Listening to the voices from 'Cyberia'

July 21, 1994|By Howard Manly | Howard Manly,Boston Globe

Much like bell-bottoms and Afros, the hippies of the '60s have returned on the scene, spewing the same anarchist blather about the "system" and advocating the use of hard drugs to untap the creative forces locked inside each of our brains. They are called zippies now, but they are still dropping acid -- and much stronger drugs -- after all these years.

The most significant difference these days is that the counterculture folks have discovered personal computers and modems, using the information highway to find "oneness" in cyberspace. It has been one strange trip indeed.

"Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace," is the latest book by Douglas Rushkoff, a New York-based, pop culture journalist who traveled to Berkeley to explore the culture surrounding computer hackers, "smart" drugs, house music and a range of cyberpunk lifestyles and anarchic behaviors. He interviewed a wide range of folks, from "Earth Girl," a 20-year-old woman who travels from bar to bar selling brain nutrients, to Mark Abene, A K A Phiber Optik, a hacker now serving time in federal prison.

The good thing is that Mr. Rushkoff allowed all of their voices to appear in "Cyberia." He was given incredible access and, without appearing patronizing, his reporting shows a vivid portrait of society's fringe and their rather unsettling role in the future of cyberspace.

Consider Terence McKenna -- a fortysomething Irishman widely perceived to be the successor to Timothy Leary's psychedelic legacy. Mr. McKenna is finishing his latest manuscript on the use of mind-altering plants by ancient cultures.

Mr. McKenna says: "The next messiah might be a machine rather than a person. The philosopher's stone is a living stone. It is being made. We are making it. We are like tunnelers drilling toward something. The overmind is drilling toward us, and we are drilling toward it. And when we meet, there will be an enormous revelation of the true nature of being. I think every person who takes five or six grams of psilocybin mushrooms in silent darkness is probably on par with Christ and Buddha, at least in terms of input."

Mr. Rushkoff writes: "So according to McKenna, the psychedelic vision provides a glimpse of the truth cyberians are yearning for. But have psychedelics and virtual reality really come to us as a philosopher's stone, or is it simply that our philosophers are stoned?"

The bad thing, if there is one, is that Mr. Rushkoff never answers that question, leaving it up to readers to decide. In a participatory style of journalism reminiscent of a cross between George Plimpton and Hunter S. Thompson, Mr. Rushkoff is simply a messenger from a world many no doubt would consider zany at best, illegal at worst and disconcerting all the same. (Imagine a 20-year-old geek, angry at society for shunning him, who begins dropping acid and is empowered with his computer wizardry, which enables him to gain access to the military's nuclear arsenal.) Mr. Rushkoff displays some reservations, but he does not draw an emphatic line between the real and the virtually real, the benign and the dangerous.

Part of the blur is due to the fuzziness surrounding the laws regulating cyberspace. Are computer hackers simply challenging the puzzles of computers and exploring cyberspace, as they contend, or are they real threats to society, as corporate America argues?

Mr. Rushkoff understands both. "The padlocking of the electronic canals is the result of society's inability to cope with freedom," he writes.

But clearly he remains sympathetic to the cyberians. "Unfortunately the legal and law-enforcement communities understand very little about computers and their users," Mr. Rushkoff writes. "Fear and ignorance prevail in computer-crime prosecution, which is why kids who 'steal' a dollar's worth of data from the electronic world suffer harsher prosecution than do kids who steal bicycles or even cars from the physical world."

That's fine. But what then do these cyberians -- the term Mr. Rushkoff uses to describe computer hackers, theoretical mathematicians and psychedelic tripsters -- want? As Mr. Rushkoff explains in rich detail, they want to rechoose their own reality and design their own experience of life. For that answer, "Cyberia" will stand as a cutting-edge manifesto, the province of the young at heart -- and those on a trip to another dimension.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace"

Author: Douglas Rushkoff

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 250 pages, $22

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