In the computer is a space where anyone can hear you scream. Thom Dibdin talks to DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF about his new book Cyberia, a dive into the fractal landscape of hyperspace.
ome 25 years after the LSD revolution, California was again at the centre of a major change in the way that people observe their surrounding reality. This time. however. the doors of perception were opening not only fora few hedonistic drug users, but potentially for all industrialised societies and the rest of the world too, if they wanted it.
Journalist Douglas Rushkoff went to California in 1990, following a story about LSD-crazed computer hackers breaking into all sorts of dangerous places. What he found over the next two years was a way of life that had come about from the confluence of a succession
Without a net
E“ i I Douglas Rushkoff
of seemingly disparate effects. Yes, the computers were there. so were the drugs. but there was also a philosophy and a culture.
The society which Rushkoff discovered he has named Cyberia. His book of the same name is a sort of travelogue into that world: the interface between computer technology and our modern society. It encompasses the Internet. raves. higher mathematics. Gaia and. at its extreme edges. mystical beliefs in a post millennium apocalypse. ‘Hokum!’ you might retort. And the extremes are just that. but at its centre, there are very real experiences.
‘This is a book written for people of my parents‘ generation.‘ explains 33-year-old Rushkoff in the somewhat incongruous surroundings of Edinburgh’s Roxburgh Hotel tea room. ‘I wrote it for the inexperienced to get a taste of this world. evaluate whether they want to take part in it and at least give them an opportunity not to condemn it. which most adults are doing. I am of the belief. in my Utopian cloud, that. if you explain honestly and somewhat sympathetically what an alien culture is doing. to the culture that experiences them as
alien. they will see them as less horrific.’
What makes Cyberia all the more difﬁcult to comprehend is that it is a discontinuous reality. What gives the non-linear equation a linear form is that similar experiences seem to be happening to people participating in a range of completely different events. To explain this, Rushkoff uses the idea of a fractal, or Mandelbrot equation.
Mathematically. a fractal is a recursive equation that generates a pattern which, however closely you look at it, always has the same configuration. Think of looking at a ragged coastline from an airplane: you see rivers and inlets. Then parachute down, and the same patterns are there in the sea-side pools. Look closer. and the patterns repeat on the edge of each pool.
Ask computer nerds about the experience of hacking into a series of networks, or surfing the Internet. They will provide a similar story about the way their reality connects to other hackers or Internet users as ravers will give about the tranced-out effect achieved on the dance floor at two o’clock in the morning. Or psychedelic drugs users will give about their shared hallucinagenic experiences.
Still hokum perhaps, but ifthe drugs and raves part of the equation is too much for you, it’s worth remembering that these different experiences are connected by the fact they change the general conception the participants have of the way in which they perceive the world. There is a paradigm shift, which exemplifies the way in which society could possibly move forward to encompass the computer revolution.
There have been endless articles about going ‘on-line’ in the two years it has taken Rushkoff to get this book published. When he wrote it, no one believed that the lntemet would become the vast sprawling organism that it is today. To a certain extent Cyberia has missed the boat as being an examination of a current phenomenon: it is the story of a select, middle-class, well-off and predominantly white group of people operating in California at the end of the 803. Yet because that group included the programmers and technicians who have designed the computers and programming interfaces we increasingly rely on, it is still relevant.
Unlike the printing press, the Internet is a tool available to everyone. While books and other media provide for the top-down dissemination of information, every Internet user is able to communicate directly with every other user. It was designed to withstand nuclear attack, so there is no single centre, but each computer as it joins the network, has equal standing.
Without a hint of irony, Rushkoff describes the Internet as a living entity. ‘I think they’ve created something that if it is not alive, is very very life-like,’ he says. ‘It is also self-spreading because it feeds the natural human desire to connect and reach out, our natural net-like tendancies. I don’t see how it can be stopped.
‘I think the lntemet is going to be a vital extension of human life. The next phase of human evolution is going to see us becoming more of a single total human organism rather than groups of individuals. Networks are a way of understanding that, technologically, and training us how to realise it on a more physical level. The rave does physically what the Internet does intellectually, or conceptually. Whether it can happen on a planetary level, well, that’s what is up for grabs.’ Cl C yberia is published by Flamingo at £6.99.
12 The List 7-20 October 1994