A decades-long career as a writer cyberculture pioneer has landed Gareth Branwyn in some interesting places. He wrote the first book about the Web, and chatted with tech heavyweights about what to name the internet. He collaborated with Billy Idol on the singer’s then-controversial, now-cultist album Cyberpunk. He’s been an editor for Wired, Boing, Boing, Mondo 2000, and MAKE magazine, grew up on a hippie commune, helped run Patch Adams’ Gesundheit Institute, and was married to the late Pam Bricker of Thievery Corporation fame.
Branwyn is now immortalizing his experiences as a bohemian-cum-cyborg in the upcoming book, Borg Like Me. We caught up with Branwyn to talk about the ghosts of cyberculture past, and our tech-obsessed future.
Gareth Branwyn says the cyberpunk ethos lives on today in the maker movement. Photo courtesy Scott Beale.
Motherboard: You've described yourself as "Cyborg-in-Chief" in the past, and your new book is called Borg Like Me. Why the cyborg label?
Branwyn: I am literally a cyborg. I have a cobalt-chrome and titanium hip, a rebuilt heart, and every six weeks, I go to a Rheumatologist's office and I sit there for three hours while they slowly drip tweaked mice proteins into me—a biological that's used to treat a severe form of spinal arthritis.
But I think we're all actually cyborgs at this point. We wear glasses, contact lenses, hearing aids, take all sorts of sophisticated drugs (and in my case, bioengineered proteins) to adjust our biochemistry, we carry a brain annex around, forgotten in our pockets, and we spend many hours of every day soft-wired into the global brain and media spew of the internet.
What are your thoughts on transhumanism? Inevitable future? The birth of a superior race, or the downfall of humanity? Something in between?
Oh, it's inevitable, to be sure. It's not binary, of course, we're talking about degrees of “trans” and we're already transcending many human limitations, through things like the global internet, amazing advances in medicine, and concerning things like drone warfare, where soldiers in air conditioned trailers in the US pilot weaponized robotic planes on the other side of the world.
Nobody talks about “cyberculture” anymore, because it's just culture-culture now. The future—you're soaking in it.
I've personally already transcended my biology, several times over. And again, I think many of us have, to varying degrees. As William Gibson likes to say: “The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed yet.”
The tech scene has mainstreamed a lot since you've been covering it. What does fringe tech culture refer to these days?
Yes, nobody talks about “cyberculture” anymore, because it's just culture-culture now. The future—you're soaking in it.
I see two areas in “fringe” tech culture that are super exciting. The first is the maker movement, which I've been deeply involved with over the past eight years.
The other thing I find exciting is the sort of distributed leveraging power via the net as seen in things like Anonymous and the Arab spring movements. In the early 90s, I wrote an introduction to a book on computer hacking where I said that distributed networks and hackers could dramatically change the balance of power with only a few people wielding a disproportionate amount of it and doing it all clandestinely. I say “exciting,” but that doesn't mean it's an entirely positive thing. Anyone can leverage this power and that becomes scary.
A counter to this dark potential to wage asymmetrical warfare/terrorism and systemic disruption can be found in something related to the maker movement, what's been dubbed “resilient community,” or the building of local, self-reliant communities that have redundancies built into them to withstand systemic disruption. I find this really fascinating because I started out my DIY journey as a teen in the commune movement, and in a strange way, we're coming back around to that.
Cigarette Boy, a cyberpunk "proto-novel" that's being
offered with Branwyn's Kickstarter.
What are some of weirdest fringe scenes out there?
Well, the whole dark net world of Anyonmous, 4chan (the anonymous images/bbs where rebels, criminals, and crusaders hang out), anonymous P2P networks are pretty kooky. And things like Tor, which you can use to buy mailorder illegal drugs with bitcoin. It has been said that what you see on 4chan will melt your brain, and that's no lie. You see things, you hear things, that you can't unsee or unhear.
Then, of course, there's the whole Jihadist net, but I've never checked that out. I've also been researching a feature article on sexcam sites and that's this whole specific world and there's very kooky stuff on there—naked yoga shows, sexual game shows, women who craft and run raffles and then masturbate when they're done and send the craft item to the raffle winner. That's a fascinating subculture that I don't think anybody outside of it knows much about.
Ah yes, I’ve heard about the sexcam trend. So how do you go about researching something like that?
So far, I've just been watching A LOT of cams… for research. I'm establishing relationships with various models and will hopefully convince some of them to talk candidly to me about themselves and their work. This isn't going to be a piece about the business of these sites, but rather, about the models themselves and their "shows," who their fans are, the nature of these relationships. I think it's rather unique and an interesting twist on DIY sex work and net-based intimacy here in the early 21st century.
What is cyberpunk? In your words? Has the meaning changed over the years?
To me, it means—it has always meant—feeding the noise back into the system to disrupt the status quo. And the old hacker ethos of “always yield to the hands-on imperative,” i.e. “DIY.” I think we see that last aspect of the legacy of cyberpunk in the maker movement.
So I'm guessing you're a big Blade Runner fan?
It is a movie that utterly changed my life. I was a different person coming out of the theater than I was going in. It was profound.
I actually remember a discussion on the old Usenet system about what to call it (the internet)...The three candidates I remember were the internet, WorldNet, and The Matrix. Oh, if only it had been The Matrix.
What was it like when you first discovered the internet? Did you know you'd seen the future?
I've been online so long, I actually remember a discussion on the old Usenet system about what to call it (the internet). No, really. Not that the group discussing it had the power to officially name it, but there were many early internet heavyweights in the discussion. The three candidates I remember were the internet, WorldNet, and The Matrix. Oh, if only it had been The Matrix.
I also wrote the very first book on the Web in 1994, Mosaic Quick Tour: Accessing and Navigating the World Wide Web. I'd like to say I clearly saw the future, but there were so many missed opportunities.
One of my faves was when, late one night, Sean Carton, a friend who was doing research for me on the first edition of the book called me. We'd been working on the directory section of the book. He'd been looking at Yahoo! and had an idea. At this time, there was no Google and Yahoo! was nothing more than a directory listing of nearly every site on the Web.
He called and said: “Hey, maybe we should start one of these searchable directories and focus on alternative culture, hacking, fringe content, and the like, a sort of counter-cultural directory.” I thought about it for a second. There was already Yahoo! and the NCSA What's New Page, which listed pretty much every new site that got launched. “Nah,” I said, “there are already two.” If I'd said “Yes, let's do it!,” I probably wouldn't be talking to you right now.
Of all the emerging tech trends these days—3D printing, internet of things, bitcoin, surveillance, wearable tech, humanoids, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and so on—which do you think will have the biggest impact on the future? Which are empty hype?
I think all of those technologies have merit, and many have obvious downsides, too (surveillance society, everything online). I think wearable tech is still a lot of hype. Same with AR. So far they've been like CD-ROMs were in the 90s. Everyone kept saying that CD-ROM was going to be the new medium, that (whatever year it was) was the year of the CD-ROM. Then the Web came along and CD media became a digital Dodo bird. For the last few years, I've heard that this is the year when wearables and AR are going to take off. So far, I did see the killer app, Google Glass included.
So you collaborated with Billy Idol on his Cyberpunk album, which had to have been pretty rad. Why was Billy Idol interested in cyberpunk?
One of the first things Billy said to me on the phone was “The internet is punk rock!” I thought that was just silly Billy posturing. It was literally years later when I understood what he meant. He saw, back in 1992, the full DIY potential of the Internet. Just as punk rock had been about bands like Generation X taking control of their music, and fans assuming control of the media around the music, in fanzines, the Internet had the power to do that for everybody, for all types of media.
What's he like? Nice guy?
He's actually a very sweet person—smart, funny, curious. People thought the whole “cyberpunk” thing was a calculated move by him and the record company to cash in on an emerging trend. I know that to not be at all true. I believe he genuinely caught a glimpse of the future and got very inspired for a moment by what he saw.
Sort of a shame that the album didn't get the audience it was after and it came to be considered the shark jumping moment for all things cyberpunk. It's interesting that now, when you look on the Web at reviews of the record, opinions of it have softened and it even enjoys something of a devoted cult following.
Can you spill a juicy anecdote from the book?
I impersonated Billy Idol once, for Billy Idol. A Boston rock magazine wanted to do a “cyber interview” with him, where they'd email him questions and he'd answer back via email and they'd call it a “cyber interview.”
At the time (1993), this was all very bleeding edge. Mark Frauenfelder (of Boing Boing) and I had set Billy up on the Well BBS in the Bay Area but it was a Unix-based system and not easy to use. Billy was in Europe and couldn't figure out how to log on to his account from there. So, I logged on as him, printed out the emailed questions and faxed them to him in Europe. He faxed his answers back, scrawled out on legal paper, and I transcribed them (made them sound... less scrawled), and email them to the rock paper. In cyberspace, nobody knows that you're not Billy Idol.
After the interview, I told him that since he'd given me his password, he should change it for security reasons. Like three years later, I was logging onto The Well and decided that I wanted to try logging in as him, figuring he'd long ago changed the login. I entered his name and password. And there I was. He hadn't changed a thing. I quickly logged out and had a good laugh. Oh, Billy.
What lessons have you learned from your long career that you wish to impart to readers?
Be curious. Keep learning and share what you learn. “Put a new wrinkle on your brain every day,” as my Southern stepmother used to say.
Don't be afraid to defy your category and go where you're curious to go. It's a big, fascinating world out there, and it can get even bigger and more fascinating, if you let it.
The related message to that: “Be the strange you want to see in the world.” There's too much monocultural uniformity in this world, not enough people willing to take risks, be different, look stupid. I want to take more such risks (this Kickstarter campaign and book are such a risk) and I invite others to do the same. The world needs more difference, not more of same.