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Cyberpunk

You Can't Always Get What You Want

By Joab Jackson | Posted 2/23/2000

Note to Douglas Rushkoff: Ford Escorts weren't made in 1974.

This may be but a minor quibble with the grand ideas espoused at Disinfo.com 2000 (con2000.disinfo.com/), a daylong series of speeches mounted in New York Feb. 19. Rushkoff, author of numerous books on cyberculture, seemed to be imitating Richard Simmons, bouncing around the devil-face-decorated podium proclaiming, "We won." The ad execs want to pay us to know what we think. The establishment needs us to navigate through the remote-control- and joystick-driven digital future. And they want to experience it the only way they can: by giving us money. Hence, we should not feel any guilt over "selling out" and should eagerly trade in our raggedy old "1974 Ford Escorts" for new Lexuses.

But Escorts weren't manufactured until the late '80s, so not even the most radical of us actually owned one made in 1974.

Too picky? Perhaps. But how can we trust the big picture when the details just don't add up?

The Disinformation Co., a New York media firm that packages various fringe-culture and subversion projects for television, music, and the Web, did a fine job bringing together a collection of speakers from the "underground media, new science and far fringes of the art scene" for the event. The common theme of the day—that through the works of magic and the media it's possible to become who you want, and get what you want, if you just believe in it enough—was certainly worth talking about. And the speakers certainly had some unique beliefs. There was Paul Laffoley (www.cybercom.net/~gsullivan/paul.html), whom the emcee characterized as this era's Leonardo da Vinci. In endless run-on sentences that sounded more schizophrenic than visionary, Laffoley introduced a working plan for a time machine and a house grown entirely from vegetation. His talk was accompanied by elaborate and aesthetically breathtaking drawings and charts. Perhaps he hoped the audience would assume that anything this pleasing to the eye must also be logical.

Laffoley may have been right, given the heroes praised that day. More than one speaker boosted occultist Aleister Crowley. Legendary avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger even plugged Crowley's books as essential for the creative life. Too bad there was apparently nothing in the master's works on how to revive a sagging career: When an onstage interviewer asked Anger about his latest project, the director of Scorpio Rising admitted it was an instructional video on how to quit smoking.

Conspiracy theories were a big running theme as well. A panel on the topic was interesting mostly for the participants' agreement that conspiracy theorists all seem to think alike these days. As Jonathan Vankin, author of 70 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time, pointed out, within in minutes of Princess Diana's fatal car crash the Internet was aflame with rumors about a cover-up.

But just because such speculation isn't true doesn't mean we can't learn from it. I learned, for example, how people think about what they receive from the media and make their own meaning from it. The young woman who sat in front of me at Disinfo has her own mock-conspiracy Web page, which asserts that Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are, in fact, the same person (www.angelfire.com/music/thomisputin). Through their very ubiquity, conspiracy theories become just another template upon which to splatter our impressions and sensibilities.

But after awhile, even the farthest reaches of conspiracy theorizing couldn't keep me entertained. Nor were the free dinnertime samples of Absentee—a thin but legal knockoff of the once-popular wormwood-derived intoxicant absinthe—enough to get me through Marilyn Manson. Speaking via live feed from L.A., Manson bemoaned how the media gets blamed for violence in America while sports heroes who kill walk free. Evidently it doesn't bother Manson that Ray Lewis hasn't been proven guilty of anything yet. The early evening was only saved by a viewing of excerpts from the underground-film hit Uncle Goddamn (unclegoddamn.tripod.com), a home-movie-style depiction of a family joyfully torturing their drunken uncle by setting him on fire, wrapping his head in duct tape, and spray painting his face silver.

Easily the most charismatic speaker of the event was the wiry, shaven-headed Scottish writer Grant Morrison, whom, judging from the enthusiastic applause, is becoming highly regarded for his comic-book series The Invisibles (www.barbelith.com/bomb/). Morrison too espoused the work of Crowley. He related a trick he learned from one of Crowley's books that gets you whatever you want in life. No, really, it can be done. Here's what you do: Write down a desire you have, take out the vowels and repeated consonants, and then rework the remaining letters until the resulting image "looks magical."

"It works," Morrison said with a laugh so urgently genuine you couldn't help but believe him. "It really fucking works."

The great underlying truth that makes this so, Morrison said, is that "words are the binding agents for reality," and hence can bent to our desires. Well, maybe in New York, the media empire of the world. As for the rest of the world . . . well, I wonder if Kenneth Anger wishes he weren't applying his considerable directing skills toward instructional videos these days.

If you don't see the Fnord, it can't eat you: joabj@charm.net

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