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|One day, perhaps soon, technology could allow us to "upload" our
personalities into a global computer network, freeing us from the dreary
limitations of the flesh.
Until then, as Mark Dery notes ironically in Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, our attempts to transcend our bodies highlight just how dependent we are on what radical cyberpunks derisively refer to as "meat".
The cyberpunk subculture, which grew out of the literary movement hallmarked by William Gibson's Neuromancer and the Bruce Sterling-edited short story collection Mirrorshades, is much broader than the pursuit of electronic consciousness. Dery manages to capture how performance art (both mechanical and physical), popular music and culture, and philosophy have been influenced by the cyberpunk world view. Fortunately for the reader, he does so without lapsing into either the breathless optimism of Electronic Frontier Foundation founding member John Perry Barlow or The Future Does Not Compute author Stephen Talbott's belief that computerization, left unchecked, will sever man's ties to nature.
Of particular interest to Dery is how 1960s psychedelia has been appropriated to produce a 1990s "cyberdelia", complete with "trippy fractal simulations" and Timothy Leary adding a virtual reality component to his lectures. Leary's faith in Sandoz's lysergic acid notwithstanding, contemporary counterculture has dispensed with the anti-technology bent of the '60s and embraced the computer as the weapon of choice in the battle against perceived corporate and government oppression. The combination of universal reach and transitory "existence" realized on line is a powerful image in the cyberpunk canon.
In stark contrast to the utopian promise of being everywhere and nowhere simultaneously are the mechanical spectacles produced by Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), which underscore technology's profoundly physical impacts. According to Dery, SRL's presentations "are war games in the literal sense -- a combination of killing field and carnival midway, meant to explode media myths about surgical strikes and collateral damage in an entertaining way." Lauded by both Sterling and Gibson, SRL's creations bring the corporate and government interests to the fore by implying the impacts larger versions of their creations might have.
Between these two extremes lies the human body, seen either as an object to be controlled, as per Foucault (especially in Discipline and Punish), or as something to be transcended. While the former category, which includes workplace monitoring and surveillance, is well-analyzed elsewhere, the author brings a fresh perspective to the debate by juxtaposing these technologies with technofetishistic body marking and cyberpunk performance art.
The obligatory chapter on cybersex is a nice break from the overly serious analyses found elsewhere, though Dery does go a bit heavy on the Woody Allen references.
I recommend Escape Velocity to any reader looking for a balanced and often humorous examination of fringe computer culture and the accompanying postmodern philosophy. Dery covers much familiar ground, but the majority of his work deals with elements of the cyberpunk subculture rarely covered by popular media. The underlying narrative makes this book a uniquely worthwhile contribution to the cultural literature of cyberspace.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.