PRINT April 1991


New Age Mutant Ninja Hackers

THESE DAYS, THE CYBERSPACE of virtual reality (VR) is the in place to be. It’s hotter than the Saudi Arabian desert and apparently offers greater possibility for intense, novel, and thrilling experience than that materially grounded version of reality in which we daily live—and die. Rather than putting on battle gear and gas masks, a new subculture is donning electronic stereo-vision helmets and Data Gloves and taking off via computer to virtual realities and other forms of cyberspace. Rather than finding the gravity of human flesh and the finitude of the earth precious (or asserting their preciousness in the face of their threatened loss), this subculture is busy mutating—“downloading” its consciousness into the computer, leaving its obsolete body behind, and inhabiting the datascape as a pack of new-age cyborgs. Some are identified as “cyberpunks” for their datascape equivalent of countercultural street smarts. Others are called “zippies,” a term defined by the Encyclopaedia Psychedelica as “a combination of a Sixties hippie and a Nineties technoperson.” They might as easily be called “New Age Mutant Ninja Hackers”—in humorous reference not only to the way in which subcultures have been colonized in consumer demographics, but also to the ironies of post-Modern hybridization (mutation?).

What is figured here is a cybernetic union of carbon and silicon, an interactive feedback loop of biological and technological being achieved through the computer. This “terminal” transformation of human subjectivity as it enters the electronic technosphere is not necessarily or totally negative in its implications, however. Even at this early stage, the various forms of virtual reality and cyberspace provide not only novel pleasures but also practical uses. These simulated worlds stimulate architects, for example, as well as the air force. Nonetheless, the emergence of a celebratory (and generally economically privileged) subculture vacationing in virtual spaces and practicing a “virtual politics” (one that doesn’t seem greatly to affect the daily world except by its absence) seems to me the mark of a potentially dangerous and disturbingly miscalculated attempt to escape the material space and specific politics (dare I say the “real” reality?) of the body’s mortality and the planet’s fragility. And this at a time when everybody needs to pay close attention to our existential and quite concrete investment in both.

What prompts these cautionary remarks is my recent encounter with several current magazines that have devoted numerous articles, whole issues, and (in the case of one called Mondo 2000) even their raison d’être to a technoerotic celebration of a reality to be found on the far side of the computer screen and in the “neural nets” of a “liberated,” disembodied, computerized, and sensate consciousness. This electronically constituted reality and consciousness are achieved through various prostheses that plug the human sensorium into interactive communion with the computer, so that the user transcends—and elides—not only his or her being in an imperfect human body, but also the imperfect and war-torn reality that we all “really” materially create and physically inhabit. At best, encounters in virtual reality and cyberspace are video games that one can lose without real loss. At worst, they falsely promise a new Eden for cyborg Adams and Eves—enthusiastic participants in some computerized and simulated (in)version of the Back to the Earth movement.

Indeed, the enthusiasms surrounding VR and cyberspace cohere in a peculiar oxymoronic cosmology that explicitly links high technophilia, “new age” animism, spiritualism, hedonism, and ’60s counter-cultural “guerrilla” political consciousness. A recent issue of Omni, for example, announcing a special section on electronic games, also lists on its cover the articles “Virtual Reality: Life in a Computer,” “Business 2001: Managing the 21st Century,” “Dalai Lama: New Year’s Resolutions,” “Can Animals Think?,” “Starships Made of Ice,” and “Regenerate Your Own Organs.” Mondo 2000, a glossy quarterly out of Berkeley that began publication last summer, has articles like “Hyperwebs: 21st Century Media,” “High Tech High Life—William Gibson & Timothy Leary in Conversation,” “A Man & His Dog: Cryonics Today,” “Some Good Things to Say about Computer Viruses,” “ATM’s & the Rise of the Hacker Leisure Class,” and “Designer Beings: In Conversation with Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw” (regular contributors who sell “designer foods” and, as the magazine puts it, talk about “saving one’s skin” and the latest in “intelligence increase agents”).

Surrounding these pieces (which are often well written, witty, and supremely self-aware, and sometimes as critical and incisive as any cultural theorist might hope to be) are extraordinary ads selling computer programs and CD-ROMs (one containing the Whole Earth Catalog), T-shirts, “synchro-ENERGIZERS” (“a high-tech computer-driven brain balancer” seen as “a salutary alternative to drugs in the 90’s for dealing with stress, pain, dependencies, and burnout”), orgone energy blankets, and UFO detectors. The tone is mainly optimistic. Reading an issue, one might think that we live in the best of all possible worlds, or, perhaps more precisely, that we live best only in possible worlds. Urging subscription, Mondo 2000 lures the reader with promises of regular attention to “Cutting Edge Computer News, Conspiracies, Psychoactive Drugs & Brain/Mind Research, Artificial Realities, Mind Machines, Life Extension, Music & Consciousness, Cyberpunk, Hackers & Crackers, Exo-Psychology, Psionics, Cryonics, Nano-technology, Hypermedia, Ethnopharmacology, and Frontier Science.”

What is being enacted here? What fantasies are fulfilled more by the discourse than by actual achievement? (The question is also relevant to our perception of the events in the Persian Gulf.) Even the greatest fans of VR admit the immature state of its technology and effects, and suggest that the heady experience of VR lies more in its future promise than in its present delivery. The helmets, gloves, and so on are still unwieldy and the images grainy. Cyberspace, achieved through other, more conventional forms of human interface, seems best experienced not at the terminal but through the novels of science fiction writers like William Gibson, who is credited with naming and mapping the terrain. Case, the protagonist of Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer, stands as the cult hero of those who voraciously read these articles and magazines and imagine themselves cruising the datascape and sensually experiencing the intense electronic high of information overload. Individual and idiosyncratic, these cowboy hackers (there aren’t too many cowgirls) see themselves as bucking corporate systems, riding the electronic range, and cutting through the barbed-wire codes that would keep information from flowing free, available to all (all, that is, with computer access and skills). Promoting future utopian “networks” in which everyone is connected and plugged in to everyone else, the New Age Mutant Ninja Hackers nonetheless privilege the individual—modeling themselves (and their politics) after some combination of entrepreneurial, techno-maverick Steve Jobs and countercultural guerrillas who muck up “the system” and, at their worst, bear some relation to eco-terrorists.

To some extent what’s going on here seems relatively obvious, if not exactly clear. As I’ve suggested, the emergence of New Age Mutant Ninja Hackers is yet another manifestation of post-Modern culture: hybrid and heterogeneous yet homogenized, self-aware and ironically playful, eliding the distinction between sign and referent, between “virtual” and “actual.” What is also fairly apparent in the subculture’s utopian electronic fantasies is the desire to escape both the human body and the human world. Historical accounts of VR tell us that one of the initial project’s mottoes was “Reality Isn’t Enough Anymore.” Psychoanalytic accounts, however, would likely tell us that this motto should be interpreted in its inverse form: “Reality Is Too Much Right Now.” In an age in which temporal coordinates are oriented toward computation rather than toward human beings, and spatial coordinates have shrunk to the brief occupation of “here”; in an age in which there is too much perceived risk to living and too much information for both body and mind to contain and survive, need we wonder at the desire to transcend and escape where and who we are? It is apposite that a very smart article in the Summer 1990 Mondo 2000 philosophically entitles itself “Being in Nothingness,” and tells us of the ultimate escape: “Nothing could be more disembodied or insensate than. . . cyberspace. It’s like having had your everything amputated.” This is dangerous stuff—the stuff that (snuff) dreams are made of.

Several years ago, feminist social theorist Donna Haraway wrote “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” a celebration of the combinatory possibilities for human being in a high-technology-informed culture, and a critique of antiscience metaphysics. In a recent interview in Social Text, however, Haraway warns against cyborgism insofar as it plugs into dangerous forms of holism: “Any transcendentalist move. . . produces death, through the fear of it. These holistic, transcendentalist moves promise a way out of history, a way of participating in the God trick. A way of denying mortality.” In sum, “In the face of a kind of whole-earth threat issuing from so many quarters,” she concludes that “escape-velocity is a deadly fantasy.”

Clearly I agree with Haraway on the dangers in the VR impulse found in the world of Mondo 2000. The strange and seemingly contradictory themes embraced by the new subculture, however, may possibly be less deadly than they seem. Indeed, it is possible that the “deep structure” informing the holistic cyborg discourse of New Age Mutant Ninja Hackers is constituted from what philosopher Don Ihde, in Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (1990), recognizes as the doubled desire in our relations with any technology that extends our bodily perceptions—be they eyeglasses or microscopes, the camera or the computer. On the one hand is the desire for “total transparency”—a bodily incorporation of the technology so total that “it would be equivalent to there being no technology” at all. On the other hand is the desire for “the power, the transformation that the technology makes available” through its mediating function—through its very difference from our “naked capacities.” Both utopian and dystopian, self-preservational and self-exterminating, the New Age Mutant Ninja Hackers articulate a simultaneous and contradictory desire: they “want the transformation that the technology allows,” but they “want it in such a way that it becomes” them.

What is troubling here is, perhaps, neither nihilism nor holism but rather a deep and essential ambiguity. As Ihde puts it: “Such a desire both secretly rejects what technologies are and overlooks the transformational effects which are necessarily tied to human-technology relations. This illusory desire belongs equally to pro-and anti-technology interpretations of technology.” In sum, the hybridization and pastiche of themes apparent in Omni or Mondo 2000 bespeak negative as well as positive feelings about the amazing prostheses offered by electronic technology in general and computers in particular. New Age Mutant Ninja Hackers articulate the wish to become the machines that extend them and to cede their human flesh to the mortality it is heir to. But they simultaneously articulate the wish to “escape the newly extended body of technological engagement” and to reclaim experience through the flesh. What is manifest in much of the cyberspace and VR discourse, then, is what Ihde notes as “a fundamental ambivalence toward the very human creation of our own earthly tools.” Insofar as it is made explicit, the ambivalence of New Age Mutant Ninja Hackers is not only an essential condition of human relations with technology, but also an essential condition of demystifying what high technology can and cannot do to save us from and for ourselves.

Vivian Sobchack is Director of the Arts and a professor of film studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her next book, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience, is to be published next year by Princeton University Press.

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