J.P. Barlow Remembers… US? Interview About MONDO 2000 (Reality Hackers, High Frontiers)

Stefan Z., Amelia Rose, J.P. Barlow, Morgan Russell


John Perry Barlow was interviewed for an oral history of MONDO 2000 several years ago. That version of a MONDO 2000 book has been displaced by something more essay/idea oriented (albeit with some memory mixed in) — and that leaves us free to use some of the interviews here on the website.

We did not, however, expect to be using the Barlow interview so soon. But now, with everybody remembering Barlow, we’re going with Barlow remembering us.

Some or all the persons and references herein may be unfamiliar but with a modicum of intuition and /or imagination, you should be able to get into the MONDOMania as J.P. Barlow recalls it.


Meeting Reality Hackers

I met Morgan Russell either at SIGGRAPH Boston or Macworld Boston (1989). But I didn’t really put it all together, I don’t believe, until I ran across Reality Hackers. R.U. Sirius was at a hackers party at the Exploratorium giving away copies of Reality Hackers and High Frontiers.

I just thought this was marvelous. I thought, this is exactly right because there had been this thing that had been gathering in my head, I thought, somewhat independently, about the relationship between consciousness in computing and psychedelics.

I knew about them and I was interested in them for a good long while before I discovered that they had this house that was kind of an artist collective — an atelier of some sort — that was gathering energy around this whole thing. And I was in fundamental agreement and even felt like part of their auto-conspiracy.

Coming to the MONDO house

I was almost certainly lured by Morgan. I thought that the house was a truly magical place. It was out of a Hermann Hesse novel, filled with these people the likes of which did not exist anywhere else. I felt like I kind of made them up. They were so perfectly aligned with something that I wanted to exist.

They were telling the story of something that was going to be a natural continuity of a thread that I’d been tracking ever since I became a teenage beatnik when I was thirteen.

I had been on that path in some form or fashion through LSD and hanging at Millbrook, and finding out that my official best friend was a member of the house band for the Acid Test and all these kinds of things through college and subsequently.

I was re-engaging with something that I had been out of the loop of. I mean, I’d gone off to Wyoming for seventeen years where I’d been a cattle rancher. And yeah, I’d been writing Grateful Dead songs on the side but I actually didn’t feel myself to be at the core of that movement or any kind of countercultural movement… and I very much felt like I was re-engaging what seemed to be my life’s work that night, meeting those guys and becoming part of whatever it was that you were up to.


Preferring Reality Hackers to MONDO

I got into kind of a furious debate with Queen Mu about the name. Because it was right at the point that I first came over to the house that she was talking about changing it to Mondo 2000, which I thought was an especially dumb idea. She was talking about how it would be much more commercially available. And I thought, no. Why is that more commercially available?

There was this movie that I’d seen that I thought was one of the worst movies I’d ever seen. Mondo cane… the World… it’s a dog’s world, actually. It’s just a compilation of truly shocking imagery like slashing the head of a cow. Why would you want to be associated with that? With Mu, you know, there was no arguing.

I thought that her notion of making Mondo commercial in some kind of mainstream way was mad and unnecessary. I couldn’t see that there was any particular point to it. It felt to me like what we needed to do was find the audience that we were surely going to find as soon as people got the message, because it was so great. And it was just simply a matter of surviving until then.

Giving Money To MONDO

I’d already felt a sense of wanting to be involved with the production of the thing. And at that point, Mondo needed any money at all. At SIGGRAPH 89, Morgan talked me into investing some money. I guess it was an investment. It felt somewhat more like a donation. It seems like it was three thousand dollars. It could have been five. And I recall thinking pretty definitely that I would never see it again. But I really wanted Mondo to exist.

Good Stuff

Every time I’d open it up, I would be astonished at how good the writing was. And how interesting the things that were being talked about were. And how central they ought to be the culture.

Mondo was goofy. And goofy in a particular aesthetic way that maybe this was just that same kind of acid-born realization that became the aesthetic of Burning Man. Burning Man definitely has a huge element of Mondoid inner goof distributed throughout it.

The Way of the Weird

I never got a clear sense of a difference between the people at MONDO and what they were putting out.

It’s hard to come up with a definition of Mondo people that doesn’t base itself almost entirely on their eccentricities.

There were an awful lot of very sexy women around. And sexy in a way that I don’t think was generally common. It was a particular kind of sexy


Becoming a Cyber Spokesperson

J.P.. Barlow & Timothy Leary
Photo by Lindsay Brice/Getty Images)

I had become kind of the chief civilian commentator on Virtual Reality… along with Tim Leary.

In early 1990, I started using the word “cyberspace” to describe something that already existed. People picked up on it.

Then, in August I went to speak at SIGGRAPH Dallas. And I was on a panel there with Tim Leary, Esther Dyson, William Bricken, Eric Gullichsen and Warren Robinett. And I was talking about cyberspace as being a place we had already inhabited and that’s when I said, “If you want to know where cyberspace is, ask yourself where you are when you’re on the telephone.”

I borrowed Gibson’s term. Before that, I was using the term datasphere. But it didn’t have enough juice to it, and then I read Neuromancer and I thought, well, this is very different but I like the sound of it. And it’s got a beautifully ironic quality. Because it’s a space that is not a space at all. There is no space inside of cyberspace. It’s not like a space of the dimensional world, but it feels kind of like one psychologically.

And cyber literally means helmsman or controller. Yet this is possibly, or potentially, the freest space that has ever been inhabited by human beings.

I was really obsessed with the difference between experience and information. And in the interview (for Mondo 2000), Jaron (Lanier) said, “Information is alienated experience.” I think that people increasingly don’t recognize the difference between information and experience. And I think they inform their sense of reality on the basis of information and not experience… which I think is an unwise human practice. So my thought was that, by inhabiting Virtual Realities, we could quit communicating in text over a distance, which is much too compressed, and start communicating as we communicate in the physical world. I mean, exactly as we communicate in the physical world. And even better… with gestures that we’ve never have before. We’d never had the opportunity to have multiple limbs. We could have as many limbs as a Hindu god.

Timmy had really seized the reins on the big idea around VR. He had the bit in his teeth … charging on to the future. Timmy had this fantastic capacity to be the first canary in the coalmine to get really excited whenever the air got good. And he was very excited about this. And I was delighted to be his co-conspirator on a lot of this

Morgan Russell

I encountered Morgan at Autodesk and found him really intriguing. I had gone to hear Paul Saffo at AutoDesk. Morgan had gotten himself lined up there to be a speaking series coordinator

I had never met anything remotely like Morgan Russell. He was kind of like something out of a Bill Gibson novel, only, even Bill couldn’t have made him up… with his very early steampunk. A lot of steampunk came out of Morgan. That somewhat Edwardian aesthetic… and the H.G. Wellsian, Gyro Gearlooseian stuff that he was adorning himself with. It was an aesthetic that I’ve subsequently seen quite a bit of but I had never seen before. And his way of being is kind of monotone and going on at very detailed length about his peculiar life being raised, essentially, by criminals in the wholesome Midwest.

Despite his personal weirdness, he had a wonderful way of getting a lot of people on the bus. He did something so marvelous with Ars Electronica. There was this Ars Electronica event that Morgan managed into existence. It was, in some ways, the high water mark of the New Edge. It happened in Linz, Austria. He had Bill Gibson. He had Bruce Sterling. He had Jaron. He had Tim Leary, Marvin Minsky, Terence McKenna, Warren Robinett, Brenda Laurel, Debby Harlow. Everybody was there. And he managed to get Ars Electronica to pay for tickets for this rather astonishing assembly of folks, who all kind of knew each other, but had never gotten to go off to a three-day camp together. It was quite an adventure for all of us and very bonding in a way that was ultimately useful to a sense of cultural unity. And as an extension of that trip, eventually ended up at a garden party that Luc Sala threw in Hilversum.

Queen Mu

She’s the main story. I mean, Queen Mu! She continues to be one of the oddest characters I’ve ever met… I mean, by anybody’s standards. And I’ve met some really eccentric people. I’d never met anybody who was so persistently and, apparently, non-obsessively polysyllabic. And it didn’t seem like she was putting on airs or trying to impress you with her vast vocabulary. That was just how she expressed herself. I think she feels that anything less is not expressive enough.

She clearly had the capacity to see a lot of things that other people didn’t see… a great many of which were there and a great many of which weren’t. And it was a little difficult sorting out which was which, from my vantage point, because there were some of them that I definitely resonated with but couldn’t see yet. And some that I thought were just completely crazed.

I always felt like she was both nuts and spot on to about the same degree. But, I mean, it became slightly more angled on the nuts side just because I fit so well with many of her paranoias as she got to know me. I was a freemason, with an old Freemasonic lineage. I always had an all-seeing eye on my business card and was doing consulting work starting in 1990 for the CIA. And oh, Mormonism! I had been raised a Mormon.

I think she started to have her own suspicions almost immediately, but she was kind of keeping them to herself to see what good she could get of me. [laughs]

But, you know, I just saw her recently and had a wonderful chat with her even though she had been telling my girlfriend Catherine that it was known that the turkeys around here were surveillance drones.

I think her capacity to see things was so enhanced that it’s not out of the question that some of her crazy insights could be true, at least on some of the many layers of reality. I just thought that she was marvelously nuts.

Alison was like right on the edge of The Promised Land of accepting the cosmic joke. Some of the time she’s right there, and some of the time it just was fucking not funny and, you know, but she would go on laughing in this kind of twisted, hollow, not really quite amused way.

I loved her breathlessness. And the air of special confidentiality, with which she told me these mad things.

I remember looking in the refrigerator and having her tell me that there were large chunks of it that were off limits because those were no mere leftovers… they were actually spider venoms and psychedelic tarantula bite stuff and shit like that. This is no place to raid the refrigerator, quite obviously.

There are probably no parts of Queen Mu that are straight. I would guess none.

R.U. Sirius

R.U. always seemed to have this sensibility that I thought of as being so spot on in ways that nobody else would ever be… and genially conspiratorial. Paranoid, but in a way that was more pronoid than paranoid up front… which I personally found very appealing.

I like folks who think that everything is connected, but not necessarily in some dark and sinister way. He always had this little smile on his face that indicates that he is in on the joke… that there is a huge and indescribable joke which is about the sort of fundamental connection of all things in the most bizarre and amusing and unpredictable fashion.

J.P.. Barlow & R.U. Sirius
Photo by Lindsay Brice/Getty Images)

He has this gnome-like quality, physically, that is kind of unpredictably human. He really is somebody out of a Tolkien novel. I always felt, “Whoa, dig this guy! He’s a hobbit or something. He’s not a regular person.”

St. Jude

The most important thing about Jude was that she was a visibly, clearly good human being. She was a good person. And that was actually what she was optimizing for. That made her presence in the picture so important. I mean, she was a little tongue-in-cheek about it… “St. Jude.” She was self-parodying about her own saintliness, but the fact was that she was saintly. The bottom line really still is… are you a kind person? In that crowd, she couldn’t argue that position… couldn’t be that straightforward. That’d get her in trouble every time. You had to be tongue-in-cheek around MONDO. But manifesting it… that’s what she did.



Part of my enchantment with the whole scene was based on Stara.

At Cyberthon, Tim Leary and Terence and I were giving this, sort of, talking jazz presentation at about two o’clock in the morning. It was past Tim’s bedtime and he just became dark and peculiar. Wavy Gravy had made matters far worse. He was supposed to introduce us. And in the course of introducing us, he turned to me and said “can I tell a story?” and I said, “Yeah.” “It’s a joke.” And I said, “yeah, sure.” And he went on to tell this long and completely pointless and terrible joke about a coyote or something. Tim was losing patience in a logarithmic way. Becoming darker. The dark Tim. And well before Wavy finished this story, Tim came up to me and he said, (sounding almost like Tom Waits) “Barlow. If a man in clown suit asks you if he can tell a joke, say ‘NO!’” He was right.

Anyway, after this presentation, which didn’t come off quite as well as I’d hoped because one of my confederates was furious and the other one was even more self-indulgent than usual, Stara came up to me. And she had been hugely impressed by my role in this. And she was so high on acid that she could not speak. In fact, I recall there was a whole period there where she would get regularly so high on acid intentionally that she could not speak.

So here’s this incredibly beautiful girl. And she’s nodding and smiling and nodding and smiling. And I said, “What’s your name?” And she just nods and smiles. I came to the conclusion that she was mute. And I was, “oh, you’re mute. Oh gosh. Do you know sign language?” I had a terrible crush on her in spite of the fact that she was obviously, you know, handicapped.

Stara was a really sizeable reason why I kept coming around.

Stara is somebody that you could say the word “Yogini” was invented for. To the extent that one can believe in the Tibetan notion of reincarnation, you know that Stara’s been female and sexy for a lot of lifetimes. I have evidence that I wouldn’t publish in Scientific American, but I swear to God it’s good enough for me. And she’s incredibly seductive. And sexy.


Timothy & Barbara Leary

It’s difficult to think about Timmy in any kind of simple way, because everything about him was covered with contradiction or paradox.

He loved Mondo, partly for all the right reasons and partly because Mondo looked to him — and accurately so — like a great way to promote the most recent version of him. And Timmy was always creating a new version of himself. Mondo made a perfect new ride and certainly was inspired by him in a lot of ways.

Tim would also get very grumpy about things. He would get into a mood where he would say caustic, uncomplimentary things about the Mondoids and about R.U. and Queen Mu. I think Tim kind of resented anything that he wasn’t the center of. And Tim was kind of R.U. Sirius’s Holy Ghost. And maybe for that reason, it was the not-antic Tim that sometimes resented him. But, you know, you talk about somebody that had an internal war going on… his internal war was intense and endless.

I was probably Tim’s closest friend for most of the ‘90s. Being Tim’s closest friend was no day at the beach. It meant that you were putting yourself in line for a whole bunch of fairly shitty stuff. But, it also meant putting yourself in line for the genuinely revelatory qualities he had, which were always still there when he could get over his auto-charlatanism. And the moments of really pure piercing honesty that he would sometimes come up with were just so endearing.

I remember when he finally got free of Barbara. And he was sitting there in this wild state of relief combined with tragic loss. And he said, “How could I, who really was the first to understand the creatures that live between creatures and their importance — to understand the things that live in the transactional state — how could I have completely missed all the lifeforms that were dancing in the space between me and Barbara?”

Timmy saw but didn’t understand the great oneness that is the twoness, that is the binary monad. He knew that having everything become digital was this kind of spiritual unification. But he himself was so devoutly anti-spiritual because he hated religion so much. And I think there’s actually some crossover there with Mondo and Tim. Mondo was, in many ways, a spiritual enterprise that really shrugged off any implication that it might be.

His anti-spiritualism became such a heavy weight on him as he was dying, and he got into this fetishized notion of having a form of scientifically-born immortality. Cryonics… which was another thing that overlapped with Mondo. Mondo had a lot of traffic with the cyborgs and the posthumans. I always thought they were crap. And then one night, Tim said, “You know, I’ve been thinking. This whole decapitation and freezing thing seems awful ghoulish to me.” And I said, “yeah, me too.” And he said, “And it strikes me that that’s not the only way to get to the other side.” And I said, “Well, I never thought so.” And he said, “But I guess I can’t get out of it now.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know why not.” And he said, “Well, I signed a contract and everything.” And I said, “But Tim, you’ll be dead. And besides, it’s your head.” If you don’t want to do it, let me know.” And he said, “I don’t want to do it.”

Later, I got accused by Charles Mann (ed: Platt?) of being the person that murdered Timothy Leary. But also, they were being awful. I never really liked the posthumans types because most of them had this very puritanical streak. Very humorless. And there’s also kind of a long streak of Asperger’s.   Puritan values disguised as something else and Asperger’s. It’ll fuck with your sense of humor. And one of the things I really liked about Mondo, just parenthetically, was that — mostly because of R.U. — they knew that one of the ultimate truths is that everything is funny.

It’s hard to come up with a better Kali than Barbara Leary. I always said Barbara was something that the devil wore on his ring finger when he was in a particular sporting mood.

Barbara and I did some crazy shit together. I had not just been given permission, but was almost directed to have an affair with Barbara, because he could tell that she was voracious in this department. She was getting itchy. And if she was gonna be out and about, he wanted to at least know who it was with. He wanted it to be somebody that he could trust.

One night she wanted to be with Mickey Hart. Mickey was scared of her. For good reason.

She and I were having this pretty torrid affair … which felt more illicit than it was, given the fact that we had permission… though I didn’t really have permission. I had pretty much separated from my wife but I guess it wasn’t quite as formalized as I thought it was. In any case, at one point, Barbara and I decided that were going to have sex and smoke DMT right before we came. So we had this kind of elaborate operation … pipe right there, and got right to the point of orgasm and then smoked DMT and if you can get your timing down enough with somebody to do that, I recommend it. We were connected on chakra levels that I don’t think anybody’s mapped yet. But right in the middle of that my phone rang and it was my wife. And, believe it or not, I was too spacey to not answer it. And she said “What are you doing?” And I said, “fucking Barbara Leary on DMT.” A low point in my marriage. It’s probably nothing to brag about except that it was the kind of exploration that I felt somebody needed to do at the time. You know, I was hacking reality… and doing it with one of the most dangerous psychic beings that I had ever encountered in my life. I really kind of enjoy danger. And there just aren’t very many places in this world more dangerous than being in bed with Barbara Leary.

What MONDO was onto

Lke Tim, Mondo was really on to something hugely important. But also, like Tim, there was a proselytizing zeal that was understandable. I mean, this is something that I’ve been caught up in myself… and I got caught up in it personally in both of those cases — knowing that what is being revealed here is a fundamental truth about the future. And that it’s something even eternal… and wanting everybody to know.

The thing about life in the physical world is that it’s always tantalizing in its revelations to a few — partly to tempt us with that very desire to have everybody know — which is a doomed proposition. Up front. And it never quite seems like it’s gonna be doomed this time.   So, we set off on our crusades, selling. It’s like suddenly we decide that since we like chocolate so much, every being on the planet will like chocolate along with us. Try feeding chocolate to a horse. They don’t like it. Try to give my cat some chocolate. It ain’t gonna work. And there are a lot of people that just aren’t going to get into it.  And it was difficult for Tim to see that. And the more the world resisted his Messianic fervor, the more he redoubled his effort to get the message across until he became a widespread joke and his own worst enemy.

Gracie and Zarkov

Gracie and Zarkov… I mean they were creatures that were kind of made for Mondo. They kind of defined High Frontiers in the sense that they were willing to go out there on the edge of consciousness and try shit. You know, sort of anything that Sasha Shulgin could cook up in his lab, he had an automatic pair of guinea pigs for it, which was pretty amazing because most of the stuff that he was cooking up in his lab was like really scary shit. I mean, there was stuff I wouldn’t take.

Gracie and Zarkov slightly frightened me. Because they just were so truly determinedly bizarre. I spent a couple of times cruising around in their house. And, you know, just the degree to which they had gone to create this sensuality zone was interesting. They never tried to bring me into one of their sessions. A libertine I might have been … but I wasn’t quite kinky enough to go there.

Ted Nelson

Ted really was on to something really important. And I would say that the web actually became the perfect manifestation of what Ted was on to that was important. Of course, he would never admit that.

There is a rigidity of ideology in some guys that fails to be able to appreciate the success of their belief because it’s not a perfected version of their belief that has been implemented by humanity at large. If I were Richard Stallman, Linux would just make me so fucking happy.

Mitch Kapor didn’t like Mondo

He has a wild side that he’s not comfortable with. And there was a glorification of sexuality that was pretty central to Mondo that would make Mitch Kapor uncomfortable. I think the Mondo scene was far over the border of amoral. It was libertine, not libertarian.

Steve Jobs didn’t like Mondo

Steve Jobs’ negative take was probably the consequence of aesthetic issues. Steve’s aesthetics were very clean.

That Guy from Quarterdeck

He was working for Quarterdeck and Alison had gotten to him and he was just in the process of going completely crazy. Nick Routledge. Marvelous and hugely intelligent. And he was working for Quarterdeck as their marketing department. Nick Routledge, who R.U. Sirius never heard of, was a very important Mondoid because he was the only guy that was supporting it in a commercial way, taking this very mainstream ad out on the back page.


I smoked DMT at the Mondo office one afternoon. I thought I had died. I felt myself to be in this formless dark void of moisture and acceptance which was some version of the other side of the spiritual membrane. And then, gradually, I felt myself to be this little coherent spark that was etching into the dark surface of the void, and gradually etching out the image of all women I’d ever known. And then finally etching into the image of Barbara Leary, in whose lap I had landed.

Queen Mu didn’t like 2cb. So she gave me what I did not know at the time was practically the world’s existing supply of it. She gave me like an ounce and a half. An ounce and a half of 2C-B in a little black Edwardian purse… not exactly sequined but made of obsidian-looking beads. And I took that with me to Las Vegas SIGGRAPH in ’91. Along with my NeXT computer, which I sat up in the hotel room. And I gave 2C-B to hundreds of people. I thought that I was like Johnny 2C-B.

I thought that was the best drug. The wonderful thing about 2C-B was that titration and effect were so very crisply connected. Just a little bit, like five milligrams or so would give you an ecstasy for the mind. It would affect your cognitive abilities in a very positive enhancing, brightening way.

It was just about your mind. It wasn’t about “I love you, man.” It wasn’t sloppily emotional. And a little more would bring in an emotional dimension. And then you get up to like fifteen or eighteen milligrams and, suddenly, you’d be in this fully psychedelic condition, where you could literally taste the music. Very synaesthetic. And then, at about twenty-five milligrams you would be convinced that you had died and you were still going on on the basis of momentum or something.

Success & Demise

Mondo 2000 Assistant Art Director (later Art Director) Heide Foley on cover of Time magazine

There was that cyberpunk issue of Time Magazine. I definitely thought we had some traction. I thought the train had left the station. At the same time, I was also thinking that there was something about this that I didn’t like. I was wary because I could see that the hippie movement was killed the day they started calling us hippies on the cover of Life magazine. Up to that point, we had kind of a chance, but we didn’t have a name and we didn’t have a mainstream identity. And as soon as we had a mainstream identity, then, just automatically, everything we did would be self-trivializing. And Mondo on the cover of Time magazine was kind of the same thing. It seemed like it was diminishing in some ways. It spread the word but it didn’t necessarily spread the word to those who would really resonate most strongly with it. A great many of those who would get it already knew by then.

It was one of these quantum jumps that immediately put us in a position of, sort of, outstripping our genetic code. You know, like Agent Orange. You know how Agent Orange works? It’s a hyper fertilizer. And anything that’s got a broadleaf will get too much of this genetically-altering compound. And it will start growing so fast that it can’t keep up with its own genetic replication and will kill it. And I felt like there was a little of that going on at that point with Mondo.

I also felt like there was something about the desire to be slick and commercial that created a set of production values that was killing the production. Bart’s visual sense was superb. It was just that we had all these really expensive papers and printing presses that were being used.

I really thought that Reality Hackers was a better magazine, even though it didn’t look like one

I felt estranged from it somewhat by the mid-90s. There was this other thing that was related going on but was definitely much more international and inclusive — trying to create a sense of this society — this civilization of cyberspace. Being explicitly countercultural didn’t strike me as being particularly helpful.


A few days after Morgan’s Linz conference, I met Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe and basically gave them the idea for Wired. I don’t know that Louis would accept that, but I think Jane would say that Wired didn’t exist before the three of us had this conversation. Meeting me and hearing my tales of the New Edge and what was going on around computers and culture — especially counterculture in California, really set them loose. They’d never met anybody that was around computer culture that was like me.

Wired could have been the best thing that ever happened to Mondo 2000 if it had been handled right. You know, “We’re not Wired. We’re for people who don’t look like they just walked out of a Gap ad.”

Yeah, Whatever

I think Mondo floundered on passionate, but not particularly deeply held belief. And it was a creature of its time.


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