Notes From the Digital Overground

Notes From the Digital Overground

1995-12-30

Mark Amerika on establishing an electronic publishing network in the no-man’s land between the commercial, the academic, and the underground.

1

It’s disturbing enough that man shits. Even that’s an act of enemy behavior.
-Heiner Muller

Up until the publication of my first novel, The Kafka Chronicles (1993), I had spent the previous 15 years, which comprised the totality of my adult life, as a participant in the underground economy, an economy that is usually associated with criminality, especially as it relates to narco-terrorism, but which for me was part of a personal philosophy grounded in acts of voluntary simplicity or, if you will, a Thoreau-like necessity to distance oneself from the mainstream culture that’s always on the ready to absorb you and/or your ideas for its own inane uses. As Thoreau himself said way before the days of TV, computers, and online networking, “as far as I have heard or observed, the principle object is not that mankind may be well and honestly clad but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.”

As someone who based his whole working life and survivalist instincts on the resistance of this vast mechanism of capital formation and image absorption, I felt secure in the knowledge that mine would be a life of poverty and obscurity. The System (as we are so eager to call it) would not do me in because I would not be a part of it. As far as I could tell, I was destined to play the role of economically-disenfranchised underground artist. Publication as a novelist changed all that. With the release of The Kafka Chronicles, my private “underground values” were now being actively disseminated into the public sphere, a sphere whose network of mainstream, literary, computer, and underground media sources helped elevate my so-called novel’s status from unrecognized work to cult-hit. This unexpected “windfall” of attention was soon giving me an “opportunity” to “come out of my shell” so that I, too, could start networking my way into the general mix of late-capitalist life and its ever-increasing addiction to all things technological and mediatic.

Being published was, all of a sudden, an invitation to Being Digital (to borrow the term from the best-selling book on electronic culture by Nicholas Negroponte). [ link to Timothy Luke’s review of Being Digital ] Yet, Being Digital is Being Networked and Being Networked is the most efficient and clever way of Being Marketed. This is a roundabout way of suggesting that when self-proclaimed underground writers such as myself decide to try and get published, i.e. “to go public,” they immediately call into question everything they have been practicing their entire adult lives. For now they are surely seeking out some kind of public presence so as to better network their wares within the marketplace of ideas and, if “lucky,” procure some level of viability (read: market value) as a content-creator working in the kind of capital-ridden society that Thoreau saw as full of “a power that still cherishes and sustains a blind and unmanly love of wealth.”

2

Religion can be, and has been, the main instrument for progress.
-Alfred North Whitehead

In the Spring of 1994, one year after my first novel’s publication, I was invited to tour parts of Germany and deliver a paper on the subject of my choice. I chose “Avant-Pop and the New Electronic Media” since I saw a connection between the Avant-Pop cultural aesthetic of “MTV, jump cuts, channel surfing, interactivity, and reality decay” (Larry McCaffery) and the evolving network culture that was quickly amassing itself in the world of online communications, particularly the Internet. Speaking at the German Association of Amerikan Studies conference in Tubingen, I said that online writing and publishing will considerably change the basic formula for getting an author’s work to a reader, that it will go from

Author => Agent => Editor/Publisher => Printer => Distributor => Retailer => Reader

to a more simplified and direct

Author (Sender) => Interactive Participant (Receiver).

It was also a good time to broach the concept of hypertext and how, as Robert Coover has pointed out, “[r]eading through a hypertext, one senses that just under the surface of the screen is a vast reservoir of story waiting to be found.” I was also hoping to introduce the German literati to what was then just a gopher (read: non-hypertextual) site I had started called Alternative-X.

At the time of my Spring 1994 tour, Alt-X had less than ten files, all of them in ugly ascii format (as if html were sexy!), and yet, since no one else was really talking about the Internet as a medium whose mere existence could offer a potential bonanza for independent writing and publishing, the idea of Alt-X being an online literary network that expanded the concept of writing to include electronic writing forms being distributed in a one-to-many broadcast-media, encouraged lots of notice in national newspapers and magazines. People “in the industry” were beginning to take notice. And while I was on the road, I was quick to start spreading the gospel of my new-found religion to all of my writing colleagues so that they too would consider colonizing this great untapped resource that Bill Gibson coined “cyberspace.”

“Send me your files,” I suggested, “it’s time to broadcast our writing via the public domain,” and soon thereafter many of them did send me an eclectic array of fiction, interviews, essays, rants, and fiction, and so an online publishing network was born. Meanwhile, as soon as I returned from Europe, I immediately checked in with my email account and found a message from a guy in Oslo, Norway, named Knut Mork. Mork, it ends up, besides being something of a Norwegian celebrity (he entered high school at 10 and the university in Oslo at 13), was impressed with my Avant-Pop manifesto and wanted to see it on the World Wide Web. This was light years before the Web became the surfing standard (six months?). Netscape wasn’t even seed-pod germinating in some entrepreneur’s fragile eggshell mind. I told him that I would be delighted to see the manifesto on the World-Wide-Web and to go ahead and mark it up (i.e. code it for hypertextual interplay). He probably regrets ever having sent me that message and agreeing to do it, because now, as Alt-X’s site manager, he helps me encode and design an average of 300k worth of new data (not including images) every month!

By the Fall of 1994 things were moving very fast in the global vaporware market (otherwise known as the new media industry), and this caused some real critical reflection on my part. Being digitally-networked seemed to provide more opportunities for an underground artist “to go public” than I could have ever imagined, and this unusual historical circumstance that enabled me to create an unexpected audience of considerable size (over 250,000 hits in June 1995) was like being turned on to a fascinating new drug that would provide the kind of stimulation one needs to help get through a particularly gruesome work process.

Of course, this sort of endless cycle of work-hype-feedback-work tends to produce an entirely new set of problems for the writer who, instantaneously performing the Body Electric as a virtual figure forever accessible in the public domain, has always already coded higher work with the same language used to transmit nanosecond flights of nomadic capital. The nonstop circulation of hype and money around certain brand-name authors becomes confused with “aesthetic value,” and a “good” work gets measured in terms of sales, TV appearances, or website “hits.” Also, the hyperrhetoric of purported “underground values” linked into some webbified version of narrative bliss as espoused by subversively-hip digerati on their ultra-happening on-line networks, becomes instantaneously embedded in the same software-syntax used to distribute electronic transactions within the digicash currency markets, all of this causing mutant forms of capital investment to occasionally make their way to the post-ARPANET artist. This happened to me when I received a phone call in the Fall of 1994 from a representative of The 300 Club, a consortium of over 180 CEOs from the top Japanese firms based in New York, inviting me to deliver a presentation on electronic publishing over the Net. The luncheon meeting at which I would present myself, they said, would take place in the second floor Gallery at the Algonquin Hotel. Now, I had always wanted to go to the Algonquin, even if my literary tastes were in direct opposition to the atmosphere it represented, and this seemed an especially sweet revenge on everything I thought I hated but was now becoming (albeit in a slightly different form) whether I wanted to or not.

3

“The Medium is the Message” is a look-around to see what’s happening. It is a collide-oscope of interfaced situations.
-Marshall McLuhan

After a typically horrendous airport delay, I landed in New York late into the evening the night before the 300 Club luncheon. Upon my arrival at the Algonquin, there was a huge shindig going on, unbelievable amounts of food and beverage being passed around, and I couldn’t wait to check in, put my bag in my room, and crash the party. “This must be the infamous literary scene I’ve heard so much about,” I convinced myself and was impatiently hitting the elevator button so that I could go back down and have direct access to Sonny Mehta and Binky Urban and all of the editors from the Times Book Review and the New Yorker.

As it ends up, the New Yorker was sponsoring the party. But not for real literary purposes. No, this was a cast party for the recently finished Alan Parker film produced by Robert Altman (both present and accounted for) about the Algonquin’s old literary round-table called DOROTHY PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE. “Vicious simulation,” I thought, “and appropriately so. My generation’s experience of literary life will be packaged into a situational nostalgia portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Matthew Broderick (both present and accounted for) and it will be the most uninteresting kind of literary life I can possibly imagine.”

The next morning, much of what I presented to the German literati in the Spring I now cut and pasted into the address I was about to deliver to the Japanese CEOs. Looking back, I now realize that the post-address questions I encountered during my 1994 speaking engagements tend to prefigure much of what’s being discussed in the mainstream media today; that is, my German audiences immediately wanted to talk about the difference between a humanistic approach to literature and a more technologically immersive approach to these age-old mediums of expression, while my Japanese CEO-captives were very curious about my predicted timeline for turning this new media thing (which they were relatively clueless about) into vast amounts of unmanly wealth. During my CEO-delivery, I noticed the audience members were feverishly taking notes throughout (“ideas are the working capital of emerging infopreneurs”). About two minutes before my designated hour was up, everyone, as if on cue or in sync with the rhythm of digicash itself, started looking at their watches. Timing is everything. Meanwhile, there were two questions at the end of my performance that had to be asked and, of course, they asked them:

1) How do you make money off of it?

To which I responded that as of yet, not too many people or businesses were making money off of it, but that that’s where it was heading

and

2) My host, the President of the 300 Club, informed me that what the first questioner wanted to know was how “YOU” make money off of it, meaning me, since my presence alone meant that I would have to be making money off of it or else why be in business, why exist?

Everyone laughed except for me since in my paranoid delusion I all of a sudden felt on the verge of blowing my “underground” cover, as if I could actually be “underground” in this situation. Like a born-entrepreneur always already thinking-on-his-feet, I told them that there actually were ways to make money off of it and that I could consult whoever was interested after the luncheon (and thus set up the perfect segue into what would be a three-month round of faxes and emails guaranteeing me millions of dollars of investment in Alt-X).

4

There is no universal capitalism, no capitalism in itself; capitalism is at the crossroads of all kinds of formations.
-Deleuze and Guattari

McLuhan’s “collide-oscope of interfaced situations” has become our contemporary, media-saturated life. It constantly reinvents itself for the sole purpose of keeping its own systemic reality actual. One need not even bother trying to figure it out or pretend to dream of narrative options that will turn it in against itself. If the forms of flux that interpenetrate its ever-expanding field of action need more cyborgs to tip the delicate balance in favor of a more prosaic, humane approximation of systemic survival, then believe-you-me that’s exactly what will happen (with interactive ads strung throughout, of course). It’s not purely coincidental that the upstart Internet company who provides Alt-X with its Internet server is called Cyberspace Development. President Andrew Currie originally envisioned CSD’s site as a kind of virtual real estate company. Reappropriating all notional forms of property for itself, the Internet and, more importantly, the vast realm of ether we call cyberspace, signifies the busying of a discourse losing faith in the material reality our forebears so heavily invested in. But as an underground artist participating in a low- or, at some points, no-income underground economy, I came to the Net without a penny to lose and all of my investments were in converting the currency of innovative writerly forms into more intense, experiential realities that could be distributed in ways heretofore unheard of. The key word in that last sentence, of course, is “distributed.” What’s different, what makes this new media phenomenon very exciting and worth our investigation for the time being, is how the evolving discourse networks located in cyberspace radically change the idea of distribution. Let me give you a first-hand example: those of us who put together the print-based Black Ice literary journal can slave over its annual publication for ten to twelve months and then, because we have “good” distribution, get approximately 1000-1500 copies into the hands of dedicated readers. Production costs per unit are high because of the small number of copies we can afford to print. Whereas over our ten-year history we have cultivated a loyal community of readers, it’s very difficult for those readers (and the writers whose work they read) to interact with each other the way a community of like-minded individuals might otherwise like to. It’s a wonder that these kinds of alternative lit audiences are able to survive at all in today’s digitized pop culture.

But thanks to the Internet and software programs that permit us to send and receive email, fetch text and image files, create hypertext markup language, etc., Alt-X can put out the data-equivalent of an average-sized book every month and enjoy the interaction of tens of thousands of readers on a regular basis. For those who want to do more than read the material at the site (available seven days a week, 24 hours a day), there is an Alt-X mailing list that allows the community to interact with itself on whatever topics they choose (this month the discussion has concentrated on hypertext, notions of originality, Avant-Pop, and Generation-X). Something else we’re finding out is that the lag-time for contemporary writing in the US to reach sophisticated readers overseas is zilch. The Alt-X mailing list is full of writers/readers/networkers from Europe, Australia, Asia, and South America. As long as Alt-X is for free, the population of Web-surfers continues to rise, and we follow through on our mission as editors to lower our digicash expectations while creating a continuous flow of provocative content, we’ll see our audience increase even more. I’m not sure what that does to the political economy in terms of manic capital formation, but it certainly suggests that this new distribution phenomenon has the potential to cause a great deal of havoc in the Republic of Intelligentsia (wherever it may be).

[Amerika steers AltX through the ad-mad gluttony of the World Wide Web in On Netscape, Virtual Slaves, and Making Moolah, eds.]