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*behind blown eyes
on the computers, the internet, and future cataclysm
by john shirley

This month Behind Blown Eyes features random ideation on computers and the Internet and my thoughts on the future prompted by Sabine Schmidt a German interviewer. Only relevant portions of the interview are here:

Schmidt: What attitude do you have towards computers? Do you consider yourself "just" a PC or Mac user, a fan, a reluctant convert, or something else?

Shirley: I am a fan of some of their applications. I like the ease of word processing; of making quick changes in a text. I can appreciate graphics in a computer game. But I'm not a computer oriented person, despite having written "seminal cyberpunk." I simply recognize its cultural importance. Some of that importance has a positive spin, some not so positive, especially on the Internet side. I worry that people absorb information from the Internet indiscriminately, without filtering it for validity, without cross checking. Recently, the Prime Minister of South Africa rejected an AIDS drug his country sorely needed solely on the basis of alarming and incorrect information which was casually posted on the Internet by unscrupulous persons. There are probably South African infants in the womb who will get AIDS when they otherwise wouldn't have because of this misinformation.

I use a PC, and Windows, for convenience. I am one of those people who leans toward convenience, always, in using a technological tool. If it doesn't have a simple, low-arching learning curve, if it isn't easy to learn, I discard it. I have other priorities. But I'm not saying that everyone should do the same.

Schmidt: When did you start working with one?

Shirley: Around 1985 perhaps? I had a computer, don't remember the kind, in which the monitor was built into the mainframe body. It had a very industrial look, like something you'd see on a submarine, an oscilloscope or something like that. The screen was no bigger than a piece of sliced bread. I used wordstar word processing software originally. Learning a new word processing program is a pain in the ass; the necessity seems thrust upon me from time to time. I do think that we can become too caught up in new technologies, that we are sold some that we don't need, that we waste mental energy there. It's a matter of balance. We need new technologies but we shouldn't get fixated on them.

Schmidt: Assuming you write on a computer, has this changed the way you work?

Shirley: Yes it makes things faster, hence I can try more and different approaches to a story. Perhaps when one picks up speed one tends toward a momentum that may induce haste. Hasty writing is usually not good writing (though some people are better at writing rapidly than others). It seems to me that it may be possible to discern from reading a printed text whether or not it was written directly on a word processor--word processor prose may have a sort of fluidity or some other qualities (which I have not yet identified for certain) distinguishing it from prose written on a notebook or typewriter. Presumably Marshal Mcluhan would agree. Would word processor prose tend to lead to longer sentences, more free association? I think that prose written specifically for the Internet tends to be more and more telegraphic, choppy, with information-packed sentences, because people read less on the Internet, so information has to be more bitesized and compacted. I only put short samples of my prose up on Internet sites now because Internet readers have such short attention spans. And the tendency --for some people an ideologically based tendency--to put up numerous links in a site encourages that shortness of attention span. One must adapt. One of the most pernicious Internet features, one seemingly designed to facilitate attrition of the attention span, is the chat room. I've done scheduled appearances in them, and people seem unable to sustain attention for more than two or three lines; whereas in a printed interview it's possible to expand one's point, to clarify. Chat rooms endorse fragmentation. Everything is choppy, and reduced to the most common denominator of sound bite simplemindedness. You can't have a long (or even medium length) thought in a chat room.

Schmidt: You paint a grim political and social picture in this novel [Silicon Embrace], and you once referred to the "incipient fascism" in Europe in an interview. How much of a social pessimist are you, and do you see differences between the U.S. and Europe? (e.g. religious fundamentalism here, nationalism/fascism over there) Have your views changed since you wrote Silicon Embrace?

Shirley: I am not entirely a pessimist. I think that there will be rough patches for the world to forge through in the 21st century; I think we will lose some major cities to plague or terrorism or both; that we will suffer greatly from ecological damage and overpopulation. But I think we'll survive as a civilization, and we'll learn from those disasters-- millions may die from these things, in pockets, but it will not amount to a holocaust, not on a global scale. I'm afraid people have to suffer from their environmental mistakes before they learn, even though the warnings are all around us. You'll see this on a vast scale in the third world. People have yet to realize what a big mistake we've made poisoning our ground water and our biosphere with pesticides and herbicides--they'll find out.

As for fascism--it tends to sprout up wherever social chaos reigns. There is a danger of fascism in Russia, where the infrastructure is already mostly collapsed; the whole country is like a Turkish building right after an earthquake, still standing--but wait till the aftershock. When things collapse, people will turn to the man on the white horse. We'll see whole new global criminal organizations arise in the wake of such chaos, just as the Albanian mafia thrives in the chaos of Kosovo--Serbian criminal organizations in their own zones. There has been cooperation in the past between organized criminals and fascists: the Bolivian fascists, including your own Klaus Barbie, made a deal with cocaine cartels --financing in exchange for allowing the drug dealers to operate freely after the takeover. That government is gone but the scars remain. More and more evidence emerges that President Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy of mafioso and crypto-fascists in the government. The CIA made deals with drug smugglers to help finance the crypto-fascist contras in Nicaragua. Beware of more of that unholy alliance in the 21st century. Look for more balkanism, more fragmentation along ethnic lines--these are the 'weak points' at which societies under stress break up; societies stressed by ecologically induced famine, for example, as in Silicon Embrace. Other scenarios of this sort are found in my novel ECLIPSE which has just been reissued here in a rewritten, updated form by Babbage Press (www.babbagepress.com). There is a great danger of theocratic confrontation between Fundamentalist Muslims and Fundamentalist Christians, both sets of people trapped in very narrow, tragically non-objective mindsets. Hopefully moderate Christians and Moderate Muslims will unite to prevent war.

Schmidt: How important do you think the Internet/the Web/some yet-to-be-devised electronic form of communication will be in the future?

Shirley: We're already dependent on it; it will continue to be important as long as civilization has unbroken wires from one community to the next. It is in its infancy--people will learn how to use it skeptically and intelligently and how to avoid addiction to it. Or they will sink into cultural fugue, miasma, and group psychosis. I think that Internet misinformation about the Hale Bopp comet and UFO myths promulgated as "facts" on the Internet were factors that led to the Heaven's Gate ufo-cult suicides. The Internet is valuable--and so is wood, but do not try to build a hundred-story building purely out of wood, it will collapse.

Schmidt: Will it preserve an element of anarchy, be an empowerment tool, or become strictly commercial, for instance?

Shirley: If the multinationals who want to "fence in" the Internet's free ranges and make it their own ranchlands (for sheep?) succeed, then I believe there will be "outlaw" Internets somehow constructed, perhaps sent via wireless transmission, perhaps encoded in big fiber-optic trunk lines, hidden amidst other data. People will create free cyberspace places. It can be an empowerment tool, but beware of accepting on face value information, from such places, that comes from so-called conspiracy experts, who're mostly caught up in an exercise in "rorschach inkblot" free association, connecting dots that are not actually connectable, seeing false patterns--there are conspiracies, of course. There is a book called Lost History that details some real ones. But conspiracy theorists, who are widespread on the Web, exaggerate, even fabricate facts. Sometimes they're not better than the multinationals they denounce because the theorists too merely want to sell you things: books or videos. However, I do believe that society--even organized society--needs anarchists. It may drive anarchists mad to realize it but they perform an important social function; they are like the imaginative faculty in the brain of civilization. They try this and that social model out; they are the real world equivalent of computer models. And they will thrive online. I have recently had it confirmed that Internet access has been very useful to progressive groups, like the Green Party and the Sierra Club and consumer groups and anti-war groups, it's a marvelous organizing tool for radical politics and will be even more so. But the same applies to conservative politics, to Christian Fundamentalists--don't forget that.

Schmidt: Including works written under pen names, just how prolific are you and what are you working on now?

Shirley: I've written fifteen books under my name, maybe a dozen or so under pseudonyms, but let us forget those. I have several books of short stories, most recently Really Really Really Really Weird Stories which is in four sections--each section, if I arranged them right, weirder than the last, in order to really assault the reader's sense of reality cumulatively as you read the book. I'm working on that Dali biography and a fantasy/horror/science fiction hybrid short novel for Cemetary Dance publications about an invasion of demons (why and from where? You have to read the story) in the 21st century. I'm afraid it's a political metaphor but I don't think the reader will find it didactically intrusive.

Schmidt: Myra said she listens to music when she writes. Do you? What works? What doesn't? Are you interested in electronica? Have you written lyrics for bands in addition to your own and Blue Oyster Cult? Anyone you'd like to write for?

Shirley: I've written for the punk band DC Moon. I'd like to write for more bands. I listen to different sorts of things for different kinds of writing. I listened to Monster Magnet (one of my favorite bands) and the Pixies when writing the new novel. I sometimes listen to "dark" classical music, e.g. Stravinski. The rhythms of the music, especially rock and roll, affect my writing, and in some earlier writings I tried to press them from the very air right onto the page, like a leaf, trying to make the reader "hear" them in their imaginations. William Gibson has said he can hear the music in my writing, of that sort, so maybe I succeeded, but I don't think most science fiction fans were interested; they were more into Larry Niven or Orson Card, and that's a different sensibility. It was something I had to try. Nowadays I try to transpose a sense of real life verisimilitude into my writing; I'm concerned less with subliminal rhythms and more with symbols dancing in the texture of what I hope feels like real life. Because I feel that real life is always dancing with symbols; that we're in a tarot deck, a surrealist painting, and we don't know it. If we get over the illusion that we're awake, and then awaken ourselves for real, we'll be able to read those symbols in real life.

Copyright © 2000 John Shirley All Rights Reserved

John Shirley is the award winning author of Black Butterflies, Wetbones, "Really Really Really Really Weird Stories", and Eclipse, among many others. Eclipse, the first book of his cyberpunk trilogy, has just been reissued, revised and updated, by Babbage Press, www.babbagepress.com

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