An Interview With R.U. Sirius
R.U. Sirius, real name Ken Goffman, is a writer, musician and cyberculture pioneer. He was co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Mondo 2000, a glossy magazine about digital culture published between 1989-1998 (he left in 1993) that covered a vast array of topics from digital-paganism, virtual reality, inﬁnite personalities, cyberpunks; featured articles from William Gibson, David Cronenberg & other legends of media production.
It ran contributions from philosophers like Robert Anton Wilson (the guerrilla ontologist) and Arthur Kroker; and had fascinating, unconventional interviews like David Byrne in conversation with Timothy Leary.
It also featured art by Bart Nagel an early Photoshop collagist who gave the magazine its surreal aesthetic. It went on to influence publications like Wired, taking tech away from just talk about hardware and contextualising the tech movement within the counterculture. Sirius is now editor of H+ magazine.
OK, so let’s start with Mondo 2000. How did that come about?
R.U. Sirius: It grew out of a magazine called High Frontiers in 1984 that wanted to combine psychedelic explorations with science and what was then called high tech. We transitioned into a magazine called Reality Hackers. While publishing a psychedelic magazine, we wound up hanging out with the early programmers and participants in the digital culture so it was a natural evolution.
What was it like in those early days of the internet?
For a small self published magazine Mondo 2000 really took off immediately. We felt like we were going to totally transmutate the entire human conditiion…at least when we were high! But yes, we were encouraged by media attention and by a very lively local tech/party scene to feel like we were on top of an enormous wave.
You’re now creating an open-source collective-memory multi-media memoir, funded through Kickstarter. I’ve read you likened it to a kind of Rashomon type thing, collating different people’s perspectives, mixing fact and fiction. What can this give you that a conventionally written memoir can’t?
First of all it will give us the experience of all the Mondoids who are willing, gathering and expressing themselves. It’s like this wide memory net (and memetic net) made up of all these people with a wide variety of voices. It also presents a unique challenge and opportunity for breaking the common format for such things both in the online and book version of it. I definitely see memories already coming into conflict. The creation of the story will probably be dramatic, like the story itself.
Is it a kind of Joycean way of relaying events?
Well Joyce was singular and doing a sort of stream of consciousness reflecting how a mind might go through a day. This will be more cacophonous and at the same time, it might be more self organizing. Some parts of it might be very linear indeed while other parts might explode into a metalogue of crazed and sometimes discordant voices.
Sort of like the internet itself?
Yes. And it’s a very experimental approach that I’m taking with this. I’ll be looking for what emerges as the fulcrum to balance the chaos of the book on. I don’t know what it will be going in. It may end up just being my own voice, but we’ll see.
That tallies with the whole Web 2.0 and user generated content paradigm that we are living in now. Do you think it is good that we’ve reached a point where anyone can say or write/make what they want and post it for the world to see?
It’s a huge complicated evolutionary step. The average person actually having a voice in the world!?? Even if the value of that voice is minimized by inflation, it’s still a whole new relationship to the social. If things go well, and life becomes increasingly participatory and open communication oriented we’ll be figuring out the psychology and sociology of this for the rest of the century. It’s rough on writers, definitely. Our specialization has become the cultural oxygen.
So you think it devalues as well as democratises?
Marshall McLuhan said that with every human enhancement comes an amputation. For an elite (when considered on a global scale) class of literate people, the diminution of power of real literary or even journalistic talent feels like an amputation. But for people who never had the opportunity to speak before, it’s the beginning of something else. Ultimately, we’ll give opportunity for more geniuses of expression to emerge.
Do you think that one day we’ll function in a socio-political way online? Elect local governments, etcetera?
Sure. So much depends on how things proceed from here, but I think an ideal of participatory democracy combined with strong civil libertarian safeguards could be realised primarily using networked communications. It’s going to be a bumpy ride though.
Where are all the cyberpunks that read Mondo 2000 back in the day? Was someone like Mark Zuckerberg a reader?
Mark was too young. Maybe Sean Parker (an older partner). I hear from people in the computer industry all the time that they were inspired by Mondo 2000. Also, people working in biotechnology, nanotechnology, AI…all over the place. I think the Mondoids are all over the map, most of them still have many of the same enthusiasms, tempered with experience and a healthy skepticism.
You’ve used the term “gonzo anthropology” as a subject Mondo 2000 covered, what does that mean exactly?
Alison Kennedy aka Queen Mu, the Mondo 2000 publisher, practices gonzo anthropology. She was the one who uncovered toad venom containing 5-meo DMT in the West. She also explores very odd and arcane anthropological theories about the uses of plants and animals as aphrodisiacs, the use of Calumas as a sort of natural MDMA like substance. Her magnum opus appeared in Mondo 2000—It was an article about how Jim Morrison used tarantula venom and got penis cancer, based on an entire gonzo anthropological exploration of implications of tarantula venom use (as an inspirational but self-destructive intoxicant) throughout human experience. The Doors producer whose name I can’t remember took it very seriously and got very upset about it. Ray Manzarek, I think, was not happy either. It was a wildly brilliant and hilarious and beautifully languaged piece.
So is gonzo anthropology similar to Terence McKenna suggesting that mushrooms or psychedelics may’ve been instrumental in the evolution of human consciousness?
Well, this is a bit more of an occult (i.e. hidden) vision. That a select group of mad explorers reached high peaks of creative madness through a poison. But there are some similarities, sure. And that they coded messages about their experiences, thus the occult aspect of it.
Like in those Ancient Greek ceremonies, the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Do you feel that in some ways you guys were too leftfield for some people?
I think we were too anarchic and playful and too incomprehensible for a mass audience magazine about the uprising of the digital technoculture. One of the first things that I noticed about Wired was that they had letters to the editor from people expressing ordinary Republican or Democratic political views, whereas we would get letters about the green aliens on acid who wrote the letter writer’s new software program and how many different drugs Hitler used. I mean, off the wall stuff. But I think Republicans are on a wall that I can’t relate to. So yeah, there was a limited relationship between us and a mainstream audience. The mainstream media people liked us because we seemed colourful and novel. And as a result of the attention, the people who would read the magazine found out about it. Wired does some great stuff online now though. It’s an OK institution. I have to say, honestly, that they send me the magazine and it usually winds up in recycling, unread.
What do you see as your legacy, who is continuing what you guys started?
Well, Boing Boing was there own thing from the start. They were the small magazine when we were the big one, but they’re a relative. Maybe Dangerous Minds, Richard Metzger’s new site, in spirit. But I think Mondo was unique. It was an art project really using journalism and technoculture as a context. It was just a few unusual individuals following instincts. The mistakes were obvious but the energy of it was so much fun that as Richard Kadrey once said, “You have to have a mighty big stick up your ass not to love it.”
OK, let me ask you briefly about Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson. How did your friendship with them begin?
I met Leary in Rochester New York in 1980. The story is on 10 Zen Monkeys. But when I started High Frontiers in 1984, that was when I got involved with him. These guys from Santa Cruz, Bruce Eisner and Peter Stafford, came to see me and said, “The commodore is wondering why you haven’t called about your new magazine.” This was while I was still organizing the first issue. So I called him on the phone and he was so sweet and funny. It just went from there. He was always very generous with his time and support and it was usually a jolt of energy just to be around him. Wilson came through the magazine too. We interviewed him and he started writing for us. Bob and I had an odd relationship, I think. Our communications were always a bit misconstrued. He was an extraordinary guy though.
Are we missing people like that from our cultural landscape?
The transhumanist movement is growing, of course, but I don’t know that anybody is working exactly off of that unique combination of exuberance, non-doctrinaire rationalism, consciousness, technology and so forth. It’s up to us to glue it together from the bits that people are doing. On H+ magazine there’s an article about the “Psychedelic Transhumanists.” That’s a good place to start thinking about this stuff, even though the main voice in the article, Terence McKenna, is dead and so is Leary.
Where do you see as the future between humanity and technology?
That’s a mighty big question. We’re either going to co-evolve into a different situation for humans—one in which we no longer have economic scarcity and in which we have some kind of basic control over the structure of matter and can undo environmental damage and meet the needs of the human imagination for an expansive life. Or we’re going to be rocked by huge crises from which we will emerge—if at all—bruised and battered and with most of us dead (and not of natural causes). And after we change the human situation—or while we change the human situation—we may also intervene in the human phenome. This is complex, scary stuff to drop in a paragraph but that’s my conclusion (and the conclusion of Stephen Hawking). Beyond that, people can route around on hplusmagazine.com. I recommend finding the actual magazines (flip book style) and reading those. And one of these days, maybe I’ll do my meta-philosophy book, Hijack The Singularity.