The Art of Cyberhype

McKenzie Wark

"The immense growth in the means of modern domination has so marked the style of its pronouncements that if the progress of the sombre reasoning of power was for a long time a privilege of people of real intelligence, it has now inevitably become familiar to even the most dull witted." Guy Debord Panegyric

Sarah Drew is a "consciously self mutated psychedelic cyborg." But her music is "the real thing." Because, you see, "this is a woman on the edge of something." On the edge of what? Douglas Rushkoff, from who's book Cyberia I'm lifting this stuff, doesn't have much of a clue. But he's sure there's an edge here somewhere, so he plummets gleefully over the edge of it. Here we go.... "But like her work, her own DNA was mutating -- evolving into a denser information structure. As an artist, she became capable of downloading the time-wave-zero fractal through her own resonating DNA..." Say what? Here it is folks, total cyberhype.

Now, I don't mean to disrespect Sarah Drew, who I have never met and who's work I don't know. It's Rushkoff's prose that's making me giggle. It would be more fun than Burroughs at his most blender-brained if he had the slightest inkling of how silly all this is, but he doesn't, so there it is. Routine cyberhype. The pop aesthetic virus of our time.

The problem with cyberhype is the easy assumption that the buzzwords of our time are in some magical way instantly transformable into concepts that will explain the mysterious circumstances that generated then as buzzwords in the first place. Cyber this, virtual that, information something or other. Viral adjectives, mutated verbs, digital nouns. Take away the number you first thought of and hey presto! Instant guide to the art of the new age, cutting edge, psychotropic anything-but-postmodern what have you. Not so much a theory as a marketing plan.

It even sells art theory, apparently. "Spasm is a book about virtual reality, android music and electronic flesh," spiels Arthur Kroker. Or if that isn't enough: "this is a virtual book, half text/half music." In other words its a CD shrink- wrapped to a paperback. Which just goes to show that 'virtual' can mean virtually anything, so long as its a new product mix.

With a little more self-conscious cheek the Mondo 2000 User's Guide to the New Edge promises to "introduce you to your tomorrow -- and show you how to buy it today." It will "help you surf the bleeding edge of the coming revolution in art, technology, media, chemistry..." blah, blah. The book is not only a guide to what's on the market, but a compendium of handy post-concepts with which to market yourself. Every issue of Mondo 2000 or Wired contains pages of ads for the latest hardware to hype you up in the RAM-race, improve your competitive edge, boost your productivity, beat out your opponents. Swigging on smart drugs and tooling around with a shit-load of cool technology, hocked up to your eyeballs to the bank, today's cyberslave gets to work their fleshy butt off as a commercial image maker just to keep up with the payments. Art? Forget it pal, you mortgaged that too.

Cyberculture is market culture. Which of course was how it all started. "Cyberpunk" was a marketing plan for a bunch of science fiction that didn't fit under any other sub-genre, so the publishers made up a new one. Ten years later, earnest young insects with modems debate what is "really" cyberpunk and what isn't, and pour scorn on the Time magazine cover story (8th Feb, '93) for "selling out" the "movement." This is the spectacle of our times: turning cultural movements into marketing plans and marketing plans into social movements.

The first phase of this process is of course an old one, but the second phase is much more exciting. No-longer content to wait for social movements to bubble up from the 'burbs, young and fresh and sniffing for product, a cute symbiosis of media outlets and cultural product firms synthesise them between them. Now that we're all born and bred in the pixelated embrace of pop media culture, these synthetic social movements, like cyberpunk or generation x seem more real than the real thing anyway. Of course they do. That's how they are designed to look. So cyberhype creates not only a pool of desire for cool cyberproducts, but also an off the rack range of radical identity markers so you can mark yourself off as a bona fide member of the all-new subculture. And sure enough, this is a strategy with a double pay off. Not only do you look like the first cyberpunk on your block, you are also first in the cue to sell yourself into the cyber mass marketing racket as soon as it takes off. Yesterday's digital art hackers are today's creative executives and media darlings.

I've always found Melbourne performance group Cyberdada's hokey hard sell cyber-pitches a little hard to stomach, particularly the extravagant Techno Digesto Fetishism, performed at the Adelaide Festival Artist's Week . The pitch this time was a sticky blend of new wave porno, sugar addiction and genetic self-engineering and it went on forever. But the more I think about it, the more I like it. Cyberdada's work recognises that all language is drifting into the orbit of the marketing pitch, all images are caught up in constellations of persuasion. There is nothing ironic about their performances. They really are selling something -- Cyberdada. Only they take the pitch to its final conclusion, as an end in itself. It sells so hard it self destructs in the process. They play a fatal game with cyberhype, and were quick to recognise in cyberhype the total form of hype for our time. For cyberhype is hype about hype, its a pitch that sells you nothing but the promise of making for yourself a better pitch . Its the swanky image of nothing but the promise of ever niftier images.

The beauty of cyberhype is the way it contains its own logic of superseding itself, crediting to its own account any old stray fragment of media jetsam. First there was 'cyberpunk'. Now there was a marketing plan with unique appeal! It was gritty, it was urban, it was streetwise and bleak. You could have it in any colour so long as it was black. But the boom is over, so what takes its place? Cyberhippy! Same products: novels, CD's, video games and consumer media toys full of handy presets. Only now it comes in any colour *except* black!

The kind of kids who, 15 years ago made scratch video, read The Face and went to art school, are still going to art school (how much longer with *that* last?) but now they make multimedia and tote Wired magazines around in their haversacks. But the problems with making art, or teaching art or criticising art remain the same: how to distinguish the new from the new. Which of the current crop of marketing concepts has some inbuilt *necessity* about the way it describes its own conditions of existence on the media landscape?

Marketing has no memory. To be a hippy, a punk, a postmodernist, a cyberpunk, a cyberhippy or (stay tuned next week for...) a cyberpostmodernist is to view cultural change purely through the voluntaristic logic of the market. Each comes fully equipped with a wardrobe, a sound, a reading list, a rhetoric and claim to enable individuals, through the purchase of a select trolleyload of items, to at one and the same time make a claim to futurity and to participate in a collective identity of the now. Hey kids! Make your own future -- in the safety and comfort of your own home. Order now!

Far from being a credible claim to futurity, the marketing plan follows a relentlessly sideways logic of replacing one product-rhetoric-art'n'theory mix with the next, different from the last in exactly the same way as the last was different to the batch before that. The real hoot is when age cohorts who were caught up in different movements of the culture cycle rub shoulders. Art schools are full of jaded, bloated 30- something former punks like me. And we're all dismayed at the sight of students who don't care about all that any more, but who warm to stories of the good old psychedelic 60s and 70s, retailed by even more bloated, terminally jaded 40 something hippies we hated, loathed and despised when this was deemed the proper sentiment. We can only keep cool and bide our time, secure in the knowledge that punk postmodernism will have its day in the sun again, and we can resell our old wares once again.

The growth industry of the 90s is not multimedia, cyberspace or virtual reality. The growth industry of the 90s is *hype* about multimedia, cyberspace and virtual reality. Apart from the video games industry, which took off like a rocket, there are more sound bites and press releases about all this stuff than anything else. Still and all, its fun hype. Reading all the hype might not tell you about much, besides the future of hype, but hype may very well be the future of culture.

But let's turn the hype mode off for a minute and take a look this new media hype industry itself. New media hype spawned two glossy magazines which are now infesting the newsagents, Mondo 2000 and Wired. Both are from San Francisco, and combine that city's liberal intellectual confidence with Silicon valley info-capital. Being a last, late spin-off from the military industrial complex, new media hype is an odd blend of state subsidised knowledge capital and free-wheeling small business hucksterism.

Both these magazines aim at people who want to scramble to the top of the new middle class of the emergent information economy. Mondo has fringe culture, neo-hippy pretensions, but is not that different from Wired, which is pretty tight with the heavy industry types. If you want to know who's most heavily into self-promotion in the info celeb stakes, read Mondo. If you want to know who's hawking this weeks hot product data, read Wired. Or for the serious aspiring cybercareerist, read both. They may be mostly hype, but they are also a guide to the expanded production of hype, which is precisely what the new information economy is all about.

The main thing one can observe about the expanded production of hype is that there are three kinds of info- hacking which cut it in the hype economy. One is hardware hacking -- actually having technical skills. This is now pretty much essential. Like the old days of the art academies, you have to be down with *some* kind of technique. Modernist arm-waving is passe. There's no room any more for amateurs.

Of course you can specialise in data-hacking. If you can surf the endless wave of raw data pumping out into the infosphere every nanosecond, there's a place for you. This not so much a skill in finding information. Any fool can do that now -- the stuff is everywhere. The skill is rather in not getting bogged down in yesterdays news, in eliminating all the inessentials. It is not so much about finding data other people can't hack, as in recognising the significance of something else, right in front of everyone's noses, tat everyone else has ignored. This process even has its own terminology: you can grep, grok or zen information. To grep is to recognise patterns; to grok is to drink it all in and distil the contours. To zen is a far more allusive form of abduction for really hard core data hackers. These are things they don't teach you in school.

Then there's a third option: style-hacking. Every cool info- hacker has her or his limitation, and that limitation is style. But somebody has to form the styles -- the look, the package, the concept -- for everyone else to wrap their bodgie bundle of skills or goods in. So if you know nothing of Unix and can't find a relevant piece of data in three minutes if your life depends on it, try style hacking. Mondo 2000 is basically a style-hack mag. Wired is data-hack. Hardware-hackers pretend not to read either. They read the Proceedings of the IEEE. (If you don't know what that is, its too late to find out.)

Wired and Mondo aren't shy about recycling the art of the past within new marketing plans. The May issue of Wired promotes 'zippies'. "A zippie is someone who has "balanced their hemispheres." In the new package, "rationality, organisation and long term planning" are supposed to sit comfortably in the brain pan with "vision, individuality and spontaneity." The result? A boho artist with a marketing plan. The March Wired featured Laurie Anderson, a great survivor of both art and media marketing cycles. No longer a minimalist, a punk or a postmodern, she reappears as a "multi-mediatrix" -- with a new book and CD!

Not only art but art theory can crawl aboard this product repositioning. Arthur Kroker's *Spasm* teems with buzzword cut-ups, wrapped around a seemingly random selection of 'artists' from the new digital underground or whatever. The principle of selection looks about as random as that determining who gets on the cover of Mondo 2000. One would like to think for Kroker's sake and for Mondo's that to get in these pages you have to sleep with them, but sadly, the price of cyberart fame probably doesn't even extend to that. Mere proximity to a cyber tastemaker will probably do. So while Rushkoff records, for no particularly good reason, that Sarah Drew is Mondo editor R. U. Sirius's "girlfriend" everyone else is most likely just friends.

Kroker met one of his three art-finds in a bar -- naturally. "It was a typical cold winter night at Foufounnes Eletroniques... In the midst of the pandaemonium, I noticed a photographer, Linda Dawn Hammond, right at stage level, calmly taking pictures. She came dressed for the occasion with see-through plastic raincoat over black leather, blood red hair and Camden Town heavy-stud leather boots." Sadly, women still have to "look the part" in cyberhype, even if the boys get to disappear behind the monitors.

Kroker might have no particularly good reason to offer for his selection of artists, but he is no short of jingles to wrap 'em in, even if this old timer tends to slip uneasily between yesterday's thrill words and last Tuesdays. "The fatal sign of JFK is so endlessly seductive because it is simultaneously a site of hyper-nostalgia for an America that never really existed and a scene of hyper-excess for a sexuality that could never be satisfied?" Now, I think there's a half-way decent sentence in there struggling to get out, but the trouble with attempting to recycle old Baudrillard riffs is that nobody ever manages to do it with the old man's melancholy cool. Baudrillard, that canny Nietzschian, created a language that covered its tracks, concealed its sources, became timely by being untimely and waiting for the world to come to the bait. Kroker hasn't the patience, the detachment, the cool, and while he would like to be the next Baudrillard (just as JB was the last McLuhan), instead he's just the aftermarket.

"How fast are you? How dense?" -- Cyber pop scientist Rudy Rucker's famous interrogation (now available as a Mondo tee-shirt slogan) catches Kroker on the back foot. This stuff ain't fast, its standing still, and it sure ain't dense, you can see right through it. "Ours will no longer be a prepackaged digital environment. Everybody will be a media hacker, recoding the electronic frontier at will." Which is what Bill Gates of Microsoft likes to hear. Its just the old late romantic dream of abolishing the distinction between art and life, only now it doesn't involve art (Rimbaud) revolution (Marx) or a fusion of both (Debord) it involves *products.* The first off the shelf romantic revolution.

Kroker is big on big slogans: "No longer is history viewed as a privileged finality but as an indeterminate recycling of media rhetorics." Love that passive verb structure! Viewed by who? Kroker doesn't say. In other words, no longer does the aesthetic theorist Arthur Kroker have a responsibility to be untimely, to remember how much the present repeats the follies of the past with new names. The theorist, and the artist can now dress up as wannabe marketing execs only without the salary to match. At least when Cyberdada do this schtick its funny, excessive, ultimately useless and hopeless. What truly sad is when we play at selling, desperate in the hope that somebody offers us a job doing it for real before the payments fall due on the hardware.

Kroker is far too intelligent and perceptive a cyberpostmodernist not to let slip the occasional observation of insight and value. "A new universe of recombinant culture is proliferating, where space means computer sequencing, culture refers to hybrid media constructs, the body becomes protein for the system...." Now hang on, what was that last bit...? Mostly Marx, I think. The idea of the products of our labour becoming a vast power over and against us, a second nature that our collective labour built to free us from the tyrannies and necessities of nature, but which creates new tyrannies and necessities all over again. But that's such a mouthful. Much better to say: we're so much protein for the system. We're the meat bits of the mega-machine. Only don't tell Bill Gates! Nobody wants to hear about the dark side of the romantic vision, where art has its heightened value in the first place because of the violence industry does to life. The fusion of art and life was supposed to overcome the tyranny of work and death, work and death. Perhaps digital everything, multimedia everything isn't the fusion of art and life at all, merely work and death with screens to work and die on rather than whirring great engines. Big difference. Big deal.

Its no accident that cyber creativity so often ends up being virtually indistinguishable from marketing hype. With the steady erosion of the hegemony of broadcast TV, the gap between art and life has certainly not narrowed, but the gap between marketing and life certainly has. The ever more subtle and diverse network of media flows that grew alongside and in the shadow of television are coming increasingly into the light. Advertising is no longer the monopoly of the big manufacturers and the big media outlets, mediated by the big Madison avenue firms. Now anyone can sell! Not just classifieds and garage sales -- anyone can make images of themselves to sell themselves as makers of images, and distribute those images through the endless capillaries of the new micromedia: Cable TV access channels, do-it-yourself 'zines, covert and even overt self promotion on the internet, info-hucksters puffing each other on the big cyber-communities like The Well. Quality bedroom recordings of techno dancing noise circulate via underground clubs, mail-order through zines or hyped in internet newsgroups. Voice-mail boxes hired or hacked advertise rave events for the new breed of micro-promoters. DJ's show off their latest audio acquisitions while dancers test drive this week's sound. Video and multimedia artists put their art and their commercial rent paying work side by side on their show reels.

So Debord was right. The means of domination are not only obvious to all, they are within the reach of the credit cards of, well not all but a great number of the ever expanding info hacking class, who make their living driving the economy forward on ever expanding waves of cyberhype. What makes Guy Debord, the last situationist, stand out is his grand refusal. He was the first to take the full measure of the spectacle, the primary form of cyberhype and say no to incorporation within it. He was a saint. We venerate him for doing what the rest of us fail to do. He said no where we say yes -- to the spectacle, to the ever expanding production of cyberhype, which sucks art and rebellion and difference and resistance into its wake like so much jetsam in the jetstream.

Now that the means of domination: the commodity form, the spectacular image form have become one and proliferated such that they are obvious to everyone, we choose not to refuse them, but say yes! yes! yes! with deliberate abandon. So we stand now in an era where art may no longer be possible, outside of the cosy entrails of state administration where it serves as decoration to national prestige and a morsel of reward for an information glutted middle class that choses neither to co-operate too much or rebel too much.

We follow now in the footsteps of the first pope of cyberhype: Pope Andy -- the man who first said yes to the sacred project of rendering that great Vatican of the image -- Madison avenue. What could be a more fitting epitaph for than man than those last ads he did for Amiga computers? His face, in a chunky rendering of fat gaudy pixels, is a perfect image of life imitating what it must become to survive in the image economy

McKenzie Wark lectures in communications at Macquarie University. he freely admits that the title of his book Virtual Geography, was cooked up by the marketing department at Indiana University Press.