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Peering into the global meta-mind

Using a term from anthropology, Mark Dery defines his relationship to fringe cyberculture as that of "a participant-observer." He has edited anthologies and written widely on the subject, often in the very journals that come under critical scrutiny in Escape Velocity.

Q: What was your chief motivation in writing this book?

A: One of my aims was to pry loose the white-knuckled grip that millennial cyberhype -- laissez-faire futurism and New Age eschatology -- seems to have on our public discourse about culture and technology. I wanted to take back the future from the technocratic elite lionized by Wired, refocusing our discussion on the de-skilled and the unskilled drowned by Alvin Toffler's Third Wave.

At the same time, I wanted to explore the high-tech subcultures -- technopagans, rogue roboticists, and so forth -- who have taken as their slogan William Gibson's cyberpunk maxim, "The street finds its own uses for things," turning technology to perverse, sometimes subversive ends, using it in ways never intended or even imagined by its manufacturers.

Q: In what sense is the "culture war raging" about the '60s "at the heart of the cyberdelic wing of fringe computer culture?"

A: I'm referring to the semiotic struggle, in contemporary politics and pop culture, for control of the meaning of the '60s. It's in the context of the neo-conservative demonization and Boomer romanticization of that tumultuous decade that its selective appropriation by twentysomething techno-hippies must be understood.

Q: Is Marshall McLuhan getting a second, posthumous wind as the prophet of the computer counterculture you describe?

A: His ideas cast a powerful spell on fringe computer culture, where they have acquired a New Age aura. For the ravers, zippies, and other members of cyberdelic culture who believe they are neurons in an emergent global meta-mind, he is the medium's messenger.

Q: As you say early on, Escape Velocity is about the United States. But the question does occur: is the fascination with cyberculture peculiar to this country? Are we alone in cyberspace?

A: Escape Velocity confines its scope to the United States, for the simple reason that the US has been synonymous, almost from its inception, with technological progress. Europeans may have invented the spinning jenny, the steam engine, the factory, and even the automobile, but as the historian Richard Guy Wilson notes, "American genius took these European machines, altered, perfected, and exploited them," using them as the boosters of a thoroughly modern young technoculture determined to break free from the inertial drag of European tradition. The personal computer and the Internet were made in the USA, and the computer culture of the 1990s remains a predominantly American phenomenon -- for the moment, at least.

-- HB

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