By Todd Brendan Fahey
Henry Miller said that. And God love thee who see the world as “glass brim-full.” (There ain’t many among us.)
Gareth Branwyn has released recently Borg Like Me: & Other Tales of Art, Eros, and Embedded Systems — slabs of cyberculture “How-To” and jaunty reminiscenses of those heady days gone by, hand-cranked DIY smithwork and reality-hacking consultation, from an Insider among “an incestuous group” of psychedelics-lovin’, nootropic-poppin’ upstarts who spawned Mondo 2000 magazine, bOING bOING print ‘zine (and later Boing Boing-of a-Website near you), eventually morphing into Wired. He’s done it from a wheelchair and mobile-assisted walker, and his only lament — though he is cheerful about it — is that he finds himself slowly turning into a Cyborg — rods where his hips used to be, one of his legs now occupying a place in his chest. (Sounds funny, eh? This is NOT sci-fi: Read the book.)
Self-starter that he is, he whirled a dervish of a Kickstarter crowdsourcing effort, raising $20k, and now owns his own small press and 100% of profits that come with it. And he’ll be happy to tell you how you can, too (see: Tips on Sucks-Less Crowdfunding).
In Borg Like Me, you’ll learn how to run away from Bible Belt confines at an early age and join a hippie commune; how (or, how not) to become involved with Billy Idol and generally assist on an album (Cyberpunk; Chrysalis, 1993); of his years as Wired magazine’s “Jargon Editor,” he’ll give you new words to use in your daily conversation: “Perot: to quit unexpectedly, as in ‘My cell phone just perot’ed.’”; “Ohnosecond: that miniscule fraction of time in which you realize that you’ve made a BIG mistake.”
And unlike Henry Miller, Gareth Branwyn won’t come on by cadging drinks, until that “one too many” has him still on your sofa the next afternoon…wherein you are soon on someone else’s. A self-confessed “ADHD kinda guy,” he keeps it brief and tidy. More probably, he’ll teach you to make your own wall-based Murphy bed — which shuts clean and spits you out to your neighborhood bar once you’ve overstayed your welcome.
You just gotta meet him. Gareth Branwyn is a lot of fun.
Todd Brendan Fahey: How did you join the Mondo 2000 team? What was the skill-set, in your case, that gained you entry into that rich and wonderful set of brainy humanoids who formed the once-best magazine in America?
Gareth Branwyn: I met RU through The Well BBS, the early computer conferencing system created by the Whole Earth catalog folks. So, RU and I first met inside of a mini-computer in a closet in Sausalito, CA. Many more “brainy humanoids” than the ones who made it into the pages of Mondo were also hanging out inside of that closet. It was a Who’s Who of early cyberculture in there. I think I sent RU issues of my art and tech zine, Going Gaga, and I was also writing for bOING bOING at the time. He asked me to contribute a few things to Mondo and then I proposed doing a “Street Tech” column (on DIY tech, hardware hacking, and the like) and they made me a section editor for that. I also contributed to the book, Mondo 2000 User’s Guide to the New Edge. My piece, “Is There a Cyberpunk Movement,” was reprinted in there and that led to Billy Idol contacting me and using parts of that piece as lyrics on his ill-fated 1993 Cyberpunk record. I tell the whole backstory about this (and reprint that essay) in my new book, Borg Like Me.
Fahey: I interviewed R. U. Sirius (co-founder/Editor-in-Chief of Mondo 2000; for those TokeSignals readers who were too young) recently; he has his opinion(s) as to why the magazine didn’t last into “the noughts” [slang for the 2000 decade; I’ve never liked the term…]. Gimme yer feed on why, unlike its spawn Wired, Mondo 2000 is “no longer here with us.”
Branwyn: One of the things that made Mondo so compelling was the… let’s call it “chaos magick” that swirled around it. The intellects that coalesced around that project were staggering, but so were the appetites and the craziness. I think a project like Mondo actually works best when it burns bright, fast, and flames out. In the immortal words of Neil Young: “It’s better to burn out than fade away.” In a lot of ways, I always thought of Mondo as more of a grand performance art piece than a sober publishing enterprise. OK, yeah, there was nothing sober about M2K. LOL. I definitely think that Mondo ended up doing the market study for the viability of a tech culture mag which Wired capitalized on. And it’s no surprise that as Mondo withered and died, many of the writers just moved right over to Wired.
Fahey: bOING bOING and Mondo 2000 are cited, correctly, as being two of the seminal engines of cyberpunk — that forward-thinking, irreverent vision of “what life can be if we decide to make it so.” Rattle on, if you’d please, about the human crossover between these two great publications. Cast, characters, friendships, enemies, alliances. Just go buckwild.
Branwyn: It’s amazing to look at the techculture pubs of the 90s (and beyond) and see that it’s the same migrating cast of characters. Me, Mark Frauenfelder, David Pescovitz, Richard Kadrey, RU Sirius, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and many others – we were all in bOING bOING, Mondo 2000,Wired, and many of us were in STIM (an early hip ezine), my zine, Going Gaga, The Industry Standard (an internet business magazine that sort of sprouted from Wired), ArtByte, 21C, and other mags. And even today, many of those same writers have been involved in MAKE magazine (Mark was the founding Editor-in-Chief and I worked there for 8 years and was the Editorial Director for a year). So, it’s a very incestuous group. And I count most of those people as friends. Mark, David, and I have been friends for some 25 years now and I still keep in regular touch with them.
And I think that “if we decide to make it so” ethos of cyberpunk/90s cyberculture grew into the maker movement of the early 21st century. As the net boom of the late 90s went bust and data workers were suddenly out of jobs, they began looking to DIY out of financial necessity. And that impulse, coupled with a sort of “correction” to the over-emphasis on the virtuality and hyper-mentality of cyberpunk, led to a desire to get our hands dirty again, to start hacking hardware and the meat world instead of just hacking the codes of cyberspace. All of that and the continued miniaturization and cheapening of very powerful technologies (microcontrollers, computer-controlled machines like CNC routers, new high-tech materials, etc) eventually coalesced into MAKE magazine and the maker movement. And out of the maker movement has come amazing innovation such as 3D printing which could have a huge impact on society.
Fahey: Being quite open in Borg Like Me of your adolescent use of marijuana in quasi-Bible Belt Chester, Virginia, what’s your take on Barack Obama’s adolescent use of ganja in the Choom Gang, of Honolulu, and that — six years into his Presidency…and with Dubya before him and Clinton before him — Amerika is still “debating” what to do with a flower-bearing green plant that was here long before humans were and which makes one giggle and get mellow?
Branwyn: Well, I certainly think marijuana should’ve been made legal a long time ago, but I’m at least heartened to see the number of states allowing medical marijuana use and state legalization efforts. For me, I count myself lucky to have had access to marijuana and various hallucinogens over the course of my life. In an almost cosmic coincidence (as if Little Smoke put it there), I happened to find a copy of Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, in a ditch, while I was hitch-hiking as a teen (right when I’d started smoking pot). So right out of the gate, I had this association with drug use and spiritual exploration. Through that book, I was also introduced to the idea of drugs being used to create states of “non-ordinary reality.” This has always informed my approach to drugs – that it’s a tool for creating these non-ordinary states. I’ve always tried to limit and regulate my use as a result. I haven’t always been successful in this, but I try. In the early 90s, I did an audio issue of my zine, Going Gaga, called: “The Poison is in the Dosage.” I’m a firm believer in that Paracelsian adage.
Fahey: Many counterculture writers — myself included, seeing the hypocrisy and idiocy that is The War on (some) Drugs — held/hold a fairly dark outlook toward the human race: Wm. Burroughs, Terry Southern, Philip K. Dick and Hunter, the latter two especially having been influences on you (and all four upon moi). And you remain unscathed. What’s your secret?
Fahey: We both hold a profound love of and admiration for William Blake (I opened the longest of my stories in Dogshit Park & other atrocities with a long quote from his “Four Zoas: Night the Second”; I’ve not seen another “modern writer” confess to similar appreciation. What does Blake do for you and why, to your sense, should the hip 21st century get to know him? Branwyn: Oh lordy, how much time do you have? As I point out at least once in my book, I’m a rather ADHD kinda guy, so it floors me that I’ve had an unwavering, obsessive interest in William Blake my entire adult life. I think Blake is not only one of the greatest (multimedia) artists of all time, he’s also one of the most insightful philosophers of the human condition, and even something of a proto modern psychologist (pre-figuring Jung by a century).
I was a scholar-in-residence at UIUC in Illinois a few years ago and I did a night called: “Why William Blake is More Relevant to Blue-Haired Punks Than Blue-Haired Old Ladies.” I tried to show how Blake was basically a proto Romantic, anarchist, multi-media artist, zine publisher, feminist, animal rights activist, and analytical psychologist. I would also add “reality hacker.”
A lot of his approach to art and poetry was to work various tricks to shake us out of our habituated daily perceptions and to get us to “see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower.” One of the great beauties of Blake’s work is its staggering richness and complexity – I find the life-long devotion to him like a giant mind-puzzle I’m attempting to solve, little by little, year by year. But that complexity (and his dominant use of Christian mythology and symbolism) is sadly off-putting to too many people.
I hope to refine my Blue-Haired Punks lecture, and in my dotage, go on a crusade to show people the wonders of his work, before I myself swim back out into the ocean of Eternity.