cryptoanarchists/cypherpunks, you find two levels of rhetoric. Some are content merely to promote PGP and other crypto programs as a source of reliable, untraceable identification and communication; the protection of privacy and anonymity through technology. Their ignoble enemy is the NSA, who will not allow crytographic technology into the public domain, and who still allows ciphers to be classified as munitions. Yet, there are others who are deliberate in seeing these technologies as weapons against the State (read "From Crossbows to Cryptography"), as a way by which people may one day be able to create their own totally 'underground,' untaxable and untraceable economy of anonymous digicash. Certainly, other people see cryptography as an essential ingredient for the future of computer security and privacy. For the cryptoanarchist, it holds the key to evading the information flow of the State regarding its citizens' activities (and perhaps their identities and whereabouts) altogether.
The (fundamental human) right to communicate is one discussed often at the international level (in the ITU) but seldom addressed seriously. Long-distance communication for most people is difficult, based on financial and institutional barriers. Thus, whether it be through phone phreaking, CB or packet ham radio, or Internet telephony, people have sought ways to communicate internationally without filling the coffers of greedy telecommunication monopolies. What should be more free (both in terms of regulation and cost) than the right to hear the voice of another? Yet, for various historical reasons, telecommunication internationally has always been a domain of little regulation, large monopolies, and total negligence of the individual consumer (as opposed to the need of business to maintain communication with its international operations.) Phreaking grew out of the political consciousness of the Yippie party, and like it, it's one part mischievous prank, one part very serious tragicomedy.
There has been the inevitable backlash against technology in music, with people returning to vinyl records from compact digital discs, to acoustic "unplugged" performances from amplified electric sound, and to folk and traditional music from new music. There's no doubt that electric and non-electric music will continue to coexist for a long time, as will live performance and mediated recordings, and electronic and acoustic instruments. But music will not soon give up on technology; and fortunately, technology may soon force the multinational musical media conglomerates to loosen their grip on the sonic arts. Because through technologies like RealAudio, music can now be delivered to the consumer on demand, without the middleman, and without the advertising, packaging, and hype. People can try before they buy (and not just pick out the couple of "pre-listening" discs their local Media Play has graciously allowed them to try first), and further can interact with the artist, understand something about his/her work, and possibly even individualize the "performance" they receive.
Techno music threatens the "star" ethos of music, pushing the artist's "stage presence" to the background, but their work into the foreground. Its sonic mutability makes the leasing of "hooks" to corporate radio stations to sell records and promote acts a considerable dilemma. Its use of sampling, like so much in the new art world, challenges the notion of originality and forces the issue of appropriation. Its electronic nature makes people cringe in fear over the loss of authentic human musicality: will we forget how to play 'real' instruments? Can the synthesizer really replace the complex tonal color of a piano, the drum machine the powerful timbre of a real hand drum, or a PC music generation program the rich melodies of an acoustic guitar? I think, as I said earlier, both sorts of musical forms will coexist. But if not in musical creation, at least in musical distribution, technology threatens to again revolutionize the musical world, and well for it.
While the modern primitive movement emulates practices of the 'mythic primitive' Other conjured from the Western mind, it does so in a curious technological way. Body piercers use sterile machine-tooled piercings, rather than relying on fire and guesswork; the new nomads wander in search of capital and data, not prey or land; Zippie wanderers seek Terence McKenna's Revival of the Archaic but know it comes through Marshall McLuhan's electronic Global Village. However, no person perhaps best reveals the strange synergies of the modern primitive movement than the cyberhuman, Stelarc. Emulating the body art of the modprims, Stelarc has had himself implanted and reconstructed (like any good shaman), but with circuitry and wires, chips and diodes. Stelarc imitates the initiation rites of prehistoric man, to show others what he sees is the road toward cyborg posthumanity, the preparation of the human body for the ascent toward space.
And with the Survival Research Laboratories, we have the modern transformation of the Roman circus and the medieval carnival, grotesque, and Feast of Fools. Except that the absurdist performers who lurch and dance and bash each other for the enjoyment of the spectator are sinister-looking robots, equipped with devices of horrific destruction. Built with the surplus weaponry that the military no longer needs for its own orgies of death, SRL's terrible pageants are celebrations of the mindless arch of destruction embodied in our current machines. They are a thousand car crashes, oil spills, train wrecks, building collapses, military mine explosions killing innocent civilians, and nuclear meltdowns morphed together into one night of post-industrial terror. Past and future, utopian dreams and the nightmares of history, impossible presents and hidden pasts, all mixed together in a weird alchemy, causing us to wonder about the march of time.
Nothing drives the motor of the 'crank' more than the respectable elder scientist telling him that something is impossible. You can't have perpetual motion? Balderdash! Entropy prevents any truly 'free energy'? It must be the deceit of the oil companies! You can't square the circle? Nonsense! No cure for cancer? It must have been suppressed! Things are relative rather than absolute? Einstein must have been duped! No way to travel through time, cancel out gravity, become invisible? The physicists must be myopic! No scientific basis for psychic phenomena? Psi must lie in some quantum phenomenon they've overlooked! No room-temperature fusion? The experiment must have been done improperly! No way to cancel the advancing of age, to travel through space faster than light, to use that supposedly unused gray matter? Humans have crossed those sorts of barriers before! Fish don't fall from the sky? Didn't some Frenchman say that about stones?
What fascinates me about that most mysterious jack-of-all-paranormal-trades, the Fortean, is that he's interested in all of it. When the respectable elder scientist tells him it's not possible, he yells back Arthur C. Clarke's dictum that the good fellow is almost certainly wrong (or that sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic...) The Fortean chortles at the 'skeptical' scientist, laughing at their ludicrous efforts to save the appearances, all the way to the next cheaply mimeographed newsletter. Just because you can fake a moon landing doesn't mean one has never taken place! In a century where so many limitations have given way to technology, is it surprising that we are seeing extropians, transhumanists, New Agers, mixing technology and unabashed romantic idealism? Having explored the bottoms of the oceans and the depths of outer space, we discover, is it not time for the realms of the mysterious, the numinous, the other-dimensional to yield (as they did in the movie Star Trek I) to the joining of human and machine?
DIY media-makers try to move from being passive consumers of the digital world, to participants; on the turf of the World Wide Web they can challenge the eye candy of the mightiest corporate behemoths. They challenge us to turn off the "idiot box," and start talking back to the idiots, taunting them to do much, much better. The AdBusters and Billboard Liberators take on that thickest gruel of media poison, advertising, subverting its slick slogans, puncturing its commodity fetishism, and giving the lie to its claim that it seeks to appeal to our rational expectations rather than our irrational instincts. Drowning in a sea of giddy jingles, surreal imagery, and loudmouthed salespeople, the average media-consumer gropes hopelessly for the remote, praying for the end of the brief interruption of his Gilligan's Island rerun... dismayed to stumble across infomercials, advertainments, and other hybrids that leave them more confused than when they started.
Culture jammers are using that word , culture, in the same narrow ways that "cultural studies" people do. Popular, mediated culture, as opposed to "authentic" folk culture, "classical" high culture, or that thing the anthropologist on the Discovery Channel was probably talking about - some kind of system of meanings or something like that. Jamming the signal is a desperate quest to cut off the media pollution at its source, but failing that, to at least wake up the public to the fact that they're tuned into the most mindless and awful of noise. EBN performances, like any good punk concert, are anti-Muzak: they're not supposed to make you applaud , you're supposed to be pissed , wanting to shut up the cacophany from the stage. Only, to your dread, you realize that cacophany is really just 500 channels of the crap you listen to all the time - given to you all at once, which is the way you should enjoy it.
In the 1960s, people like John Lilly had already started thinking about the brain as a 'wetware biocomputer,' drawing from the growing field of cognitive science and AI. But were we stuck with the instincts in the 'hardware' and the parasitic cultural memes in the 'software,' or could we start reprogramming? The neuronauts answer to this has been yes, and that for thousands of years, through techniques of trance and ASC induction, humans have been striving to do just that. What technology may have done for us is made it somewhat easier, at least for the Western mind. Books like Would the Buddha Wear a Walkman? parade a host of gadgets ready for the pursuit of instant Enlightenment and techno-Zen. As could be expected, these gadgets have yet to deliver, but who knows? Perhaps the right combination of NLP (neurolinguistic programming), HemiSync tapes, sound-light machines, Brain Gyms, Mind Fuel, and Tachyon Bands might just deliver nirvana before our next scheduled business appointment.
No field of pursuit perhaps better exemplifies their ambitions then that of virtual reality or VR. Sure, it might change the way we do scientific visualization, or facilitate the 'telepresent' remote operation of lunar landers. But to Jaron Lanier, Brenda Laurel, and others, VR was so much more than that. It was a way of awakening people to the processes of reality generation right here and now. In cyberspace, we could explore a world whose only limitations were those of our imaginations. Most importantly, to the neuronauts (as exemplified in the movie Lawnmower Man ), it held out the possibility of augmenting human intellect, creativity, and perception. Douglas Engelbart's dream of augmentation machines fulfilled. New ways of learning, of interacting, of transforming ourselves, might be opened up by this new technology. People might be able to 'visit' previously unimaginable places -- the heart of a star, the nucleus of an atom, the rung of a DNA molecule, or inside the neurons on the brain itself.
Of course, feminists have an easy answer for this; men love technology and they love objectifying women through pornography so the two obsessions easily dovetail together. As usual, I think something more interesting and more complex is going on than just this. Just as birth control technology (the Pill) led to one sexual revolution, I think current technologies may be leading to a new, and different, one. Once again, people are gasping in horror over the new behaviors they're seeing. What is going on when two people engage in 'sex' by rapidly typing erotic phrasings to each other in an AOL private chat-room? When they don 'VR cybersuits' to engage in foreplay in some impossible zero-gravity space? When their 'avatars' start fondling each other in some romantic, secluded little VRML world? First off, these people aren't even touching. And for gosh sakes, they don't even know what the other person looks like - or even what gender they might really be! You can't call that sex, can you?
Despite all our misgivings over pornography or this other stuff, the human race knows that honestly simulation, artifice, fantasy, make-believe, and role-playing has always been part of the erotic domain. Yet somehow, this new stuff pushes our buttons more than any other sort of kinky sexual deviance, and confounds us more than S & M, B & D, fetishism, homosexuality, anonymous sex, or any other practice that lies far in the hinterlands of our supposedly 'normal' 'love-maps.' It's just too darn weird, and, gosh, isn't it just simultaneous separated masturbation, anyway? (Perhaps it doesn't meet quite as bizarre the stares as, say, bestiality or paedophilia.) I think the fear here might be the next big thing - the boogeyman lurking in our collective sexual closet might be robot sex: the fear that some day an android might fulfill all our physical and emotional needs. And of course, what might follow from that: the movie Demon Seed stands out as the Paul Revere of our collective unconscious in this regard...
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