Bryan Behrenshausen's public notebook. Updated irregularly.

Fanatic life and symbolic death

Today marks the 43rd anniversary of Stewart Brand’s “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” a piece that first appeared in Rolling Stone issue 123.

It’s a delightful missive from an accelerating Information Age, both a simple a dispatch from the bowels of the computer lab and an elaborate pean to the hacker ethic. In typical breathless style, Brand reports on what’s happening at campuses around the country:

“Reliably, at any nighttime moment (i.e. non-business hours) in North America hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friend and wasting their employers’ valuable computer time. Something basic is going on.”

Brand’s is one of my favorite expressions of a burgeoning fascination with both information and information technologies in late 20th century American popular culture. And his prose evokes one ethos of that era, too, in a familiar articulation of the values associated with information: unparalleled speed, the absence of friction, plentitude and abundance, unprecedented connection and, of course, disembodiment.

But the gamers “leaving their bodies behind” really refuse to go anywhere. Because despite the wistful descriptions, we can’t help but read about throbbing fingers and drying eyes. Those bodies haunt Brand’s “matrix” (yes, he uses the term), as does the litany of computer scientists and information theorists Brand invokes in the article’s opening paragraphs. “Ready or not,” he writes, “computers are coming to the people”:

“That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics. It’s way off the track of the ’Computers - Threat or menace?[’] school of liberal criticism but surprisingly in line with the romantic fantasies of the forefathers of the science such as Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, J.C.R. Licklider, John von Neumann and Vannevar Bush.”

For these thinkers, “information” wasn’t really an immaterial phenomenon; it always implicated bodies, texts, discourses, affects, and material technologies, pulling them together in complex constellations with precise effects. Brand may have been the most romantic among them.

# December 7, 2015