Lola, get out of bed.
It’s time to measure your standards.
The Official SAT Guide For Absolutely Everyone was pocked with portraits of thumbs-up enthusiastic sweater-decked white people. Endorsements from Ivy League colleges in bold-faced type offered assurances that somewhere in the page flipping Lola’s brain would flush electric. SCORE BIG TODAY! It demanded with caps lock ferocity. The antagonism of the fiery font left her terrified to perform otherwise.
Lola decided to ignore the taunts of the front cover adorned with individuals unfamiliar to her, and turned to the back cover to hunt for the token black or Asian or multi-racial friend positioned on the manicured lawn beside people in Polo shirts, laughing about their collective conquer of the universe. There. Perfect teeth, hand jammed into the pocket of pants likely called trousers, navy blue sweater knotted at his muscular shoulders, charmed and chuckling alongside the descendents of his former masters.
“Are you a practicing occultist?” was the first question Douglas Rushkoff asked me when I met him at the Webvisions conference in Portland, OR. It’s not a typical question for a keynote speaker to ask a journalist he’s just met at a technology event. Then again, Rushkoff is not a typical keynote, and I’m not a typical journalist. After all, I’d just introduced myself as a writer for ReadWriteWeb and Technoccult.
“No, not anymore,” I told him.
“I’m thinking about starting up again. I feel like I’ve been fooled by all of this,” he said, gesturing around the room.
“All of what?” I asked him.
“Consensus reality,” he told me. He went on to talk about the vitality that practicing magicians like Phil Farber and Grant Morrison have. We chatted a bit longer about our common interests, and made an appointment to meet up for an interview. I talked to him about some of the themes of his new book, Program or Be Programmed, and the Contact Summit, which he’s co-organizing with Venessa Miemis and Michel Bauwens. You can find that portion of the interview at ReadWriteWeb. Then we got into stuff that fits better on this site.
Rushkoff is disappointed about how technology is being used today. He describes feeling of computer networks in 1991 as being like taking acid – there was a sense that anything was possible. In Cyberia he wrote that the only people that would be able to handle the new information reality would be psychedelic people and kids. He expanded upon the notion that kids would just inherently get cyberspace in Playing the Future.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Rushkoff admits he was wrong about kids just getting cyberculture. He says recent studies have found that younger Internet users are more likely to fall for hoaxes or believe incorrect things they read on the Internet. Young people are less critical, not more.
Meanwhile, technology has become more about control than about liberation from consensus reality.
“When Video Toaster for the Amiga came out everyone was really excited,” he Rushkoff said. “We believed that we could use it to create deeply alternative states of consciousness using lights and colors and things.”
“Today, those technologies are used by companies like Fox News to make you pay attention to what they want you to pay attention to, or to make your eye fall on a particular ad. Stuff like that.”
But he says if you know how the program works, you’re less likely to be hypnotized by it. “There’s two ways to experience magic,” he says. “And I don’t mean stage magic.” You can either experience it as a spectator, watching a priest or guru. Or you can participate. “Having a guru will only take you so far,” he said. “You have to become the guru.”
But it’s not easy. Rushkoff admits he’s been having trouble participating in magic these days. “My sense is that the suppositional conditioning that I’ve undergone – making a living, raising a kid, keeping a house in working order, paying a mortgage – I’ve expended a lot of energy in less efficient ways,” he said. “I’ve become less trusting of the more subtle ways of influencing the world around me.”
“Part of that is because the stakes are higher,” he said. “I’ve got a real kid, a real wife, a real house, a real bank account, a real mortgage. When it was just me, the stakes were lower. It was just ‘Will I get this book deal?’ and ‘Will I get with this girl?’ Not expending that energy in the conventional ways wouldn’t lead to catastrophic failures.”
He said he hasn’t reached a point where the stakes are lower. “I’ve just gotten to a point where this is no longer working for me. Too many of my day-to-day concerns are not consonant with the way I want to experience the world. It’s about maintaining security, avoiding death and getting things done.”
He says he’s not interested in performing rituals or ceremonies. Instead he said “I want to maintain a greater availability towards pattern recognition. A greater sensitivity to the subtle effects of my actions.”
He wants to spend more of his time and energy connecting with people and “Being and experiencing myself as part of the unfolding of reality.”
So what stands in the way?
“The cultural things in my life and how I relate to them are all fairly rigid – marriage, schools, etc.” he says. “But unless you find an intentional community, it’s hard to feel that balanced. But I feel it can be done.”
I mention that Grant Morrison seems to pull this off. “Yeah, but he’s childless,” Rushkoff replied. He explains that he’s worried that if he goes off the deep end, he’d end up with some fucked up kids. “I don’t know if that’s because of society or what,” he says, pointing out that society has certain expectations from parents and childhoods and your children can end up being the victims of your choices, even if it’s not fair.
I told him that I don’t have kids, but society still limits what I can do. “Right, money is a big limiting factor,” he says.
“It’s like Bill Hicks said,” I replied. “‘You think you’re free? Trying going anywhere without fucking money.'”
“Yeah, not everyone can move out to the woods, and have solar panels and all that. It’s just not sustainable.”
I told him about EsoZone, and how part of my intention for it was to create a sort of urban Burning Man – a semi-autonomous zone that people could bus or bike to, instead of something way out in the desert away from civilization.
“Yeah, and that’s great,” he said. “But it’s temporary. It’s like acid. When you come down, the question is always ‘how can I make this last forever?'”
And it’s at that point that someone from the event came over and told him it was time to get ready to go on stage and we had to part ways before I could get to the other questions on my list about localism, alternative currencies, etc.
But I’ve been thinking about this last point – how do we make these special experiences last forever? Part of the point, I think, of these sorts of shamanistic experiences – whether it’s Burning Man, or drugs, or fever or lucid dreaming or whatever – is that they are temporary but that you can take something of value away from them and apply it to normal, every day life.
I relate to Rushkoff’s experience, even though I’m childless. My day-to-day concerns are meeting my deadlines for work, making sure I have enough money in the bank for rent, my conference travel schedule, the best types of dish washer tablets and whether my wife and I need a new coffee maker. I’m considering buying a subscription to Consumer Reports, and what sort of retirement savings account is best for me.
Did we learn nothing from our experiences that we can bring back into our day-to-day lives? Are there really no options between being square or living on a commune?
I for one choose not to be believe that.
Since this interview, I made it a point to work less and to spend more time with friends. Even before the interview I’d been realizing that I didn’t do much actual socializing on social media. Twitter and Tumblr are participatory, but not particularly social. I use Facebook mostly as a way to send and receive invitations, and as a sort of back-up e-mail system. I want to spend more time connecting with people, and I’m doing my best to do that.
But there does seem to be something else that’s missing. As we parted ways, Rushkoff told me to feel free to e-mail him if I came across anything that I thought would help him in his situation. I chuckled, saying that it’s the exact same situation seemingly everyone is in.
There’s a lot to discuss there, including whether this is actually a particularly new phenomena, how prominent it actually is, whether being anti-college actually constitutes anti-intellectualism (and does thinking that the educational system is badly broken constitute being anti-college?), whether Nicholas Carr is being unreasonable, and whether advocating letting anyone edit a Wikipedia page actually constitutes a hatred of knowledge.
One thing that I noticed reading Sanger’s essay was how few geeks he cites as evidence. Where are the quotes from Hacker News threads from real-life actual geeks? I’m sure you could find some gems in this thread or this one.
Thiel is a lawyer and venture capitalist. He’s best known as the co-founder of PayPal, but it was Max Levchin and the other co-founders who had the technical background. Robinson is an education researcher. Tapscott is a business consultant with a background in education research. Shirkey has perhaps the most geek cred among them. According to Wikipedia, he wrote technology guides for Ziff Davis before become a professor of new media. But do any of them truly represent geek culture?
Also, who doesn’t speak for geek culture? Apparently, in Sanger’s view Carr does not. Neither does Sanger himself. Apparently Jaron Lanier doesn’t consider himself a geek anymore, despite his background in computer science, and therefore speaks against geek culture instead of as part of it.
I’m not being glib here, and I’m not bringing this up as a counter point to Sanger. Articles and lectures by and interviews with Shirkey, Thiel, etc. tend to be discussed frequently in geek circles (though not alwaysapprovingly). Carr and Lanier are discussed as well – my perception, and Sanger’s, is that they have received more negative attention in the geekosphere than positive attention. But is that a correct assessment?
Who counts as a geek and who doesn’t?
Of course, Sanger only asks whether there is a strain of geek culture that is anti-intellectual, not whether the whole culture is anti-intellectual. Geek culture is not coherent. There are many right-wing libertarian geeks, and there are many socialist geeks as well. Some geeks are ruthless entrepreneurs (especially these days with the bubble in full swing). Some are more interested in free culture than making money. What, then, is the politics of geek culture? What do geeks have in common?
People who commute more than 45 minutes a day are more likely to get divorced, according to a Swedish study. And that’s just one of many studies indicating that commuting ruins lives that Slate’s Annie Lowrey shares in a recent story on the subject. “The joy of living in a big, exurban house, or that extra income leftover from your cheap rent? It is almost certainly not worth it,” she writes.
Long commutes are associated with neck and back pain, high levels of stress, obesity and a high level of dissatisfaction with one’s life and work.
Despite everything, commuting time has only increased over the past 50 years. The number of “extreme commuters,” who commute 90 minutes each way, has doubled since 1990 to 3.5 million. Why? The number one reason seems to be housing costs. People tend to want to buy larger houses, even if that adds significant time to their commute. According to Lowrey, economists have been warning us since at least the 60s that we tend not to take the value of our time into account when we buy houses far from work.
It’s not always that easy, though. I don’t own a home, so I have more flexibility in where I live. But back when I was doing IT contracting I would work in one place for a couple-few months, then move on to the next gig. I worked in one northwestern suburb of Portland (Hillsboro) for six months, then in a southwestern suburb for 3 or 4 months (Tualitin) and then in a northeastern suburb (Gresham) for a month or so. Eventually I found a full-time job in the city. I could have tried moving closer to that workplace, but my wife worked on the other side of town. And really, I could have been laid off at any time and had to start commuting to another corner of the metro area. Living centrally (close-in southeast) helped – my commute was never more than about 45 minutes (by car) each way. But not everyone can live in the middle of a city.
The Department of Homeland security is field testing a system that will attempt to predict which passengers on an airline are planning terrorist activity, according to Nature. The system, called Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST) looks at a number of factors, including your pulse, the steadiness of your gaze and the way you walk and calculates the probability that you’re planning to commit a crime. It’s a bit like a polygraph, but it doesn’t require subjects to be connecting to a polygraph.
DHS claims that the system is 70% effective in lab tests.
But DHS isn’t the only law enforcement agency looking to statistic modeling to predict crime. Earlier this year Slate ran a story on how police departments, including the LAPD and Chicago PD, are researching predictive policing. This projects aren’t about predicting the actions of one individual, Minority Report style, but instead are designed to help decide how best to allocate police resources.
I came across this article in The Guardian on “Oxi,” a drug that has reportedly “exploded” in South America. According to The Guardian, Oxi is a “highly addictive and hallucinogenic blend of cocaine paste, gasoline, kerosene and quicklime (calcium oxide).”
From the story:
“The difference between cocaine and oxi is like the difference between drinking beer and pure alcohol,” said a federal police operative on the Peru-Brazil border, who refused to be named.
Further down in the story, however, another police officer is quoted saying ” “It is a new thing and we don’t yet have all the technical details of what oxi really is and the damage it can cause to someone who becomes addicted and uses it constantly.”
The whole story seemed fishy, so I did some digging and found this thread on a drug forum. Someone there found an Al Jazeera story with some more information:
The Al Jazeera story cites a researcher named Mendes who claims to have done a study of 80 oxi users. Mendes claims that users die about one year after starting to use the drug. That’s an insanely high mortality rate, but there’s no indication as to how the study was conducted, what the users actually died from or what sorts of controls were used. (Still, makes me think of Substance D – a drug everyone knows will kill them, but they keep taking anyway).
There’s a paradox that makes the stories particularly weird. If Oxi is so pure, why is it so cheap? One poster on the forums suggests:
Crack can be made straight from coca paste without having to be reverted from cocaine HCL.
The process in making cocaine goes: coca leaves> coca paste > cocaine base (crack) > cocaine HCL.
Its just that street crack always comes from being made from cocaine HCL
My guess is oxi is just cocaine base made straight from coca paste; so oxi would be more pure because it isnt being reverted back to cocaine base from cut cocaine.
The idea, I guess, is that on the black market most coca paste usually goes towards making cocaine hcl, so that anyone wanting to make crack has traditionally used cocaine hcl. What’s happening now is that more people are realizing they can skip the cocaine hcl period and make a cheaper, purer product straight from the paste.
Another poster suggested it might not actually be purer at all, but it might actually be the impurities (not to mention residues left by gasoline or kerosene) that create a different experience:
Sort of like the difference between East Coast USA H4 heroin (a highly purified powder mostly consisting of diacetylmorphine) & West Coast USA Black Tar Heroin (a very crude, not very purified mass containing DAM as well as morphine, 6-MAM & other assorted alkaloids)?
While H4 is obviously the cleaner, “superior” product, many people prefer the unrefined-ness of BTH, because of the nuanced high provided by the different alkaloids.
The paco sold here is a chemical byproduct, a leftover when Andean coca leaves are turned into a paste, then formulated into cocaine bound for US and European markets. Paco was once discarded as laboratory trash, says Dr. Ricardo Nadra, an Argentine government psychiatrist who works with paco addicts. But Argentina’s devastating financial collapse in 2001 left the poorest even poorer, creating an impoverished demand for “cocaine’s garbage,” he says.
“People were broke and they couldn’t afford to buy anything else,” says Dr. Nadra, adding that drug dealers took the leftovers, which look like salt crystals, and added substances such as ground up glass as a filler in order to increase their profits. “Drug dealers could keep selling pure cocaine in Europe or the US but now they could sell paco in [Argentina’s poorer neighborhoods],” he says.
The Monitor notes that rich kids were starting to use the drug as well.
The Guardian ran its own story on paco just last year. The Guardian claims that “Paco is cocaine base paste, a byproduct of the refining process, cut with chemicals such as sulphuric acid and kerosene as well as glue, rat poison and crushed glass.”
Sounds very similar, except that The Guardian is describing paco as being made from a waste “paste” as opposed to an essential ingredient being used in a different way. But I can’t help but wonder if they are indeed the same drug. Some of the comments on The Guardian story on Oxi say it is, and Vaughan Bell att Mind Hacks says the same thing. In which case, this has been a known problem in Brazil and Argentina since at least 2001. It reminds me of some of the stories I saw about ya ba a few years ago, as if it were a “new” form of speed.
Anyway, it does sound a bit more legit than jenkem or iDoser.
Selections from the Dream Manual is an “aesthetic grimoire.” On one level, it’s a collection of cut-up texts by Bill Whitcomb (occasional Technoccult guest blogger and frequent commenter) accompanied by collage paintings by Michael Skrtic for each line of text. On another level, it is a collection of excerpts from the employee handbook of the Ministry of Dreams. On both levels, it’s a remarkable and engaging work. As Antero Alli writes in his foreward, “Look at them as meditation portals to the cinematic dreamscapes of the Other Side, or if you prefer psychological terms, the Unconscious (and naturally “other” to the conscious Ego). Or, if you side with the Australian aborigines, the Dreamtime.”
You can learn more about it, and preview it, here. You can buy it from the publisher here or from Amazon.com.
Michael currently lives in Sweden, but is a true citizen of the world. I caught up with him by telephone to talk about the Dream Manual, his relationship with Bill and what he’s working on now. Tune in next week for part 2 of this interview.
Klint Finley: What possessed you to undertake this process of creating a collage painting for every line of Bill’s original Dream Manual?
Michael Skrtic: The Dream Manual appeared first in 1984 or 1985 in a magazine called The Negentropy Express, which was an APA (an amateur press association) by the Society for Creative Thought. I was one of the founding members of the Society for Creative Thought and I was immediately taken with Bill’s original text and the original short little collage things that he did to accompany the text. It sort of followed me around since then. In the early 90s, I had just moved to Stockholm and I was looking for a project. I thought, ah, I know what I’ll do, I’ll colorize Bill’s original collages, so I blew them up and I colorized a couple of pages, and then I got involved with something else. Fast forward to 2003. I had a new studio and I’d just finished painting strange diagrams on the floor to get the mojo right, so I started thinking about the Dream Manual as a possible thing to do. I started looking at it and realized that I actually could – that’s basically it.
I started thinking about all the places I’ve been, collecting collage material. I’ve been collecting collage material for many, many years. Each of the Dream Manual images has touchstones to everywhere I’ve been and all the other images I’ve gathered, so I started putting them together to see where I’d end up. That’s how it started. It took seven years of work from the second time I started. I started painting and spent about six years painting and another year with Megalithica Press getting the book ready for publication. That’s the physical story of the Dream Manual.
What states of altered consciousness did you employ while creating the collages and paintings?
None. [laughs] I was drawing on a rich reserve of that. But, painting is an altered state of consciousness. I have a very active style of painting, so I’m standing up and I’m sorting through hundreds and hundreds of images just stacked up in front of me. I’m going through these processes of, in a way, accreting the paintings. I’d step into my studio – which is a magical workspace – and start sorting pictures and to see how they would go with different paintings. Often, I was working on three, or four, or five paintings at once. It’s definitely an altered state of consciousness. It’s a magical state of consciousness. It’s sort of like meditation in motion – I guess that’s how I’d classify it.
Did you have any interesting dreams while creating this work? That you can tell us about?
You know, that’s a hard question because I have really interesting dreams all the time, but nothing really stood out. After I was done, there have been a couple of occasions where I felt, as we were creating the book, we were sort of opening a doorway to the Ministry of Dreams. The Minister of Dreams as a character and the Ministry of Dreams as an imaginary place became quite real during the period we worked on these things. Bill and I would talk three to five times a week during the time when we were working on the Dream Manual project. He’s on the West Coast, as you are, so I would get up at five o’clock in the morning and I’d go paint for an hour and then I’d call Bill and we’d talk for half an hour. I’d have morning coffee with Bill after I’d done my painting and he’d have his tea in the evening with me. Sort of a Nokia moment.
So you were in contact with him every day while you were working on this.
Basically. Four or five times a week. A lot. We’ve actually spent more time over the telephone than we have face to face over the time we known we’ve known each other. We’ve lived together a couple of times in Florida and in Texas, but most of the time we’ve spent with each other has been incorporeal.
Did you meet through the Society for Creative Thought?
That’s kind of funny. We’d heard about each other for two or three years before we actually met. I was living in Tallahassee, Florida. It was the beginning of the 80s and I had started a group on campus called the Pagan/Occult Discussion Group. We we’re trying stuff out. We were a bunch of people who had read a lot and were experimenting. It started as a discussion group, but that lasted about two meetings, until we said, hey let’s try some stuff. Bill was living in Thomasville, Georgia, about an hour north of Tallahassee, and a lot of the people in the Pagan/Occult discussion group knew Bill. So, for about two or three years, we had been hearing about each other. We finally met at a very strange party and both of us had the same reaction, namely “Wow, I’m supposed to meet this guy?” We were mutually unimpressed with each other.
Shortly thereafter we met again, and this time hit it off. He used to climb through the windows at night on weekends. That was
his favorite mode of entry to the house. He’d get done with work in Georgia and would drive down to Tallahassee and, usually on Friday night about one or two morning, I’d find Bill climbing through my window.
Erik Davis has been covering fringe spiritual movements, underground music and subcultures for magazines like Wired, Arthur and Spin for the past two decades. He’s probably best known for books his books TechGnosis and Visionary State. He’s currently a contributor to several publications, including Reality Sandwich and HiLobrow. His web site is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.
Erik’s latest book, Nomad Codes, is a collection of several of his articles and essays. It can be purchased from its publisher YETI or from Amazon. I talked with Erik about the new book, the changing American spiritual landscape, and why he’s now pursuing academia.
Klint Finley: Over the last few years, while writing the essays that comprise this book, have you seen any significant shift in American spirituality? Has much changed since the publication of TekGnosis?
Erik Davis: Spirituality is always changing, because “spirituality” itself is almost defined by its informality, at least in contrast to those more organized movements we call “religion.” And even religions are always changing. Since the 1990s, there have been some intriguing developments, some cool, some odd.
One has been the extraordinary popularity of yoga, and what makes yoga particularly interesting is that it bridges between spirituality and a purely secular world of exercise and keeping fit. People don’t go to yoga for gurus like they did in the 70s — it’s about the “practice.” That shows some healthy pragmatism in some ways, but it also represents how easily spirituality gets commodified in America. I mean, yoga is pretty cheap when you boil it down–you on a mat on a floor. And yet it has become a whole industry.
Yeah, the brouhaha over Bikram yoga really exemplifies that.
Then there’s the 2012 thing, which has really grown tremendously, right on schedule. I have been tracking that for years, a combination of archaic dreaming and very contemporary apocalypticism. I knew some folks in British Columbia that all decided to adopt the 13 moon calendar for a while, and they lived their lives partly in that alternate calendrical frame. Pretty outside stuff! Then a year ago, my sister, who is not a freak by any stretch of the imagination, started talking about 2012 and what it meant. That represents quite a shift. Even Christian fundamentalists are talking 2012 these days. Everyone on the bandwagon!
Where does the title of the book, Nomad Codes, come from?
For me the phrase Nomad Codes really captures something about the 1990s culture that really influenced me and most of the writing in the book, even the later stuff. In some ways, we never leave our home-base cultural framework. In the early 1990s, there was a tremendous sense of novelty and possibility–the Internet was opening up, electronic music, a revived psychedelic culture, even “Twin Peaks” on the TV seemed to confirm that reality itself was warping. That sense of warp was captured by the figure of the nomad–slipping beyond the established narratives and institutions, not trying to root himself anywhere, flowing between the cracks. But all this stuff was happening in the context of an exploding media and particularly digital culture. So codes were, and are, everywhere. The world we perceive is partly dependent on our codes–not just our ethical codes, but the codes of perception and experience we use to program our engagement with reality.
Do you have a favorite story from the book? One that you’re particularly proud of?
There’s a number of pieces that come out of really amazing trips and explorations I’ve one on. “Sampling Paradise” was about going to Goa in India in 1994 to hunt down the origins of raves; it was just when Psy-Trance was starting to leak into the west, and I went to some amazing parties. But the craziest time was my visit to Burma, which I write about at length. At the end of the piece, I am drunkenly dancing with a cute transvestite spirit-medium whose gaudy outfit was stuffed with currency. My wife was there at the time and she found it all hilarious.
I don’t have a copy of the book yet, so I don’t know if “Technopagans” and/or “Songs in the Key of F12” are included, but I wanted to tell you that those two article were formative for me.
Well thanks. They both nearly made the cut, but not quite. “Technopagans” was too long, and a little dated, and some of the ideas were repeated elsewhere. And not a lot of the music writing made it in, other than a profile of Sun City Girls and a long piece on Lee Scratch Perry. Maybe I should have given more thought to “Songs” though! That was a fun time to write about electronic music. I am curious though: how did they influence you?
I read “Technopagans” in 2000 just as I was starting to learn about chaos magic, and the way the article related it to tech culture kind of gave me the push I needed to jump in and start doing it.
I read “Songs in the Key of F12” around the time it came out, and it planted the seeds that eventually lead me to become a laptop musician myself – though it was years after reading it. I guess, like “Technopagans,” it told me “This is something YOU can do.”
That’s great. That’s why I love writing about subcultures: I get drawn toward things I want or attract me, and then I try to communicate the attraction and the appeal, even if I don’t end up becoming a chaos magician or a laptop musician myself.
Here’s a question someone on Twitter just asked me to ask you: Have you faced any challenges as an independent scholar outside the university system?
Well its funny you should ask. I have faced some challenges, and the unfortunate fact is that, in terms of getting paid, the challenges have only gotten larger the more established in my career I have become. I came of age as a writer at a time when I was lucky enough to be able to live off interesting magazine work–I got paid for the Goa piece by Details magazine, all expense paid trip and a good fee, even though they never ran the story. That world is gone, at least for someone with my interests, which have only gotten farther off the beaten track as far as the “mainstream” goes. Which is why I have decided to cross the great divide and enter the academy. I am at a religious studies program at Rice that specializes in magic, mysticism, and the esoteric tradition. I still like to think of myself as an independent scholar though, cause I am just doing what I want to do!
In a round-table on the impact of the Internet on writing, you said “I find the internet-driven pressure to make pieces short, data-dense, and crisply opinionated — as opposed to thoughtful, multi-perspectival, and lyrical — rather oppressive, leading to a certain kind of superficial smugness as well as general submission to the forces of reference over reflection.” Since then, Slate has reportedly found long-form pieces on its site to be the among the most popular. Have you seen any shift back towards a demand for longer form work?
Well that’s wonderful news. I have certainly gotten great reactions from the half-dozen longish-form pieces I have written for HiLobrow this last year or so. They werent super-long, but they were dense and careful and reflective. I think the interest for this kind of stuff probably never went away but the editors and the people designing magazine and online templates went for the short stuff. I will be a happy camper if the pendulum swings back.
What are your favorite publications, print or otherwise?
Online I rove; I rarely return to the same place as if it were a magazine. Print is more conducive to a regular relationship, in my experience. I love Fortean Times, I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t have a subscription. Marvels and Wonders every issue. Coming to school I kind of went on a magazine diet though, so I am not reading the journals I normally do, from the annoying/enjoyable New Yorker to the occasional issues of Plazm. My parents just got me a subscription to The Economist, which is great because I don’t usually read that much news online, so it keeps me more “current”–whatever that means. But I like it because they write intelligently about this insane, totally fucked up world and somehow manage to seem chipper about it all.
And what’s next for you? Are you working on another full-length popular audience book, or are you completely focused on academia now?
I have always written some stuff that had an academic twist–I’ve hard articles in almost half a dozen university press books. So I will be emphasizing that side of the equation while still doing as much online and magazine work as possible. I’ve also been doing the Expanding Mind net radio show on the Progressive Radio Network for a year and a half, and will continue to do that. It’s great because I have to push myself to discover new and interesting people–or to remember all the interesting people who have crossed my path, and bring ’em on and find out what they’re doing now. I love that conversational style. I am also working on an collection of Philip K. Dick’s writings from the Exegesis which is really fun.
In Henry Baum’s novels Golden Calf and North of Sunset he explored the American religion that is Hollywood. His latest novel, The American Book of the Dead, delves into religion more directly – specifically apocalyptic Christianity and New Age ufology. It’s likeThe Stand as written by Philip K. Dick. You can buy the book here or download a free copy here. Henry’s now serializing the sequel online here. He took the time to talk to me about music, writing and fundamentalism.
Klint Finley: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a musician. I’m actually listening to your soundtrack to The American Book of the Dead for the first time right now, in fact. I’m wondering if you see yourself as more of a writer or as more as a musician, or whether you make that distinction.
Henry Baum: I started as a musician – age nine, guitar lessons. My dad was a fiction writer growing up (now a playwright). So in high school, the way for me to rebel against my parents was in a way to be anti-writing. So I was in punk bands and such. Played in indie rock bands in New York City. My own songwriting was always on the backburner. I always thought of myself as a drummer and fiction writer first, rather than a songwriter. Now, though, I’ve got a copy of Logic and can record any way I want, so I’ve been working on this whole backlog of songs I’ve had through the years. But still…I find fiction writing more satisfying for some reason. I love writing and playing music, but it’s not the thing I wake up thinking about, even if I’ve been playing music a lot longer than writing fiction. It’s less in my bloodstream, maybe.
How long have you been writing? What made you decide to start after avoiding it for all those years?
In college I lost that teenage rebellion and realized I was fighting the inevitable. I started working on a novel and realized how much I liked it. The novel wasn’t so great, but I at least found that I enjoyed the process. So I’ve been writing since I was 18 – which means, 20 years. Damn. The American Book of the Dead is my sixth novel, though I’ve published three. The first two were practice. One ripping off Richard Yates, who I was once obsessed with. The other trying to be a twenty-something Charles Bukowski. I’ve excised everything that was readable from those two novels and put together two short stories – i.e. 20 readable pages out of hundreds.
You’re serializing a sequel to American Book of the Dead right now, so I take it you think serializing the other novel online was a success? Do you have the novels written ahead of time and then release them piece by piece online, or do you write them as you go?
I actually abandoned serializing the novel almost as soon it was started. I put it up on Blogspot and soon realized I wasn’t ready for it. The site’s still live but what’s there is basically half of the introduction. Instead, I started posting a blog called “God’s Wife” which was part one of a completed novel I wrote about a porn star who joins a religious cult. I posted the porn part – it’s first person, female, and I posted it as if it was being written by a real porn star. People bought it. It makes me sound like a James Frey type, but this was in 2004 – blogs and Blogspot were new, and it was a literary experiment. Some people were pissed when they found out, some were supportive. Now, many years later, I’m ready to start posting something online as it’s written, which I’m trying to make a part of the story – but it’s also kind of terrifying because it doesn’t give me as much time to get used to something before publishing it.
How much of both books is autobiographical? Have parents at your daughter’s school really confronted you about ABOTD?
Ha, no – that’s totally a projection of my worst worry, as was the chapter in the first novel – about a father discovering his daughter doing porn online. Basically, that confrontation is one I’m having with myself. I’m torn about writing this whole sequence because at some point my daughter’s going to be reading what I wrote. It’s an honest fear though, and something many fathers out there are dealing with, so my self-judgment isn’t totally overwhelming.
I’ve only read the introduction and first chapter of the sequel, but so far it’s much more personal, while the first one is more, I guess, universal. Is that why you decided to do a sequel? To work out more personal rather than universal issues?
A little bit. The first novel is about me in the year 2020, so it’s purely a fantasy about what I could be. Whereas Part II covers this time period. Eventually though it gets pretty far out – and revisits the 2020 character. Part II is going to be much more about the UFO issue: what first contact could do to the world’s psyche. How the world’s psyche could be prepared for that “awakening.” The first novel’s more about far right fundamentalism and the damage that can cause. I always intended it to be three parts, but the autobiographical writers are the ones who appeal to me most – Kerouac, Bukowski, Philip K. Dick’s Valis books. So it’s nice to be writing about who I actually am in real time.
That’s interesting, because yours is one of the few “writers writing about being writers” novels that I actually like – along w/ Dick’s stuff, though it’s not as expressly about writing. I couldn’t make it through Ask the Dust for that reason. Records about how much the recording industry sucks annoy me too.
Wow, thank you for that. I like Fante. To be honest, I’m not sure I need to read Post Office or On the Road ever again. They’ve been formative, but that period’s over. I absolutely love Philip K. Dick’s Valis books because they mix the totally far out with autobiography. I recently read Anne Dick’s memoir (and interviewed her) and it’s pretty remarkable how autobiographical ALL his novels are, which is why he appeals to me more than other science fiction writers. I read Jonathan Lethem recently say that Dick is continuing the legacy of Kerouac more than Asimov. So that’s what I’m attempting to do. Emphasis on the word “attempt.”
Do you have a particular process or ritual for writing?
I pretty much write in an insane trance for three months at a time and then have long spells where I don’t write at all – recovering from the trance. That’s why music’s been helpful to me. On my fiction writing downtime, I often dive back into recording. It’s rare when I go full-on with both at once.
How much do you buy the fringe ideas that have influenced the American Book of the Dead novels? For example, do you really think the world is in need of a mass die-off to curb over population?
It’s a disturbing concept and one I’m still exploring. I look at the recent mosque controversy and wonder, for instance, what would happen if there was UFO disclosure. If people think Obama’s a socialist Hitler terrorist now, they might be turned into David Ickean conspiracy theorists at that point – he’s a reptilian. There’s just so much volatility that seems like it could end in violence. People are crazy – how do we introduce new radical ideas into the culture if a centrist like Obama is seen as a radical? I’m not advocating genocide of any kind – but metaphorically at least, many different types of thought need to die, especially different aspects of fundamentalism. And now it seems fundamentalism is getting a louder and louder voice in the mainstream. It’s like the culture is primed to create mass conflict. So while it’s not something I desire, it does seem inevitable.
It can suck to be prescient sometimes, huh? You started the novel, what, 8 yeas ago? Those seemed like dark times then, but fundamentalist rhetoric just seems to be getting worse and worse.
Sarah Palin didn’t even exist when I started this book. I was fearing the Bush/Cheney cabal and what they were capable. Sarah Palin makes Bush look like, I don’t know, Bill Clinton.
Speaking of Clinton – you’re a little older than me so you might remember this period a bit more clearly than me – was the right so apocalyptic during the early years of Clinton’s presidency? Some elements certainly were, it seems like, reading those old Ron Paul Survival Report issues that were published online during the presidential primary.
And those seem to fit my very young memory of Clinton’s early years – I lived in rural Texas then, but I was only 11, I think, when Clinton was elected.
The far right’s always existed. But 9-11 really blew a hole in people’s last shred of rationality. The vitriol then seemed to be aimed at Hillary Clinton. But post 9-11, post electing a person named Barack Obama, and people have totally lost it. I mean, 9-11 blew a hole open in how I look at the world as well – it was then I started looking at conspiracies, UFOs, mysticism, and everything else that went into this book. I asked, as many people did, What the fuck is going on?
You’ve said that you write because you hope you can change people’s thinking. If you could change society’s thinking in just one way, what would that be?
Whoa, big one. The main thread here I think is the problem of fundamentalism. First two novels I wrote were about Hollywood – which I see as another religion, with the same kind of blind worship. I also mentioned porn up there. Though sexual taboos are a problem, being overly devoted and thinking sex is the only thing that matters isn’t the alternative. Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are next in line. I just posted a piece on Reality Sandwich which expressed the possibility of skepticism about 9-11 truth, and people were PISSED. Frankly, I don’t think this kind of true believerism makes any more sense for the fringe than it does for Sarah Palin devotees. So, short answer, the thing I think needs to go away is: blind devotion.
New York based game designers Luke Crane (of Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard fame) and Jared Sorensen (known for octaNe and the various games released through his Memento Mori imprint) are sometimes referred to as godfathers of the indie game scene. Tomorrow they’re releasing their new game FreeMarket at GenCon – you can find them at booth #1732. I talked to them a couple weeks ago about what FreeMarket’s all about.
Could you briefly go over what FreeMarket is and why it’s different from other role playing games?
Luke Crane: FreeMarket is a transhumanist RPG in which players take on the roles of telepathic, immortal infovores living on a space station orbiting Saturn.
Jared: That’s also what makes it different from other RPGs.
Luke : In order to get ahead on the station, players must make friends, cooperate and give gifts to one another. Doing so enhances a player’s reputation. Players can then spend this reputation to accomplish personal goals. It uses a unique card-based mechanic, comes in a box and is really pretty.
Left: Jared Right: Luke
It also sounds like it’s a more intellectual game than most – you’ve said you can, for instance, play the role of a philosopher and have that be meaningful within the game.
Luke: Yeah, but don’t think you can’t play Soulshitter Killfuck and have fun, too. But, unlike many other games that I’ve played, you can play an artist and have serious conflict about what you do. It’s impossible to just make a piece of art in this game and have it sit there, inert. Art is controversial.
Jared: And conflicts (especially philosophical, critical and artistic) are both internal and external and can have wide-reaching and unplanned repercussions.
Right. So you could do a more typical hack and slash scenario, or you could do something where you’re dealing with post-scarcity speculation. Or maybe both.
Luke: Yes. But the “typical” scenario is also turned on its ear.
Jared: Definitely. “Death artists” is a common FreeMarket trope we see in our games.
Luke: You can kill the living shit out of something in the game. In fact, when you get into a fight, someone is going to die, period. But that is very costly, so you better be ready to have another side to your character. You better be ready to cooperate and give gifts. Otherwise, you’re not going to survive.
Jared: Some of the nicest people on FreeMarket Station are killers… because they have to be nice in order to remain viable members of society.
So you can kill or be killed in the game?
Jared: Yes, but not permanently
What do you mean?
Luke: Yeah, the station just resuscitates you or reloads your back up into a new body if you’ve “perfect deathed.”
Jared: There are different levels of death… from induced death to brain death to total bodily destruction. If you just go around murdering people left and right, people are going to shun you and you’re going to burn your social capital to ashes.
Luke: Right, killing costs a lot of your reputation.
Jared: Especially if you’re killing people who are valuable members of the society. Assholes who kill each other off can get away with that for a while
Luke: *Laughs* True!
Jared: But kill a baker? Or a garbage man? You are FUCKED.
I haven’t role played in years, and it’s been even longer since I’ve been at all serious about playing. But Free Market sounds like something I’d like to play. Do you think this is the sort of game that people who have lost interest in role-playing or maybe never even role played before would get into?
Jared: We had a woman play — she was the CFO of a game company — who had never played an RPG before. She got it in five minutes. It was awesome.
Luke: It’s different. It’s not about roll-to-hit and not a number style play. People who are diehard RPG players have the most trouble with it, actually.
Was that your intention? To create a game for non-gamers?
Luke: No, we just wanted to create a game that we liked (and that Peter Adkison would like).
Jared: We wanted to create a game for people interested in science fiction.
Luke: That, too!
Jared: Not SF gaming, but actual SF.
Luke: Yeah, this isn’t space pirate romance.
Jared: No travel, no aliens. Which are two mainstays of the game genre.
You’ve said before this is the first actual science fiction game.
Jared: We say a lot of things.
Luke: *Laughs* True. Paranoia is the first science fiction roleplaying game. Our friend Joshua made a really neat science fiction game called Shock, but it’s not really an RPG.
What makes it a science fiction game and other sci-fi themed games NOT science fiction games?
Luke: They’re about fighting and romance. FreeMarket is about time, space and identity.
Luke: Not really!
Jared: D&D is as much about economics as FreeMarket. The title of the game is ironic commentary — the space station was renamed “FreeMarket Station” by its residents and it’s probably ironic commentary by us as well.
So it’s not Milton Friedman: The Game?
Jared: Hah, no.
Luke: Unfortunately, no. Milton Friedman would probably hate the economy in this game.
Jared: More Malcom Gladwell.
Luke: There’s no money. No market.
Jared: That’s the joke. The market is one of ideas.
More “free” than “market.”
Jared: And it’s a truly free society. For the first time ever, people have real freedom. And it’s terrifying.
And you’re going to be giving the game, sans artwork, away for free online at some point, correct?
Luke: We already did that.
Jared: With artwork even.
Luke: We gave away a PDF from November to April. We took it offline while we launch.
Jared: It was limited to 1,000 people. And we used that for our “colony program.”
Luke: I’m sure it’s out on torrent sites.
Jared: It totally is.
Luke: We’re discussing the future fate of the electronic life of FreeMarket. We need to see how well the printed version does. You can definitely get a sense of the game from the PDF. But to play it, it’s best to have the materials—the cards and chips.
How did you get interested in transhumanism and why did you decide to write a game based around it?
Luke: I’ve been a fan of cyberpunk since I had a brain…since about 1991. Transhumanism seems like the next natural step. It’s like cyberpunk, but without the 1980s and with some more thoughtful science fiction.
Jared: The game has gone through a lot of development and research but even from the first step we knew “transhuman science fiction” was going to be its thrust. And it was kinda unexplored as a game subject at the time (2007).
Luke: Yeah, somebody said to us, “What would you do with X” and we both said, “Transhumanist SF RPG. Space stations and weird technology.” I think I was reading Bruce Sterling at the time.
I suppose it would be hard to create a normal hack and slash transhumanist game. Unless you count Rifts or something.
Jared: You can play out brutal combat sequences in FreeMarket and it’s very satisfying. It’s just the consequences are all backward and upside down.
Luke: Rifts is totally transhumanist. But Eclipse Phase, our cousin, is a TH game about fighting. Did I just say that out loud?
Jared: *Laughs* Except that DEE-BEES are not human (so really, it’s transdimensional).
Jared: Rifts also has space whales I think.
Were virtual worlds like MOOs and MUSHes and newer things like Second Life an influence?
Luke: Absolutely. Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter too.
Jared: Everything from MUDs and Second Life to Facebook, dating sites and Slashdot.
Luke: Good science fiction expresses the present through the fiction of the technology. We wanted FM to feel like an outgrowth of today.
How were social networking sites an influence?
Luke: Well, in the game, you friend each other. Friending each other increases your overall reputation and provides “social insurance.” The more friends you have, the harder it is for you to be kicked out of the community. So the influence is rather naked. It was more “What if that shit was about people and real life rather than your profile?”
Why wouldn’t everyone just friend everyone then?
Luke: Hah, well, do you go around friending everyone on Facebook? Do you love the people who do nothing but friend you?
No, but it doesn’t really keep me from getting kicked off my space station.
Jared: There are game equivalents of “like” and “mod down” buttons, social groups and trolling. There are people on the station who try and friend everyone. But friending carries serious social implications. Friending is like allowing someone access to your Google Calendar. And Ebay account. And email. Etc.
So there’s a real trust relationship there.
Luke: And if you’re worried about getting kicked off, then I don’t know if we should be friends. because you’re obviously up to something that’s going to get me in trouble. When your reputation tanks, your friends all take a hit, too.
Jared: Klint’s friends are all switchers, breakers and wetworkers! Don’t friend him!
What advice would you give people who want to be game designers?
Jared: continue to want to be that.
Luke: *Laughs* Play lots of games. Start breaking games. And then play your games. And break them. Also, recruit tolerant friends.
Jared: And stay the hell off of game forums.
Luke: That, too.
Are there any books on game design you’d recommend?
Luke: I like Rules of Play by Salen and Zimmerman. But Jared and I are both self-taught.