Shift Happens: Power to the Pedals

Those disgruntled with our current “technopoly,” as Neil Postman famously called it, often argue for returning to a simpler time. This is, of course, impossible, as even their visions of simpler times include technology. For example, in The Nature of Technology (Free Press, 2009), Brian Arthur envisions a world where all of our modern technologies disappear, yet we’d still be left with some. He writes, “We would still have watermills, and foundries, and oxcarts; and course linens, and hooded cloaks, and sophisticated techniques for building cathedrals. But we would once again be medieval” (p. 10). As ludicrous as such an argument appears, I would like to return to a time that never happened, an alternate universe where bicycles dominated the roads, as well as the construction and spread thereof. I’m not alone in this fantasy. Many of us take to the streets on two wheels instead of four, and movements like Critical Mass try to take them over completely on a regular basis.

Critical Mass Chicago, 2007.

The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is… one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
— David Harvey

For the uninitiated, Critical Mass is a monthly ride aimed at taking back the streets from cars, demonstrating the presence of bicycles, and reminding everyone that they’re on the road, too. The event is known for blocking thoroughfares, pissing off motorists, and regular arrests. Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20 (Full Enjoyment, 2012), edited by Chris Carlsson, LisaRuth Elliott, and Adriana Camarena, is a twenty-year, global retrospective of the trials and triumphs of Critical Mass. It’s a monthly revolution that will start its third decade this week. The scope of these essays is as global as the movement, from Budapest to Berkeley and Paris to Ponce, and its birthplace in San Francisco, as well as from my beloved Portland to my current Chicago.

Strangely, the recent economic downturn might be a great opportunity. Sustainability, public transport, and bike lanes aren’t scoffed at anymore. — David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

For a look at the social forces that created the bicycle as opposed to the ones it has created, it gets no better than The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (The MIT Press, 2012), edited by by Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch. I first encountered this volume — and its use of the bicycle as an astute example of technological change (in Pinch and Bijker’s essay “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other”) — in Andrew Feenberg‘s “Philosophy of Technology” class at San Diego State. It has since been treated to a much-deserved anniversary edition (the original version hit shelves in 1987). This collection established the approach of the social construction of technology (SCOT) as a viable methodology, and it’s not all about bicycles: eighteenth-century cooking stoves, twentieth-century missile systems, and thirteenth-century galleys get their due. The aforementioned chapter on the social construction of bicycles is still my favorite though.

Also, Bijker’s own Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (The MIT Press, 1997) is another interesting set of explorations and applications of this approach to these themes.

The mere fact of riding a bicycle is not in itself sinful, and if it is the only means of reaching the church on a Sunday, it may be excusable. — 1885 reply to a letter from a young lady

If you’re looking for more focus on the bike itself, rather than its urban and sociological implications, there’s Bicycling Science (The MIT Press, 2004), by David Gordon Wilson, which is now on its third edition (its original having come out in 1982). This book has everything to do with human-powered wheeled vehicles — bicycles in the broadest sense of the term: from the general (e.g., basic concepts of human power, the history of the bicycle, etc.) to the specific (e.g., physics, aerodynamics, bearings, materials, braking, steering, etc.), and the weird and the future of bicycles. If you’re looking for the mechanical minutia of bicycles, Bicycling Science is likely to be the only book you need.

I’m admittedly biased, but I think the bicycle is one of the greatest inventions in the history of technology. I’ve been riding one since the age of four, and they’ve been my primary means of transportation for the past fifteen years. If you don’t ride a bike regularly, give it one shot. Bicycles are fun, and that one ride might be the door to a whole new world. These three books go a long way to covering both the history of that world and its implications in the twenty-first century. On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of Critical Mass, do yourself a favor, and, in the words of Mike Daily, ride first, read later.

References:

Arthur, Brian. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.

Bijker, Wiebe E. (1997). Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Bijker, Wiebe E. , Hughes, Thomas P., & Pinch, Trevor. (2012). The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.

Carlsson, Chris, Elliott, LisaRuth, & Camarena, Adriana (eds.). (2012). Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20. San Francisco: Full Enjoyment.

Harvey, David. (2008, September/October). The Right to the City. New Left Review, 53.

Wilson, David Gordon. (2004). Bicycling Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Woodforde, J. (1970). The Story of the Bicycle. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

 

Mise-en-Zine: Adolescent Anthologies

Zines, well, mostly skateboard and BMX zines, defined my formative years. They were our network of news, stories, interviews, events, art, and pictures. It’s very difficult to describe how an outmoded phenomena like that worked once such epochal technological change, one that uproots and supplants its cultural practices, has occurred. FREESTYLIN’s reunion book, Generation F (Endo Publishing, 2008), has a chapter called “The Xerox was Our X-Box,” and that title gets at the import of these things. As I said in that very chapter, “Making a zine was always having something to send someone that showed them what you could do, what you were up to, and what you were into. Ours was the pre-web BMX network” (p. 116, 122). All nostalgia aside, zines are making a comeback, albeit in book-form. Anthologies of old, DIY photocopied publications are making their way through the labyrinth of quasi-traditional publishing.

The true gems of skateboarding zines include Andy JenkinsBend, Tod Swank‘s Swank Zine, Joe Polevy’s Rise Above, Rodger BridgesDancing Skeleton, Grim Ripper, and Power House, and Garry Scott Davis’s Skate Fate, the latter of which has just been collected into a fierce 320-page book, Skate Fate: The Best of Skate Fate: 1981-1991 (Blurb, 2011). In one of my own zines a while back, Rodger Bridges said of Garry Scott Davis,

GSD changed my life. He taught me design. Post-zine design. Pre-computer design. He made me perform leading on long-ass articles by hand, and checked my accuracy by pica. The progenitor of skeleton-less moves that changed skateboarding, skate zine and grunge typography/design. Way before what’s-his-name. In my book at least. And it don’t stop. He don’t stop. I’ve received multiple packages in multiple mailboxes due to multiple relocations over the years since our physical paths diverged. All of them filled with evidence of his creative continuum. CARE packages stocked with vinyl and plastic from his band CUSTOM FLOOR, back issues of Arcane Candy, and thick-ass zines chronicling life, Stingray obsession, and ongoing brilliant collaborations. My Skate Fate collection has survived hurricanes and flooded garages, sacredly stored in boxes and solidly kept dead-center. I can remember how it sounded when I shot Garry from deep within Mt. Baldy Pipeline — 10 o’clock or so at 4 p.m. some Friday (probably) approaching two decades in the rear-view and dead set on forward momentum.

A little closer to home, Greg Siegfried’s zine Need No Problem was a mainstay of our quaint, little Southeast Alabama skate scene. Hailing from Ozark, Greg was the first of us to skate and is still going strong. Need No Problem chronicled the comings and goings of ramps and spots and those who rode them not only in Ozark, but all over the Southeast.

Inspired by GSD’s The Best of Skate Fate book, Greg recently compiled all of the issues of Need No Problem into one volume. Like all of these collections, it’s a compilation of snapshots from an era that has long passed, the current incarnations of same having moved online years ago.

I have toyed with the idea of compiling my zines into a single volume, but alas having not been as diligent as Rodger Bridges, I am missing many issues. Mike Daily is putting together an Aggro Rag collection, which will totally rule… Anyway, I cannot overstate the importance of the experience of trading and making zines. As I said in Generation F, “Those first issues were the first steps on a path I still follow” (p. 117). Still true.

Return to Cinder: Supergods and the Apocalypse

Grant Morrison describes his growing up through comics books as a Manichean affair: “It was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. I had already picked sides, but the Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable” (p. xiv). Morrison’s first non-comic book, Supergods (Spiegel & Grau, 2011), is one-half personal statement, one-half art history. It’s an autobiography told through comic books and a history of superheroes disguised as a memoir. His early history of superhero comics is quite good, but it gets really, really good when Morrison enters the story full-bore — first as a struggling but successful freelancer and later as a chaos magician of the highest order, conjuring coincidence with superhero sigils.

As if to follow Kenneth Burke’s dictum that literature represents “equipment for living,” Morrison puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the supergods. “We live in the stories we tell,” he writes, and he’s not just saying that. Morrison wrote himself into his hypersigil comic The Invisibles and watched as the story came to life and nearly killed him.

In Supergods Morrison tells the story in high relief and stresses the transubstantiation between words and images on a page and thoughts and actions in the real world. His works are largely made up of “reality-bending metafictional freakouts dressed up in action-adventure drag,” as Douglas Wolk (2007) describes them, “metaphors that make visible the process by which language creates an image that in turn becomes narrative” (p. 258). If you’re not one for the magical bent, think of it as a strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with a Rortian addendum: If we assume that language creates reality, then we should use language to create the reality we want to live in. Morrison writes, “Superhero comics may yet find a purpose all along as the social realist fiction of tomorrow” (p. 116). He insists that whether we realize it or not, we are the superheroes of this world.

The mini-apocalypse of September 11th, 2001 presented an odd dilemma not only for us, but also for our masked and caped heroes and our relationships to them. On one side, the event questions the effectiveness of our superheroes if something like that can happen without their intervention. Our faith in them crumbled like so much steel and concrete. On the other, after witnessing that day, we were more ready to escape into their fantasy world than ever. The years after that event exemplified what Steve Aylett described as a time “when people would do almost anything to avoid thinking clearly about what is actually going on.”

9/11 is conspicuously missing from Peter Y. Paik’s From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), as is Morrison, but blurbed by our friends Steven Shaviro and Bruce Sterling, the book provides another look at the link between the printed page and the world stage. As a contemporary companion to Barry Brummett’s Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric, which came out in 1991, Paik’s book provides another peek at the larger picture beyond the page that Morrison alludes to. I do find it odd that there’s no discussion of 9/11, a date that also roughly marks an epochal shift between things that were once considered nerdy and now are not. Morrison rails against the word “geek” as applied to comic book fans saying, “They’re no different from most people who consume things and put them in the corner or put them in a drawer… Anyone who’s into anything could be called a geek, but they don’t call them a geek.”

As much of a nerd as I’ll admit I am, I’ve never really been much for comic books. With that said, I found Supergods enthralling, much in the same way I found the screen stories of Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives. Intergalactic narrative notwithstanding, Morrison’s prose seems both carefully constructed and completely natural. As my colleague Katie Arens would say, he writes to be read. My lack of comic-book knowledge sometimes made following the historical cycles of superheroes difficult, but Morrison’s presence in these pages and personal touch kept me reading hyper-attentively. Here’s hoping he writes at least half of the other books hinted at herein.

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My own introduction to Grant Morrison came via Disinformation‘s DisinfoCon in 2000 where he explains the basics of chaos magic in an excitedly drunken Scottish accent [runtime: 45:28]:

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References:

Brummett, Barry. (1991). Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Burke, Kenneth. (1974). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hiatt, Brian. (2011, August 22). Grant Morrison on the Death of Comics. Rolling Stone.

Morrison, Grant. (2011). Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Wolk, Douglas. (2007). Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo.

Maps for a Few Territories: Guides to Gibson

Any web wanderer worth her bookmarks knows that William Gibson coined the term for the spaces and places that we all explore online. So strong was the word that one large software company attempted to trademark it for their own purposes (Woolley, 1992). So many such ideas have been co-opted by others that Gibson has jokingly referred to himself as “the unpaid Bill” (Henthorne, p. 39). We have recently been called “people of the screen” by some other big-name dude, but this idea was evident in Gibson’s early work some thirty years ago. He saw an early ad for Apple Computers, and the idea hit him: “Everyone is going to have one of these, I thought, and everyone is going to want to live inside them. And somehow I knew that the notional space behind all of the computer screens would be one single universe” (quoted in Jones, 2011).

“I needed to replace the ‘rocketship’ and the ‘holodeck’ with something else that would be a signifier of technological change,” he tells Mark Neale in No Maps for These Territories, “and that would provide me with a narrative engine, and a territory in which the narrative could take place… All I really knew about the word ‘cyberspace’ when I coined it was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It was evocative and essentially meaningless. It was very suggestive of… it was suggestive of something, but it had… no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.”

FADE UP MUSIC. Slowly, images start to bleed through. Red swirls, white, black dots… As more and more of the image bleeds through the titles we begin to make out what we’re watching…
— Opening lines, William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic screenplay

In the preface to Burning Chrome (Ace, 1987), Bruce Sterling wrote that Gibson’s early stories had made apparent ”the hidden bulk of an iceberg of social change,” an iceberg that the web’s social warming has melted over the years since. In his later work, Gibson writes in a world informed by his previous prophecies. It is as if the present caught up with his projected future: “I suppose I’ve always wanted to have a hedge against the literal assumption that these stories are fictions about ‘the future’ rather than attempts to explore an increasingly science fictional present. I think we tend to live as though the world was the way it was a decade ago, and when we connect with the genuinely contemporary we experience a species of vertigo” (quoted in Eshun, 1996). His latest trilogy is intentionally set in that science fictional present. Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010) read like Gibson’s earlier science fiction, yet the weird gadgets and odd characters they’re riddled with are all readily available outside the book’s pages. He’s not making any of those things up. Anymore. In spite of its uneven distribution, the future is already here. The merging of cyberspace and the everyday as well as the techno-paranoia he projected in his early work is pervasive post-9/11.

As a guide to his many fictions cum realities, Tom Henthorne’s William Gibson: A Literary Companion (McFarland & Co., 2011) goes a long way to mapping his fiction to our reality. Arranged encyclopedia-style and covering the breadth of Gibson’s novels, the book provides handy crib notes to the concepts and connections of his work. It also includes a chronology of Gibson’s life and work, a glossary, a technological timeline, writing and research topics, a bibliography, and a full index, all of which make it an easy entry point into Gibson’s world of work.

I have often thought he’d get more credit for his ideas if the times he’s talked about them were in print somewhere (e.g., the many ideas he discusses in Mark Neale’s 2000 documentary, William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories). Enter Distrust The Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2012): thirty years of Gibson’s collected nonfiction. Essays, talks, observations, articles, and other ephemera are all collected in one place for the first time, some in print for the first time ever — from WIRED, Rolling Stone, and New York Times Magazine to smaller publications no longer in production.

William Gibson is one of our brightest minds and these two books not only provide a solid introduction into his fiction and ideas but are also valuable texts on their own. Whether you’re fumbling through his fiction, wishing his tweets were longer, or just curious, I recommend checking them out.

References:

Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished outtake from Paul D. Miller (ed.), Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Arts and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gibson, William. (1995). Johnny Mnemonic [screenplay]. New York: Ace Books.

Gibson, William. (2012). Distrust That Particular Flavor. New York: Putnam Adult.

Henthorne, Tom (2011). William Gibson: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Jones, Thomas. (2011, September 22). William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace. The Guardian.

Sterling, Bruce. (1987). Preface. In William Gibson, Burning Chrome. New York: Ace Books, pp. ix-xii.

Woolley, Benjamin. (1992). Virtual Worlds. New York: Penguin.

Cyberpunk’s Not Dead: Rucker’s Nested Scrolls

Like birthdays, the end of the year always brings about a recounting of the previous twelve months. We reassess our existence every year, every ten years, every one hundred… Human and technological movements are cyclical. Heraclitus once posited that generational cycles turn over every thirty years. By that metric, the personal computer revolution has run its course, and with it, the cyberpunk genre. Running its course doesn’t mean it’s over. It means it has been assimilated into the larger culture. What was once weird and wild is now a normal part of the world in which we live.

In his autobiography, Nested Scrolls (Tor, 2011), Rudy Rucker tells the story of catching the cyberpunk wave just as it was swelling toward the shore. Rucker already had two science fiction novels out, a third in the pipe, and was out to change the genre with a vengeance. He’d won the first Philip K. Dick Award in 1982 just after Dick died, and met up with the reigning crop of the new movement. “I started hearing about a new writer called William Gibson,” he writes. “I saw a copy of Omni with his story, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’. I was awed by the writing. Gibson, too, was out to change SF. And we weren’t the only ones.” Around the same time, Bruce Sterling was publishing an SF zine called “Cheap Truth.” Rucker continues, “Reading Bruce’s sporadic mailings of ‘Cheap Truth’, I learned there were a number of other disgruntled and radicalized new SF writers like me. At first Bruce Sterling’s zine didn’t have any particular name for the emerging new SF movement — it wouldn’t be until 1983 that the cyberpunk label would take hold.” It was in that year that Bruce Bethke inadvertently named the movement with the title of his short story “Cyberpunk.” In this revolution, the names Rucker, Gibson, and Sterling were loosely joined by John Shirley, Greg Bear, Pat Cadigan, and Lew Shiner.

Rudy Rucker: Nested Scrolls

While cyberpunk sometimes seems a definitively 1980s affair, it was often ardently so at the time. It was post-punk and pre-web, yet wildly informed by the onset of the personal computer and the promise of the internet, which marks the genre in sharp contrast to its galaxy-hopping, alien-invaded forebears. Rudy Rucker is the bridge from Dick-era, drug-induced paranoia to Gibson-era, network-minded paraspace. He was around early enough to be a Dick fan before Dick died, but noticeably older than the rest of the cyberpunk crew. Nested Scrolls secures his place joining the generations of the genre.

It’s not all computer-generated virtual worlds though, Rucker has had a storied career as both an author of science fiction and nonfiction, as a college professor, and as a software developer, all of which inform each other to varying degrees, and all of which inform Nested Scrolls, making it an engaging narrative of high-science, high-tech, and high times. Cyberpunk’s not dead, it’s just normal now.

—————

Illustrating the initial disjointedness of the genre, here’s the 1990 Cyberpunk documentary, directed by Marianne Trench:

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References:

Georgoulias, Tom. (2007). Rudy Rucker: Keeping it Transreal. In Roy Christopher (Ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes. Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.

Heraclitus. (2001). Fragments. New York: Penguin Classics.

Rucker, Rudy. (2011). Nested Scrolls: The Autobiography of Rudolph von Bitter Rucker. New York: Tor.

Rucker, Rudy. (2011, December 6). The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk [Book excerpt]. io9.com.

Trench, Marianne (Director) & von Brandenburg, Peter (Producer). (1990). Cyberpunk. Mystic Fire Video.