Escape Velocity

Mark Dery

This book’s cover—culturally dated Mandelbrot art and ‘holographic’ lettering—should, with the exception of J.G. Ballard’s high-praise quote, be totally ignored. Though he keeps his prose snappy and accessible, Dery’s work here shines with a lot more intelligence than implied by the cover’s mid-nineties rave-flyer design.

First impressions aside, it must be said that this work has aged very well. Apart from some scattered internet references that betray the book’s age (5 years—a long time in technoculture, even longer on the web), Dery’s cultural survey focuses on writers, books, performance artists, films, thinkers and trends that are still hugely relevant. A large part of this, though, is due to the analysis he interweaves with his reports and descriptions. His perceptions are sharp and admirably balanced, teasing out what seem to me to be most of the interesting and vital arguments about evolution (genetic and memetic), consciousness and identity that our perpetual collisions and marriages with technology engender.

While the author makes no claim to offer a coherent political critique of cyberculture, it’s refreshing to read a popular work on technology where social conscience isn’t paid mere lip-service or just ignored. While the upbeat optimism of the Mondo 2000 crew is given room to jump up and down exuberantly, it’s fully countered by a recognition of its privileged, white, moneyed background. And the startling, undoubtedly pioneering technological body-art of Stelarc doesn’t astound Dery into forgetting his critical faculties. He’s fully prepared to give space for arguments that the Australian posthumanist’s fantasies of space-faring, context-free, lone robotic entities are pathological—"extreme, narcissistic fantasies of complete isolation."

Dery’s introduction, where he first brings in some of the issues he deals with, is relatively easy-going and simplistic. His subsequent gleeful plunge into the discussion of concrete subjects such as the roots of tech-culture in 60’s America, cybercultural music, and machine performance art, demonstrates how at home he is writing about material culture, and led me to believe he was less at ease navigating the tricky abstract spaces of cultural theory and wider philosophical issues. Not true. The book builds, weaving in more and more intellectually stimulating concepts and debates, up to the final discussion of the fate of our status as embodied beings in a culture finding more and more ways to disengage from the biological matrix. Touching on many of my favourite reference points in this arena—J.G. Ballard, David Cronenberg, Videodrome, William Burroughs—Dery’s summary shines one perspective on another, again and again, illuminating some of the most fascinating intersections in modern culture.

At once exciting and cautionary, this pretty close to being the essential introduction to our current cultural interactions with technology.