Back to the Future with Gareth Branwyn

The following interview was conducted for the French “ezine for digital mutants,” La Spirale. Since there was no English version of it, La Spirale’s editor, Laurent Courau, gave me permission to publish an English translation here. Merci, Laurent!

Interview by Soizic Sanson and Laurent Courau.
Translation Soizic Sanson and Laurent Courau.

Back to the future for The Spiral! And the pleasure of talking once again to a prominent figure amongst the pioneers of cyberspace, who has left such a lasting memory on our readers and has inspired more than one.

Nearly fifteen years have passed since we last interviewed writer/journalist Gareth Branwyn, in 1999. Our exchange was motivated at the time by the release of his book Jamming the Media, a bible of media self-production. And it is during another publication of his that we find ourselves at the end of 2013, his forthcoming anthology Borg Like Me, a compilation of articles and stories previously appearing in Boing Boing, Mondo 2000, Wired, MAKE, and elsewhere. This was a perfect excuse to discuss the current fascinating tech subculture of hackerspaces and 3D printing, makers, crowdfunding drone networks, and to further explore the emerging world whose motto seems to be “self-produce your lifestyle.”

Borg Like Me is available for pre-order on SparksofFirePress.com. In advance, the reader can anticipate a greater understanding of some of the changes happening in our time.

Gareth Branwyn reading his essay "Like Tears in the Rain" from his book Borg Like Me at Fab Lab DC, August 2013.

Gareth Branwyn reading his essay “Like Tears in the Rain” from his book Borg Like Me at Fab Lab DC, August 2013.

Our previous interview on The Spiral was at the end of the 1990s. With hindsight, what do you think of the fifteen years that just ended? This period seems quite incredible, both for better and for worse.

Yes, it’s certainly been a crazy time! In the late 90s, I’d just published my book Jamming the Media. That book was designed as a sort of media hacker’s toolkit, a how-to manual for all forms of amateur media production. With print zines, mail art, cassette culture, fax art networking, cable access TV, MP3s, multimedia software like HyperCard, and all the rest of it, I really got this strong sense that a large-scale revolution in citizen media was about to happen and I wanted to give people the tools they needed to engage in all of this. This was before the web got huge, and before things like blogging, podcasting, and YouTube even existed. I have to say, I sort of felt vindicated when Time magazine made “You” their Person of the Year in 2006, putting a foil mirror on the cover (which reflected anyone who looked into it) as an acknowledgment of this explosion of DIY media that I (and others) had foreseen in the 90s. Seeing what people have done with these powerful tools has been amazing.

And then the maker movement happened, spreading this DIY ethos deeper into the realm of technology, which has also been very inspiring. All of this has certainly given me a lot of hope for humanity. But then, of course, 9/11 also happened, igniting the perpetual “war on terror,” which has led to things like the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Patriot Act, the increasing invasiveness of the NSA, and the erosion of many civil liberties in the US, and elsewhere throughout the world. And lots more that’s very grim and scary. So, as you say, for the best and the worst, it’s been a mind-blowing turn of the century.

This interview takes place some time after the announcement of the release of your next book, Borg like Me & Other Tales of Art, Eros and Embedded Systems, which should be available at the time of Christmas. It brings together nearly three decades of your work and reflections on cyberculture, DIY media and technology, self-publishing, and many other things. What motivated you to write this anthology?

This is a book I’ve wanted to put together for a long time. I’ve been in the trenches as a writer for over three decades now and have been involved in Internet culture almost from its inception. I’ve seen a lot of fringe movements as they’ve emerged, gained momentum, and moved into the mainstream. I’ve written for a lot of amazing fringe and up-and-coming publications. And overall, I’ve lived a satisfyingly rich and colorful life. I wanted to try and capture as much of all this as possible in a very personal and honest book. The way I’m doing it is sort of a lazy man’s memoir. I’m collecting my best work over those 30 years and then I’m threading all of it together with lengthy introductions that provide the backstory for each piece, the publication it was in, and what was going on in my life at the time. It’s being tons of fun to put together.

But I’m sorry to say, I won’t have the book out by Christmas. I was overly ambitious in shooting for that goal. I did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the book and really underestimated all of the work that’s involved in mounting such a campaign and fulfilling the various rewards offered as incentives to backers. I’m also self-publishing the book and making it available in four different formats (print, MOBI for Kindle, .EPIB for iBook, and PDF) and that’s all proven to be far more complicated than I ever expected. I wish I could just spend my days writing and editing, but I have all of this other administrative and fulfillment work to juggle. I knew that crowdfunding and self-publishing would be a challenge, but I underestimated how many moving parts were involved and the fact that I have to move all of those parts forward at the same time!

Part of the reason I took on this project, and decided to crowdfund and self-publish, is that I was interested in the experiment — finding out whether this really is a viable option yet for large numbers of media creators. In other words, is it “ready for prime time”? My conclusions at this point is “Hell, no!” It’s great to have these options available, but I still think they have a long way to go. They have definite strengths, but also significant weaknesses over commercial publishing. Crowdfunding takes SO much time, effort, and shameless self-promotion that I don’t think it’s ultimately cost-effective, at least not if you have other options. In my case, I did have another option. I had interest from at least one publisher (without even shopping it), but I turned them down because I wanted to try the self-publishing route. If I had it to do over again, I probably would just have gone the conventional route and got it professionally published. But all that said, I’m glad I undertook the experiment.

And I may change my opinion after the book is finally out and I see how financially successful it is. I have not totally soured on crowdfunding – I may do other projects in the future – but I just think you need to use it on the right projects and I’m still not sure that most books are the right project. We’ll see.


Advertisment for Borg Like Me on Kickstarter.

Advertisment for Borg Like Me on Kickstarter.

From your experience, it would seem that crowdfunding is not a simple way to publish books. How would you compare the phenomenon of crowdfunding to underground publications, fanzines of the 80s, and the countless self-produced media covered in your book, Jamming the Media? Is the financial transaction with subscribers what changes the game?

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I think crowndfunding is a wonderful development. And I certainly think it’s an awesome option for those who might not otherwise be able to get a book published. As a bootstrapping financial technology, I think it’s amazing and powerful. I’ve seen people get comic books, for instance, funded that they normally would’ve had to pay for out of pocket. And small independent films. And tabletop and computer games. And books and magazines. I have an art project idea right now (based on an essay in the book), that I wouldn’t likely be able to get funding for through traditional means. I’m thinking of crowdfunding that after my book is finished. So, for things like that, I think it’s awesome and a welcome advance over what we were doing in the 80s and 90s with DIY media, which was completely out-of-pocket or begging family and friends for seed money. I’m mainly wondering whether, for someone like myself who already has publishing connections and multiple commercially-published books under his or her belt, if crowdfunding and self-publishing makes the best economic sense. The jury is still out. Ask me in a year or so, after I’ve been selling my book, whether this experiment was a success or not. 🙂

You’ve been involved in the maker movement since 2006, including your long-standing collaboration with MAKE magazine and your own Street Tech site before that. And beyond magazines and blogs, this movement also has its events, including the Maker Faire. What prompted you to leave MAKE, despite the current rich activity of this movement?

Leaving MAKE was totally for personal and health reasons. I think the work that they’re doing, as well as those in the wider maker movement, and with so many other groups and individuals around the world, is game-changing. But I have a number of health issues, including severe arthritis. Being the editorial director of a media company like that is a very intense, stressful, and all-consuming job. It also involves a fair amount of travel. I had an apartment in California (I live in the DC area), and last year, I spent almost half the year out there, commuting between the two coasts of the United States. I didn’t think I could safely do that job anymore. And now that I’m back to freelance writing, I realize that’s exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’m a writer. That’s what I do, that’s who I am. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a manager, a boss. The freelancing world is kind of hellish at the moment, so in some ways, I’m trading off one set of intense pressures for another. But I’m far more comfortable in my creative skin meeting this particular set of challenges.

In a recent interview, you said that despite the mainstreaming of the tech scene, the maker movement remains resilient. Don’t you think that we’re going through a metamorphosis of our post-modern societies, becoming mainstreamed makers societies? Or do you think that this will remain a fringe subculture?

I’d like to think that the maker ethos is going mainstream, but I’m not sure to what extent that’s actually the case. For March 2014, I got a grant to be a Research Fellow at George Mason University in Northern Virginia. I plan to actually explore the question of “what is the maker movement and what is its likely impact?” as thoroughly as I can. Besides talking to key people in the maker movement, I’m going to be talking to historians and anthropologists of technology, business and community leaders, educators, scholars of innovation, and others, trying to get some sense of just how wide and influential the maker movement is, and where it’s likely headed. Having been so deeply involved in it since 2006, I thought it’d be fun to take a step back and try and soberly assess what it actually is, how far it reaches, and whether it likely represents a significant shift in our society or whether it’s something akin to a fad or a short-term cultural phase or corrective.

Illustration by Danny Hellman for Borg Like Me by Gareth Branwyn.

Illustration by Danny Hellman for Borg Like Me by Gareth Branwyn.

One of the promising technologies we find in hackerspaces and fablabs is 3D printers. When they appeared, I wondered about the future of this kind of tools, a tool that can achieve almost all the steps in the manufacturing chain. It seems to be a perfect tool to allow a complete independence for its owner, on an economic and creative level. What do you feel about it and some other recent technologies?

I think 3D printing is a perfect example of the sort of innovation that’s coming out of the maker movement. What I think we’re seeing in this type of “trickle up” innovation is a perfect storm of increasingly inexpensive high-tech parts and products, new advances in materials sciences, and the collaborative powers of the Internet and physical maker communities, such as hackerspaces. In the case of 3D printing, this technology has existed for decades, but it was not available at the consumer level, and was cost prohibitive for most applications. The guys behind the Makerbot printer realized that you could combine cheap microcontrollers, like the Arduino, CNC fabrication (for the printer body), other cheap and readily available components, and the open source development that had been done on the RepRap 3D open source printer project – put all of this together via a maker small business model and get a consumer-grade printer onto the market FAST. And it started as an open source kit, so that leveraged a community of users to help them more rapidly develop the technology by releasing it in beta. And this one example of maker innovation has now bootstrapped an entirely new product category and marketplace. There are dozens of small 3D printer start-ups now and new ones sprouting up all the time. So yes, I think that the potential for this technology is staggering, the ability for many people, around the world, to basically have functionally-capability parts fabrication technologies in their homes.

And then there are other amazing technologies that have come out of the maker movement, such as the Arduino, a super-cheap microcontroller that was originally created for artists and other creatives to have access to an easy-to-learn system for adding computer-control and interactivity to their projects. One of the things that endlessly tickled me about Massimo Banzi’s (Arduino co-creator) book Getting Started with Arduino was his reprint of a page from the 80s punk rock zine, Sniffin’ Glue. It’s a cartoon drawing of the tablature for the basic guitar chords A, E, and G. And then it says: “Now go form a band.” I love this because it clearly places the maker movement and things like the Arduino within that punk rock DIY ethos. And now there’s also the Raspberry Pi, a full-blown computer on a single board, that’s also very cheap and easy-to-use and has a very large and rapidly-expanding worldwide user community to draw from.

The potential for all of this is very exciting. I’m currently working on an article for MAKE about people who are developing DIY prostheses using these technologies. There are now plans online for 3D-printed hands that you can print out and assemble. So, instead of spending $30-$40,000 USD or more for a professional prosthetic hand, you can print out your own for a few thousand!

Earlier, you brought up the issue of freelancing. What is your perspective on the current state of printed media, such as magazines, in the US? Here in France, sales keep on declining and I’m afraid that nobody has yet found a viable business model for online media. which is kind of scary, considering the importance of media to the dynamics of a democracy.

Yes, mainstream commercial print media is in real trouble here in the US as well. While I was the editorial director at MAKE, we saw serious erosion of magazine sales in bookstores and on newsstands. And local bookstores and chains like Borders have died, and Barnes & Noble is closing stores. While I agree there’s not a solid and reliable business model for digital media yet, we know that’s where media will all likely end up – online, in the cloud. I think the silver lining for print, which I don’t think will go away completely, will be a boon to specialty publications. I predict that zines will be making a sort of nostalgic comeback in the next few years. We’re seeing, with books, that a lot of publishers are releasing fewer titles but putting more creativity and dollars into the artifactual quality of the books they’re producing – making them into something special, something you can’t get in digital media (just as digital pubs do things, like embedded media and reader engagement, that print can’t offer). And while I’m excited about this from a artistic and silver lining aspect, it’s sad and concerning to see the large-scale die-off of print. I’ve always been a huge book and magazine fanatic, so it pains me to see all of the bookstores around me being progressively shuttered up.

Gareth Branwyn and Mark Frauenfelder of Boing Boing at Maker Fair Austin, 2007

Gareth Branwyn and Mark Frauenfelder of Boing Boing at Maker Fair Austin, 2007

What does “Eros” refer to in the title of your book Borg like Me? That’s surprising. Is that a reference to sexcams? I read that you have been recently investigating the online sexcam community, websites which offer amateur exhibitionism through webcams for free or according to a model’s or website’s rate. We noticed that some of the participants belong to a “cam studio,” others are independent. This kind of emerging scheme and resulting relations will surely continue and increase in the future. Do you think this is a revolution of our time?

I’m glad you asked this question. In all of the interviews and conversations about my book, almost no one has asked me about this aspect. Over the course of my 30-year career, I’ve written on a lot of diverse subjects, some things that may seem the antithesis of technology, like art and sex. We did a special issue of Boing Boing print on sex in the early 90s, and I even used to write a column for a short-lived New York “literate smut” magazine, called CORE. The sensual world, the erotic, the sexual have always been a big, important part of my life, and at various times, my work. And it’s funny, when you start talking about “cyborgs,” people always think about the machine side of that equation, they rarely seem to think about the “meat,” the organic, the sensual side. Cyborgs need lovin’, too! While it’s been something of a mission in my life to humanize technology for those who may be intimidated or at least ignorant of it, it’s also been something of a mission to remind the technological world of the sensual one. My book is subtitled “& Other Tales of Art, Eros and Embedded Systems” because these three areas: art (and all areas of creativity and the imagination), Eros (sensuality, sexuality, love), and embedded systems (all forms of our ever-shrinking technology) have been the three major themes of my life and my work (which are basically one and the same). And I don’t see these as separate, vertical silos, either. For me, they are all very much interconnected.

The article you reference is something that I’m currently doing research on, about sex cam websites. What I think is emerging here is a very 21st-century form of intimacy that goes far beyond just paying for a sexy webcam show. It also offers a new model for safe, non-contact, potentially very lucrative DIY sex work. And its something of a new form of DIY reality TV, too, that can be surprisingly compelling (and I’m not talking about the overtly sexual aspects). Some of these cam models lay their entire lives bare before the cameras, not just their bodies. And some do crazy things like nude crafting and cooking shows, sexy Pictionary and other game shows (some very elaborate). There’s regularly-scheduled naked yoga, naked mime, naked (and masturbatory) folk singing, and performance art of many types. Some of it is extremely creative, bizarre, fascinating, raw, and movingly human. And, it’s a segment of Internet culture that I don’t think most people have a clue about, unless they’re already regular patrons of these sites.

The Spiral is interested in Africa, a fast-changing continent which is experiencing lots of technological improvements and interesting activities. For example, Maker Faire Africa, which took place in Ghana, in Kenya, in Cairo recently. The website Afrigadget.com speaks about the technological recycling happening in Africa. Are there similar projects which draw your attention?

Yes, I love Afrigadget. When I was the editor-in-chief of MAKE’s website, I frequently blogged about people and projects I was introduced to through that site. And, of course, we supported and promoted the Maker Faire Africa events. Just as we see in the west, with the innovations happening through cheaper, more powerful high technologies, new materials, and the collaborative powers of net-connected community, these things are also fueling rural innovation and development in regions like Africa. It’s so inspiring when you hear of people like William Kamkwamba, the Malawian teen who got books out of the local library on windmills (picture books, mind you, not overt how-tos), and using locally available parts, managed to build an electric-generating windmill for his rural family home. It’s just such a potent, combustible cocktail when you have readily-available information, access to tools and materials, and the ability to network with others anywhere in the world. And now you’re starting to see hackerspaces sprouting up in a number of African nations. Very exciting.

Besides Africa, do you have a special interest in other specific countries or regions of the world? Places that bring something new, offer a glimpse of the future?

Well it’s great to me just to see hackerspaces starting to spring up in every corner of the globe, from South America to the Middle East, from Russia to Iraq and Iran. And also you’re starting to see more spaces in communities that don’t necessarily have a large engineering community, or college populations, etc. It really is starting to penetrate more deeply into the social mainstreams. And that’s very exciting to me.

Gareth Branwyn, at the time he was an editor of MAKE magazine.

Gareth Branwyn, at the time he was an editor of MAKE magazine.

You’ve worked at Wired, Mondo 2000, bOING bOING, Street Tech, and MAKE, and are offering an overview of your experiences in Borg Like Me. What encourages your interest in the technological scene?

When I started to get heavily involved in technology in the 1980s, I was inspired by the cyberpunk ethos of “the street finds its own uses for things,” as William Gibson put it. People think of me as a geek, a technophile, but honestly, I’m always more interested in the people side of the equation, than the technology itself. I’m fascinated by how people actually use technology, and even more interesting, how they abuse it (put it to purposes its designers never intended).

But now, with the growing maker movement, we’re starting to see significant, potentially game-changing technologies (e.g. 3D printing and embedded systems) come out of this activity. So, where I used to be principally fixated on how technology trickles down, I’m now equally fascinated by how it is now trickling up, traveling from the DIY/tech fringes into the mainstream.

Some talk about nanotechnology, others about the singularity, about renewable energies. What do you expect in technological terms? What will the next big thing be?

Well, I’m never really good at soothsaying the future, but I certainly think, in the foreseeable future, we’re going to see more of what’s happening now continue to improve, expand, and penetrate more deeply into mainstream society: 3D printing, super-cheap, ever-more-powerful microcontrollers, and the Internet of Things (IoT) (sensors inside of everything, and everything connected to the Internet). And hopefully we’ll see a whole “continuous education” movement alongside of it to train people on how to use all of these powerful tools and technologies. I think that the Internet of Things will probably be the next big short-term area of technology to get a lot of attention and development.

There also may be things that look kooky on the surface now, that could actually develop into something significant – I’m thinking of things like drone networks, small robotic flying vehicles that will work in distributed swarm networks of such vehicles, similar to how Internet data packets work today. These “drone nets” could physically transport objects around a region (the mail carriers and couriers of the near future may be swarms of robots). NOTE: This interview was conducted just days before Amazon pulled their drone delivery Cyber Monday viral video stunt.

Around 3D printing, you’re also going to see increased controversy around things like 3D-printed guns and many heated intellectual property debates over 3D-printed designs. And then there are things like 3D-printed bio-weapons.

I can’t guarantee what the future will hold, but I feel confident in guaranteeing you that it’ll be pretty damn interesting

As a conclusion to this interview, do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist, on a personal level and regarding what the future will bring to our societies?

This is an interesting question for me, because I don’t really consider myself either an optimist or pessimist. Or maybe both, depending on the circumstances. I take it as something of a spiritual practice to be “open to anything, but skeptical of everything,” as Robert Anton Wilson put it. He called it “Multi-model agnosticism,” or being agnostic about EVERYTHING, not just religious questions, and so that would include such polarities of optimist/pessimist.

I don’t believe in the innate goodness of people, but I do believe that there’s great good in lots of people (and at least a little good in most everyone). And I think there’s incredible creative potential within all of humanity. I think, being animals, and being prone to greed, desire, the will to power, and tending toward a kind of habituated laziness/spiritual sleep, we humans have a penchant for royally fucking things up, starting wars, hating and fearing what we don’t understand. But at the same time, we have an incredible ability to work ourselves out of the worst jams. I think the best of humanity usually shows itself in times of great crisis.

We started off this interview discussing the last couple of decades and how simultaneously amazing and terrible things have been since the last time we chatted. In that span of time, the world has been irrevocably changed, thanks to (among other things) computers, digital communications, the Web, and pervasive DIY media – and all of the amazing things that have grown out of these advances. When I wrote Jamming the Media, I could smell that something was about to happen. I don’t think, in a million years, I could’ve exactly guessed the things that did happen. And I don’t suspect I can sit here now and guess what’ll happen next.

My only over-arching hope is that we’ll always have an opportunity to save ourselves before we manage to destroy ourselves. And there’s a romantic part of me that always believes we will, so maybe, on some meta-level, I am a romantic optimist.

Portrait of Gareth Branwyn by Gregory Hayes, World Maker Faire, 2012.

Portrait of Gareth Branwyn by Gregory Hayes, World Maker Faire, 2012.

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