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.
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.
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