R.U. Sirius Interview

Counterculture icon and writer R.U. Sirius discusses sharing, P2P issues, social engineering and a range of political topics in an exclusive betterPropaganda interview. He has announced that he's NOT running for president in 2004 after write-in campaigns in 1992, 1996 and 2000, and shares some of his thoughts on this year's primaries and election. We don't discuss his musical past, which includes long-ago stints singing in punk rock bands and his fronting the multimedia trash-pop trio Mondo Vanilli, a club-influenced performance ensemble from the hazy golden era of the early 90s San Francisco rave scene. And, oh yeah, we also let him plug his new book and Web site.

Better Propaganda Editor Terbo Ted talks to R.U. Sirius

Better Propaganda: How would you describe R.U. Sirius and what you do to someone that doesn't know you?

R.U. Sirius: Oh dear! R.U. Sirius is kind of a pseudo-occult name that I took up in the mid 1980s, when I was doing ludicrous magic with the magazine High Frontiers, trying to bring about a psychedelic renaissance. High Frontiers eventually became Mondo 2000, and R.U. Sirius developed as a character also, I'm not quite sure, in the mid-90s R.U. Sirius became a combination of Marquis De Sade and a raver. Eventually that collapsed and R.U. Sirius is a just a secondary name, I tend to actually occupy my body now as Ken Goffman, and R.U. Sirius is just a fragment of my consciousness, but I still sign my writing R.U. Sirius, because that's the name that people know. I think R.U. Sirius at this point is pretty much a writer and an editor, and has dropped all pretenses of suddenly transmutating the entire universe.

BP: A lot of the 90s, you were functioning as a sort of a reality warrior, is that accurate?

RU: I felt like I was anyway. We did Mondo 2000, which some people may remember having a pretty major success - at least locally - for a poorly financed subculture magazine, got big distribution and a lot of publicity and made a certain impact on culture... sort of broadcast the idea that the digital culture was hip, which turned out to be a fairly ambiguous legacy. But nevertheless, that impact was out there, and for a time, it felt like we were speaking it to the culture at large. The president and vice-president were buying our magazine. A different president and vice - president than now - a couple of yuppie lizards rather than rednecks, but, so you know, that was happening. TIME magazine mimicked our design style. I think it brought people into the present. I think before Mondo, and before the culture that evolved in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a sense that there was nothing new under the sun, and then there was a sense that there was something new, and I think that kind of awakened people., Even after it turned into something of a farce and a big corporate mess and everybody lost their shirts in the stock market and all that, I think the hipper elements of the population have sort of remained awake. So I think, on the whole, the whole cyberculture hype thing had kind of a positive impact. Kind of got people's blood going after the Reagan era, even if they were just pissed off hearing about it.

BP: I'd really like to talk to you about social engineering. I know that you've gone at this directly; you have experience with it. You've postulated things, and presented them as fact to an audience, and seen them become real manifestations. What could you say about your own experience with that to anyone that's interested?

RU: Well, you know, you gotta lie. (much laughter)

BP: So, you're telling me that you have a lot of experience of lying in the press?

RU: Well, I think that you have to look more to stories than to honest journalism. You know, try to do interesting and dynamic things. Specifically, I can't remember much that I did, other than trade in a particular mythology around Mondo, and then after Mondo this thing was happening that was going to mutate and take over the world. And somehow give it a voice that wasn't as coying as the voice that WIRED Magazine has, which also is a magazine that says "hey, we're so cool and we speak this new language" and yet it irritates me. I now understand why Mondo irritated some people as well, but somehow, I think we managed to put a sense of humor into it. There's that, and there were specific pranks, like the thing with Negativland. When they did their U2 album parody called The Letter U and the Numberal 2, we (MONDO) coincidentally heard from U2. They were doing their Zoo TV tour, and they thought it would be relevant for them to give an interview to this cyber culture magazine. So they got in touch with us. Now their record company Island had just sued the shit out of Negativland. So we got our friends Negativland to come and do the interview over the phone. The Edge called and without introducing themselves, the guys from Negativland talked about how, with U2's Zoo TV show, they were appropriating material directly off of television, they were like scanning TV channels and presenting it to their audience as copyrighted material. The Edge was saying, "yeah, well, you know, it's a cool thing to do, totally appropriate... blah blah blah" and then he was eventually confronted by the fact that he was talking to members of Negativland, at which point, you know, he kind of sputtered a bit. So, Negativland kind of lectured him a bit on fair use and the abuse of intellectual property rights and Edge was more or less agreeing with whatever they said. And eventually, Mark Hosler of Negativland asked The Edge to loan them some money... they'd spent all their money on this lawsuit. And The Edge said that this was the most surrealistic interview he's ever had. That was fun. In terms of social engineering, I think that, you know, you think of yourself as being in a story, and life will start to have the kind of dynamics that you would have if you were in a story, rather than if you were part of some dire laborious mechanism, you know...

BP: Like the borg?

RU: In search of truth, justice and the American way or something like that.

BP: Still on the social engineering topic, do you think that there are things that you have suggested to an audience that became real through the audience's belief and work on those topics that previously were completely non-existent?

RU: I probably have made this claim before, but I'm not remembering anything particular right now. I know we coined a few phrases, like 'the new edge' was a phrase that caught on for awhile. I can't really think of much right now. TIME Magazine did their special issue on cyberpunk, and they sort of feel like we scammed them into believing that something was happening that wasn't really happening and they echoed it into the world.

BP: Although, I would say that the cyberpunk thing did really exist for a lot of people, for real.

RU: I think it existed. It was a word that was a big umbrella under which lots of people could hawk their wares and do their stuff. The Revolution Party in 2000, the idea under which I did my write-in campaign for president, a few people have done stuff under that umbrella since then. People at universities have formed groups and done a few weird things, like confronting David Horowitz, the right wing provocateur. Students all over the country tend to confront him and interrupt his talks, which gives him the edge, because he can claim the banner of free speech and so forth. So some people associated with the Revolution Party at Miami University, instead of doing that, celebrated his right to free speech, and carried on in a way that would subvert his message by seeming to support it. It kind of blew his circuits.

BP: You ran for president three times, is that correct?

RU: Well, you know, I laid down for president, and you know, aw man, and maybe I barely crawled for president the last time.

BP: And you've announced that you have no intention to run this time in 2004...

RU: Yeah, it doesn't seem like the time to be doing something that irrelevant.

BP: As a lifelong prankster, do you have any ideas or visions of how some fun might be had with what otherwise seems like a pretty grim 2004 presidential election?

RU: Hmmm. Ummm. Well, I still think following the lead of what I discussed earlier: I'm sure there's plenty of fun to be had for people who want to pretend to be Bush supporters. If you want to show up at places where Bush is speaking, and carry signs that don't quite give you away, so that they let you into the area where other people are carrying signs, signs that seem pro-Bush but subvert the message - something that will create an element of doubt in people who happen to see your sign broadcast on TV, that kind of thing. So, I think infiltration is probably the best technique for having some fun with this election. Actually, there is going to be a yippie presence at the Republican Convention in New York in August.

BP: That should be insane.

RU: It might turn out to be a big thing, and people should look that up.

BP: So you talk about infiltration. One thing that came to my attention recently was that, for example the Iraq war, they put a list of rationales forth for the war - which seem, at this point - in retrospect - possibly dubious or completely dubious depending how you look at it..

RU: Right.

BP: And some people have said if they just overtly said that "Hey, we're going to go and exterminate a bunch of Arabs and take their oil," you still might have gotten majority support of the American public. So, do you see a way to attack the Right by pushing it from super crazy extreme Rights, to make it look ridiculous, is that something you're talking about?

RU: I still think that yeah, taking things to their logical extreme is definitely one way of pranking people and infiltrating. I mean, I don't know if a majority of Americans..., I don't think so much would support a statement saying "Let's go get their fuckin' oil."

BP: A lot would though, don't you think?

RU: You know, there's always 30-35 percent who would. The Fox News tupes - they'll buy anything as long as it's sold in a Right Wing package. But I don't think you'd get a majority. Now you have a majority ofpeople who just sort of believe the reasons for the war are what they want the reasons for the war to be, and manage not to pay attention, or manage not to comprehend the news, or the information that these reasons are not true. The greatest example being a majority of people still believing that there's a connection between Saddam Hussein and the events of 9/11, which you know, even when the president himself admits it's not true, they go on believing... there's a level of self-hypnosis here that's probably difficult to break through. It's all related to information overload, people having too much to deal with, work, bad food, and you know... Actually, this issue of The Thresher, the yearly journal that I'm doing with Dave Latimer, basically the theme this time is around the question, "Are we all nuts?" I think to talk about politics right now particularly, perhaps more so than any time in American History - at least during my lifetime - we have to talk about psychology, you know, and the growing sense of unreality. Which brings us back to "you have to be a better liar than the powers that be," you have to tell a better story.

BP: Tell us how we can get access to Thresher, your storytelling publication you're working on.

RU: Basically you just have to look for it in alternative, small magazine stands and newsstands. It's distributed by Last Gasp, so anybody who can't find it could possibly get ahold of Last Gasp and ask them where it is.

BP: So someone who has a lot of professional media experience as yourself, you obviously can decode a lot of the things happening in our current society, and you're obviously trying to teach people about what you're seeing, is that how you see your role right now?

RU: Right now I'm doing this thing with Thresher. I'm also doing an online work called Neofiles ( which is an exploration of the far edges of science and technology. So I'm in a state right now where I'm more in an enquiring role, rather than in a propagation role. What you're suggesting there, kind of deconstruction and analysis of pop culture is something that I do, but I haven't been doing that much of it lately. I recently also wrote a book called Countercultures Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid House, that's gonna be released by Villard Books, which is part of Random House, in the Fall of 2004. So now I'm a Historian. I do like to analyze media trends and so forth, I just haven't been engaging that as a writer over the last year or so.

BP: What is your take on MP3s in 2004?

RU: I think the destruction of the spirit of P2P community and use of that technology is a very sad thing.

BP: Yet, it's still happening in the world.

RU: Certainly it's happening, but people are doing it under threat, particularly here in the United States, the lawsuits against individuals and the fact that the pay-to-listen to music, you know, that the pay sites are beginning to occupy a terrain formerly occupied by sharing. I think it would be lovely if they had done these pay sites, but had not at the same time engaged in the harassment of the natural process of people sharing songs. They could have offered better service, better selection, etc., you know, a clearer, cleaner process in exchange for people's money, rather than having to shove aside the people who are sharing. To me, it's obvious that this is sharing, that the technology enhances SHARING. You don't have to steal anything, you're not going into a store and grabbing something and taking it away. You already own it. You happen to have a technology that makes it easy for you to share. It's like if you had a chocolate chip cookie and a bunch of people were standing around and said "that looks like a cool chocolate chip cookie," if you could make copies of it, you wouldn't say "no, fuck you, it's a copyrighted chocolate chip cookie, go buy your own." You'd make copies for your friends, or... for people who are hungry to eat. We've all been told throughout the 90s that we need to adopt to a new economy that has been created by new technology, and we can no longer rely on steady, life-long jobs and employment, and we have to accept the fact that we're competing for wages in the global marketplace. We have to accept all these changes wrought by technology, everybody, all the big corporate people and President Clinton and Bush and all those people told us, you know, adapt or die. But then, now when the music industry has to adapt to the changes in technology, they use money and they use lawyers and they use congress to ram it all backward into a previous time, and to make people pay for stuff that can be easily copied, which is in total contradiction to the advance of technology. So, there's this unequal thing. So "Adapt or die" should apply to the record companies as much as it applies to workers who now have to change jobs every few years and have to live with this complicated global market.

BP: So, you're one of the people that would say the recording industry - the big major record companies - are in the dinosaur sort of realm, and they used...

RU: Well, I loved rock stars when I was a young man, (I'm now 51) and I certainly enjoyed reading all the books about how you know, Mick and Keith and Bob Dylan got to indulge being so rich and considered so important, and it was fab and it was gear and it was lovely, but there's no law, there's no human law that says musicians in a human society should earn tens of millions of dollars from record sales. It's not like a natural law. It's okay if it stops working that way, and if musicians make nominal amounts of money off their recordings, and then maybe if they're lucky, they make lots of money performing, and if they don't, they make some money. It's just something that we're accustomed to, and it's something that musicians are accustomed to, and of course, it's something that the record companies are accustomed to, that they're dealing in these large amounts. One of the ironies is actually that a lot of these dinosaur bands actually don't sell a lot of records anymore, and do make most of their money from concerts.

BP: Recently, Huey Lewis pointed out that Bruce Springsteen made more money in a week and a half of sold out shows in New Jersey than he did from entire albums in the 80s.

RU: Sure, yeah, yeah, I mean nobody buys Rolling Stones albums anymore, and they make huge amounts of money on their tours. Of course, the Grateful Dead have always been the model for this, you know, and many of those jam bands like Phish and so forth: huge audiences, lousy record sales. It looks like the record industry has, to a great extent, won this round, they've intimidated an awful lot of people away from the person-to-person sharing thing. It doesn't affect me personally because I've got this grungy little 1999 iBook, that is already loaded to the gills with software, I can't really listen to music on the iBook anyway. The last time I was trading tunes was when I was working in an office on a big machine back in 2000, so it didn't affect me personally, but I just think it sucks as a sociological observation.

BP: What kind of future do you see for media dissemination? We've talked about the P2P thing, we've talked about the mp3 thing, we've talked about how the technology enables sharing, which is something you're explaining as a virtuous human nature-

RU: Yeah.

BP: What sort of horizon can we look for from your eyes?

RU: Well, the Net is obviously the battle zone for whether individuals will be allowed to be broadcasters, or whether we will be limited to the kinds of options that we get in a large shopping mall, where only those who can pay for space are allowed to present there. This is all tied up largely with how the backbone of the Internet is going to operate, and whether there is actually going to be some kind of a gate that people are going to have to pass through. More than that right now, it revolves around battles of free speech and the question whether ISPs can be held responsible for what people put up on Web sites. You had a recent situation where a San Francisco court ruled in a specific case that they could be held responsible. If this becomes generalizable, only those online publications that can afford lawyers will be able to continue to put stuff online. What ISP is going to risk being held legally liable for what amateurs publish online. The independent voice would be destroyed.

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