Over the past 30-odd years, writer Gareth Branwyn has been amassing an impressive body of work on the fringes of cyberculture. He wrote for bOING bOING when it was still a print zine, did his own zine called Going Gaga before that, was an editor at Mondo 2000, WIRED, MAKE, does book reviews for WINK, has edited over a dozen books, and is a regular contributor to my own Summer Reading Lists. He’s stayed as jacked-in to our current technoculture as one can be, for as long as there’s been a jack. His new book, Borg Like Me & Other Tales of Art, Eros, and Embedded Systems (Sparks of Fire Press, 2014), collects almost 300 pages of his pieces from all over the place. It’s like a cross between a very personal, edited collection on cyberpunk and a zine anthology.
The last time I interviewed Branwyn (in 2001), he told me,
One of the great things about being so bloody old is that I’ve had a chance to experience every flavor of fringe media from the mid-’70s on. I caught the tail end of ’70s hippie media, then the punk DIY movement of the ’80s, then the ’zine publishing scene of the ’90s, and then web publishing in the ’90s.
I finally met Gareth IRL at Maker Faire in Austin in 2008, and we haven’t had a genuine sit-down in over ten years. Once I got my hands on a copy of Borg Like Me, I knew it was time to catch up with him again.
Roy Christopher: After all of these years, what finally prompted the collecting of all of these pieces?
Gareth Branwyn: This is a book I started putting together years ago, before I became the Editorial Director at MAKE. But that job was so all-consuming, I knew the book would never happen if I stayed there. So, I left early last year and immediately launched a Kickstarter campaign. I also thought I had a very fun and innovative idea for a collection of this kind, what I call a lazy man’s memoir. I collected content from my 30+ year career and then wove a new, personal narrative around it, via deep intros to the pieces and new essays that helped flesh out the “story.” These (hopefully) create a narrative arc and a point to this book that makes it more interesting (and far more personal) than just a collection of my best writing.
RC: The title of the collection has a very personal connotation that people don’t necessarily know about. Tell us about your very close relationship with the machine.
GB: Well, as I like to tell people: I have an artificial hip, a rebuilt heart, and I take a biological drug that’s bioengineered from mice proteins. So I am literally a chimera—part man, part machine, part mouse. But as I make the point in the book, we are all so heavily mediated by technology and cutting-edge medical science at this point that we are all now cyborgs–part human, part machine.
The book’s subtitle, “& Other Tales of Art, Eros, and Embedded Systems,” also reveals more than people may be aware about me. Over the course of my career, I’ve written about far more than technology. I’ve written a lot about art, music, relationships and love, the occult and spirituality, and various aspects of underground media and culture. I even wrote a column for a sex magazine many years ago. This book is something of a coming out for me, revealing more about the breadth of my interests than I ever have before to a widespread audience. I’m like an onion, man. Layers.
RC: You’re primarily known as a writer through your writings on technology and technology-influenced cyberculture, yet you claim not to be that into technology. What gives, man?
GB: Well, that subtitle was a little bit of an exaggeration for effect. I’m not in love with technology for technology’s sake. I’m most fascinated by how people actually use technology, and how they bend (and even break it) for their own purposes. As I say in the book (referring to the William Gibson quote “The street finds its own uses for things”), I’m more interested in the street than the things. Because I’ve written extensively on how-to technology, such as robot building, people think of me as a real hacker, a real geek. But I’m not. Most of my geek/hacker friends like to tinker and problem solve tech for its own sake, for the challenge. I don’t. I just want my tech to work. As I once said in a MAKE bio piece once: “I’m more of a puffy-sleeved romantic than a pocket-protected geek.”
RC: One of the images from Jamming the Media that has always stuck in my head is that of you and your then-four-year-old son Blake leaving the darkened room of blinking lights that was your media lab at the time. Tell us about his involvement in Borg Like Me.
GB: That’s from the introduction to Jamming the Media, a piece called “The Electronic Cottage: A Flash Forward.” I included that in Borg Like Me. Because of my work in cutting-edge tech and media, Blake grew up completely immersed in early personal technology tools. They all came completely natural to him. He’s a 27-year old digital artist and game designer now, living in the Bay Area, and I think that early immersion is a reason why. He and I used to do things like create animated cartoons in HyperCard by drawing animation frames by hand, scanning them into the computer, and then creating crude animations by flipping the hypercards really fast. I think we even put music on some of them. And one of the games I got for review, Creatures, had a huge impact on him and made him declare he wanted to be a game designer. Hell, he even did some kid reviews of games and early LEGO Mindstorms in Wired and The Baltimore Sun. When he was a kid, I actually used to fantasize about him growing up and being some sort of artist, writer, or other creative type, and us collaborating on stuff. So it was was a dream come true working together on this book. At one point, I joked that he was acting as my project manager. So we decided to make it official. He was very pro about it and really did help keep me on track. He also did a ton of incidental art, icons for the book and such, did animation elements for my Kickstarter video, and graphics for the KS campaign. He also co-designed the rubber stamps I created to accompany the book, which I use on all of the mailing envelopes and letters I send out. It really does feel like the book was a collaboration between us. There were so many deeply gratifying aspects of doing this book. Working with him was definitely a highlight.
The book was also something of a “getting the band back together.” I worked with 18 artists from my old zine and early cyberculture mag days, people like Mark Frauenfelder, Danny Hellman, John Bergin, Shannon Wheeler, William Braker. There are some 30 illustrations in all.
RC: The artwork was the next thing I was going to ask about. You beat me to it… Twenty years ago, you wrote that “hackers represent the scouts to a new territory that is just now beginning to be mapped out by others.” How would you adjust or amend your conception of the hacker since?
GB: Well, the territory has certainly been mapped, and settled, and over-developed, and large tracts of it sold to the highest bidder. I’ve told people at several of my talks recently that, in the 1990s when I was writing about the “frontier towns of cyberspace,” I never for a moment could have imagined that my parents would now spend almost as much time online as I do. They are the most un-techie people I could imagine and yet they have his and hers desktop computers, laptops, smart phones, and at least one tablet. But I think that “hacking the future” process is still happening. I was on a panel at SXSW this year, with Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow, and Chris Brown. The subject was basically: What happened to the cyberpunks? Sterling focused on the darker side of things (as he is wont to do): The Silk Road busts, Cody Wilson and 3D-printed guns, Eastern European cybercriminals, and the like. While I think that’s all relevant, I argued that I think lots of cyberpunks became makers. A lot of the people I worked with at MAKE were very involved in early-90s cyberculture. I think, for many of us, we got tired of the overemphasis on virtuality, hyper-mentality, and the denigration of “the meat,” and so there was something of a corrective swing back towards physicality, getting your hands dirty. Mark Frauenfelder (bOING bOING) has an interesting theory about this. In the 90s, when everyone was hacking software and the net, to share your work, all you had to do was send a file or link. But as soon as microcontrollers and other physical computing hardware became readily available and people started hacking with that, suddenly, you needed to show your work off in person. From this grew hardware meetups, hackerspaces, Maker Faires, and the like.
One of the frequent takeaways from Borg Like Me that I’ve heard from readers is that (in the essays about early cyberculture) there’s a palpable sense of frontier spirit, passion, and a sense of just how powerful and potentially revolutionary these democratizing tools can be. These days, when net neutrality is at stake, it’s good to be reminded of the promise and potential that all of this networked tech initially offered. Sure the techno-cultural changes have been deep, and in many ways profound (we take for granted the power of that globally-connected device that we carry, forgotten, in our pockets), but the drift towards mundanity and big media subsumption is insidious and steady. If the “You know, back when I was a cyberpunk…” stories in my book can inspire today’s mutant change agents in even the smallest ways, I’d be thrilled.
RC: Music is another deep interest we have in common. I love the “Immersive Media Notes” spread throughout the book. Diving into media headlong while writing is something I advocate regularly. Do you have specific “writing music,” or do you play whatever you’re into at the time?
GB: Music has always been so deeply interwoven into my life, even before I met my late-wife, a musician, and lived with her for 22 years. I can’t think of many things in my past without thinking of the music that soundtracked those experiences. As I was writing the book, I noticed how many pieces mentioned music, were about music, or had music attached to them in my mind. So I created those “Immersive Media Notes” so that readers could listen to the music associated with that piece before, during, or after. The idea was inspired by the essay “By This River” (and the Eno song from where it gets its name). That song is so hauntingly beautiful to me and completely encodes much of my relationship with my wife. I felt like people HAD to listen to that track to better appreciate the feelings I was trying to convey in that piece. It’s funny though – I actually added the “Immersive Media Notes” at the very last minute, even after the book was in first proofs, and it’s one of the things that always gets mentioned by readers/reviewers.
RC: What’s coming up next for a Borg like You?
GB: I’m working on a number of projects. For my imprint, Sparks of Fire Press, I’m working on two new chapbooks in the Borg Like Me series. The Eros Part is a collection of my writings on love, sex, and muses. I promised this as one of the premiums for my Kickstarter campaign. Then I’m working on a follow up to my popular Gareth’s Tips on Sucks-Less Writing. I’m excited about that. I think there is some great new material in there. I’m also working on a big project I’m not at liberty to talk about, but if it comes through, it’ll be amazing. Oh, and I’ve also been working on Café Gaga, which’ll be a periodic podcast of things that are currently holding my attention. And I continue to do regular reviews for WINK Books, a gig that I really love. So, I’m definitely keeping busy!