These days, it’s fashionable to see creativity in opposition to technological progress. While it’s true that we exist at a time when the economics of cultural production are being reshaped, the easy narrative of tech overlords vs. creative craftspersons is incomplete. So, too, is the idea that innovation alone is the path to equality, economic or otherwise. Those who were around during early days of the Internet may help flesh out the picture. Some of these individuals embraced networked technology as a means to create and distribute new forms of media; to collaborate, scheme and dream the future.
Gareth Branwyn is one such pioneer. His birds-eye account of underground media at the dawn of the Internet is part of what makes his new book of collected writings, Borg Like Me, so fascinating. Actually, BLM should be required reading in 2014, where conversations around culture and innovation have become troublingly polarized. But that’s not the only reason to celebrate Borg’s arrival. Gareth is a masterful storyteller with a gift for making even arcane topics entertaining. And arcane they are—readers of this site should find Borg’s heady admixture of futurism, occulture and gonzo reporting familiar, indeed.
Any attempts at summarizing Gareth’s personal and professional background fall flat in the face of his own recounting. But here’s an overview: having run off to a commune as a teen, Gareth became drawn to the emerging world of DIY media-making even as he found his footing as a writer. A young man with a voracious appetite for information and experiences—from music to more exotic indulgences—Gareth dove headfirst into bootstrapping bohemia at a moment when the democratization of technology was opening up new possibilites. He soon found himself enmeshed in early ‘zine culture, contributing to Boing Boing when it was a print rag and getting his freak on at Mondo 2000. He also ran roughshod at Wired, Esquire, and more recently, MAKE magazine. Gareth played sherpa to a dazed and confused Billy Idol as he navigated the cyberpunk wilderness and was instrumental in creating Beyond Cyberpunk!—a celebrated and influential early “hypermedia” work.
Gareth also wrote the very first book about the Web back when most of us were still blown away by call waiting.
I met Gareth not that long ago, but he’s been haunting my periphery for far longer. I would never claim to have a “crowd”—autodidact introverts aren’t exactly pack animals—but I suspected we were of the same tribe even before we were introduced. Which is to say, all the collected articles in Borg resonate with me on some level. But even if I weren’t interested in this stuff, I’d still be wowed by Gareth’s way with a story. From the personal to the epistemological, Gareth threads the needle like few writers can. (Among those few writers is Robert Anton Wilson, whose name pops up, along with William Blake, several times in BLM.)
As a writer, I certainly admire the way it’s all put together. In lesser hands, such a collection could have been unwieldy, but Gareth’s nimble curation—including newly written intros—makes Borg a handy history of DIY culture at the brink of paradigmatic change.
Gareth resists the urge to sermonize, even though he has surely earned the right to do so. With so many Cory Doctorows and Jaron Laniers alternately cheerleading or scolding, it’s refreshing to read a book about media and technology that doesn’t promote any particular agenda beyond a desire to explore and understand. This need to connect, to expand one’s field of vision, is exactly what makes Gareth such a compelling storyteller (and human being).
“Suffering for one’s art” has been a cliché for almost as long as suffering or art have been around. Gareth is no stranger to pain, physiological or otherwise. Having endured a lifetime of debilitating arthritis, Gareth has undergone numerous surgeries and “meat-hacks” to the extent that he exemplifies the borg of the book’s title. One chapter in particular, “Boating the Abyss,” charts a series of medical nightmares, beginning with a heart attack and ending in a horrorshow of hallucinations (brought on by a bad batch of blood) that rival Philip K. Dick’s most paranoid imaginings.
What makes BLM so special is that in between accounts of harrowing medical procedures and hilarious stories about well-meaning, if technologically challenged rock stars, there are lovely bits on everything from Gareth’s son Blake to baking bread to his bond with his late wife Pam Bricker—best known as a vocalist for Thievery Corporation. The latter relationship echoes throughout these writings, inspiring Gareth to new creative heights and sadly, with Pam’s death, spiritual lows. But even the latter is met with grace and transcendence in the chapter “You’re On!”—which finds the author confronting old ghosts at a latter-day Thievery gig.
But this book isn’t just about Gareth’s triumphs or travails. As a collection of works that first appeared in a wide range of publications, Borg covers a dazzling array of topics—from DIY robotics to rocketry pioneer/occultist Jack Parsons to 19th century mystic and proto-‘zinester William Blake to the life-altering experience that is Blade Runner. But there’s so much more. In fact, this is probably the most difficult review I’ve ever written, simply due to the fact that Borg Like Me is such a cornucopia of ideas and experiences.
I recently had the pleasure of Gareth’s company, and I asked him a question about today’s underground. As I turn the corner that is 40, I feel like I’ve lost sight of the action. Gareth expressed a similar view. We know it’s out there—or at least we hope—but we’re not necessarily a part of it. Still, I think that it’s important—even in an era where nearly all information is accessible—that upcoming thinkers, makers and assorted weirdoes can contextualize what has come before them. My fear that this isn’t always the case places me among the Internet scolds who bemoan today’s high-velocity, surface-skimming culture. But unlike the most curmudgeonly of Internet critics, I remain hopeful. In fact, one of the reasons I love Borg Like Me is that it recounts a “third way,” in which technology is used to better understand and relate to the world around us; where risks are taken not just for capital gain but also for the love of discovery itself.
Borg Like Me gives me hope for a future that emphasizes our shared humanity over our utility as consumers.
If pressed, I could probably establish a through-line of iconoclastic thinkers going back to William Blake’s time right up to the present. More amazingly, I’ve had the pleasure to meet and get to know a handful of folks on the contemporary end of this lineage. This is what I hope upcoming generations get to experience, either through received wisdom or direct contact.
Either way, Borg Like Me is one hell of an initiation.