Interviewer: What do you remember?
Hari Kunzru: I mean, actually I was thinking on the way over here my first use of a network computer was much much earlier when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. My dad had a friend who had access to a university network in London, and we went round to his house. I think my dad had some meeting or something. And he set me online, and he had one of those old cradle modems with the old-fashioned phones. The phone receivers just when in and was kinda taped into this cradle. And I played Adventure, text adventure game. Also I played some version of Lunar Lander that I think wasn’t even graphical, it just numbers where you were trying to kind of control your rate of descent in this abstract kind of lunar pod thing. And I remember I thought this was amazing. What actually it set me up to do is to play lots of Dungeons & Dragons as a preteen.
But my first real use of the Internet was when I was… This was in probably ’91 or —2. And I was a graduate student at Warwick University, and I was part of a philosophy department which… I mean nominally I was supposed to be there thinking about philosophy and literature. I was supposed to be reading German Romanticism and thinking about the noumenon. And actually, I had fallen among kind of Deleuzians and AI people. And there was a creep around, a guy called Nick Land, who was attempting to kind of fuse thinking about Deleuze and Nietzsche with… And see, he’s—I mean in terms of sort of academic philosophy he was attempting to kind of dissolve the canons of academic philosophy and he was using a lot of kinda Burroughian cut-ups and stuff like that. But there was a great interest in the Internet as a kind of means of acceleration and sort of dissolution of boundaries and orders and so on.
And so, another person who was in the mix there… I mean various people who’ve since got quite well-known were around like [indistinct] the cultural critic. The people associated with Mute magazine. The guy who’s now…a dubstep, record label guy called Kode9…
So rave culture’s also a part of this as well. I mean there was a very strong connection between the sort of psychological effects of listening to techno and being on a dancefloor, and things that the Internet could potentially achieve. And I mean I got my— Sadie Plant was also part of this group as well. And then she was writing criticism and writing from a feminist perspective.
And so I got my first net connection around then. I had an account with Demon, the Internet provider in London. And I got one of those… I bought a modem, was I was either— I think I got a brand new, whizzy 14.4 modem, and that was considered super fast at the time. And then just sorta started to explore. And I remember that—I mean, it was… The browser I was using was Mosaic. It was before Netscape had kind of turned up. And the philosophy at that time for the Web— There were I think around…I was reading recently, maybe about 5 or 600 web sites at that point. And they almost all were either directly computer-related or kind of geeks, extreme culture-related. There were beginnings of sort of science fiction and word lists and booklets to make.
And the idea was very much that this information would be stored in a standardized form and you would configure how you saw it. So the idea of web design was not present at all. I mean, you chose the font; you were choosing… Don’t know if you could choose colors or anything. I think all web pages were gray, as I remember. Everything seemed to be gray in background, the links were blue and then they’d turn purple when you clicked on them.
And seeing as I hadn’t really fully migrated onto the Web from bulletin boards… So I was definitely going on… I feel like it was LambdaMOO or another MOO. I was spending quite a lot of time on some MOO on which the culture was a kind of hot tub, Northern California thing, and I was beginning to read Wired as well. And I was going to a lot of parties and doing quite a lot of E and very much a part of that rave scene, and had been for a few years by that point. And it definitely seemed to be part of the same experience. We were convinced that there was some kind of transcendence— No you know, I was quite a sort of rigorous materialist so I was not interested in the sort of hippie spiritualized side of that. I mean, I thought that was a kind of mistake. But in terms of the nation-state and various kind of established power blocs, my friends and I were very excited by sort of immense [indistinct] potential of the net.
Also, one other important experience around then was to do with the Balkan War. And there was something called the Pakrac Project, where there were people who were using email to spread news of what was going on in the Balkans, and they were… And I remember it was very profound for me to get these messages in my inbox which were just sort of… I mean it’d be utterly banal now, but to realize that I could have a kind of immediate access to things that were going on in this European war zone, that was…that was… Yeah I mean, things like… I mean going on Usenet and downloading pictures, and also sort of realizing that there were these subcultures that I hadn’t been exposed to before. A lot of sort of sexual subcultures, and a lot of undergrounds of different sorts, political and just cultural undergrounds. The sort of modern primitive thing was around. Like people… You know V Vale and the RE/Search…it was of that, the kind of things that he was collecting together and sort of curating for people were turning up on the net. And I remember going to lots of quite extreme sites, you know. You know, the… NAMBLA, the National Association of Man/Boy Love, and things that I’d never really confronted or had kind of understood I don’t understand and to just kind of receive the voices of these kind of people was actually kinda—I mean, I was actually quite disturbed by a lot of the stuff I was seeing, because…you know, I just never kinda had access to it before. I mean certainly…I mean all that seemed completely new.
And cult stuff, and religious, mystical fringe stuff. I mean it was like a kinda—I was always interested in undergrounds of various kinds and this was suddenly a sort of…access to every kind of fringe that was— It’s very odd, I mean that was the stuff that was on earlier, you know. Just beyond the straight kind of tech stuff, it seemed that very early on, people who had no access to mainstream media were on the net and then the mainstream media were always the last to kinda start using it.
And so after a year at Warwick and a little bit of time back in London, through Sadie Plant I got a job, which was at Wired magazine when they set up a British edition. And that was sort of the beginning of the next phase for me. Because I’d been a reader of Wired, and for me it was all Jaron Lanier wearing virtual reality headsets, and smart drugs, and this kind of experimenting on the self and experimenting on identity and [indistinct phrase] about… You know that line about on the Internet no one knows you’re a dog and the possibility of projecting various sort of virtual selves that weren’t connected to your real self. And those things seemed quite real and literal at that point. And it was only really through repetition that you realized the limits of it.
And then I got involved with Wired— It was a British edition of the San Francisco-based magazine. And what I hadn’t understood about their thing was that they were out of a very strongly libertarian, and a right libertarian, culture. That the founder, Louis Rossetto, had been at Berkeley in the late 60s and had actually sued Berkeley for disrupting his education by allowing Vietnam protests on campus. And he cited his favorite novel as this Robert Heinlein novel where space colonists break off from the government of the world and form their own sort of frontier libertarian state. So, suddenly there was this angle that was very different from the kinda emancipatory left politics that my London friends and I had associated with the Internet, and it was coming from this place that was to do with dissolution of regulation, and disruption of established systems of government. And it’d be like John Perry Barlow writing that borders are gonna disappear and the nation-state was gone.
And there was a really sort of…extropian angle as well. I don’t know if you hear so much about the extropians anymore, but they were all about transcending their physical and mental limits. Mainly, they didn’t want to die. So they were all getting interested in cryogenics and various sorts of neural enhancement. And it seems to be the same thing that…I mean, more recently…Peter Thiel and the sort of anti-government, right libertarian people who come out of that part of the culture, they saw this as a chance to kind of liberate themselves in that way. And I was very uncomfortable with that, because I was quite committed to social justice and a sense that it wasn’t just about this white elite in Northern California. That the real potential of the Internet was a more mass thing.
And I remember asking my editor…maybe it was even Louis Rossetto—it was actually when he was over in London, and I asked him why they never covered…half the people in the world had never made a phone call, and why were we always concentrating on this tiny number. And he told me, “There are no have-nots, there are only have-laters.”
At the time I had a very kinda confused sense of policy, and I did have a sense that the Internet was going to…and a networked world was not in the control of national governments. And I remember I posted a text to Nettime (I was quite active on Nettime) trying to kinda frame my rather confused ideas about that. And I was just shot down by a guy called Richard Barbrook, who’s a…I would say a socialist net critic, you know, who was saying that I was denying the possibility of politics and I was falling into this kinda technocratic Wired mode. And you know, fair enough; I think I was. I hadn’t really understood to what extent this kind of engineering— You know, I think I probably even used the phrase “it’s an engineering problem.” That was the sort of language that we were being taught to speak in at Wired, you know, that you had to have this kind of non-ideological, utterly pragmatic notion of yourself and it’s a problem and I’ll fix it—I’ll hack it.
And I now understand really, really, the consequences of that position and I’m very very opposed to it—rather embarrassed by this text which is still floating around somewhere, no doubt. I mean Barbrook and another guy called Andy Cameron wrote a text called The Californian Ideology that was published in Mute, and it was…it’s a funny text, really, because I mean they brought forward that Minitel, the French Minitel system, as an example of a very good sort of state socialist network. I mean Minitel was just a…joke.
But they were correct in pointing out the sort of libertarian ambitions of a certain section of that kind of Wired technocracy. And that text got a lot of traction and… By this time my day job was at Wired but I was also one of the editors at Mute so I had a kind of very very different network and I was also part of… Anyway I gave the Mute text to Louis Rossetto, who wrote an angry email back to me that we then printed in Mute so I kinda was trying to bridge between these two very different parts of the culture.
And at the same time, I was still spending a lot of time in the kinda rave and Internet culture. I remember one…there was a club in London called Megatropolis. And another one called the Parallel YOUniversity—Y O U niversity. And one guy there—he was called Fraser…Fraser Park, maybe. Fraser something or other, this guy who ran these clubs. And he had a [indistinct] sort of…higher consciousness notion of what the Internet was about. And he would bring trance DJs in the main room and then there were the side-rooms with kind of brain machines and various kinds of visual tripping devices, and people come could and demonstrate their things. And there were also discussions and—it was a very kind of… At that time, there was this rather funny idea that at the middle of of the night at a rave was definitely the time to thrash out big, intellectual questions. I mean I remember it being—at that club I would meet some Japanese guy who would hook me up to a brain feedback device and you could kinda see a visual output of your various brain emissions, your alpha and gamma emissions. And there were meditation— There was one guy who had a thing where if you’d yourself into a meditation state a little train would go around a toy track. And there were other things that you’d just kind of go into a chamber and and be bombarded with light.
I mean things that now I realize were descendants of 1960s things like La Monte Young, Dream House, the downtown [indistinct ]. But all this was kinda coming to me through the rave culture, so I was writing about that stuff for Wired and bringing— And sometimes falling foul of the editors because they wanted more of the business side, business stories—but I was having to kind of sometimes be a bit young business journalist going to see Nokia. And sometimes I’d be out late at night in a brain machine. And then other times kind of talking [indistinct ] politics with the Mute lot.
I mean one thing…I think it was Megatropolis. But they invited me… The highest…most speedy, amazing technology at the time was an ISDN line. And you could transmit real-time video over that. And they somehow managed to get Arthur C. Clarke, who of course was the inventor of the communications satellite, to talk from his home in Sri Lanka via satellite link through an ISDN line to this club. And I interviewed him. It was really bizarre. It was three in the morning. Banging trance nightclub, everybody had dropped a pill. And they just cut the music. And then suddenly there’s Arthur C. Clarke on the screen and then me asking him about— I mean no one wanted that at all; it was hilarious. I had to be in this tiny little room where all the kit was, which was where the telecom stuff came into the club—it was in the arches near Charing Cross Station in London—and did this choppy, dropped-frame, conversation with Arthur C. Clark—that I think is actually on YouTube somewhere, or part of it is on YouTube. But it was hilarious, you know. They had all these kind of deranged trippers who had just had their cosmic trance experience interrupted.
But there was a lot of the DJ culture around that. Like I remember covering things where there would be a DJ in Belgium and he would play a set down an ISDN line to a club in London. And I met some guys who’d been doing pirate radio who then migrated onto the net and they were doing some of the first—certain in Britain I think they were the first streaming radio station, and they were kinda new enough for Wired to run a feature on them. A guy called Mad Ash. I was invited to spend evenings with Mad Ash and the pirates as they would kind of talk and they’d play their streams that almost nobody I would’ve thought—there was probably I don’t know, a few dozen people who would pick up this…you know, who’d have fast enough connections to get any sort of meaningful radio [indistinct ]. This would be like ’94-ish by that time.
And I also went to darkest Wales to see somebody called Lyn Hurn, who had been a peace activist in the 80s who’d actually used the Internet in its really really early days to put together anti-nuclear activists. And you know, she’s an old Welsh lady who ran a cafe in a tiny tiny village.
And at that time, I mean in Britain…most people didn’t know what the Internet was. I was continually having to explain what I did and why it was interesting for computers to be attached to phone lines. And I was continually told it’s not gonna catch on, it’s bad. But I was very very excited by it. I was always kinda convinced that it was gonna be transformative.
And then I think ’96 or ’97, the British edition of Wired folded because there was— They had tried to expand too far, too fast, and they couldn’t get… They had an IPO. Wired had an IPO that failed, and they had to suddenly close all their loss-making businesses, which included us.
And so I spent sort of ’97, ’98, and ’99…at that point my only marketable skill was knowing about the Internet so I was just freelancing as a tech journalist and I would do everything from like write Top Ten Computer Viruses for some science magazine, to interview-based things. I used to…[indistinct phrase ]. I remember getting really interested in generative algorithms. And that again there’s a sort of rave culture interest in. Fractals and the Mandelbrot set and all that kind of thing. The idea that there was a sort of…that out of these very simple, iterative operations you could produce very complex phenomena, and especially visual phenomena. This guy called John [Nathan?], who was making these very sort of reptilian-looking forms out of using generative algorithms and then— He was a sort of gallery artist who was doing that.
And then I met— There was an architect who’s name I forget who was just beginning to use generative algorithms for architectural visualizations. And he predated all that sort of Zaha Hadid stuff by a good five or ten years, I would’ve thought. I mean I wrote about him for Wired as well.
And also I got to know the West Coast through working for Wired and sort of ended up— I don’t remember who I was working for but I was writing for somebody about the first dot-com boom in ’98, ’99, and I was staying in San Francisco and going to parties with these very young dot-com entrepreneurs. And they were all panicked because they realized that the bubble was bursting. And at that time, there were some really absurd projects that were getting money. I mean I remember in Britain there was somebody who had—their big idea was a student guide to Nottingham. I mean that was the pitch. And they got several hundred thousand pounds’ worth of funding from somebody for a web site that was that.
But e‑commerce was just sort of beginning to be a possible thing. People were beginning to see that there was money to be made. I mean, friends of mine were domain squatters and they were, and there were actually people who made a lot of money by just kind of registering domains and getting paid to give them up to the companies that they related to more rightfully.
I had a funny gig once which was the Canadian tourist board wanted to prove that it was possible to book travel on the Internet. So they paid me—they paid me quite a lot of money—and they gave me a budget, and I had to go to Canada and go to at least three Canadian provinces, doing all my booking and everything on the net. That would’ve been ’98 or ’99. Again, it’s banal now to imagine that— But it was just not understood as a possibility then and this was a very advanced thing to do. So I mean, I got a plane ticket and a train ticket and some guest houses and a hotel and a rental car. And that was a newspaper article. I mean that was an interesting enough thing to do that there was a newspaper article in it.
So yeah, and that by the late 90s it was clear that the…just as the rave culture would die a death and it became this sort of entirely commercial DJ culture and illegal raves in fields kinda gateway to megaclubs…so the whole idea of a kinda higher consciousness through some sort of combination of Alexander Shulgin-synthesized chemicals and use of the Internet—that was beginning to sort of die a death and to be replaced largely by a sort of land grab, you know.
I mean there was a time when— I mean people— I mean I have no actual coding skills or anything like that but I mean, people would go down the Wired masthead and headhunters would call us, and then I was being sort of offered jobs to run company networks and things like that. Just ’cause they didn’t know who to find and they assumed that everybody associated with this magazine must be ahead of the game. And various journalists I know became consultants to business and did things like set up Internet incubators and were briefly worth millions of pounds on paper and then you know, two weeks later they weren’t anymore.
So we went through all that kinda dot-com boom, and I by that time was really trying to focus on my own fiction. And so I fell away from the whole… I mean I’d certainly been very interested in the business side of it and I wasn’t really cut out to be an Internet entrepreneur. But kinda kept in touch with various current sort of culture… You know, still involved with Mute magazine, which was one of the first places to really publish serious criticism about what the implications of new media and new technology would be.
And a lot of it wasn’t networked— I mean I remember— I mean when DVD—uh, CD-ROMs were such a big thing. There was a lot of money put into CD-ROMs delivering these kind of whizzy multimedia experiences. Peter Gabriel put a lot of money into something that was a kind of non-goal-oriented game cum sorta showcase to his music, something like that.
And there were…just when the infrastructure got fast enough to deliver some sort of moving imagery, there was a… Actually, wouldn’t it be—no, ’cause they were doing it on CD-ROM. There was something called Antirom in London, and I knew all those guys and I thought what they were doing was very elegant and very beautiful. It was very…I mean they having to be extremely clever about impressing what they were doing into extremely small memory sizes. And I think a lot of this— And they were kinda the new interface toys, effectively. Like you could click in a place and you’d hear a sound and a little ripple would go out from your little mouse pointer and stuff like that. And those kinda things were sort of state of the art around ’96, ’97, ’98. I have a box somewhere. I put all my 90s ephemera into a box in the attic and at some point I’m gonna go through it and there will be the god-awful rave graphics and various of these CD-ROM toys and people excitedly delivering a magazine on a floppy. A lot of the things that various people were excited about…yeah.
Interviewer: Do you ever think now in terms of…how what you were expecting like, played out or— Like what would you say you miss?
Kunzru: I mean, I think a lot of what I feared has come to pass, and I think we’ve ended up with in many ways the worst possible version of Internet culture. And the Internet’s use as a means of surveillance and control is now a kind of done deal and we’re all kind of colluding in our being tracked and profiled, and there’s very little understanding in the population at large of the implications of all this data collection and data mining. All that sort of thing were things that we were quite concerned about in the early days and were trying to write about to warn. I mean, I remember having a meeting with a then-conservative minister…[indistinct phrase]. And he was the guy who was in charge of surveillance cameras. And he’d just allocated a huge budget for increased camera surveillance across the UK. And I was trying to talk to him about the civil liberties implications of that, and he told me bluntly that I was in a tiny minority. Most people wanted the cameras, so he’s going to give them the cameras.
And the combination of those cameras and the ability to do various kinds of AI or automated face recognition, image recognition technology…I mean it’s now—an infrastructure is being put in place that will make it almost impossible to oppose the status quo. I mean, in the early days we really believed that the Internet was kind of a world apart. There was a kind of lot of rhetoric that deliberately obfuscated its physical substrate. But I remember covering early stories about police raids on Internet providers and sort of realizing that actually the data was held somewhere physical, and that people would get access to it.
And the early [indistinct] attempts to put in place monitoring. I mean Britain— Before there was any possibility of putting it into practice, Britain had a law on the books mandating a black box at every ISP that would give the security services full access in real time to traffic from that ISP. I mean now we’re in a week where we’ve got the story breaking about the journalists using their terminals to look at the access patterns of key players in the financial markets. And I think it’s kind of corporate confidentiality and market-moving information, that’s when stuff gets done as far as limiting…[indistinct] but limiting access to data. But in terms of just sort of the civil liberties of the ordinary citizen there’s no political will to protect that at all.
I mean also, the Internet has become a corporate space, largely. And the idea that we would all be doing wonderful, collaborative, mind-melding through Facebook would’ve been utterly foreign to all of us in that early 90s moment. Clearly, although it’s transnational and it does— I mean, it has allowed in a very real, concrete way for me in my life to form international networks of friends and colleagues of various kinds. There’s no sense in which we’d escape escape the nation-state, and there’s no sense in which it’s led to a kind of bottom-up liberation. I mean we were very much a…a big opposition between top-down control and some sort of emergent bottom-up politics, it felt very meaningful at the time and now I think what we’re seeing is a sort of bottom-up self-surveillance and kind of…a sort of inducement to give up privacy and give up interiority in order to make that more available for marketing.