February 20, 1996

'Escape Velocity': Interesting Look at Cyberculture


They are visions of the future, straight out of a science fiction novel or a "Twilight Zone" episode. The development of human-level artificial intelligence leads to enormous leaps in robot evolution, which leads in turn to a "post-human" universe presided over by godlike machines.

Advances in virtual-reality technology enable individuals to have cybersex with any man, woman or creature of their choosing, while at the same time allowing them to choose the style, color and material of their own bodies.

The implantation of miniaturized computers in the body not only helps to correct physical defects but also enhances human capabilities, resulting in beings who are half human, half machine. The ability to download consciousness into a computer finally frees people from their bodies, signifying the next great leap forward in human evolution.

Such scenarios aren't the fantasies of a novelist or screenwriter, however; they are predictions of what the near future will bring, at least as that future is envisioned by the cyberculture experts interviewed by Mark Dery, a journalist, in his fascinating new book "Escape Velocity."

The title, of course, refers to the speed at which a spacecraft overcomes the gravitational pull of the earth, and it becomes a metaphor in this volume for the dazzling speed at which computers and related technology are transforming our material and emotional lives, as well as for the willful determination of many so-called cyberists to push the envelope of human experience, to embrace the fruits of technological progress no matter what the costs.

To explore the latest trends in the digital revolution and their possible consequences for society at large, Dery focuses not on the huge companies like Microsoft that are bringing computers to the mainstream of American life, but on the fringes of cyberculture: on avant-garde roboticists, cyberpunk novelists, virtual reality designers, "body-art" performance artists, "cyber-hippies" and "technopagans."

Dery writes with considerable knowledge and authority about these bizarre subcultures, using the critical theories of Bataille, Foucault and Baudrillard (not to mention McLuhan) to situate them in context with other developments in our postmodern culture.

His writing, however, is happily, sometimes even exuberantly nonpedantic. In fact, he manages to give the lay reader a lively and informative tour through the darker recesses of cyberculture, navigating its jargon-filled byways with an observant eye and a healthy skepticism regarding its messianic message.

Not surprisingly, many of the cyberworlds that Dery explores have roots in the hippy movement of the '60s or the human-potential movement of the '80s. Members of the "cyberdelic counterculture" -- perhaps best represented by the magazine Mondo 2000 -- believe in "high-jacking technology for personal empowerment, fun and games." So-called "technopagans" apparently regard the computer in more spiritual terms, as a vehicle of sorts for connecting with the communal mind, as a machine for talking to God.

The New Age belief in self-improvement, in the infinite perfectability of man (or woman) also animates the thinking of physicians and scientists interested in the construction of "morphs" and "borgs."

Morphing, says Dery, isn't confined to Hollywood movies like "Terminator 2" (in which the evil T-1000 android makes quicksilver changes from shape to shape): transsexuals and cosmetic surgery veterans like Michael Jackson, he argues, can be regarded as morphs as well.

As for "borgs" (creatures that combine human and machine elements), they seem to have stepped out of television shows like "The Six Million Dollar Man" into real life in the form of patients who have had pacemakers, artificial hips and myoelectric arms surgically implanted in their bodies.

As research proceeds on devices like the implantable electric heart, Dery suggests, the line between human and computer will become increasingly blurred; already, he adds, avatars of the human-potential movement have concocted "therapeutic techniques that conceive of the mind as a 'biocomputer,' capable of being reprogrammed with the right commands."

An obsession with the human body (and its obsolescence) pervades the cybercultures depicted by Dery. He argues that bodybuilding has become newly popular because it "reasserts the validity of human brawn in an age of intelligent machines," that tattooing and other acts of "body modification" like nose and nipple piercing signal "the alienation of the body" it embellishes and that the "body art" practiced by cyberpunk performance artists like Stelarc (who has wired himself up with electrodes and robotic arms on stage) attests to "the human-machine hybrid all of us are metaphorically becoming."

In performance, Dery writes, Stelarc seems "less a man than the organic nerve center of a cybernetic system": in fact, "he literalizes our vision of ourselves as terminal beings, inextricably entangled in the global telecommunications web."

The "body loathing" demonstrated by these people has already begun to seep into the mainstream as virtual reality becomes increasingly popular and as "text sex" (as sex on the Internet is called) begins to replace old-fashioned sex in the flesh.

This notion that we can escape our bodies, the belief (or wish) that we are simply an evolutionary step on the way to becoming pure mind, Dery astutely argues, has serious implications for how we conduct our lives in the present.

Not only do cyberist visions of a brave new future deny the very conditions that make us human (our mortality, our flesh-and-blood links to others), but they also distract us from the problems of the real world: "the devastation of nature, the unraveling of the social fabric and the widening chasm between the technocratic elite and the minimum-wage masses."

"As we hurtle toward the millennium, poised between technological rapture and social rupture, between Tomorrowland and 'Blade Runner,' " Dery writes, "we would do well to remember that -- for the foreseeable future, at least -- we are here to stay, in these bodies, on this planet. The misguided hope that we will be born again as 'bionic angels,' to quote Mondo 2000, is a deadly misreading of the myth of Icarus. It pins our future to wings of wax and feathers."


"Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century"

By Mark Dery

376 pages. Grove Press. $23.

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