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Category: Collaborator: Front Wheel Drive

INTERVIEW: N. Katherine Hayles, Material Girl. by Roy Christopher

Image source: National Humanities Center

This interview is released in collaboration with Front Wheel Drive. It was originally published on March 11, 2003, and is also published in the recent book Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes, edited by Roy Christopher. Make sure to visit the publisher’s website to learn more about the book and other interviews.

Digging deep in the texts of both literature and science, N. Katherine Hayles exemplifies the reconciliation of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” better than anyone I know. Her refusal to concentrate on either side of the fence, instead insisting on plowing new ground on both sides, has lead her to some of the most intriguing research currently being done. Looking at texts from all sources and angles, Hayles is always seeing new things that others overlook.

In her recent MIT Press MediaWork Pamphlet, Writing Machines (2002), she continues this analysis. Blending thinly veiled autobiography, narrative fiction, literary critique, and other styles, she brings us into a world where text, materiality, signifier, and signified come together and come alive on the page. Her in-depth view of innovative texts, hypertexts, and experimental fiction (including an exquisite look at Mark Z. Danielewski’s postprint novel House of Leaves) leaves no doubt that she’s been working these fields for years.

Roy Christopher: Writing Machines incorporates many literary styles — autobiography, fictional narrative, critique, etc. — to great effect. Was it your initial intention to juxtapose these styles?

N. Katherine Hayles: Combining autobiography with theoretical analysis is one way of joining the personal with the political, analysis with life experience. Increasingly I see scholars and theorists trying experiments of this kind. To persevere in scholarship requires deep personal commitment. And where does this commitment, this passion, come from? Almost always from life experiences. Usually that connection remains submerged and private, but when it comes to light, it can be electrifying. In Writing Machines, I hoped to use the autobiographical narrative to illustrate what it means to make the journey from a print-centric to a media perspective. Profound changes like this never happen overnight. They more nearly resemble peeling away the layers of an onion, where one revelation leads to another, and that to another, and so on — a process that takes months and years. It is difficult to grasp this kind of process analytically, for its very nature implies a number of partial realizations that arrive slowly and often painfully. To know something on an abstract level is one thing, but to unravel all the assumptions and presuppositions bound up with it is something else entirely.

RC: You’ve been analyzing the materiality of literature for years now. In reference to House of Leaves, you stated, “Focusing on materiality allows us to see the dynamic interactivity through which a literary work mobilizes its physical embodiment in conjunction with its verbal signifiers to construct meanings in ways that implicitly construct the user/reader as well.” Can you elaborate on this statement?

NKH: Despite rich traditions of combining the visual and verbal in artists’ books, concrete poetry, and canonized works — from Blake’s illustrated books to Pound’s Cantos – there remains a widespread presupposition in literary studies that a literary “work” is an immaterial verbal construction, as if words floated in the air without having a tangible body. Strategies for understanding how words interact with their physical instantiations are still emerging, and much more work needs to be done to understand this more fully, especially with electronic media. In electronic environments words can swoop and fly, dance and morph, fade and intensify, change from black to red. How do these behaviors affect meaning, and how does verbal signification affect our understanding of these behaviors? Similar considerations apply to print literature, although here the interactions may be more subtle — but they are still important.

RC: Rather than looking at the blurring dialectics between natural/unnatural and human/nonhuman, you’ve been looking at presence/absence and materiality/virtuality. Considering DNA as textual code and language as “writing in the mind,” where does text end and materiality begin?

NKH: Now that the sequencing of the human genome is approaching completion, molecular biologists are coming up against the full realization that DNA considered as a “code” or “text” is only a small part of the story. Understanding the relation of the genome to function — how and why genes actually work — requires an understanding of protein folding, a much more complex matter than simple sequence. The gene as text cannot account for these complexities; for that, the gene must be understood as an embodied structure in three-dimensional space. Similarly, the full complexities of language are increasingly related to the embodied complexities of the human brain as it has evolved over eons, as Steve Pinker, among others, has been arguing. In the twenty-first century, text and materiality will be seen as inextricably entwined. Materiality and text, words and their physical embodiments, are always already a unity rather than a duality. Appreciating the complexities of that unity is the important task that lies before us.

RC: In Chaos and Order (University of Chicago Press, 1991), your selfreferential analysis of the rhetoric of chaos theory, tempted becoming fractal itself. Is language really able to exhibit emergent properties in the same way as other dynamical systems?

NKH: Many literary texts use fractal structures to express and embody complexity, from the microstylistics of poetic effects between words to large-scale effects in novelistic structures. Language is certainly able to demonstrate emergent properties, though it may not always do so. I think a better way to state the question is to ask how and in what ways literary language demonstrates emergence. For starters, I recommend Joseph McElroy’s Plus (Carroll & Graf, 1987), an experimental novel about a terminally ill person who agrees to have his brain extracted from his dying body and re-embodied as part of the neural network that pilots a spacecraft. The challenge that McElroy posed was devising a language for this posthuman condition in which normal thought processes have been profoundly disrupted and sensory inputs radically transformed. At first the narrator’s language seems almost incomprehensible, but patient reading reveals strategic repetitions and re-organizations that instantiate emergent processes at work. This is one kind of strategy, but, of course, there are many others as well. To my mind, emergence is a rich concept that can illuminate the signifying practices of many literary texts.

RC: Is there anything you’re working on or new areas you’re exploring that you’d like to bring up here?

NKH: My book-in-progress is entitled Coding the Signifier: Rethinking Semiosis from the Telegraph to the Computer. It argues that signification works in significantly different ways in technologies that employ code, compared to natural language. Semiotics remains our most powerful and influential theoretical framework for understanding how texts create meaning, but it needs to be radically revised to account for how meaning is created within electronic environments. Returning to the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, I compare his premises and conclusions to the realities of coding technologies, showing how coding technologies change the conditions for communication and require the introduction of new concepts. Then, through a series of case studies, I demonstrate how coding technology functions as a kind of trading zone where meaning-making becomes a negotiation between code and natural language. Following the fractures, ruptures, and tensions between these two different kinds of signifying practices, I explore how concepts central to human experience undergo reconfiguration, including subjectivity, agency, and free will. My tutor texts range from fiction by such diverse writers as Henry James, James Tiptree, and Stanislaw Lem to such computer texts as Karl Sims’s simulations and Shelly Jackson’s electronic literary work “Patchwork Girl.” The book is under contract to the University of Chicago Press and, if all goes well, should appear sometime next year.

FEATURE: Front Wheel Drive Summer Reading List, 2007

Front Wheel Drive

We’re late again with the summer list, but here it is. Thanks to all who participated, including newcomers Dave Allen, Howard Bloom, Alex Burns, and Calvin Johnson, as well as verteran contributors Mark Pesce, Patrick Barber, Steven Shaviro, and Gary Baddeley. As this list proves year after year, there’s a lot of good stuff out there to read. Enjoy.

Mark Pesce, Author, The Playful World

J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Arthur A. Levine Books): I must be the only one reading that.
Philip K. Dick The Zap Gun (Gollancz)
John Robb Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization (Wiley): Highly recommended!
David Weinberger Everything is Miscellaneous (Times Books)
Richard Vinen A History in Fragments (Da Capo)
John Henry Clippinger A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity (PublicAffairs)

Read all the summer reading recommendations at Front Wheel Drive

Book Release: Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes

The interview anthology ‘Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes’ is out.

Spanning over seven years, ‘Follow for Now ‘includes interviews with such luminaries as Bruce Sterling, Douglas Rushkoff, DJ Spooky, Philip K. Dick, Aesop Rock, Erik Davis, Howard Bloom, Terence McKenna, David X. Cohen, Richard Saul Wurman, N. Katherine Hayles, Manuel De Landa, Rudy Rucker, Milemarker, Steve Aylett, Doug Stanhope, Paul Roberts,
Shepard Fairey, Tod Swank, dälek, Eric Zimmerman, Steven Johnson, Mark Dery, Geert Lovink, Brenda Laurel, and many, many more (full Table of Contents:

INTERVIEW: Future Tense. Bruce Sterling , By Paul D. Miller

(image source: artfutura)

This interview was previously published on on August 17, 1999. It is here republished with permission.

Originally posted on Paul D. Miller’s, this 1999 interview with author and futurist Bruce Sterling will be included in editor Roy Christopher’s forthcoming interview collection book, ‘Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes.’

[FWD Ed. Note: Right about the time frontwheeldrive was getting started, Paul D. Miller conducted this interview with Bruce Sterling. As a three year anniversary present, and because the following casual dialog is still so prescient, we three agreed to proudly run it here now.]

“For if the Jazz Age is year for year the Essences and Symptoms of the times, then Jes Grew is the germ making it rise yeast-like across the American plain…. the letters after their names are their tommy guns and those universities where the pour over syllables their Big House…” – Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo

“…the city no longer exists, except as a cultural ghost for tourists…” – Marshall Mcluhan, “The Alchemy of Social Change” from Verbi-Voco-Visual Explanations, 1967

First things first: It took me a zillion years (Summer to Winter, 1999) to write this ’cause I didn’t know where to start. I think about Bruce Sterling’s writing and see a precendent that runs throughout alot of American science fiction. It’s a tradition of writing where the future is far more of a barometer to measure the present than the past, and it’s the fracture points in the lines of thought holding it all together that his work explores. He, like J.G. Ballard, is one of those people who can peer deep inside the structures holding together contemporary society and weave together stories that somehow make past, present, and future blend in a way that is incredibly well researched and astute, not to mention excellent fiction as well. A difficult task indeed. Sterling has been on the writing scene for ages, and with his peers Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, and in a more remote “hard science” fashion, Greg Egan, has sparked the imagination of people within both the arts and technological communities for the last two decades with science fiction created from stories and situations that would only be remotely possible in our world. A tape recorder, a geographically dispersed conversation that took place over several months, a chain of e-mail corrections and file exchangesS and the article was done.

The stories, like the conversation, are fractured and full of a strange humorS fluid but crisp, openly flaunting the kind of hypertext narrative drift that drives editors bonkers, but kept tantalizing close to the “reality” we inhabit. The thing that differentiates Sterling from many of his compatriots in science fiction is that he focuses on the everyday and uses his explorations (take that one literally because he travels more than almost anyone I know), as a platform from which to write about America and the world it finds itself in. Sterling strikes a fine tuned balance between shear impossibility and and “the real” to create milieux that are all too hauntingly familiar. Heimlich versus unheimlich, – the familiar and its distortions and permutations – remote possibility and unerringly “scientifically possible” renditions of future worlds – what could be more relevant to todays uncanny world of contemporary hyper-reality?

To me Sterling is a writer working within a strain of of American fiction at least as old as Edward Bellamy’s classic “Looking Backward”- a story that predicted credit cards, politics based on pop culture, and an American Utopia based on technology and individual choice taken to societal extremes. But where Bellamy would write a “passion” that created an almost “palpable barrier” between citizens and the culture they constructed out of America’s dreams, Sterling explores the outer fringes of a culture that Bellamy could only dream of. “This passion for losing ourselves in others or for absorbing them into ourselves” he wrote back at the turn of the 19th century, “is the greatest law of solidarity.” And indeed, Sterling’s latest fictions are an exploration of that theme inverted and remixed into an America frought with technological disruptions of the human condition most previous writers – even in speculative fiction – would have barely conceived.

In his most recent novel, Distraction, Sterling sets the scene in a mid 21st century America being torn apart by various economic, social, and political issues. I look out my window and think of the present moment as I write…. My laptop monitor flickers to life as I with the push of the “spacebar” banish the looping images of Bart Simpson scrolling across the now blank screen surface of my computer. The word “cyberpunk” at 5 a.m. draws a relative blank for me, and my computer has responded by going into screensaver mode. I look out the window and see a swimming pool several stories below me, and wistfully gaze out over the parking lots and swamp trees surrounding the hotel I’m staying in. A series of convergences, open texts, and a hot summer nite flash across my mind, the mental equivalent of the process my computer is going through. Tallahassee, Florida, and I’m on tour with a hip-hop M.C. named “Kool Keith” playing around the country to promote his album called “Black Elvis” to large crowds of kids dressed in all manner of costumes and ethnic backgrounds. Basically it feels like the future is here now – but I realize it was never gone, it too, was just another screensaver banished with the push of a button.

It’s the summer of 1999 and strange things have been happening. Reality as a Spike Jonze commercial. Reality as a Hype Williams video. Wars with smalltime European dictators are covered relentlessly by the press while far more devastating situations in Asia and Africa are rendered into filler between “jungle” soundtracked automobile commercials (or even Macintosh’s “Think Different” celebrity branding campain of the dead and the living). Switch channels, look at a different billboard and you might see a Chihuaha singing the praises of Taco Bell while hip-hop beats play in the background. Get the wrong e-mail, and you might even receive a worm virus that selectively deletes your entire address book – by propogating itself through your friends and colleagues. Record level droughts, an iceberg the size of the state of Rhode Island breaking off of Antartica 24 miles wide by 48 miles long, anti-resistant bacteria, genetically engineered crops, presidential politics as celebrity sports, etc. etc. I think you get the picture. There’s even stuff like the Black hardcore hip-hop M.C. DMX raising his hands at Woodstock in the symbol of an “X” above his head and yelling at the ocean of white people in front of him “how many of y’all niggas don’t give a fuck? Put your hands up!” and the crowd putting itself into a sea of symbols – X marking the spot of their ethnic meltdown at a festival meant to celebrate the dying values of 60’s counter culture that ended in a rainbow riot of smashed cash machines and burning concession stands. A strange telemetry seemed to be the driving force of the summer’s events – the list goes on: Presidents, Prime Ministers, the continuing break-down of the former super power known as the Soviet Union into all sorts of strange polities, white males going bonkers and shooting up kindergartens, highschools, and day-trading stock companies, etc. etc.

I could stop there, or I could mention the stunning popularity of movies like “The Matrix” and the “Blair Witch Project” that pointed to the psychological implosion of one of the prime American directives of the last two centuries – expansion at all costs – but that would be giving away the idea. Outter space in 1999 took a back seat to our own inner turmoils and fears (even Star Wars’s Phantom Menace, with its non-linear #3 version coming out before the other #1 and 2″ but after the other trilogies #7 and so on, kind of got the point), and in a sense, has created the backdrop to the kind of narrative milieux that Bruce Sterling inhabits and describes with ease. The signs are all there, but of course, they’re in real time, and quite, perhaps all too much, contemporary. I guess you could call it “Summer of Bruce.”

A long time ago J.G. Ballard, a writer that I feel is Sterling’s predecessor in many ways, wrote a simple statement that seems to drift over me like some sort of overlit neon expanse, a Times Square icon hanging on my screen as I write: “above all, science fiction is likely to be the only form of literature which will cross the gap between the dying narrative fictions of the present day, and the cassette and video tape fictions of the near future. ” In a world where Garth Brooks can create new recording personalities at whim, and where during a flight to Japan earlier this summer, I realized that I was flying Air Nippon’s Pokemon jet – a vehicle done over to completely mirror the environment of the video game of the same name, I realized, yes, it’s definitely been a Bruce Sterling summer.

Science fiction is a kind of psychological exploration of a fascination between science and technology, and in remarkable feat of prestidigitation, writers like Sterling, William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and Neal Stephenson, with bows to Octavia Butler, Thomas Disch, and Samuel Delaney, have always focused on the mutuality of science and the desires that it evokes and obeys. This century began with books like Olaf Stapledon’s classic Star Maker, George Schuyler’s Black No More and H.G. Well’s classics, and went from there to pulp fiction and Hollywood, only to close the circuit and arrive at the footsteps of people like Ursula K. Leguin and Micheal Moorcock – introverts who live through the multiple (for lack of a better word) “operatic” agency of the serial oriented stories they, as an almost mandarin like reflection/inversion of pulp culture. But where this crowd focused on the far future, or far past, the brand of sci-fi Sterling and Gibson pioneered was much closer to home. The loops holding the past, present, and future, were getting smaller, and their telemetry was beginning to go into narrow focus mode: Then this year we get Stephenson writing Cryptononomicon from the contemporary past, Sterling writing Distraction (like he almost always seems to do these days) about a closer cycle of near future narratives, and Gibson, remaining relatively mute while he still thrashes out the more Hollywood oriented nuances of the genre in his All Tommorows Parties.

But time waits for no man, and indeed all these different permutations of the American dream fade away when we see the huge sweeps of cautionary and speculative fiction in the form of videos and music albums laid out before us like some virtual feast that we can never leave, unsatisfied until the end of the cycle, you know, the “ctrl+alt+delete” for a forced quit/shutdown of your computer. But the screen will somehow someway turn on again. Strange loops take us into the mix of literary elements, some have more force than others, and in a sense, you could say Sterling is probably metaphorically speaking, about as strong as a black hole in this department. Like Pollack used to say, “it’s all in the process.” To describe Sterling’s work I really would like to use words like “autoreferentiality” “metasignifier” “narrative catalyst” and stuff like that, but that would destroy the poetry of the words he uses. One of my favorite theorists of the kind of cultural and economic flux that Sterling describes, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, wrote in her recent book Critique of Post-Colonial Reason that “simply put, culture alive is always on the run, always changeful… it is an absurd denial of history simply to ask for its prohibition…” In other words, shit happens, and like Harlan Ellison said at the height of the disco era back in 1977 about Sterling’s first novel: “Go. Rush inside and marvel at this kid named Sterling, 0.995 fine, who writes like a cynical angel….We owe it not so much to Sterling, but to ourselves, to make sure nothing gets in this man’s way as he tells us his stories. He enriches us.” Who am I to stand in the way? And now the interview:

Frontwheeldrive: Your work has everything utterly fragmented and involuted. Characters are extensions of a social reality where almost everything can be changed and attained. I think of the origins of sci-fi this century as opposed to the fictions of the past: unitary governments, reflections of imperial realities held together by the firm reigns of some centralized narrative, and basically at the end of the century, with your work, all of that has been thrown out the metaphorical window. What’s up?

Bruce Sterling: Well you know that’s a very interesting question, but it all went into the ether, because I couldn’t possibly repeat all of that. Let me see if I can rephrase it. Unless you wrote it down that piece of genius is lost to mankind. I think essentially what you were saying is how come my stuff is broken up into little pieces and is decentered and polyvalent, when if you read an H.G. Wells novel, it’s all about socialism is going to unify the world. Is this what you are saying basically? Okay, well my problem is I am a post-modernist, okay? I don’t believe in single, dominant narratives that have all the answers. I don’t believe in any kind of totalizing intellectual framework that offers an unchallengable center to human affairs. (?)… corners and holes in the wall and fractal structure and places where things are seeming to obey and going their own way.

FWD: I think that your “zone” of Sci-fi is far more open to how hybrid the world really is. It seems like America has been so frightened of truly realizing how intertwined it really is, that we’ve created fictions to hold out anything that couldn’t be assimilated. And that’s what, for me at least, makes your work have such a strong resonance with what’s actually going on. In Distraction the groups that create the fabric of the story have an almost cybernetic role… homeostasis, reflexivity… all of these issues are what Weiner and Claude Shannon would have described as parts of info theory. But for you they become narrative structure. Smart. Cool.

BS: Mixed cultures, mixed codes, he repeated helpfully. How do I see that as a narrative tool in my book? Moderators, Regulators. Well, I’ve hung out with government people, military people, and cop people and other sort of sub-cultures. And I think that every time, I mean they all present a kind of front as if they had all the answers and were in complete command and control. This is the impression that a soldier or a cop is very anxious to present to you. It’s part of what they call the atmosphere of deterrence. If you see a cop, all cops are like doctors or something. They are all in the state of total brotherhood and solidarity and they want to present a unified front to the outside world of Marx and criminals and dumb civilians and so forth. But once you are actually under the skin of an enterprise like this, you soon find that the stuff that cops are really upset about is rivalry with other cops. Like the Federal Bureau of Investigation hates and fears the United States Secret Service. Everybody despises the Internal Revenue Service. There are tremendous interservice rivalries. Then even if you get below that, you’ll soon find that there is stiff, internal competition among cliques within the FBI. Or you know there’s the Mormon Mafia within the FBI for instance, who were despised and feared by all other FBI agents.

FWD: Well, yeah, if you’re out in the world, you’d just think, well they have it all under control, and the situation is crazy ill. But then again, America’s ability to transform any culture is amazing. Politics and industry seem to get displaced in your work by biotech and America’s other main exports, entertainment and arms sales. But the internal policing of the U.S. is a whole different ballgame. I sometimes think of what J. Edgar Hoover must have been like. Extreme fracture points there…. but religion is such a wildcard these days. It’s really remixed America in ways we can’t even ascertain yet.

BS: Yeah, the Mormon Mafia, there are a buttload of Mormons in the FBI, for some reason the Bureau attracts Mormons. It’s not a politically correct thing to say, I’m sure without trying to make any religious allegations here. I can just say that it’s a matter of common knowledge in the FBI that the thing’s full of Mormons.

FWD: Wow. Well, that’s in tune with alot of your critique of ethnicity in the U.S., and it’s not a negative. It’s difficult to get a grip on how that affects law enforcement, but I would think in one way or another it does… It would make an incridible story, but it’s not something you would check out unless you were another law agency or a science fiction writer, eh? (sense of humor here)

BS: Yeah, well, why would you? Why should you have to? It’s not like you can exploit that knowledge to help yourself in any way. But within the FBI, this is just something that looms large, right? So I just don’t believe in the central thing. I mean, there is no quote government unquote. I mean, there’s an image of a government, but once you’re behind the image of the government you see it’s really all about bureaucratic in-fighting and interservice rivalries, and so forth and so on.

FWD: Polyphrenia, eh?

BS: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I think it is just more accurate to describe it in that way.

FWD: Fact and ficition blur in such a weird way these days. That’s what I love about your work. It looks at different cultural trajectories and extrapolates them in such a way that we arrive at some pretty wild places, but then again, who would have thought we would be able to land on the moon a hundred years ago, eh?

BS: I suppose it could be called the late tw-… It just reflects reality in a somewhat more exaggerated way. Yeah.

FWD: Is that what made you intrigued by the science fiction medium?

BS: What made me become a science fiction writer? Well, you know I couldn’t think of anything better to do. Really, that is pretty much the answer there. I mean I thought of…I got a degree in journalism, just writing. I mean there are things you can do to earn a living, science fiction isn’t high among them, generally. Like other forms of creative endeavors, a few people on the top are making millions, and then there are tons of people who are, you know, just trying to scrape the rent together, or they have day jobs. But, you know, I looked at other ways of earning a living, and I just didn’t care for any of them very much, and I don’t know, I just think it suits me pretty well. It really is kind of my metier.

FWD: Coming out of journalism gives you a way to explain things in a concrete way, and it gives your work a resonance with events that happened historically and create new situations out of totally different situations. You just have a great frame to bounce the events off of. That whole 1960’s “New Journalism” thing gets a serious re-working, eh?

BS: I guess so, but I just think that my own personality is well-suited to this line of work. I couldn’t really make it into sciences, per se, because I can’t concentrate long enough. I can write journalism, but I don’t really have that kind of nose for news that a top flight journalist has to have. A real journalist is a kind of guy who can go over to your house when your child has died in a car wreck and ask you for a photo. You know? And that’s really what’s required. There’s a toughness of mind there that a top flight journalist has to have. You know it’s like being in the army or something. You just can’t flinch when there’s blood all over the floor, and I don’t really have that. As journalists go, I’m like an art critic, just one of these kind of epistolary style essay writer guys.

FWD: I think that’s what makes travel so amazing in alot of your stories. The reader is really given an “overview” of the situations and geographic contexts they live and move through. I think it’s cool.

BS: Yes. Uh huh…yes… you are asking a question about travel here. I am trying to sum this up. Remember none of this is going down onto tape. (laughs) Yeah, you’re wondering why I am obsessed with travel stuff. Some critic pointed out, I think it was Paul DePhillipo but it might have been this other guy, he said that I was obsessed with mass-evacuations. And that hadn’t occurred to me. Somebody wrote that like five years ago, and I thought, yeah, I am obsessed with mass evacuations, and Distraction is full of places that have been evacuated. There are sort of post-disaster zones or places that were wiped out by giant tornados or places where everybody picked up and left. And another obsession of mine which somebody else pointed out, that bugged the hell out of me, cause I hadn’t been aware of it, was my early obsession with submarines. It’s like almost every book I wrote up til 1990, had a submarine in it at one point or another. And if it didn’t have a submarine, it had a hot air balloon, which when you think about, is kind of the functional equivalent of a submarine, right?

FWD: Depth psychology or something like that… but again, it really works and conveys a whole sense of culture on the move, and that’s what I see as being the “core” issue of “cyberpunk,” a term I think you coined, eh? But is there a narrative strategy, could there be another layer of meaning? Networks, displaced peoples, and nation states on the verge of being consumed within larger trading structures are also a recurring motif.

BS: Why? I can’t tell you. It’s like why is JG Ballard obsessed with empty swimming pools. I do travel a lot. When I was a teenager I was an oil-company kid, we were on and off of aircraft all the time. I went around the globe, I don’t know, it must have been, six or eight times before I turned twenty. And I think that world travel had a very formative influence on me. And even now, I log a lot of mileage. Like in the past three weeks, I have been in Turkey, Cyprus, Georgia, New York City.

FWD: Post Soviet/Russian federation Georgia?

BS: No, Georgia, USA, Atlanta. Yeah. Almost as exotic a place as Georgia, Russia, really. And I’m not even on tour or anything. This is just something I was doing in order to, I don’t know, amuse myself, or pick up some loose change.

FWD: I think that’s what makes alot of your work have such a gravitational pull… they’re almost like an extended dialog about how stories arise out of conflict. Dialog as dialectics or something like that, but done with great flair and the highest attention paid to detail. Hey, even the word jazz comes to mind sometime, and it’s derived from the French verb “jazzer” which means to “have a dialog.” Definitely a central motif in Distraction.

BS: Yeah. Well, it’s talkier than a lot of other books, because politicians talk a lot. They are always on tour and giving speeches, and there is always a message, and you’re on message for the day, right? I see this book as part of… it’s a linked series of books. It’s like Heavy Weather, Holy Fire, and Distraction are three books which are written with a very similar technique. They are very different from one another because they examine different aspects of human life. Like Heavy Weather is an eco-disaster novel, in wihch everybody is dealing with the consequences of some terrible catastrophe, or expecting one, or you know, trying to come to terms with it. And Holy Fire is about things like life extension and cosmetics. And Distraction is about politics and science. But they each have starring characters who personify the problem at hand, and then sort of go on a tour of fields of data, where they are behaving as our binoculars to examine the problem. So, they are very different books and have very different settings, are not formally linked in any way; they’re certainly not a trilogy, or any of that nonsense. They are related works. I am using the same techniques in each one. So, I haven’t done these three books in fairly short order, plus the short story collection. I wanted to get a lot done in the 90s. I really felt that I had a pretty good hold of how I was working these things out. I was pretty well up on the mountain side there and I wanted to drive a big set of petons(?) in there. But, now I think I am going to write some non-fiction here.

FWD: You’ve also written non-ficiton, again, with that hyper well researched flair you always bring to bear on whatever topic you choose. Your new stuff is on historical computer stuff, eh?

BS: Yeah, I’ve been working on this stuff…It’s been ten years since I had a non-fiction book out. So, every once in a while I like to sort of take a breather, go back, refresh myself, brush up my chomps, and then come back. Yes, that’s right. I’m trying to sell my Dead Media book now. I am doing a book on obsolescence in media. And I want to talk about media that are no longer used. You know, it’s a very hot thing in the DJ line of work. You see all these guys who are into analog synths, and there’s like this weird black market in like thermeotic valves and vacuum tubes, right? Because they are “spankier sounding.” They’re like “hard to get” now. There’s these digital guys who have these names now like DJ Black Ninja Electron, you know, as if they’d come from the twenty-third century. And you actually look at the stuff they’re using, and it’s like this weird, flaking crap out of the mid-70s that’s held together with duct tape.

FWD: It’s definitely a kind of “back to the future” type situation in the DJ scene. I can tell ya some stories sometime, but I gotta finish my own books before that happens… But the whole obsolete equipment issue is definitely going to be a bugged out reflection of culture in the early 21st Century, ’cause class, social hieararchy and info access seem to move so quickly but are all mutually reflective… it’s a situation that the industry creates for its own built-in time frames, and it all just filters down into the other zones of contemporary culture. That’s what I see in alot of your work, ya know?

BS: Yeah. Yeah… Well, I think these issues are going to come up pretty strong, I mean there are a lot of guys like Bureau of Low Technology… I think the history of electronics, the fact that a lot of electronics is old, and kind of fallen off the edge of the table… Time is on my side when it comes to the dead media thing. And by the time the book comes out, I would expect this to be becoming an issue. Dealing with the legacies of this sort of frenetic electronic explosion we’ve had…

FWD: Blank memory space filled with potential: think of Charles Babbages and Ada Lovelace’s “Difference Engine” and the whole steam engine calculating scene. I think it’s great that you work with so many other writers and have created a forum that is pretty much a group of people who are all open to issues that alot of other sci-fi writers can’t hold a candle to.

BS: I have written things with Gibson. The defining moment: What did Gibson, Sterling, and Neal Stephenson have in common? Okay, well, the thing that Gibson and Sterling have in common is that we are more or less, kinda the same age, and that we spend a lot of time sending faxes to each other. So, we share the same research material. Uh, Neal Stephenson, I don’t know, he read my stuff, he read Gibson’s stuff, but he’s seven years younger than I am, and I’m seven years younger than Gibson. We certainly didn’t have to bring this guy up by the seat of his pants, he just burst on the scene all by himself. I’m on good terms with Neal; I was over at Neal’s house during my most recent signing tour, and I respect him very much, but there really isn’t like a mafia linkage between us. The thing is he is just looking at the same things we are, and drawing the same conclusions. Cause if you look hard, it’s hard to miss. I would have to say that the world, and especially the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union, Russia, looks incredibly like the world William Gibson was describing in 1984, in Neuromancer. I mean I remember when Neuromancer came out, people were saying, “You know, how could this society possibly survive? There aren’t any honest people in this book. Nobody ever goes out in daylight, there’s no working stiffs!” It just seemed improbable and cartoon-like because every single person in Neuromancer is some kind of criminal. You know, they’ve all got some agenda and some hustle, and they just despise the government and the law enforcement agencies, utterly and totally. These sort of formal public entities just have received absolutely no respect whatsoever from the population. Right?

Well, that’s what Russia is right now, right? Everybody is a criminal and all the real activity is going on in these sort of large, spooky, mafia-style organizations, which aren’t corporations exactly, but they’re clearly behind the scenes pulling the strings. And the ability of the common Joe in Russia to get a handle on, let’s say Boris Berezovsky’s media empire, is just as distant as, let’s say Automatic Jack in a Gibson story trying to raid Mitsubishi Genetech. Right, I mean it’s really a very, very, very Gibsonian milieu. And it’s not the United States. But hey, it is a former super power. So, if you look at other science fiction that was being written at the time, and you try and compare Neuromancer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a great science fiction movie and everything, but hey, it’s almost 2001, right? We ought to be on a Pan Am clipper to the moon by now. We should be wearing velcro shoes and contacting aliens and monoliths. You seen any monoliths around lately? You seen any zero gravity stewardesses with velcro moon boots? No, you haven’t seen any of those. Have you seen like, down and dirty guys in lofts who are making their living by like assembling big pieces of semi-legal electronic equipment? Yeah, you’ve seen plenty of those guys! Haven’t you? They’re kind of like pirates, and you know they’ve got MP3 websites where you don’t have to like pay for other people’s music and shit. How many of those guys do you know?

FWD: I know alot of those types, but like you say, a lot of people don’t…

BS: Can you even count the number of guys like that that you know? You know, probably not. And every one of them looks like a character out of a Gibson novel. They’re hanging around in their shirtsleeves; they’re buying used equipment down at the junk store. There’s a whole class of these characters! They don’t necessarily break into banks, or steal data by penetrating the black ice or any of that kind of shit, but they certainly look a lot more… I mean the world of 1999 looks a hell of a lot more like a William Gibson novel than it does like an Arthur Clark novel. It’s that simple. And why? Because he was looking at things that Clark wasn’t looking at. Clark was spending all his time with Werner Von Braun, and Gibson was spending all his time listening to Velvet Underground albums and haunting junk stores in Vancouver. And, you know, it’s just a question of you are what you eat. And the guy who had a different diet than science fiction writers that preceded him.

FWD: Like I’ve said earlier the whole thing reminds me a little of how different themes pass from author to author, and then on through to the audience. Have you checked out Jack Womack’s Let’s Put the Future Behind Us? Like you were saying, Distraction is about a fallen U.S., Let’s Put the future Behind Us is kind of a fallen Russia story. Great piece of ficiton by the way…

BS: So, right…yeah, I know him…yeah, he’s a good friend of Gibson’s…they spend a lot of time together. He lives up in New York…Kentucky guy…wrote a pretty good Russian novel, spent some time in Russia… That’s a very good book, it’s really like a Bulgakhov novel. It’s one of the best Russian novels a Russian never wrote.

FWD: It’s an open situation ’cause of this way of recording the conversation. This is kind of fun. Kind of an “erase yourself in ’99” type thing. Only your voice on the tape, mine is just a memory from a couple months in the future. heh, heh.

BS: Yeah…right…Well, man, there’ll be my conversation. There’s not going to be a lot of your conversation. You are going to have to reinvent your conversation (laughs).

FWD: I’m really into the way you use art to highlight technology. Very few sci-fi writers do that. What makes alot of your work a powerful description of tools we use to create imaginary objects that don’t even exist yet is that I think you explore the psychology behind tool use. And that’s what made cyberpunk so interesting when it first hit the scene. I think that Holy Fire’s characters interaction with art is some of the best stuff I’ve seen outside of Samuel Delaney. And I’m a huge Delaney fan.

BS: Yes…well, Holy Fire is my art novel. It is kinda my valentine to the electronic arts crowd…Engineers have no taste, right? And science fiction is mostly written by and for engineers. That’s really about gizmos and like “how do I get my hand on this gizmo?” But there are many things that are intriguing about art, and I take art very seriously, but the forms of art that I myself find most exciting are machine-mediated forms of art, like photography. Which is an art form you can’t do without a gizmo. And now there’s all types of computer art, web art,, which are all gizmo-oriented. So, in a way art is very technosized now. It’s all about the equipment, right? It’s all about the return key and so forth. So this makes it possible to technically speculate about art. You can think about art the way an engineer would think now. And that’s an exciting thing for me. I am interested in design and I’m interested in areas in the crevasse between the arts and sciences, or between art and engineering. And I think that’s where our society has kind of hidden all the oxygen. Now it’s in that paradox, that paradoxical area between CP Snow’s two cultures. There’s a kind of ontological outlawry there. It interests me to see what artists choose to put their mitts on. So, my experience there is that whenever a device falls off the back of a truck and kind of falls out of engineers’ hands, that when artists appropriate it. It’s like guys who collect old medical instruments. You wouldn’t want to go and collect modern medical instruments because, hey they’re for a doctor. But Victorian medical instruments, which are now kind of obsolete and mysterious suddenly become very aestheticized. Their beauty becomes apparent because they no longer have any use. It’s like a dental instrument hasn’t actually wrenched a bloody molar out of a guy’s head in about a hundred years, so now the leather case is pretty, and the fact that you no longer know what certain devices are for, lends them a kind of mystery now, and they become kind of romanticized. I think that is an important phenonmenon: things moving from the realm of the medical or the industrial or the engineering realm into the the realm of the poetic, the abstract and the arty. In a way it shows that the arty is carnivorous. In a weird kind of way it is stronger than the engineering because it gets to feed on the leavings of the other one. I mean, engineering doesn’t feed on dead art, but art can feed on dead engineering. So, there’s something very provocative going on there. I mean, the strength of art is underestimated. So, I think about art seriously, and I like to think about the future of art, the long term future of art, like what might art be like 200 years from now. There’s never been a time when we were without it. There are tremendous cave paintings from 20,000 years ago.

FWD: Art is just another code, and those paintings were all ritual based, just like contemporary culture. Different time, different tools. But they are amazing works.

BS: Yeah, you know, fuckin-A! Theyre good. So, I think that although the rhetoric of art changes over the years, the urge to do something arty is an enormously powerful, almost sexual urge, and that’s something I take very seriously. My question is why do I write novels instead of just going out and getting a job at Dell? I mean I could do that. Dell’s the guy… Bill Gates is almost exactly my age. We’re a few months apart. I’m of Gates’ generation. Why didn’t I go and join a tech startup and have an initial public offering and try and become a computer guy? The whole reason is because I am a fucking artist, okay? You know, that’s what I want to do. That’s what gratifies me.

Originally published on DJ

Frontwheeldrive Summer Reading Recommendations

Subject: [frontwheeldrive] It’s all about the books!
Date: Friday, July 7, 2006 2:30 PM
From: roy christopher

Hello, Everyone:

Well, it’s summer time and at, summer is all about the books. We gathered up a bunch of our friends and put together a new Summer Reading List, and there are a bunch of new book reviews to check out as well. Read on.


_ Summer Reading List, 2006:
After a year off, it’s back: The Summer Reading List. Here’s hoping you were able to get through last summer without us. Contributors this time around include veterans like Cynthia Connolly and Gary Baddeley, as well as newcomers like Tim Mitchell and Val Renegar. Many thanks to all who sent me their suggestions. Enjoy! [by the staff and friends of]


_ ‘The Handbook of Sociological Theory’ Edited by Jonathan H. Turner (Springer) and Philosophy of the Social Sciences by Patrick Baert (Polity):
The Handbook of Sociology Theory is a monster. Editor Jonathan Turner jokingly calls it an “arm book” instead of a “handbook,” and at 745 pages, it‚s really no joke. Instead of compiling a compendium of old, dusty standards, Turner gathered the newest, most-viable theories in sociology, “with an eye to capturing the diversity of theoretical activity.” [by roy christopher]

_ Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel DVD Directed by Gandulf Hennig (Rhino): In some circles, Gram Parsons is a certified legend. In others, he is virtually unknown. Gandulf Hennig’s ‘Fallen Angel’ documentary will enlighten the latter to the opinion of the former. Even if you know his basic story, love his music, or know nothing about him, this DVD offers plenty of revelations about his short but prolific existence. [by roy christopher]

_ Literary Conversations and Interviews with Filmmakers
Edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw and Peter Brunette, respectively (University Press of Mississippi):
The University Press of Mississippi has been quietly putting out an amazing catalog of books for years now. One such set is their Literary Conversations Series (edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw) that consists of interviews and essays with modern literature‚s most fascinating authors. I got Don DeLillo, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and Jack Kerouac, but the series also includes Tom Wolfe, August Wilson, Robert Penn Warren, Gore Vidal, Ray Bradbury, Gloria Naylor, R. Crumb, Audre Lorde, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among many others. [by roy christopher]

_ ‘Sticker Nation’ by Srini Kumar (Disinformation): I don‚t know how most people feel about stickers, but they make me get all smiley. Sticker Nation contains over 400 stickers emblazoned with subversive themes. Classic slogans like “Let the good times roll,” “Express yourself,” and “Power to the people” are peppered amongst “I just changed the world,” “Listen to Marshall McLuhan,” “Eat more veggies,” and “Talk nerdy to me.” My personal favorite is “When I hit the drum, you shake the booty,” but it’s difficult to have a favorite when there are so many good ones in here. [by roy christopher]

‘Why Societies Need Dissent’ by Cass R. Sunstein (Harvard University Press):
In ‘Why Societies Need Dissent’, Cass R. Sunstein illustrates the powers and dangers of dissent through a clear and concise exposition of three basic phenomena: conformity, social cascades, and group polarization. His epistemological view of conformity shows how we tend to learn less first-hand than from what others think and believe. Social cascades occur when a meme, carried by early-adopters, reaches its tipping point. Group polarization shows how extreme views become more extreme in group deliberations. [by roy christopher]

_ ‘The Essential Frankfurt School Reader’ Edited by Andrew Arato and Eike
Gebhardt (Continuum):
The Frankfurt School has been somewhat of a mystery to me. Mentioned in nearly half the books I read, their thought is synonymous with critical theory. I’ve gotten a lot of secondhand exposure to the school, and I‚ve read a fair amount of Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, and Marcuse, but I‚ve never felt a full grasp of the movement. Well, ‘The Essential Frankfurt School Reader’ is here to fix that. It fills the holes and explicates the missing pieces. [by roy christopher]

Here’s to a great summer of reading and growing.

Hope all is well with all of you,

roy christopher |
Editor |

INTERVIEW: Speaking with the Dead, Philip K. Dick by Erik Davis

This interview was originally published on on July 14, 2003. It is here republished with permission.

After spending the bulk of his life cranking out pulp paperbacks for peanuts, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is now finally recognized as one of the most visionary authors the genre has ever produced. While masterminds like Arthur C. Clarke anticipated technological breakthroughs, Dick, whose speed-ravaged heart called it quits in 1982 when the man was only 53, foresaw the psychological turmoil of our posthuman lives, as we enter a world where machines talk back, virtual reality rules, and God is a product in the check-out line.

Dick’s fractured and darkly funny novels have left their mark on video games and rock bands, avant-garde theater and electronic opera. But his influence has been particularly profound in Hollywood. Ridley Scott turned Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into Blade Runner, one of the most powerful SF films of all time. A 1966 short story formed the basis of the Schwarzenegger hit Total Recall, and Steven Spielberg turned Dick’s tale “Minority Report” into his darkest flick yet. The reality slips and cartoon metaphysics of The Matrix are thoroughly indebted to Dick, and his spirit hangs heavy over Richard Linkletter’s astounding Waking Life.

In the course of my current researches into techgnostic religious phenomena, I was experimenting with electronic voice phenomena. I was recording the analog noise between tracks on a scratchy old copy of Karl Muck conducting Parzifal with the Bayreuth Festival Chorus onto a cassette tape. Then I would cut, splice, and process the tape in various ways, and then listen to the results. On the third attempt I heard a voice that I recognized, from a tape once available through the Philip K. Dick Society, as belonging to the late science fiction writer. More incredible was my discovery that, by recording my own questions on the same cassette tape, I was able to initiate a genuine dialogue with this mysterious voice. Subsequent research proved, however, that all of the quotations have already made an appearance somewhere in Dick’s fiction, letters, or essays. Nonetheless, the conversation seems worth presenting:

frontwheeldrive: Mr. Dick, the world has only been getting stranger since you left us. We are surrounded with clones, identity theft, patented genes, faster-than-light particles, Aibo, and obsessive virtual gaming. Some scientist in England promises to build a chip called a “soul catcher” that will sit behind your eyeballs and record your life. Doesnt all this sound strangely familiar?

Philip K. Dick: Over the years it seems to me that by subtle but real degrees the world has come to resemble a PKD novel. Several freaks have even accused me of bringing on the modern world by my novels.

FWD: How exactly would you characterize those novels?

PKD: My writing deals with hallucinated worlds, intoxicating and deluding drugs, and psychosis. But my writing acts as an antidote, a detoxifying, not intoxicating, antidote.

FWD: After years of neglect, most of your books are back in print. Even so, you remain best known as the guy who wrote the book they based Blade Runner on.

PKD: I’ve been calling it “Road Runner.”

FWD: Heh. What did you think when you first saw that rainy, claustrophobic cityscape?

PKD: I thought, by God, these guys have figured out what life is going to be like forty years from now. My God! It’s like everything you hate about urban life now, escalated to the level of Dante’s Inferno. You can’t even run in the future, there’s so many people milling around, doing nothing.

FWD: Today it seems as if your work will live on through the movies. How was your own experience working with Hollywood?

PKD: They buy and sell human beings. It’s like it says in the Bible about Bablyon, they sell pearl, ivory, and the souls of men. And that is exactly what it going on in Hollywood, they deal with the souls of human beings.

FWD: Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise made the movie “Minority Report” out of one of your stories. Spielberg calls it a “gourmet popcorn” movie. Does this mean you wrote gourmet popcorn fiction?

PKD: I do seem attracted to trash, as if the clue lies there.

FWD: What do mean, “the clue”?

PKD: The symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum.

FWD: That’s one of the strongest messages in your fiction, that religious and mystical forces keep breaking into our mundane, technological world. What questions can we ask ourselves to keep us tuned into to these higher forces?

PKD: The two basic topics that fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?”

FWD: But people have been hashing out these puzzles for millennia. Isn’t the shifting nature of reality just good fodder for science fiction?

PKD: The problem is a real one, not merely an intellectual game.

FWD: How so?

PKD: Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. We are bombarded with pseudorealities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms.

FWD: Most of these people aren’t trying to rule the world, though. I don’t buy that big conspiracy view. People just want to make a buck.

PKD: I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power.

FWD: But if people’s motives aren’t so bad, what’s wrong with them using virtual technologies to spread their messages?

PKD: The bombardment of pseudorealities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly. Fake realities will create fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland. You can have the Pirate Ride or the Lincoln Simulacrum or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride — you can have all of them, but none is true.

FWD: Some people believe that conscious machines are just around the corner. What happens when the President Lincoln robot at Disneyland wakes up? Will he believe he’s real?

PKD: I once wrote a story about a man who was injured and taken to a hospital. When they began surgery on him, they discovered that he was an android, not a human, but that he did not know it. They had to break the news to him. Almost at once, Mr. Garson Poole discovered that his reality consisted of punched tape passing from reel to reel in his chest. Fascinated, he began to fill in some of the punched holes and add new ones. Immediately his world changed. A flock of ducks flew through the room when he punched one new hole in the tape. Finally he cut the tape entirely, whereupon the world disappeared.

FWD: If I remember correctly, the world also disappeared for the other characters in the story.

PKD: Which makes no sense, if you think about it. Unless the other characters were figments in his punched-tape fantasy. Which I guess is what they were.

FWD: So what’s the message?

PKD: If I control my reality tape, I control reality. At least so far as I am concerned.

FWD: Philosophically, that sort of solipsism has always been an irrefutable option. But as we learn how to manipulate the biological wiring of the brain, those philosophical issues become practical problems.

PKD: I wonder if you recall the “brain mapping” developed by Penfield. He was able to locate the exact centers of the brian from which each sensation, emotion, and response came. By stimulating one minute area with an electrode, a laboratory rat was transfigured into a state of perpetual bliss.

FWD: Recently Persinger has found similar results for religious ecstasy. Maybe that’s how we finally bring spirituality back into our technoscientific society. The funny thing is that when people hear about these discoveries, they can’t help imagining all sorts of fiendish forms of mind control. What’s stopping, say, the government from using this kind of technology?

PKD: Well, the government would have to let out a contract for the manufacture of a billion sets of electrodes, and in their customary way, they would award the contract to the lowest bidder, who would build substandard electrodes out of secondhand parts. The technicians implanting the electrodes in the brains of millions upon millions of people would become bored and careless, and, when the switch would be pressed for the total population to feel profound grief at the death of some government official, it would all get folded up, and the population, like that laboratory rat, would go into collective seizures of merriment.

FWD: Heh heh. For someone reputed to be paranoid, you seem remarkably unplussed.

PKD: Paranoia, I think, is a modern day development of an ancient, archaic sense that animals still have that they’re being watched. Imagine you’re a mole, walking across the field. You gotta have a sixth sense that something’s overhead, cruising, like a hawk.

FWD: Or like a satellite. Today the “hawks” that watch us are not other people so much as recording and surveillance devices. What do you say?

PKD: The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you. Instead of “My boss is plotting against me,” it would be “My boss’s phone is plotting against me.”

FWD: So as machines become more interactive and intelligent, we become more archaic and animistic.

PKD: A native of Africa is said to view his surroundings as pulsing with a purpose, a life, that is actually within himself. Within the past decade, our environment — and I mean our man-made world of machines — is beginning to possess what the primitive sees in his environment: animation. In a very real sense our environment is becoming alive, or at least quasi-alive, and in ways specficially and fundamentally analogous to ourselves.

FWD: You could say that while humans once saw themselves reflected in the natural world, we now find ourselves reflected in machines. Is this a new development?

PKD: What could a man living in 1750 have learned about himself by observing the behavior of a donkey steam engine? Could he have watched it huffing and puffing and then extrapolated from its labor an insight into why he himself continutally fell in love with one certain type of pretty young girl? This would not have been primitive thinking on his part; it would have been pathological. But now we find ourselves immersed in a world of our own making so intricate, so mysterious, that as Stanislaw Lem, the eminent Polish science fiction writer, theorizes, the time may come when, for example, a man may have to be restrained from attempting to rape a sewing machine.

FWD: It doesn’t even seem possible to separate the organic from the technological any more.

PKD: This is going to be our paradigm: my character Hoppy, in Dr. Bloodmoney, who is a sort of human football within a maze of servo-assists. Part of that entity is organic, but all of it is alive; part came from a womb, all lives. One day we will have millions of hybrid entities that have a foot in both worlds at once. To define them as “man” versus “machine” will give us verbal puzzle games to play with. What is and will be a real concern is: Does the composite entity, does he behave in a human way?

FWD: I don’t follow you here. Give me an example.

PKD: Many of my stories contain purely mechanical systems that display kindness–taxicabs, for instance, or the little rolling carts at the end of Now Wait For Last Year that that poor defective human builds. “Man” or “human being” are terms that we must understand correctly and apply, but they apply to a way of being in the world. If a mechanical construct halts in its customery operation to lend you assistance, then you will posit to it, gratefully, a humanity that no analysis of its transistors and relay systems can elucidate.

FWD: But if machines becomes more human, what happens to our ideas of human agency?

PKD: As the external world becomes more animate, we may find that we–the so-called humans — are becoming, and may to a great extent always have been, inanimate in the sense that *we* are led, directly by built-in tropisms, rather than leading. So we and our elaborately evolving computers may meet each other halfway.

FWD: And what happens then? How would you tell that story?

PKD: Someday a human being, perhaps named Fred White, may shoot a robot named Pete Something-or-Other, which has come out of a General Electric factory, and to his surprise see it weep and bleed. And the dying robot may shoot back and, to its surprise, see a whisp of grey smoke arise from the electric pump that it supposed was Mr. White’s beating heart. It would be a rather great moment of truth for both of them.

FWD: If the future had a slogan, what would it be?

PKD: “God promises eternal life. We can deliver it.”

FWD: What worries you most about our deepening embrace of technology?

PKD: The reduction of humans to mere use–men made into machines. I think of Tom Paine’s comment about one or another party of the Europe of his time, “They admired the feathers and forgot about the dying bird.” And it is the “dying bird” that I am concerned with. The dying bird of authentic humanness.

FWD: So what is an “authentic human”?

PKD: The viable, elastic organism that can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.

FWD: Some people believe that our machines may soon prove themselves even more capable of elasticity and novelty than ourselves.

PKD: We are perhaps the true machines. And those objective constructs, the natural objects around us and especially the electronic hardware we build, they may be cloaks for authentic living reality inasmuch as they may participate more fully in the ultimate Mind.

FWD: So technology may actually be staging the emergence of a higher state of consciousness. Why is this happening now?

PKD: Information has become alive, with a collective mind of its own independent of our brains.

FWD: I see. Many people argue that memes are already a form of living information, but they draw none of the religious or metaphysical conclusions you do. How do you respond?

PKD: What does this mean, to say that an idea or a thought is literally alive? And that it seizes on men here and there and makes use of them to actualize itself into the stream of human history? Perhaps the pre-Socratic philosophers were correct: the cosmos is one vast entity that thinks. It may in fact do nothing but think.

FWD: So the building blocks of the cosmos are not matter or energy, but information.

PKD: The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. We ourselves are information-rich; information enters us, is processed and is then projected outward once more, now in an altered form. Since the universe is actually composed of information, then it can be said that information will save us. This is the saving gnosis which the Gnostics sought.

FWD: Yowza. But the world is so terribly screwed up. How do you explain that?

PKD: We appear to be memory coils, DNA carriers capable of experience, in a computer-like thinking system. Although we have correctly recorded and stored thousands of years of experiential information, there is a malfunction of memory retrieval. There lies the trouble.

FWD: At the same time, you suggest that information can save us. But I don’t understand how information wins in a world defined by entropy and decay.

PKD: Here is an example. A new ambulance is filled with gasoline and parked. The next day it is examined. The finding is that its fuel is virtually gone and its moving parts are slightly worn. This appears to be an instance of entropy, of loss of energy and form. However, if one understands that the ambulance was used to take a dying person to a hospital where his life was saved, then one can see that through hierarchical outranking there was not only no loss but in fact a net gain. The net gain, however, can only be measured outside the closed system of the new ambulance. Each victory by God as intelligence and will is obtained by this escalation of levels of subsumation, and in no other way.

FWD: You’re talking about emergent phenomena, the “holons” that Arthur Koestler and Ken Wilber describe. Does this nested process help explain what’s happening with technology and globalization? It seems to me that nobody really understands what’s been unleashed.

PKD: I think we’re getting a restricted view of actual patterns. And the restricted view says that people do things deliberately, in concert, where in truth there are patterns than emanate from beyond people. What we don’t realize is that the billions of discrete and entirely ego-oriented left-hemisphere brains have far less to say about the ultimate disposition of the world than does the collective Mind in which each of us shares. It will decide.

FWD: So what do we do in the meantime? How do we embrace the change without losing ourselves?

PKD: Do not believe — and I am dead serious when I say this — do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accomodate change, we ourselves will begin to die, inwardly.

FWD: So you don’t hold out much hope for business as usual.

PKD: I can’t seriously believe that much of our cultural pattern or physical assets will survive the next fifty years.

FWD: That sounds pretty pessimistic.

PKD: You have to consider that we’re only made out of dust. That’s admittedly not much to go on and we shouldnt forget that. But even considering, I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad.

FWD: Finally, you’ve had twenty years to contemplate the universe from the afterlife. Do you have an answer yet? Do you know what reality is?

PKD: Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.


INTERVIEW: “Play as Research,” an Interview with Eric Zimmerman by Roy Christopher


This interview was originally published on on June 7, 2004. It is here republished with permssion.

Steven Johnson calls him “the Lou Reed of the new gaming culture.” Eric Zimmerman hops through the realms of game design, academe, writing, game advocacy, and entrepreneurship as if he’s playing a game of hopscotch. And — in a lot of ways — he is. He’s spent the last decade designing award-winning games, teaching at places like MIT, New York University, School of Visual Arts, and Parsons School of Design at the New School University, as well as writing continuously about gaming — much of which can be seen in four recent books: RE: Play (Peter Lang), Rules of Play, First Person, and Brenda Laurel’s Design Research (MIT Press). In 2000, he and Peter Lee founded the game development company gameLab, which develops games for the computer and beyond. Eric’s work is based largely on a concept of ‘play as research’ — sort of a playful adaptation of Paul Feyerabend’s anarchist epistemology — and he’s a strong advocate for this concept in academic research, in game design, and in the workplace.

frontwheeldrive: At gameLab, you’ve fostered a “play as research” plan. For the uninitiated, can you briefly lay out your tenets for a creative design research environment?

Eric Zimmerman: In a game, the game designer makes the rules. But the game designer doesn’t directly create the player’s experience. The way that the rules play out, once people enter into the system and start playing around, is usually uncertain and surprising — especially if you’ve got a good game on your hands.

In creating a company culture, gameLab co-founder Peter Lee and I have carried this idea outward into thinking about how games are not just played, but made. In other words, for us gameLab is a structure that is designed to create unexpected and surprising staff experiences and resulting design artifacts.

On a practical level, that means a number of things, from a design process that emphasizes prototyping and iterative playtesting, to an office environment where each staff member has a monthly allowance to buy something — anything — for the company research library. Play should sometimes be undirected, and staff members are expected to spend about 10% of their time (half a day a week) playing videogames, surfing the web, horsing around with toys, and otherwise just playing.

Having worked in design for companies in various states of corporate control and clientele, I am completely sold on your ideas about the creative environment, but I’m also aware of the resistance or apathy to these ideas evident in these environments. How should designers go about convincing their employers of the import of a creative and stimulating design culture?

That’s a really tough one. In my experience, if the company culture isn’t already healthy when you enter, very little is going to change it. I’d consider voting with my feet and finding another company that supports the kind of work experience you’re looking for.

But I realize that’s not always possible. So what to do? The key to creating a culture of design research is fostering relationships between the inside and the outside of the company — to find opportunities that let culture seep into the company and vice versa. If lobbying the higher-ups doesn’t work, then just start doing. Try to organize a reading group, or a board game night, or a movie field trip — even if your boss isn’t officially sponsoring or condoning the event. (Remember, don’t do these things gratuitously, but be strategic and make sure they’re relevant to your work.) If you’re lucky, the positive effects on your company’s work and the office environment will be noticed.

In your essay in First Person you gallantly attempt to define specific terms about gaming and move forward in a sort of Wittgensteinian language game. Do you see these debates as an infinite regress, or is there a foundation in there somewhere?

No and no. (Was that a trick question?) For a designer, the value of a concept or definition is not its scientific accuracy, but instead its ability to solve problems. So for me attempts at definition don’t aim to ultimately once and for all define a “game” or “play” or whatever complex term you like. Instead, it may be useful in part of a design process to be able to tell the difference between “game” and “play.” Or not. Every designer has his or her own way of working and opinion about just what a “useful” concept is.

On a different level, I think that definitions are important for education, for critical debate, for scholars, for journalists, for cross-disciplinary research, etc. There’s no doubt that in other design fields, such as architecture, there has been all kinds of exchange between “theory” and “practice.” What I’d like to see in games isn’t a single set of definitions, but whole ecosystems of competing ideas, concepts, and ways of understanding. That can’t but help make better games.

We talk about gaming a lot in academia (i.e., “gaming” different scholarly situations). I’ve adapted my own ideas about it from James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games. Do you find gaming metaphors spilling over into other areas of your life as well?

In my scholarly work, I really do try to look at games as games, and not as something else. But games to me are so fascinating and complex, it’s hard not to apply them elsewhere. For example, a game for me is a model of a good friendship, relationship, or collaboration. The commonly accepted rules of games establish an agreed-upon “frame” for the playful, productive conflict of the game to occur. Without that frame, you’ve got raw conflict. With that frame, the spontaneous, creative, and ecstatic struggle of the game can take place. Of course, not everyone thinks that a good relationship is a context for productive conflict. But that’s just the game designer in me, I suppose.

Is there anything on which you’re working that you’d like to mention here?

Yes! Big things are afoot at gameLab. This fall, we’ll be unveiling a brand new direction for the company. Sorry to be cryptic, but I can’t yet tell you exactly what it is. However, I will say this: the work we do transverting rules into play doesn’t just happen within a game, or as part of the company environment, but hopefully within larger social spheres as well. The idea is not just to play with a game, but create games that play with culture at large. When more games are doing this, then I won’t have to be the loyal opposition to the gaming world — I can just be loyal. Stay tuned.

And keep on playin’.

Originally published on Front Wheel Drive on 06072004