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News :: Education
Technology and Transgression
19 Sep 2005
THE NEW UNDERGROUND
Steve Mizrach, aka Seeker1
I have been struggling to figure out what it is precisely that interests me in all of the many subcultures which fascinate me. And I realized that for me they symbolized the link between technology and the transgressive impulse. I realized that for me they embodied the thing I had always felt about the attitudes of my Luddite friends. Technology is a weapon. It threatens the social order. More than words, more than ideas, it enables people to transgress the boundaries of their society. "If technology is outlawed, then only outlaws will have technology," and all that. Because technology is only an instrument, it can be used for domination. But these groups are using it, through the sort of aikido or jujitsu that William Gibson was referring to when he said "the street has its own uses for technology," to transgress against power. This is, I think, one of the roles technology may have played in human society, from the very beginning, starting with fire and the wheel. And, thank heaven, may always play.
(Scanner freaks, pirate/micropower radio broadcasters, clandestine listeners)
The radio underground has been around for a long time, but it's something which may have only attracted public interest recently. The three main groups in this area of interest are the scanner freaks (people who use radio scanners to listen to eavesdrop on 'illicit' conversations ranging from cellular phone calls to police band radio to military frequencies), radio pirates (who transmit radio programming without a license, often from mobile sites of operation, to avoid FCC shutdown), and the clandestine listeners, who are people who are probably doing nothing illegal or even fattening (listening to shortwave 'numbers,' political 'clandestine,' and espionage stations), yet who undoubtedly are doing something which could quite charitably be called 'underground.' Pirate radio falls into a long tradition of disapproved mass DIY communication, ranging from the 18th century handbill to the 20th century underground press.
However, pirate radio has faced a vociferous enemy in the FCC, who finds the idea of unregulated radio spectrum seizure dangerous to planes and ships, or at a minimum, highly likely to interfere with the licensed corporate Top 40 stations in the area... since most pirates 'skip' frequencies (after all, they're harder to trace that way), this raises the stakes of possible interference. The latest wave of pirate radio has come in the form of community low-power FM 'microbroadcasting,' with stations like Stephen Dunifer's Free Radio Berkeley aiming to spread their message over a small area. Radio pirates often laugh at the hypocrisy of an agency like the FCC, which sells off the airwaves to the highest bidder (when they are supposed to be public property), yet protests "spectrum scarcity" as the reason for shutting down pirate radio. Ham radio is allowed: it's OK for one-to-one communication using packet or pre-approved bands, etc., but you've crossed the line when you dare to transmit to large numbers of people - then you need to be profitable.
With the clandestine and scanner enthusiasts, we've entered a different realm, that of illicit listening rather than transmitting. Since 1990 or so, it's been illegal for scanner manufacturers to include the frequencies used by cellular phones in the 800-900 MHz band. Yet, it's quite easy often to purchase a kit to back-program those frequencies back into your scanner, and such kits are currently unregulated, so the eavesdropping goes on. It's all part of our move toward an "espionage society," with the government and law enforcement snooping on us, and us protesting the right to snoop them back with our video cameras and police band radios. "Who watches the watchman," as they say. Scanner enthusiasts seem to gravitate toward areas of mystery, like the "Area 51" Groom Lake military base in Nevada, hoping to pick up on some intelligible snippet of conversation which will give the place away. For that reason, "frequency guides" to such areas are hoarded treasures, since after all, such frequencies are supposed to be, well, top-secret.
(Cryptoanarchists, hackers, virologists, phreaks)
I've dealt with hackers/the CU in many other essays. Suffice to say that these days I've seen fit to conceptualize them as falling into four basic categories. You have the hackers aiming for total and open access to hardware, data, and software (hence, really, software pirates are in this category, as are all datathieves including satellite & cable TV pirates); the phreakers aiming for total and open fundamental communicational freedom; the cryptoanarchists using cryptography as an agent for attaining privacy, autonomy, and avoidance of the State; and the virologists . This last one is a fuzzy category: you have people writing viruses for malicious mischief, and others saying they are creating a new (and deliberately out of control) form of artificial life. As I've stated elsewhere, the guiding principle behind the computer underground seems to be the Hacker Ethic of total open access to technology. People have a right to know the ins and outs of the systems they use, whether those systems are the phone network or the underground tunnels of a university.
With the cryptoanarchists/cypherpunks, you find two levels of rhetoric. Some are content merely to promote PGP and other crypto programs as a source of reliable, untraceable identification and communication; the protection of privacy and anonymity through technology. Their ignoble enemy is the NSA, who will not allow crytographic technology into the public domain, and who still allows ciphers to be classified as munitions. Yet, there are others who are deliberate in seeing these technologies as weapons against the State (read "From Crossbows to Cryptography"), as a way by which people may one day be able to create their own totally 'underground,' untaxable and untraceable economy of anonymous digicash. Certainly, other people see cryptography as an essential ingredient for the future of computer security and privacy. For the cryptoanarchist, it holds the key to evading the information flow of the State regarding its citizens' activities (and perhaps their identities and whereabouts) altogether.
The (fundamental human) right to communicate is one discussed often at the international level (in the ITU) but seldom addressed seriously. Long-distance communication for most people is difficult, based on financial and institutional barriers. Thus, whether it be through phone phreaking, CB or packet ham radio, or Internet telephony, people have sought ways to communicate internationally without filling the coffers of greedy telecommunication monopolies. What should be more free (both in terms of regulation and cost) than the right to hear the voice of another? Yet, for various historical reasons, telecommunication internationally has always been a domain of little regulation, large monopolies, and total negligence of the individual consumer (as opposed to the need of business to maintain communication with its international operations.) Phreaking grew out of the political consciousness of the Yippie party, and like it, it's one part mischievous prank, one part very serious tragicomedy.
(Techno/Ravers, industrial music, punk music, hiphop)
Well, the idea of music-as-social-transgressor goes back to rock n' roll, and much further beyond (to Plato, really.) The only thing that I think really became key in the 20th century (as opposed to other epochs) was that, beginning with the avant-garde Musique Concrete of the 50s, people had a sense that electronic music was really it, the way to fundamentally transform musical canons, and with it, (as Plato feared and others hoped), transform society. Punk made us question the difference between artistry and stage presence, industrial the difference between music and noise, hiphop the difference between creating and sampling, and now techno/rave the difference between music that's 'mediated/recorded' and music that's 'performed.' Hiphop and then techno suggest the barrier between musical artist/performer and musical 'provider' or 'player' (the DJ) may be an artificial one. All of us are constantly taking sounds created by other people and turning them into something else.
There has been the inevitable backlash against technology in music, with people returning to vinyl records from compact digital discs, to acoustic "unplugged" performances from amplified electric sound, and to folk and traditional music from new music. There's no doubt that electric and non-electric music will continue to coexist for a long time, as will live performance and mediated recordings, and electronic and acoustic instruments. But music will not soon give up on technology; and fortunately, technology may soon force the multinational musical media conglomerates to loosen their grip on the sonic arts. Because through technologies like RealAudio, music can now be delivered to the consumer on demand, without the middleman, and without the advertising, packaging, and hype. People can try before they buy (and not just pick out the couple of "pre-listening" discs their local Media Play has graciously allowed them to try first), and further can interact with the artist, understand something about his/her work, and possibly even individualize the "performance" they receive.
Techno music threatens the "star" ethos of music, pushing the artist's "stage presence" to the background, but their work into the foreground. Its sonic mutability makes the leasing of "hooks" to corporate radio stations to sell records and promote acts a considerable dilemma. Its use of sampling, like so much in the new art world, challenges the notion of originality and forces the issue of appropriation. Its electronic nature makes people cringe in fear over the loss of authentic human musicality: will we forget how to play 'real' instruments? Can the synthesizer really replace the complex tonal color of a piano, the drum machine the powerful timbre of a real hand drum, or a PC music generation program the rich melodies of an acoustic guitar? I think, as I said earlier, both sorts of musical forms will coexist. But if not in musical creation, at least in musical distribution, technology threatens to again revolutionize the musical world, and well for it.
(Zippies, hightech nomads, body artists, cyborg artists)
The nebulous and ill-defined 'modern primitive' movement (but which of these aren't) seems to be made up of a few features. A new nomadism, made possible by technological portability; a sense of the body as canvas for various modifications and improvements; a willingness to recast ancient ideas in new scientific guises; and a sense of transgression of the human/machine boundary. As I've said elsewhere, the main feature might be the rejection of a belief in linear evolution of society and perhaps even linear time; but here I'd like to emphasize another 'chief idea' - the use of technology to alter the flow of time, to clash in the 'time wars.' As Jeremy Rifkin has suggested, one of the chief struggles over our era is over the nature of time. On the one hand, there are forces struggling to make human time (body rhythms, etc.) meet the time-compression demands of post-industrial, flexible-accumulation society; on the other hand there are the forces struggling to redefine time away from the clock and toward more cosmic, natural rhythms.
While the modern primitive movement emulates practices of the 'mythic primitive' Other conjured from the Western mind, it does so in a curious technological way. Body piercers use sterile machine-tooled piercings, rather than relying on fire and guesswork; the new nomads wander in search of capital and data, not prey or land; Zippie wanderers seek Terence McKenna's Revival of the Archaic but know it comes through Marshall McLuhan's electronic Global Village. However, no person perhaps best reveals the strange synergies of the modern primitive movement than the cyberhuman, Stelarc. Emulating the body art of the modprims, Stelarc has had himself implanted and reconstructed (like any good shaman), but with circuitry and wires, chips and diodes. Stelarc imitates the initiation rites of prehistoric man, to show others what he sees is the road toward cyborg posthumanity, the preparation of the human body for the ascent toward space.
And with the Survival Research Laboratories, we have the modern transformation of the Roman circus and the medieval carnival, grotesque, and Feast of Fools. Except that the absurdist performers who lurch and dance and bash each other for the enjoyment of the spectator are sinister-looking robots, equipped with devices of horrific destruction. Built with the surplus weaponry that the military no longer needs for its own orgies of death, SRL's terrible pageants are celebrations of the mindless arch of destruction embodied in our current machines. They are a thousand car crashes, oil spills, train wrecks, building collapses, military mine explosions killing innocent civilians, and nuclear meltdowns morphed together into one night of post-industrial terror. Past and future, utopian dreams and the nightmares of history, impossible presents and hidden pasts, all mixed together in a weird alchemy, causing us to wonder about the march of time.
('weird scientists,' alternative medicine, EVP researchers, UFOlogists, psychotronics, Tesla enthusiasts)
So much falls into this category, it truly floweth over (at least for me.) I am really fascinated by the degree to which these people see no cognitive dissonance between high tech and the occult. Whether studying the electromagnetic properties of the human body (radionicists), using electronics to communicate with the dead (EVP researchers), chasing objects that seem to be at once technological and transcendent (UFOlogists), examining unusual mental phenomena and 'mind control' (psychotronics researchers), curing the body in unorthodox ways (homeopaths and other alternative therapists), or popularizing the ideas of heretical scientists (Tesla enthusiasts, perpetual motion machine designers, etc.), these people may not realize it, but they are using technology in a true Heideggerian sense: making us all shudder a little bit about the nature of Being and Becoming. In the outer realms of fringe science, ancient heresies, crank theories, and impossible phenomena are blended into a volatile mixture that would send Thomas Kuhn bolting for the door.
Nothing drives the motor of the 'crank' more than the respectable elder scientist telling him that something is impossible. You can't have perpetual motion? Balderdash! Entropy prevents any truly 'free energy'? It must be the deceit of the oil companies! You can't square the circle? Nonsense! No cure for cancer? It must have been suppressed! Things are relative rather than absolute? Einstein must have been duped! No way to travel through time, cancel out gravity, become invisible? The physicists must be myopic! No scientific basis for psychic phenomena? Psi must lie in some quantum phenomenon they've overlooked! No room-temperature fusion? The experiment must have been done improperly! No way to cancel the advancing of age, to travel through space faster than light, to use that supposedly unused gray matter? Humans have crossed those sorts of barriers before! Fish don't fall from the sky? Didn't some Frenchman say that about stones?
What fascinates me about that most mysterious jack-of-all-paranormal-trades, the Fortean, is that he's interested in all of it. When the respectable elder scientist tells him it's not possible, he yells back Arthur C. Clarke's dictum that the good fellow is almost certainly wrong (or that sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic...) The Fortean chortles at the 'skeptical' scientist, laughing at their ludicrous efforts to save the appearances, all the way to the next cheaply mimeographed newsletter. Just because you can fake a moon landing doesn't mean one has never taken place! In a century where so many limitations have given way to technology, is it surprising that we are seeing extropians, transhumanists, New Agers, mixing technology and unabashed romantic idealism? Having explored the bottoms of the oceans and the depths of outer space, we discover, is it not time for the realms of the mysterious, the numinous, the other-dimensional to yield (as they did in the movie Star Trek I) to the joining of human and machine?
(guerilla semioticians, DIY media-makers, meme-hackers)
NegativLand, Emergency Broadcast Network, Psychick TV, the Guerilla Girls, Public Domain, the AdBusters, the Billboard Liberation Organization, Firesign Theatre, and all the people who put their best effort into parodying the trash that is Top 40 radio, like "Weird Al Yankovic," are the culture jammers, heirs of performance art, street theatre, and the Merry Pranksters. What all these groups have in common is that they have sallied forth into the Empire of Signs, dared to seize unto a portion of the media-stream that pollutes our noetic environment, inverted and altered its context (detourning as any good Situationist would do), and fed it back to us in ways that help us wake up to what some of its hidden messages and purposes are. What NegativLand and others are doing is throwing a wrench into the self-assured machine of intellectual property, forcing us to wonder who really benefits from it (individual artists or multinational media conglomerates), and to consider whether copyright might not be more of a stumbling block to creativity than its protector.
DIY media-makers try to move from being passive consumers of the digital world, to participants; on the turf of the World Wide Web they can challenge the eye candy of the mightiest corporate behemoths. They challenge us to turn off the "idiot box," and start talking back to the idiots, taunting them to do much, much better. The AdBusters and Billboard Liberators take on that thickest gruel of media poison, advertising, subverting its slick slogans, puncturing its commodity fetishism, and giving the lie to its claim that it seeks to appeal to our rational expectations rather than our irrational instincts. Drowning in a sea of giddy jingles, surreal imagery, and loudmouthed salespeople, the average media-consumer gropes hopelessly for the remote, praying for the end of the brief interruption of his Gilligan's Island rerun... dismayed to stumble across infomercials, advertainments, and other hybrids that leave them more confused than when they started.
Culture jammers are using that word , culture, in the same narrow ways that "cultural studies" people do. Popular, mediated culture, as opposed to "authentic" folk culture, "classical" high culture, or that thing the anthropologist on the Discovery Channel was probably talking about - some kind of system of meanings or something like that. Jamming the signal is a desperate quest to cut off the media pollution at its source, but failing that, to at least wake up the public to the fact that they're tuned into the most mindless and awful of noise. EBN performances, like any good punk concert, are anti-Muzak: they're not supposed to make you applaud , you're supposed to be pissed , wanting to shut up the cacophany from the stage. Only, to your dread, you realize that cacophany is really just 500 channels of the crap you listen to all the time - given to you all at once, which is the way you should enjoy it.
(VR enthusiasts, brain/mind machine users, synthetic drug users)
Whether it's people searching for creating new immersive realities for people to experience, using machines to entrain their brainwave rhythms and sychronize their hemispheres, or taking psychoactive drugs whose molecular structure was generated through CAD/CAM tinkering, the neuronaut category includes all those who see technology as the key to using your mind in unauthorized ways. The hero of the neuronauts has always been, of course, Dr. Timothy Leary. Not surprisingly, in the 1990s, he moved on from LSD to VR, and abandoned the psychologists' notepad for the electronic screen. Today, of course, he believes the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s made possible the electronic revolution of the 1990s, that the altered states of consciousness we've experienced were a foretaste of the altered realities lying behind the computer screen. Tibetan mysticism might be fine, but what the human race really needs to get those higher brain circuits going are mind machines, genetic engineering, smart drugs and synthetic neurochemicals, and space colonies for getting out of the gravity well of this third planet from the Sun.
In the 1960s, people like John Lilly had already started thinking about the brain as a 'wetware biocomputer,' drawing from the growing field of cognitive science and AI. But were we stuck with the instincts in the 'hardware' and the parasitic cultural memes in the 'software,' or could we start reprogramming? The neuronauts answer to this has been yes, and that for thousands of years, through techniques of trance and ASC induction, humans have been striving to do just that. What technology may have done for us is made it somewhat easier, at least for the Western mind. Books like Would the Buddha Wear a Walkman? parade a host of gadgets ready for the pursuit of instant Enlightenment and techno-Zen. As could be expected, these gadgets have yet to deliver, but who knows? Perhaps the right combination of NLP (neurolinguistic programming), HemiSync tapes, sound-light machines, Brain Gyms, Mind Fuel, and Tachyon Bands might just deliver nirvana before our next scheduled business appointment.
No field of pursuit perhaps better exemplifies their ambitions then that of virtual reality or VR. Sure, it might change the way we do scientific visualization, or facilitate the 'telepresent' remote operation of lunar landers. But to Jaron Lanier, Brenda Laurel, and others, VR was so much more than that. It was a way of awakening people to the processes of reality generation right here and now. In cyberspace, we could explore a world whose only limitations were those of our imaginations. Most importantly, to the neuronauts (as exemplified in the movie Lawnmower Man ), it held out the possibility of augmenting human intellect, creativity, and perception. Douglas Engelbart's dream of augmentation machines fulfilled. New ways of learning, of interacting, of transforming ourselves, might be opened up by this new technology. People might be able to 'visit' previously unimaginable places -- the heart of a star, the nucleus of an atom, the rung of a DNA molecule, or inside the neurons on the brain itself.
As perhaps has been well established, inevitably the first application of any technology to reach mass market penetration has been in the area of erotic simulation and stimulation. Pornography helped create the market for home VCRs and VHS tapes, and provided the basis of the early CD-ROM market. The explosive growth of the French Minitel service was driven by its "pink chat rooms" where people could arrange amorous liaisons. The first home computer games of any graphical quality were strip poker games. The vast majority of successful commercial 1-900 services have always been phone sex-related. On the Internet, the most popular newsgroups have always been in the alt.sex hierarchy, and Web pages with erotic material often have to be shut down due to the millions of daily 'hits' of usage. And the world of direct sexual play has always been filled with lots of interesting technologies, ranging from the 'personal love robot' (what one writer for bOING bOING called her vibrator) to electric vibrating beds to emerging ideas of 'telesex' or 'VR sex'.
Of course, feminists have an easy answer for this; men love technology and they love objectifying women through pornography so the two obsessions easily dovetail together. As usual, I think something more interesting and more complex is going on than just this. Just as birth control technology (the Pill) led to one sexual revolution, I think current technologies may be leading to a new, and different, one. Once again, people are gasping in horror over the new behaviors they're seeing. What is going on when two people engage in 'sex' by rapidly typing erotic phrasings to each other in an AOL private chat-room? When they don 'VR cybersuits' to engage in foreplay in some impossible zero-gravity space? When their 'avatars' start fondling each other in some romantic, secluded little VRML world? First off, these people aren't even touching. And for gosh sakes, they don't even know what the other person looks like - or even what gender they might really be! You can't call that sex, can you?
Despite all our misgivings over pornography or this other stuff, the human race knows that honestly simulation, artifice, fantasy, make-believe, and role-playing has always been part of the erotic domain. Yet somehow, this new stuff pushes our buttons more than any other sort of kinky sexual deviance, and confounds us more than S & M, B & D, fetishism, homosexuality, anonymous sex, or any other practice that lies far in the hinterlands of our supposedly 'normal' 'love-maps.' It's just too darn weird, and, gosh, isn't it just simultaneous separated masturbation, anyway? (Perhaps it doesn't meet quite as bizarre the stares as, say, bestiality or paedophilia.) I think the fear here might be the next big thing - the boogeyman lurking in our collective sexual closet might be robot sex: the fear that some day an android might fulfill all our physical and emotional needs. And of course, what might follow from that: the movie Demon Seed stands out as the Paul Revere of our collective unconscious in this regard...
I suppose I have one, from having been in varying degrees of contact with these different subcultures. It's simply this: people who are Luddites and who are seeking social change should stop and reconsider their position. For a moment or two, at least. Because, in trying to stop technology, they may be threatening one of the most important sources of emergent novelty and greatest weapons against domination the human race has. These subcultures show that technology is more than just a hegemonic force: it's also a schismatic one, a prismatic one, constantly opening up possibilities the powers-that-be might never have wanted. This is why they've always sought to tightly control technology. But people who are interested in trangressing against the constraints people suffer under in post-industrial society shouldn't seek to reverse or halt technology: rather they should put it to a new, unwanted, unexpected, ironic use. The Machine need not crush spirituality, vitality, spontaneity - but in order to do so, like the Terminator , we need to get a hold of it and reprogram it. Along the way it might even get to understand our point of view.
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