photo by Bart Nagel
“What I had seen of the war had been a computer generated simulation” J.P. Barlow
by John Perry Barlow, introduction by R.U. Sirius
After the confident declarations of inevitable cyberpunk youth takeover in the first edition of Mondo 2000 and the philosophically trippy and mostly utopian read on Virtual Reality in #2, it was inevitable that affairs in the world would bring us crashing down to earth… at least a little. The third edition revolved largely around the hacker crackdown that was called Operation Sundevil — a situation in which a confused and clueless law enforcement establishment pursued crimes they didn’t understand on a terrain they hadn’t realized existed.
Issues #4 and #5 found us, meanwhile, reacting to Operation Desert Storm — the first full-on return to American Triumphalism since the Vietnam war turned sour in… what?… 1968? We weren’t watching much TV at the Mondo house/office but I remember CNN being on as a sort of background phenomenon during the run-up to the war.
This was the first time the media’s inevitable participation in the sort of unquestioning jingoist war propaganda that we’re always treated to during the run-up to a major intervention was ginned up by computerized special effects. And prideful current and former military leaders sharing technical details about shiny new weapons systems would bring irresistible frisson to certain types of technophiles — Smart bombs! — Wowee! Well, as John Fogerty sang, “It ain’t me.”
President George H.W. Bush even enunciated the idea of a “New World Order” spawning a million new byzantine conspiracy theories that have iterated and turned into ever-weirder and more complex alternative realities since.
As for me, I organized a radio show called “New World Disorder” on KALX fm in Berkeley with Don Joyce from Negativland and wrote an editorial in #4, also titled “New World Disorder.”
In issue #5, John Perry Barlow took up the antiwar banner identifying Desert Storm as the first Virtual War in the layout and text provided below.
Don’t get me wrong. Mondo wasn’t freakin’ Mother Jones or something. The rest of the edition featured an erotic quantum physics limerick; newer smart drugs; the cyber-surrealism of Mark Leyner in the immediate aftermath of his incomparable Et Tu, Babe; a gigantic section on industrial music; Mark Dery deconstructing machine sex and sex machines; a much criticized spread with lovely ladies with their bare nipples shining through microchips; and speaking of smart bombshells, that cover you see is Dr. Fiorella Terenzi who talked to us about her music of the galaxies. I was told later that every male in the building — except me — stopped work that afternoon to gather in the art room where the interview took place. Was I noble? No, I was shut in my office working on something completely unaware. I was the editor-in-chief and nobody told me a damn thing.
Oh it might also be worth mentioning that we scrambled the names of two avant-garde guitarists on the cover, leading to embarrassment followed by some theorizing about “Art Damage” in the next edition.
Anyway, here’s “Virtual Nintendo” by John Perry Barlow from issue #5 of Mondo 2000.Â
Below the scan of the actual magazine, you will find a purely textual version of the article.
by John Perry Barlow
It is precisely when it appears most truthful that the image is most diabolical.
Like most Americans last February, I was hooked on the new CNN sports series War in the Gulf. It didn’t sound strange to me when a friend said he didn’t know whether he wanted to watch the War or the Lakers game that evening. They were fairly indistinguishable. Both commentated by fatuous men well removed from the action. Indeed, in the case of the War, one wondered if there even was any action. The closest one got to that was the occasional footage of people scurrying around in the darkness following a Scud warning, followed by a blurry flash of distant fireworks as the Patriot took out the Scud.
Which was, in a way, a perfect metaphor for the abstraction and bloodlessness of this new form of combat. A missile would emerge without any tangible point of origin, its senders anonymous and devoid of human characteristics. A machine would detect it, another would plot its trajectory, and a third would rush out to kill it. It was like an academic argument. Flesh and bone were miles away from anything that might rend them.
Finally, after weeks of this shadowboxing, it was determined that the map of Kuwait had been sufficiently revised that it was now safe to send in live Americans. Personally, I still had such fear of the Republican Guard that I thought we should soften them some more. What I thought we faced was an army as large as ours, toughened by almost a decade of the nastiest combat since World War I, comprised of Muslim fanatics, each convinced that death in battle was just a quicker trip to Paradise. Certainly more than a match for a bunch of rag-tag American kids who’d joined the military because they couldn’t get a job at the 7-11.
Then we saw them for the first time. Trying to surrender to the Italian television crew through whose cameras they were beamed to us, they looked hapless and confused. They were devastated refugees from the real world, trying desperately to enter the sanctuary of the Screen, a sanctuary we had enjoyed throughout this affair whether in an armchair in Terre Haute or at the bombardier’s workstation in a B-52.
More video arrived of the areas we had been softening. I realized for the first time, astonishingly enough, that there had been people down there. The Republican Guard was not a thing. It was a bunch of human beings, with wives, and best friends, and babies who loved to be thrown in the air. The charred and contorted remains I saw would toss no more babies. Indeed, they didn’t even look all that soft, more like briquettes than people.’
A wave of revulsion and shame hit me. Like most everyone in America, I had been suckered. I had become part of what Hannah Arendt, referring to the Nazi bureaucratization of murder, had called “the banality of evil.” What I had seen of the war had been a computer generated simulation; with perhaps higher production values than Nintendo, but otherwise the same. I had been placed in a reality which was sufficiently complex to seem like the real thing even though it was entirely manufactured.
A far more persuasive reality had been in the bunkers where several hundred thousand human beings had been treated to explosives which first sucked all the air out of their lungs and then roasted them alive. Meanwhile, the object of this exercise ”the Butcher of Baghdad” in whose place we butchered so many ourselves, is still in power. In fact, he is there because we want him there.
According to James Derderian, a defense analyst at the University of Massachusetts, the War in the Gulf was a precise replay of a computer simulation which had been constructed in the summer of 1990 before Saddam invaded Kuwait. Called Operation Internal Look 90, the simulation had been accurate all the way to victory. Trouble was, it had included no endgame. The screen went blank end of the tape, and so did the administration. They looked up, blinked in the light of the real world, and said, “Holy Shiite! If Saddam goes, he’ll be replaced by something worse!” No one had given that much thought while the exercise was in progress.
But never mind that. Saddam was old news. The camera was now on the Victory Parade. A patriotic exercise with my countrymen staggering on in TV hypnosis. The massacre, in which we may have incinerated as many as 400,000 while losing 179 of our own troops, was pronounced a great and courageous victory.
Not since Agincourt, when the technology of the English long-bow thoroughly undid the French, has there been such an unfair fight. But at least the English had the grace to mourn the French. They had been in direct contact with the humanity they had snuffed out. For us, it was a statistical exercise.
Suddenly, I realized that my America has become the most dangerous country the world has ever known. We are a country of unspeakable and unchallengable military power which is now under the impression that war is as easy, cheap, and fun as a Lakers game. In the field, we are so abstracted by our weapons systems that we can slaughter an army and never see a dead man. At home, we are so abstracted by television that we can commit these atrocities and then celebrate the courage of our executioners with ticker tape and Budweiser commercials.
Now America can’t wait to kick some more ass. America’s a vacant-eyed man in middle age, his lumpish belly barely contained in his Desert Storm t-shirt, yelling at his kids. The polls tell me he represents the overwhelming majority of Americans, 78% of whom say that the “victory in the Gulf’ makes them “feel better about America.”
Not me. For the first time, 1 am genuinely ashamed of my country.
The object of my wrath is as virtual as its cause. I can’t blame Dick Cheney or Pete Williams, both old friends of mine. In removing the merciless eye of the camera from any real gore, they were only doing what I would have done in their position. Many lessons were learned from Vietnam, one of which is that if the folks back home can see Hell, they’ll want to leave it. Given that Cheney had been told by the President and Congress to conduct a war, he set about, in his crisp analytical way, to see that it was done right this time. This meant exposing no voter to its reality until it was too late for anyone to object.
Thus when Bush exulted “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all,” he meant merely that he had figured out how to give war a new lease on death-by keeping it at a distance and transposing another, denatured, reality between the electorate and barbecued bodies.
The enemy then is Mediated Information. This is a new, almost concrete form of abstraction we have developed, which Jean Baudrillard referred to when he wrote: “Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a ‘real’ without origin or reality: a hyperreal”
It is this “hyperreality” which has become the new and terrible American Dream. And it is a lucid dream, subject to selective mutation by the Dreamer. As long as we remain in it, no atrocity is beyond us, for we have kicked the Reality Syndrome once and for all.