Cyberpunk Zines Redux: High Frontiers

A project log for h4d-zine

an unofficial hackaday zine

aleksandar-bradicAleksandar Bradic 05/03/2014 at 20:260 Comments

Before Techcrunch and Pando, it was Wired Magazine who held the role of defining zeitgeist on the Web. And before that, it was Mondo 2000 and a whole range of hacker/cyberpunk zines. But it all started with a couple of psychedelic guys in San Francisco, back in the 1984...

At first sight, it would be hard to imagine this publication has anything to do with technology. Nor it would at second. As a matter of fact, you can stare at it all you want, and still won't be able to make a connection with anything other than a bunch of stoned Upper Haight Yippies that somehow managed to get a hold of a printing press. And that wouldn't be too far from the truth. It's only real relationship with the upcoming tech scene was cultural, very much along the lines of the Whole Earth Catalog and other Stewart Brand's escapades from decades before. Only this time the head honcho was someone even more extreme - a counter-culture madman called R. U. Sirius. And this one makes Brand look like a middle-aged buttoned-up IBM employee on his way to work. 

Bruce Sterling does a great job at portraying R. U. Sirius in his preface to "The Real Cyberpunk Fakebook":

R.U. Sirius basically resembles Gomez Addams in a purple fedora with an Andy Warhol badge pinned to the brim. The moment I met R. U., I felt a strong need to pitch him and examine his viscera. I'm sure there are many other freelance biomedical researchers who will feel the same intellectual impulse.

Given the editor of such profile, it was only natural for magazine to feature similar nutbags such as William Burroughs, Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary. As a matter of fact, R.U. Sirius's publications became the main vehicle which enabled Leary to rebrand himself as a "cyberpunk guru" in the 80ies and 90ies. Escapism apparently never goes out of vogue.

Leafing through the pages of High Frontiers (some of which are available online, digitalized as a part of the Mondo 200 history project), there isn't really all that much to see - "Smart" drugs, Grateful Dead, kaleidoscope of New Age and Fight-the-system ideas, more "Smart" drugs...

But published in the Bay Area it was...

Sitting at the nexus of counter-culture activism and burgeoning "Information Age" revolution coming from the peninsula, this generation of neo-hippies and freaks had something new to project their ideas on - the Internet. Though most of them did not really understand the underlying technology in that much detail, they got all the key concepts: free information, universal connectedness, virtual reality... And went crazy with them. Pages of High Frontiers are filled with weird extrapolations of "what does it all mean", how this new "computer reality" changes everything, and all the ways in which it can be (ab)used for fun & profit. 

San Francisco/Berkley freaks being what they are, still managed to draw silly parallels between drug-induced "distortion" and computer-powered "crafting" of the data, and end up creating an altogether quite unhealthy "proto-cyberpunk" lifestyle. Most of this is history now but, interestingly enough, some of the ideas that came about during this era (Transhumanism, Singularity-fetishism..) are still alive and well, even picking up steam lately.

Looking backwards, it seems pretty obvious that mixing psychedelics and technology only happened because computers failed to immediately deliver on all the hype that cyber-freaks created around them. After all, you can dream all you want, but a 768x240 pixel black-green screen tends to get boring pretty quickly unless you understand what's going on inside.

But as 80ies were coming to an end, more and more interesting things started happening with all these green pixels, and a whole new generation of counter-culture characters began to emerge. That's when R.U. Sirius decided to close down the High Frontiers shop and start a new adventure - 'Reality Hackers', magazine that will change everything...

(To be continued)