The Brain Mutator For Higher Primates — A bOING bOING Retrospective

This article was originally written for and published at Neon Dystopia on June 13th, 2018 It has been posted here for safe keeping.

In 1988, Mark Frauenfelder and his wife Carla Sinclair started a small zine out of their apartment in Sherman Oaks, California. This wasn’t a full-time job for Frauenfelder, who studied mechanical engineering in school and worked professionally designing hard disk drives during the day. The drudgery of his work got to him, and he desperately needed a creative outlet, and that outlet would become bOING bOING.

Frauenfelder was fascinated by self-produced magazines of the time like Screamsheet and Reality Hackers, which in many ways acted as a precursor to amateur websites and blogs that permeate the Internet today. Zines were a bit different than the magazines you may pick up in a corporate bookstore. They were rough, uncensored, and often handmade by a group of amateurs having fun. Maybe you’d find some on a table at a trendy coffeehouse, or maybe the employee bathroom at work, but more often than not you would have to seek them out by mailing cash to the creators and hoping they sent something back. This wasn’t the first foray into publishing for Mark, who had created two issues of a mini-comic called Toilet Devil, and a one-issue zine titled Important Science Journal some time earlier. This new zine would be different. It would be for cool things, cyberpunk, wacky stuff, high weirdness, and anything downright crazy the husband and wife duo found interesting.

Carla Sinclair and Mark Frauenfelder.

Frauenfelder, an avid punk rock fan, enjoyed music by acts like The Ramones and The Clash throughout his youth. When asked what he liked about punk music during a 2011 interview, Mark responded, “It was the DIY aspect of the punk culture. You didn’t need to have expensive equipment or a record contract. I also liked the primitive sound. It’s hard to say, but as soon as I heard it, I loved it.” In many ways, the new zine would mirror punk culture and the DIY aesthetic: it wasn’t perfect, there wasn’t any backing or stability— it was raw and unfiltered and noisy and fun.

As a child, Frauenfelder was drawn to computers and comics, which eventually inspired his love of all things geeky and his fascination with alternative media. He first learned about zines from the Winter 1987 issue of Whole Earth Review titled “Signal” (co-edited by Kevin Kelly, who would later be among the founders of Wired magazine) in which an article explained the concept of zines and even mentioned a zine directory (which was actually a zine itself!) titled Factsheet Five. Frauenfelder ordered a copy and immediately sent away for as many zines as he could.

The first issue was layed out before the pair needed to move to Boulder, Colorado in 1989. Carla took on the role of editor, which she would retain for the run of the magazine, while Mark settled into the co-editor/publisher position. Packed full of cyberpunk sci-fi, underground comix, and mind-altering media, Carla xerox’d about 100 issues of the 36-page zine, and began to distribute it. The first issue was a trip: there was an interview with futurist Robert Anton Wilson, a comic about taking LSD, and a libertarian-cyberpunk manifesto titled “Crossbows to Cryptography: Techno-Thwarting the State!”, amongst others. bOING bOING, the World’s Greatest Neurozine, was born!

bOING bOING issue 1 (1989) cover. Read the whole issue here.

Stop right there. I can already see the candy-colored cogs in your brain cranking away trying to understand the text you just sucked off the page. bOING bOING… as in Boing Boing… as in boingboing.net, the popular group blog that arguably pioneered blogging as a concept in the early days of the Internet. Few people know that Boing Boing started its life as a humble zine, printed on dead-tree paper— not electronic bits ethereally whirling around the ‘net. Boing Boing may now be a staple of the Internet for those interested in science fiction, futurism, technology, and left-wing politics, but 30 years ago, it was a brand new zine called (and stylized as) bOING bOING.

bOING bOING stayed in Colorado for several issues and were hitting their stride as distribution ramped up. They refined their manic, madcap, eclectic style to become the premier net rag, full of punk attitude and sassy style. While the first issue of the magazine featured content from a handful of technoid misfits, the contributions were soon creeping in from all over. Back before the Internet, zines had to rely on a combination of luck and word-of-mouth to be successful. You could distribute copies of your zine to your friends, send them to other zines you like in the hopes that they’d review it, or trade them with others to spread far and wide. If it was any good, you’d have insatiable, bug-eyed mutants clamoring for more. If it was bad, it would fizzle out, and be all but lost to time. Early contributors for bOING bOING included science fiction authors like Paul Di Filippo and Rudy Rucker, as well as cyberculture writers and zine editors like Going Gaga helm Gareth Branwyn and FringeWare Review wizards Paco Nathan and Jon Lebkowsky. Within the zine microcosm, bOING bOING was a hit!

Mark Frauenfelder pasting paper together to assemble copies of bOING bOING issue 2 (1990). Read the whole issue here.

It is important to understand just how much cyberpunk influence bOING bOING was amassing in this early period of publication. Just three years before bOING bOING’s first issue, Bruce Sterling edited the acclaimed Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986), featuring short stories by prominent, front-wave authors in the cyberpunk subgenre. bOING bOING would go on to feature articles by authors from this anthology such as Rudy Rucker, Marc Laidlaw, Paul Di Filippo, John Shirley, and even Sterling himself. Others such as William Gibson and Lewis Shiner would ultimately be interviewed. Di Filippo in particular would even use bOING bOING Second issue as a launching point to share his ideas on a half-serious new subgenre he was developing called “ribofunk,” a blend of “ribosome” and “funk” (a direct response to “cyberpunk”), that acted as a prototype for what we would later come to call “biopunk.”

Around the time that Mirrorshades was hitting hardback, before bOING bOING launched, Mark and Carla would run into R.U. Sirius and Queen Mu selling the poster-sized second issue of their High Frontiers zine (a psychedelic counter-culture zine which would eventually morph into the cyberpunk Mondo 2000 a few years later) at a Timothy Leary show in San Francisco. Frauenfelder vividly describes the duo by stating “RU was this grinning hobbit-looking character with a floppy hat with a Andy Warhol button on it. Queen Mu was a very delicate blond woman with Stevie Nicks clothes and granny glasses and she [had] a permanent blissful smile and didn’t say much.” After buying a copy of their zine, Mark and Carla would attend High Frontiers Monthly Forum events in Berkeley thrown by R. U. and Mu, eventually meeting like-minded cyberpunks and tuned-on mutants such as author Rudy Rucker and future Mondo 2000 art director Bart Nagel. The friendship between the group grew, with both Rucker and Sirius eventually writing for bOING bOING.

R.U. Sirius and Timothy Leary.

bOING bOING covered culture in a no—holds-barred way. No topic seemed too taboo or salacious or untouchable. Drugs, kinky sex, and absurd humor littered the pages— sometimes comprising the entire issue. You could get the latest news about the ‘net, independant comics, goth culture, punk music reviews, and everything in between. You might see a cyberpunk short story sharing a spread with a Schwa alien cartoon or recruitment advertisement from Church of the SubGenius. bOING bOING dripped with Gen X culture, and as with Frauenfelder, appealed to those fed up churning in a stuffy office all day or burning out in their McJob. bOING bOING, like a lot of technology-soaked publications of the ’80s, followed a natural evolution with roots in the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s. Instead of the dirty, free-loving and peace-wheeling hippies, bOING bOING was more in tune with the punks of ’77 who scornfully rejected the old political idealism and subconscious with a rebellious, no-bullshit attitude. Music, culture, and technology were getting more personal; the milieu was different. The average bOING bOING reader was more likely reading Amok Dispatch (1986) rather than the Whole Earth Catalog (1969), and listening to Black Flag instead of the Grateful Dead. Kerouac made way for Coupland. This was something new— this was theirs.

For issue eight, their first with full color, Frauenfelder and Sinclair moved back to California. They didn’t stick around in one place for too long, pin-balling from Hollywood to Los Angeles to San Francisco, and eventually back to L.A. throughout the remaining years of the zine. bOING bOING was booming throughout this period, and benefited from an influx of cash attributed to Mark being employed to design Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk (1993) album. While in Los Angeles (the first time), Frauenfelder was offered a job as a writer at a small magazine startup, also run by a husband and wife team, called Wired. “They saw Boing Boing and they really liked it,” Mark has said previously, “so they called me up and asked if I could come work for them as an editor and inject some of Boing Boing’s sensibility into the magazine.” The couple relocated to San Francisco, and set up bOING bOING on the first floor of the Wired building, then located at 544 2nd Street.

Wiley Wiggins who you may remember as Mitch Kramer in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) was also actively involved in early ’90s cyberculture. He wrote for bOING bOING as well as Mondo 2000 and FringeWare Review.

Wired released its first issue in 1993, but before that, it was just a group of writers and publishers trying to throw together a new concept for a generation of MTV-watching punks, immersed in the fresh world of cyber-culture. Publisher and co-founder of Wired, Louis Rossetto, pitched his magazine concept by saying, “We’re trying to make a magazine that feels as if it has been mailed back from the future.” This fit in nicely with Frauenfelder’s style. The Wired building was truly a melting pot of San Francisco culture in the early ’90s. Wired had recently moved from the first floor, a large, open, warehouse-like space, to the second floor when it needed something roomier. bOING bOING moved into Wired’s old digs in the corner of the gigantic room, which was already buzzing with activity from other independent zine makers in the Bay Area. Other publications sharing the space included Dave Egger’s Might (a magazine aimed at Generation X), Just Go! (a travel magazine), Hum (a magazine for young South Asians), CUPS (a more eclectic culture zine), and Star Wars Universe (I think you can figure this one out). Mark continued to work on bOING bOING while also netting income from the burgeoning Wired, though Carla took over most of the production at this time. Issue 9 of bOING bOING would become notable with such content as an interview with Bruce Sterling about his new book The Hacker Crackdown (1993), a regular music column by Richard Kadrey, and a 7-page pastiche of Mondo 2000 (starting on the back cover, so it actually looks like a Mondo 2000 issue when upside down) featuring articles with titles like “I’m Gonna Morph You Up,” and “Virtual Neural Jacks.”

Cover and first page of the mONDO mONDO parody in bOING bOING issue 9 (1992). Read the whole issue here.

By this time, issues began to feel more and more refined— both in content and physical appearance. Once printed on cheap paper, the zine now had dazzling, glossy covers, and was filled with content from a loyal band of the fringe-elite. bOING bOING never seemed to lose its quirky, geeky, out-there edge that had been so crucial in cultivating the zine’s culture and feel. At its peak, bOING bOING reached a circulation of 17,500 issues. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever.

By 1995, bOING bOING would release what many might consider its last “regular” issue, though the year also marks what many would say is a much more crucial event for bOING bOING: the launch of its website, which we can still visit some 23 years later. Behind the scenes, the independent printing industry was changing for the worst. In 1994, shortly before this penultimate issue of bOING bOING was released, the two largest independent magazine distributors in the country went bankrupt. bOING bOING ended up losing about $30,000 because of this, causing delays in the production of another issue. While the launch of boingboing.net may be seen as a deathblow to the zine, it might have actually been the only thing that saved it. It was clear that publishing on paper was not going to be a long term solution. Publishing on the ‘net could be done for free.

The print zine may have been fading, but that doesn’t mean the culture built around it was left to decay. 1995 became a year of handbooks. Aligning with The Real Cyberpunk Fakebook, a satirical cyberpunk handbook written by select Mondo 2000 staff, Frauenfelder, Sinclair, and bOING bOING regular Gareth Brawnwyn collaborated on the 205-page Happy Mutant Handbook, a guide to offbeat pop culture. Sinclair would also release her first book, Net Chick: A Smart-Girl Guide to the Wired World, an optimistic yet sassy guide for women carving out their place in the early days of the web. Further, Frauenfelder was continuing to work for Wired where he would attain the position of editor. bOING bOING ultimately released its final print issue, #15, in 1997 after a two year hiatus. Unlike previous issues, this one more closely resembled a book, with more standard binding and a squarish appearance; the contents however were the same weird and wacky that bOING bOING was known for.

The Happy Mutant Handbook (1995) was actually designed by Georgia Rucker, author Rudy Rucker’s daughter! Read the whole book here.

Frauenfelder would eventually leave Wired in 1998, following his tenure there with a stint as the “Living Online” columnist for Playboy from 1998 to 2002, a job he was recommended for by Playboy editor and former zinester Chip Rowe (who had published Chip’s Closet Cleaner in the early ’90s). Later, Frauenfelder would become editor-in-chief for Make: magazine, a DIY/hobbyist bimonthly, while also producing a few books before settling into a role at the Institute for the Future as a research director. He also serves as Editor-in-Chief and podcast co-host with Kevin Kelly (again, of Wired and Whole Earth Review fame) at Cool Tools, a site about the tried-and-test tools and gadgets. Sinclair would later publish a technothriller, Signal to Noise (1997), and become editor-in-chief of a Make: spin-off magazine titled Craft: which ran from 2006 to 2009. Frauenfelder still maintains top position on the boingboing.net masthead, along with bOING bOING zine regular David Pescovitz. Carla has contributed to the site as recently as 2016, but additional writing is currently provided by Cory Doctorow, Xeni Jardin, and Rob Beschizza.

In May 2011, Frauenfelder would publish a bOING bOING anthology of favorite interviews from the zine era in a free, online-only PDF file. “The first few issues of Boing Boing had print runs in the low hundreds, and the biggest was 17,500 copies. Today, the blog easily gets that many page views in an hour,” Frauenfelder states in the the article announcing the anthology. The zine may be gone, but its legacy lives on through boingboing.net. “I think I’ll always be involved in some media. Who knows what Boing Boing will evolve into. But, I kind of imagine that it might not be too different than it is now,” Frauenfelder says in a 2012 interview, “I see myself continuing to make Boing Boing into an even better experience for its audience.”

For me, it can’t get much better than a three-color zine made by a husband and wife team exploring the weird and wonderful world. I only became aware of bOING bOING a few years back when I was searching for issues of Mondo 2000, and stumbled upon it quite accidentally. Before long, I was able to track down almost every issue and began to scan them, page by page, in an attempt to save them for future generations. I never did find the first two issues for purchase, but luckily I uncovered some PDFs of them online that were scanned at some point by Frauenfelder himself many years ago! After my scanning was complete, I uploaded each issue to the Internet Archive where you can download or browse them today, completely free. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few interactions with Mark Frauenfelder online after this, and he’s always been quick to answer my obscure questions about the old days and provide new insights. bOING bOING, the zine, remains a point of pride for him and he seems to love sharing it. It was and is something he loved, and he was there to see it mutate, evolve, and grow over time, while he did the same.

The print is dead, but the brain jack is warm. You can always go online.


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On Music, Mondo, & Mayhem: An Interview With R.U. Sirius

This article was originally written for and published at Neon Dystopia on September 1st, 2017. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

I recently wrote an article for Neon Dystopia on Mondo 2000, a cyberculture magazine that helped shape the cyberpunk sub-genre. When thinking of Mondo, the first person that comes to mind for most people is Ken Goffman, better known as R.U. Sirius. While he may be best known for his time at Mondo 2000, Sirius has no shortage of interesting accomplishments. Aside from Mondo, Sirius has had articles published in Artforum International, Rolling Stone, Time, Wired, and Esquire. He has been editor-in-chief at Axcess Magazine, GettingIt.com, and H+ Magazine. He’s hosted two podcasts, started multiple websites, and even had a run for the presidency in 2000 under the Revolution Party. Did I mention he has also authored or co-authored 10 books and appeared in two movies?

R.U. Sirius (Photo by Bart Nagel).

Aside from his accolades, Sirius is known as a knowledgeable, iconic, and somewhat eccentric guy. An acquaintance of his once stated, “[Sirius] once told me he had trouble reading anything written before 1990-it was 1980 at the time.” While Sirius has constantly been seen as being ahead-of-the-curve in a lot of ways, it was never something that hindered him — it only helped him excel. Without R.U. Sirius, we may have had a completely different experience traversing the digital revolution. At a minimum, it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun.

I had the pleasure of interviewing R.U. Sirius for Neon Dystopia over the course of the last few weeks while working on the Mondo 2000 retrospective. Being able to pick his brain was an experience, and after he answered my long series of questions, he started to tell me about his music — something I wasn’t at all familiar with. I had known R.U. Sirius the editor-in-chief of Mondo 2000, but not R.U. Sirius the musician. With a little research, I discovered he was the lead singer and songwriter for the band Party Dogs, which performed in New York in the 1980’s. Later in the 90’s, he would perform in the band Mondo Vanilli, which even signed a record deal with Trent Reznor’s Nothing Records (though there was never an official album release). Sirius recommended two albums to me, and I queued them up as I sat at my keyboard and pulled at the seams of Mondo.

The first album he recommended to me was MONDOtoxicated, a work-in-progress collaboration with psychedelic jamtronica band Phriendz. Sirius does the lyrics and has vocals on all but one song in the collection, “I Hope You Didn’t Dose the Pudding,” which instead features Phriendz’s own Daddy Phriday. The first track on the album, “Speed and Weed” is a great entry point into the unique sound put out by the collaboration. You can feel the funk and electronica elements, and they blend together seamlessly to create something otherworldly. Later in the album are two remixes from Sirius’s Party Dogs days: “On The Beam,” and “President Mussolini Makes The Planes Run On Time.” These songs are very punk-fueled, beckoning back to their original 1982 compositions, but blend well with the new electronic elements in the remix.

The second album, a much longer compilation spanning from 1982-2010+ titled That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Hipper, features songs from Party Dogs, Mondo Vanilli, collaborations with Phriendz, and also songs by band SLT which Sirius supplied lyrics for. Aside from the Phriendz collaborations (which were also featured on the other album) the Party Dogs songs have a great punk rock sound that I could listen to all day. The real standouts on the album are the the techno-rock Mondo Vanilli tracks. “Love is the Product” in particular is a playful, satirical song that will get stuck in your head with its catchy chorus. While the album spans a number of decades and a few different genres, Sirius’ style shines through on each track. You are able to see how his music has evolved over the years, and never loses its power or passion.

While listening to these albums, I got the sense that music was and is an important part of Sirius’ life. I had to rethink my interview and go beyond the Mondo topics I was so focused on. I wrote back to pester Sirius with some additional questions, this time about his musical career.

Below is the full interview, with all of the questions on Mondo 2000, music, and everything else mingled together. Take a ride, and try not to fall off!

Neon Dystopia: Before you started working on High Frontiers, you were in a band called Party Dogs. Was this your first foray into music? How did you get involved in the band?

R.U. Sirius: Party Dogs was my first real foray. I recorded 3 songs before that with a band we called The Spoons as vocalist and lyricist in an analog electronic music room at a State University in Binghamton NY in 1976 – two of them got some local airplay. The song “Reggae Ripoff” caused a minor stir when a DJ who liked to play it realized I was a local white boy and freaked.  The lyrics are here. But there were no live appearances.

I had a few onstage moments after that… I’d go onstage for one song basically… “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (or “Raw Power“, once).  But Party Dogs was the first sustained band that actually performed often. Actually the only band that performed often.

I was in Brockport New York, a small college town. I’d gained confidence in my voice by learning the entire Stones catalogue with a friend who thought he was Keith Richards (RIP, it goes without saying) … and when the neighbors came by saying they thought it was the Stones record and then realized we were doing it … I think that was my breakthrough in terms of confidence. I was already 25.

So I started putting together a band in Brockport. The first one we called Skippy and the Nice Guys. It was raw and confrontational. Everybody hated it.

When Party Dogs started, almost everybody hated that too… but we got good with practice. It was more punk-inflected rock than punk. Among our copy songs we played the Dead Boys, Sex Pistols and Iggy. But on the other hand, we played some Rolling Stones and Bowie. And mostly our own songs, of course. We ended up being kind of popular both in town and in Rochester, New York nearby. The other guys continued being in great bands in Rochester, including SLT, who I wrote some lyrics for a few years ago.

At our last Party Dogs appearance in Brockport, we closed as usual with a noise rock version of “Strangers In The Night.” Some jocks who were tripping on acid decided I was the devil and plotted to kill me. A girl who knew them and knew me talked them out of it!

ND: Music seems to be a big part of your life. Do you see yourself as a musician at heart despite all of the other work you’ve accomplished?

RU: There’s a great line in the TV show Dear White People… “Trust me. Find your label.” I guess I’m kind of too cosmic when it comes to considering myself anything. I’m amused by the way many millennials have this really expansive panoply of labels (particularly for sexuality) but such a constricting need to be codified.

Having said that, to the extent that I made a livelihood, it was mainly as an editor-in-chief and a writer.

I’d love to be known for my lyrics…  like maybe Van Dyke Parks or Bernie Taupin or Pete Brown (Cream)… except I guess mine are much weirder.  I don’t know. Who writes lyrics for avant-garde operas? I’d like to be him or her!

Mondo Vanilli album cover for i.o.u. babe.

ND: Have your influences changed dramatically between Party Dogs, Mondo Vanilli, and your most recent music?

RU: In terms of vocals, I’ve looked to people who work with rhythm and attitude but don’t have a vast range — Lou Reed, Jagger… for some examples.  And just before I embarked on my latest work, I had a cough that lasted for 2 months. I had kind of a recent-Bob Dylan growl befitting of an old man whose done a few naughty things…  but it disappeared. I don’t know if I will ever regain my voice the way I want it.

In terms of lyrics, it’s just whatever comes. I think maybe Frank Zappa is an influence although I’d maybe rather write like Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave. But I think my stuff is mainly unique and as good as almost anyones…  can I say that? I mean, for permission to go off the map of the usual rhyme schemes… I’d look to Don Van Vliet, Patti Smith and Bowie.

ND: In Mondo 2000, and earlier with Reality Hackers and High Frontiers, I see hippie/yippie influences, such as the work Stewart Brand was doing with the Whole Earth Catalog. I also see some parallels with Ted Nelson’s work, and the sort of general DIY attitude that the punk subculture perpetuated. What would you say were some of the biggest influences that Mondo 2000 drew from?

RU: I view the influences in terms of periodicals more than in terms of hippies or yippies etcetera, although a kind of counterculturalness is intrinsic. For myself, and I think for many others involved in the publication, there was a love of magazines.

Mad Magazine was as much an influence as Whole Earth.

Creem magazine with its irreverence… it’s disrespect for journalistic conventions and lack of rock star worship.

Some Dadaist publications like File (which became Vile after punk rock hit) for its use of allusion and not having to make sense.

The original underground papers of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s for their aliveness – trying to transcend their containment within a printed thing that you can buy and hold in your hand and have expectations towards. Can we make this object explode or dance or shoot off psychedelic sparks?

Interview… because it used interviews without the intrusion of the all-knowing authorial voice.

Omni for the pop science and technology and for recognizing that was the next cool thing.

Evergreen for counterculture in an urbane package with top tier writers like Terry Southern, Susan Sontag, Tom Wolfe, Eldridge Cleaver.

Wet for looking cool and feeling futuristic

ReSearch/Search and Destroy for exploring the connection between punk counterculture and various historical/anthropological memes like Situationism, body modification and so on.

That’s off the top of my head.

ND: What was the typical content of an issue, was anything too far out to be included?

RU: There was some relatively straightforward reporting on tech and science developments towards the front, usually … right after the very colorful and strange letters to the editors. Lots of interviews and conversations with people making up the hipper edges of the emerging tech culture but also musicians and just eclectic off-center stuff like an art forger/money counterfeiter. I mean, I can’t really do any issue justice in terms of how ultra-strangeness rubbed up against techie relative-normalcy.

I can’t remember a feeling that anything was too far out to be included. They were different times. The extremes hadn’t been fully weaponized yet, so to speak.

Mondo 2000 issue 2 contents.

ND: The 1980’s saw a big push into science fiction and the development of cyberpunk with Neuromancer and the growing popularity of publications like OMNI. Were you aware of the content in this space?

RU: Yeah we were friendly with Dick Teresi and other editors at Omni. We were excited with SF Eye and some other publications I’ve forgotten since. The excitement over the so-called cyberpunk writers was hitting us when we were still High Frontiers (the magazine we published from 1984-1988, preceding Mondo). Timothy Leary was very excited about Neuromancer, so he kind of led us towards that, but we had people around like St. Jude Milhon who were already trying to call our attention to that.  There were some cool periodicals doing something sort of vaguely similar that came and went. And Boing Boing preceded Mondo technically, although we had already done High Frontiers and Reality Hackers and they were influenced by those.

ND: Mondo 2000 is often cited as a large influence in the development of the cyberpunk subculture. How do you think it has been able to influence cyberpunk over the years?

RU: I think Mondo was more its own thing. Anybody who took cyberpunk too seriously as a movement or a memeplex might have been alienated by our eclecticism, our fancy design, our not-giving-a-fuck about cyberpunk or much of anything mien.  The hardcore nerds and cyberpunk sorts, for instance, hated that we did fashion spreads and girls with circuit boards around their nipples (as did some feminists). Mondo was an art project, really, specific to the people engaged in it, with the idea of cyberpunk or cyberculture in the nose cone but so much else going on behind it. And yet we hit a sweet spot for other eclectic sorts… I guess I’d say hipsters, in a positive sense (that label wasn’t a curse back then.) But also, the sort of person that loved Robert Anton Wilson and Church of the Subgenius.

ND: Tell me about the culture of the Mondo 2000 house. What was a normal day like? How would you describe the parties?

RU: It was a largish house in the Berkeley hills…  looked like a Blue Oyster Cult cover… thus called a “technogothic citadel” in various reports. There was a dead red 1956 MG out front.

The upstairs front room was used as the main office. Three people would roll in and start answering phones at around 9:30 am. Andrew Hultrkans our managing editor tended to come in early too. I slept in a room downstairs with my girlfriend at that time… we made some noise in the morning hours that would “frighten the horses” upstairs. I came upstairs in a silk bathrobe and nothing else usually around 11 am and went into the kitchen to make coffee.  Bart Nagel, Heide Foley and the art department was in a large downstairs room. I don’t know when they started but they often worked far into the night. The place was pretty dedicated to working on the magazine and dealing with the business and publicity on weekdays. Sometimes people would show up…  Jesus Jones (a “rock star” of the ‘90s); Buffy Saint-Marie! She’s awesome by the way. Some kids looking for me… the main dude said his dad was head of the CIA or something like that.

I don’t know that I want to describe the parties.  Some of them were large… lots of people.  I don’t remember any outright orgies – despite hearing rumors about them. Massive psychedelic drug taking was more common during the High Frontiers period in the mid-‘80s.  There was tech being shown off… brain toys, definitely some drugs, sex in private places…   I have this memory from around 1991 of these ravers being really contemptuous that the old folks were “dancing to Bryan Ferry.” But it wasn’t Bryan Ferry. It was Roxy Music and they were way fucking better than anything EDM ever produced!

Editors Rudy, Queen Mu, Ken Goffman, with Bart Nagel, the graphic designer. (Photo by Bart Nagel.)

ND: I often think that Mondo 2000 benefitted from hitting at just the right time, as computers and technology were riding this sociopolitical wave in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Do you think that Mondo 2000 was just as influential at the time as it was reactive? What was the feedback loop like?

RU: I think Wired hit at just the right time to be commercially successful (they were, of course, more accessible to the “normies”). We intentionally teased out the countercultural influences in the early Silicon Valley digital culture and helped make the connections between alternativeness and technoculture. A fellow named Michael Gosney – who had a digital arts magazine called Verbum – sponsored something called the Digital Be-In, timed to the annual Mac gathering in San Francisco, independent of us… so there were other people doing this as well. (We attended those splendid events, of course.)

San Francisco counterculture’s embrace of the celebrations of technology, virtual reality etcetera at that time in the early ’90s is kind of an extraordinary thing that requires a whole other essay.  It was a culture where the people who throw rocks at the Google bus would have been at the same party as Larry and Serge… our party!  Anticipating the future brought people together more than the actual thing.

Cover for Verbum issue 5.2. Click here to read the whole issue.

ND: Why do you think Mondo 2000 was so successful at the time? What did it have that nothing else did?

RU: We had a lot of hype from the mainstream media … an excitement about the superficial stuff like VR and smart drinks… that helped to let people know we existed. But I think the magazine itself was something extraordinary. It was the message from some other planet… some other future… that Wired later claimed to be. And there was an audience that wanted that.  People used to haunt magazine stores, Tower Records, in various towns…  “When will we see another issue of MONDO 2000.”

I mean, it wasn’t that successful. We hit our peak just shy of 100,000 circulation.

ND:  Timothy Leary once said that Mondo 2000 was “a beautiful merger of the psychedelic, the cybernetic, the cultural, the literary, and artistic. It shouldn’t last a long time.” Do you think that Mondo could have gone on for many more years, or was it by nature much more fleeting?

RU: 2000 would appear to be an expiration date. It could have continued. There were some internal problems that I don’t want to air here. Wait for the book, still in progress. We could have charted a new course of outrage. We had a lot of opportunities in terms of advertising that weren’t used… but I’ll leave it at that

ND:  I often look back at the comic “The Guy I Always Was” by Patrick S. Farley and consider how Mondo 2000 was more of a publication that invented the future (in both a dreaming sense, or simply making things up) instead of simply reporting on it. Do you think that would be an accurate way to put things?

RU: Yeah it was saying this thing was happening and then helping it to actually happen. Except for the things that didn’t happen, like universal virtual reality and “sharpies mutants and superbrights” taking over the planet…  I mean, it was a fantasy of the total transmutation of everything… and it’s turned out to be more the total fragmentation of everything, although we always made sure to predict that too (just in case.) I mean, it wasn’t really all that message-driven … there were lots of pages and lots of varying views and visions and just plain fun.

By the way, I love that comic.

H.M. Ludens, from “The Guy I Almost Was.”

ND: A lot of people attack Wired magazine though accusations that they copied Mondo’s style and watered it down for a broader audience. Do you think Wired was ever able to bottle the Mondo 2000 spirit? Was their success just a matter of timing based on when they started?

RU: They used a lot of the same writers and covered some of the same stories at first, but the appeal was more towards the ordinary…  They were genre specific. They didn’t have interviews with Daniel Johnston or Diamanda Galas or gonzo anthropological theorizing about secret cultic uses of tarantula venom as an intoxicant… stuff totally outside the supposed techno genre. They had a conventional approach that hit a bigger audience and was comfortable for advertisers.

They weren’t trying to bottle the Mondo spirit. The writers were told explicitly to steer clear of counterculturalness… Alternativeness was just the colored sprinkles on the corporate frozen yogurt.  Negativland pranks were cute items where for us they were subversive blows against the empire … and the main article. I mean, they were probably right. The empire survived our culture jamming … and now the alt-right establishment is doing a form of it themselves.  None of this is meant to be all negative about Wired. They did what they did well and I enjoyed many of their issues… and even wrote a few bits.

ND: Are there any people from the Mondo 2000 days that you still keep in touch with?

RU: I’m in touch with many of them.  St. Jude Milhon, who I worked closely with, died in 2003. Our business manager, Linda Murman, died of cancer maybe a decade ago. Kathy Acker, who was a friend to all of us, also died of cancer. There have been losses like that. A lot of people have been interviewed for the Mondo history project. I’ve been in touch with many of them.

ND: One person from the M2K staff that has always intrigued me is Michael Synergy, especially with his quick-fire claims of government-toppling knowledge in the Cyberpunk (1990) documentary. Do you know anything about his activities after Mondo 2000? Did he indeed mutate and take over the world?

RU: That’s a complicated and difficult subject. He disappeared after failing to appear at his wedding, more or less. Howard Rheingold swears that he’s Michael Wilson, who was involved in the development of the TV show Burn Notice and that the main character was based on him or at least on his braggadocio.  There are some strange, disturbing scenes with Synergy in the book (yes, still in progress.)

Cyberpunk (1990) documentary cover.

ND: There are a lot of different reasons posed for Mondo 2000’s eventual halt in publication. Is there any one reason that you think was the root cause?

RU: Insanity.

ND: In Synthetic Pleasures (1995) you said that “the way to eroticize the brain is to explore sexuality with new media.” With the popularity of the Oculus Rift and virtual reality in general right now, how do you think the ideas of sex and eroticism will mingle with these technologies going forward?

RU: Did I say that? :–)  Many knew mediums gain their financial foothold via porn. What will virtualized eroticism bring to the party, not just in terms of porn but in terms of real sexual connection? It seems to me that a lot of relationships take place mainly online now. Gender, genital sex, smells…  are these things becoming obsolete?  I don’t know. I can’t get no satisfaction from any sort-of totalist approach, myself…

ND: What’s the current status of the Mondo 2000 History Project?

RU: Negotiating a book deal. Otherwise, close…  Not knowing the format has complicated its completion.

ND: I noticed recently that Mondo 2000 has a new twitter account and an announcement of a website coming soon. What are your future plans for Mondo 2000? Can we expect a Mondo 3000 to come soon?

RU: Mondo2000.com  … it should be operational by the time people are reading this…

ND: While I’m of the belief that Mondo 2000 was something truly unique, is there any organization or publication these days that carries the same spirit?

RU: Dangerous Minds covers some of the territory. Boing Boing covers some of it. Coilhouse was awesome but has apparently disappeared. I don’t think anyone would do Mondo 2000 now in the way we did it. It was – dare I say – radical but politically incorrect in a way that is much more difficult to approach in a playful manner now. I’m still not sure how I’m going to navigate that aspect of our change in the culture with mondo2000.com.

Mondo 2000 hypercard via Boing Boing.

ND:  I’ve noticed in the past that you keep an eye out for articles online that mention Mondo 2000. Are there any websites or other publications that you read regularly?

RU: My morning online commute runs as follows… recent facebook posts, recent Google+ posts, Boing Boing, Vice, RAW Story, Reason, Huffington Post, io9, The Intercept, Washington Post, Dangerous Minds, ego search for R.U. Sirius, Mondo 2000, Timothy Leary, Ken Goffman. My Steal This Singularity twitter. (Now) Mondo 2000’s twitter.

ND: Are there any big things you are working on these days that should be on our radar?

RU: I like doing lyrics and music more than anything else. I have lyrical song cycles – some that have actual songs and some that have just lyrics — that I like as much as anything I’ve ever done. I’ll probably post them on Mondo2000.com. I think some of the new stuff that I will be working on with R.U. Sirius & Phriendz and some other folks will be stunning… It’s hard to get people to check it when they don’t know you for music though. People are real twats about that.  (My bandcamp…)

ND: Do you currently have any plans for more music coming up?

RU: Working on a bunch of songs… some may have my voice others not. R.U. Sirius & Phriendz may see the most production. Another artist who is known in the jazz world but who will be working under a pseud is working with me on some stuff. We’ll see.

I posted this sort of lyrical conceptual thing just recently. I’d love to get that done as a thing. Some of the songs exist already

ND: Many theoretical topics or downright crazy ideas from Mondo 2000 are becoming reality. How do you view the future these days? Where do you believe we are headed?

RU: The blurring of reality – the disbelief in even functional truth —  has entered too deeply into the realm of the political… People grasp for certainties, ideologies, authority… even anarchist authority if that’s their leaning. More chaos. Existential threats like the weather; increases in nationalism and racism and hostility; the spread of nukes…  There’s this sort of quasi-Leninist notion that bad material conditions lead to revolutionary progress.  Not true. They lead towards authoritarianism and reaction.

 

Hallucinations For Accelerated Mutants — A Mondo 2000 Retrospective

This article was originally written for and published at Neon Dystopia on August 28th, 2017. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

It’s difficult to explain Mondo 2000 to someone who hasn’t experienced it before. That’s really what I would call it at the end of the day: an experience. Like a hallucinogenic trip, or a roller coaster ride, or that tingle that you get after a first kiss — it’s something you just don’t really get by having it described to you.

I first became aware of Mondo 2000, the glossy cyberculture magazine which ran from 1989 to 1998, in the much more recent year of 2012. Late to the party, I admit, but sometimes you just can’t get there on time. In 2012, I began to research hacking magazines as I was getting worried that some of them would soon disappear from the world without a trace. Somewhere out there sat old, possibly moldy magazines full of articles and stories that once appealed to the hacking subculture. Nobody was saving them, so I decided to start. I began patrolling. Amazon, eBay, and basic HTML sites that haven’t been updated since the early days of the web became my usual haunts. Between monitoring auctions and mailing old email addresses,  I was able to begin buying these publications. The ones I could find, I would wrap in archival-grade plastic and scan into my computer when I had the time; a slight pit stop before pushing them to the Internet Archive. Now, five years later, I agonize over the magazines that I haven’t even heard of yet. I learned a lot about the technological landscape of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, but I didn’t have anything really resonate with my until I came across Mondo 2000. Sitting right on the border between the then-bleeding-edge and the surrealistic not-so-distant future, Mondo fostered a generation of tuned-in misfits who were making their way through hyperculture. This could have been me in a different time, but all I can do now is read the back-issues while wearing a bootleg Mondo t-shirt. Looking back, it feels like some sort of technophilic fever dream for kids with psychedelics and a ‘net connection. Drugs, sex, and the digital revolution dripped from the warm, colorful pages. Would you want to wake up?

Mondo 2000 issue 15 cover.

For many, Mondo 2000 was seen as just the thing a sharp-tongued, budding cyberculture needed. Others saw it as pseudo-intellectual nonsense, fabricated garbage that didn’t really mean anything. To the Mondoids, the dedicated followers, it didn’t matter if the normies didn’t understand. Mondo 2000 was playful, eccentric, irreverent, and brash — it worked on its own terms and it worked well. Yet, Mondo 2000 did always have a built-in expiration date. With a name like that, it could never go on forever. After 14 issues, Mondo ceased publication. The print was dead, but the ideas would live on — the infection would keep spreading. While Mondo hit the scene at an interesting time in the advancement of technology, it has a much more ludicrous origin story. Author Jack Boulware once reported in a famous 1995 postmortem, “Mondo’s history reads as if fabricated on another planet, spewed forth by a sweaty cyberpunk novelist tripping on nasal-ingested DMT.”

He isn’t wrong.

The Edge Of A High Frontier

Mondo 2000 didn’t just pop up one morning out of nowhere. The roots of Mondo go all the way back to 1984. Ken Goffman published the first issue of High Frontiers, your source for “Psychedelics, Science, Human Potential, Irreverence & Modern Art,” in a small run of 1,500 copies. The first issue embraced mind expansion with interviews featuring Terrence Mckenna, Bruce Eisner, Timothy Leary, and even Albert Hoffman, the father of LSD. Goffman, an ex-yippie, former New York musician who had since moved to California, had already adopted his dadaist R . U. Sirius persona when he decided to embark on a publication that combined psychedelic exploration, science, and high technology. The premier issue, published in a newspaper format, featured his moniker on the cover alongside co-conspirator “Somerset MauMau.” The innards were packed with walls of text and tongue-in-cheek photographs that looked like cut-outs from Life magazine. The next issue would need to keep up the energy, and the fun.

R. U. Sirius.

Sirius’ life would change one night as he was distributing the first issue of High Frontiers at a birthday party: he would meet Alison Kennedy. Kennedy, the wife of a UC Berkeley professor and daughter of a wealthy California family, captivated Goffman. Soon, Kennedy would come to join the band of “Marin Mutants” (named for High Frontier’s Marin, California headquarters) that worked on the publication, sporting names like “Lord Nose” or “Amalgum X.” Meeting in a local pizza parlor with oddly-abysmal foot traffic, the High Frontiers staff would plot out their next articles. The second issue of High Frontiers, published a year after the first, would go on to include interviews with physicists, research on hallucinogens, and reviews of art and literature. By issue three, science and technology had become more of a main focus with articles on memory enhancement, psychoactive software, and quantum physics. Of course, drugs were still held in high regard with articles like “MDMA: Safe As Ice Cream,” and Kennedy’s own gonzo-anthropological “Tarantella And The Modern Day Rock Musician,” about hallucinogenic tarantula venom. Kennedy would soon go on to adopt a new persona of her own: Queen Mu, Domineditrix. After issue four of High Frontiers, Sirius and Mu would change the name of the magazine to Reality Hackers, which better represented the mix of articles on mind-expanding drugs and computer-based technology. As the magazine mutated, so did the staff. New additions included anarchist hacker Jude Milhon (who would become known as St. Jude) and the in-your-face Michael Synergy (real name unknown), a cyberpunk keen on toppling all of the powers that be.

High Frontiers issue 1. Read through all of the issues here!

With operations now moved to a large wooden house in the Berkeley Hills, Reality Hackers became a lightning rod for new, more diverse happenings of the psycho-technical fringe. There were articles on smart drugs, virtual reality, chaos theory, and isolation tanks, some featuring leading experts in these new and/or obscure fields.

Distributors, however, had no idea what to do with Reality Hackers and thought it was a magazine about literally hacking people to bits. Sirius would eventually be approached by Kevin Kelly of Whole Earth Review, the magazine spawning from Stewart Brand’s seminal Whole Earth Catalog, to work on a new digital culture magazine called Signal. Sirius ultimately declined in order to pursue a new mutation of Reality Hackers, honing-in on the young cyberpunk movement. Sirius and Mu would soon change the name of the magazine again to Mondo 2000 after publishing only two issues under the Reality Hackers name.

Reality Hackers. Issue numbering takes place where High Frontiers leaves off. Read all of the issues here!

At first, Mondo 2000 still resembled Reality Hackers between the cover art and black-and-white interior. After Bart Nagel was brought on as Mondo’s art director, things took a turn as he completely reworked the design of the magazine. Featuring colorful layouts, expert photography, full-page illustrations, and surreal covers, the new magazine was as stylish and beautiful as it was informative. New content went hand-in-hand with the new design; there were articles on cyberspace, computer viruses, and conspiracy theories. Authors that would grace the first issue include Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and John Shirley, each notable for their work in the cyberpunk sub-genre. Gibson, an ex-hippie who had published the ground-breaking Neuromancer in 1984 (the same year the first issue of High Frontiers premiered), particularly resonated with the Mondo style. While Gibson would write about fictional high-tech outsiders who took smart drugs and jacked into cyberspace, the Mondoids were living it.

Mondo 2000 issue 6, featuring cover art by Bart Nagel. Read a selection of Mondo 2000 issues here!

Mondo 2000 embodied the cyberpunk subculture, and often served as the premier source for trends and news within the space. It wasn’t long before the rest of the world was trying to catch up. Sirius was starting to get quoted by mainstream sources like the Boston Globe or the Chicago Tribune who were dipping a toe into the bizarre cyberpunk waters for the first time. If John Shirley is known as being the “godfather of cyberpunk,” Sirius may have entered public eye as the crazy uncle. The Mondo 2000 house was regularly a who’s who of the eclectic Bay Area characters. Aside from Sirius, Queen Mu, St. Jude, and Synergy, regulars included contributors like subscriber-turned-music-editor Jas. Morgan, psychotropic-explorer Morgan Russell, and the drug-loving bankers Gracie and Zarkov.

Much of the content development for new Mondo articles stemmed from outrageous parties thrown at the Mondo house. It wasn’t uncommon for different rooms to be filled with active interviews, parlour games, or conversation between unlikely guests. A virtual reality expert might discuss politics with a smart drug theorist. Timothy Leary could discuss virtual sex with a computer hacker. Someone might suddenly get up to dance or go to the kitchen to try a 2CB analogue mixed with piracetem. As Mondo helped those on the fringe meet the like-minded, the culture only grew and evolved with each new issue. More and more reporters from publications like Newsweek or The New York Times were flocking to Mondo for a controversial opinion or unconventional view of the future. Before long, zine writers and editors like Gareth Branwyn and Mark Frauenfelder of bOING bOING, and Jon Lebkowsky and Paco Nathan of FringeWare Review started contributing to Mondo. Authors like Rudy Rucker, Robert Anton Wilson, and Douglas Rushkoff began submitting work as well. While the Mondo 2000 parties could only exist locally, articles came in from every corner of cyberspace or alternative plane of existence. Mondo had become a hub of interaction for those beneath the underground.

A Little ReWiring

As Mondo 2000 hit its stride, a new publication was just starting to take shape. Years earlier in 1987, Electric Word (originally launched as Language Technology) became a prominent linguistic technology and computer culture magazine in Amsterdam. White it generally focused on linguistic technology, and computer culture, Electric Word featured such pioneers as Xerox PARC’s Alan Kay, AI expert Marvin Minsky, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, and even Mondo-regular Timothy Leary. After three years the magazine shuttered, leaving editor Louis Rossetto and ad sales director Jane Metcalfe without jobs. Partners in business as well as life, the pair decided to return to the United States and embark on a new magazine about cyberculture and technology. They wanted to call the publication “Millennium” to highlight the new technical revolution, but the name was already taken by a film magazine. John Plunkett, then the creative director, wanted to name it “Digit” (a play on “dig it” and “digital”).Eventually, they settled on Wired and started developing a prototype with a mission to decipher the new digital revolution.

Cover for Language Technology issue 3. Read select issues here!

When Rossetto and Metcalfe arrived in California after shopping the publication around New York, they were soon introduced to the Mondo 2000 team. Things appeared to be friendly enough, and Queen Mu would often visit Wired’s offices and engage Rossetto and Metcalfe in conversation while handing out fresh issues of Mondo. Just starting out, the Wired team did its best to differentiate itself from the madcap, already-successful Mondo 2000. Both the Wired and Mondo groups were well aware of what one another was up to, and there was care taken to not step on any toes. The Wired team didn’t want to compete or be compared, they wanted to come into their own.

Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, via wired.com.

Not all was well within Mondo 2000 at the time. As Mondo grew, celebrities were vying to get into the magazine in an attempt to appeal to a more underground audience. When The Edge, guitarist for rock band U2, wanted to be examined for an article, Sirius recruited his friends from the band Negativland to conduct the interview. Negativland, who U2’s management had recently sued for copyright infringement, was a logical choice for Sirius. During the interview, The Edge didn’t know who he was speaking with and mentioned his views on intellectual property. At that point, Sirius revealed the band and trapped The Edge in his own hypocrisy. This resulted in one of the most well-known Mondo 2000 articles, but at the time it was strongly opposed by editor Queen Mu. After she refused the piece, Sirius had reached a tipping point and left Mondo, stepping down from his position as editor-in-chief. While Queen Mu eventually relented and published the article, Sirius never returned to his previous position. While he did eventually come back as a contributor, he also divested his share of ownership in the magazine.

Photograph of the band Negativland.

Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die

Though Mondo 2000 may have still been holding on to its popularity, there were increasing struggles to draw in advertisers. Mondo’s strong drug-friendly stance didn’t mix well with button-up businesses that had money to spend on product promotion, and the magazine suffered because of it. There was less cash on the table when writers looked to Mondo as a potential place to submit their articles, and many opted to go with other publications. While some continued to contribute to Mondo out of passion, outfits like the new Wired could afford to pay more per word. Looking back, Mondo was never truly run as a business looking to make as much profit as it could. Instead, it resembled an art project assembled by a hodgepodge of culture jammers and social engineers.

Still riding high in 1992, Mondo published Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge, a book containing 317 pages of compiled articles and artwork from past issues with new content mixed in. In February of 1993, Time magazine featured a “Cyberpunk” cover story, complete with art from Bart Nagel and numerous mentions of Mondo 2000. Cyberpunk had gone mainstream with Time’s article reaching households all throughout the USA. Much like Ron Rosenbaum’s “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” article published in Esquire in 1971, the Time article inspired hordes of new people to invade a subversive subculture. While Mondo received a boost from the story, it might have been a little too much attention.

Time Magazine’s February 1993 issue. Read the story here!

When Wired’s first issue came out in March of 1993, it was largely dismissed by the Mondo crew. In the eyes of many, it watered down the content Mondo was known for and passed itself off as a sub-par imitator. At the end of the day, Wired was appealing to a largely different audience. They didn’t need the hardcore console cowboys or smart drug pioneers to like them, they could get by with weirdo weekend warriors and flirt with the “normal people.” Mondo may have been a bellwether for the digital revolution, but it was on the decline. Many thought it was circling the drain.

Wired Magazine issue 1, March 1993.

Mondo 2000 was able to survive for another five years under the leadership of Queen Mu and her assistant-turned-editor Wes Thomas, ending with issue 14 in 1998. It may not ever be known if Mondo finally closed down due to infighting, failure to rouse advertisers, dilution of cyberpunk culture, or some perfect storm of those factors. Its legacy and influence, however, cannot be questioned.

Mondo 3000

In 2010, R.U. Sirius announced “MONDO 2000: An Open Source History”, a multimedia-driven Kickstarter project that attempts to capture the history and lore of Mondo 2000 — and all of its previous incarnations. Between a web document, a printed book, and video footage (that may ultimately become a documentary), Sirius hopes to save all of the stories, viewpoints, and ephemera that made Mondo what it was. He is currently in contact with past contributors, and continues to work on the project. In line with Mondo 2000’s whimsical nature, Sirius created a project reward that allowed one backer to be written into Mondo 2000’s history. Some of the events surrounding Mondo may not have happened, but all of them are true.

While we may not see a new issue of Mondo 2000 ever again, Sirius is hard at work. Within the last month, he has re-established Mondo’s Twitter presence and created a brand new website at mondo2000.com featuring reprinted and expanded articles from Mondo’s past, as well as new content.

For those who remember it, Mondo 2000 is something equal parts special and weird. For many, it changed everything, and then it faded into the ether organically as the world changed around it. Browsing the new site, my mind starts to wander. Maybe there is a void left in the world that could only be filled by Mondo 2000 coming back. Maybe the world needs a “Mondo 3000.”

Somewhere out there, hackers and cyber-mystics are typing away furiously on computers in coffee shops and bus stations, creating new virtual worlds and building communities.

Maybe someone else has already created a Mondo 3000.

Maybe this time I’ll be around to catch it.


Keep your eyes bulged and your cybernetic implants on alert for a follow-up article featuring an interview with R.U. Sirius.

 

The Evolution of Digital Nomadics

This article was originally written for and published at N-O-D-E on October 18th, 2016. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

THE EVOLUTION OF DIGITAL NOMADICS

In the Autumn of 1983, Steven K. Roberts pedaled off on a recumbent bicycle and pioneered a new revolution in the way people worked.

exhoofn

Stuck in the drudgery of suburban Ohio, Steve was bored. He had many possessions, a house, and work as a technology consultant and freelance writer. Steve desired adventure and felt like taking a risk, so he sold off all of his possessions, put his house on the market, cut ties with friends and family, and gave up his steady employment. He sacrificed the security he had built up over the years and invested in a custom bicycle, the “Winnebiko” which he would ride 10,000 miles across the U.S. for the next 18 months. “My world was no longer limited by the constraints of time and distance—or even responsibility. The thought was both delicious and unsettling, and I suddenly realized, alone in this unfamiliar city, that I was as close to ‘home’ as I would be for a long time,” Steve wrote in a book about his travels, Computing Across America, published in 1988.

The Winnebiko was not your ordinary bicycle. Apart from the custom frame and hand-picked parts, Steve outfitted his rig with solar panels, lights, radios, a security system, and most importantly a TRS-80 portable computer. Traveling the country from couch to hostel and everywhere in-between, Steve continued to work as a freelance writer, documenting his adventures. Jacking into borrowed phone lines for Internet access in the late night or writing from the comfort of an abandoned chair on the side of a snowy mountain, Steve was working in a way that was unconventional for the time.

Steve coined a term for himself, the “technomad,” combining the concepts of high-technology with traditional nomadics (the latter possibly being influenced in-part by nomadics as they were presented in Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a counter-culture publication promoting self-sufficiency and the do-it-yourself attitude in 1968). Later, Steve would construct more complex and technologically-enhanced bicycles for future long-term journeys.

The concept of “telecommuting” was not new in 1983, as the term had been created a decade earlier by Jack Niles, former NASA engineer, to describe remote work done via dumb terminal. By the 1990’s, after Steve’s original adventure, telecommuting had taken the world by storm and continued to grow. By the early 2010’s, almost half of the U.S. population reported to be working remotely at least part time. Remote work was starting to go mainstream.

But then there are people like Steve. What became of this movement to leave it all behind and work from the open road? By the late 1990’s we saw the use of the phrase “Digital Nomad” in the Makimoto and Manners book of the same name to explore the concept of digital nomadics and determine its sustainability. The infrastructure to support the lifestyle was improving as well. We saw the inclusion of WiFi technology in laptop computers and the rise of payment systems such as PayPal to support a generation of online-only workers on-the-move.

As time progressed, we only saw more of the tech-savvy convert to the rambling lifestyle, with bolder individuals traveling all over the world, settling down for days, weeks, or months at a time before picking up and starting all over. Today, more companies are providing this opportunity to their employees, with some outfits never actually meeting their workers face-to-face. Employees enjoy the flexibility while employers enjoy cherry-picking applicants from a larger pool and reduced overhead costs previously spent in office space. Various communities have popped up such as /r/digitalnomad (https://www.reddit.com/r/digitalnomad) and /r/vandwellers (https://www.reddit.com/r/vandwellers) to offer support for the grizzled vagabonds and tips to the bright-eyed newcomers. Here, you may find advice for what to carry, how to travel on a shoe-string budget, and lists of companies that are nomad-friendly.

In popular culture, we see the idea of the digital nomad becoming more prevalent. For example, Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One features the character Aech who lives in and works out of a recreational vehicle. As the future comes into view, we can only expect more people to work remotely and live simply, embracing the freedom of change and fighting to avoid complacency. The technology is only becoming more accommodating as equipment becomes smaller, faster, and reliably connected in even the most rugged of situations. We not only see a rise in letting employees work where they want, but also when they want. Now that a network connection can exist within a jacket pocket, we are on the verge of the 24/7 worker, always on call. When your office isn’t anywhere, it’s everywhere. Some day soon, we may see digital nomads living in self-driving vehicles that methodically navigate the city limits while the occupant eats, sleeps, and works. Similar to Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, wherein the protagonist spends most of his day conducting business out of his moving soundproof, bulletproof limousine—a rolling fortress filled with computers and television screens—we may see this concept coming to fruition without the human behind the wheel.

As for Steve, he is still living the technomadic life, but is more drawn to the offerings of the water as opposed to the open road. “I’m now immersed in nautical projects, as well as building some substrate-independant technomadic tools,” Steve writes to me after I purchased a handful of issues of The Journal of High-Tech Nomadness, Steve’s own long out-of-print paper periodical.

Whether you do most of your work in an office or a coffee shop, you cannot deny that things are changing for the modern employee as they become more entwined with technology. “I’m riding a multi-megabyte Winnebiko with dozens of communications options, and more wonders lie just ahead,” Steve writes after upgrading his bicycle for his second journey. “[I]t is no longer very difficult to be a deeply involved, productive citizen of the world while wandering endlessly. Because once you move to Dataspace, you can put your body just about anywhere you like.”

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BY MIKE DANK