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Podcast: An Open-Source History of Mondo 2000

Ken Goffman, more commonly known as R.U. Sirius, was cofounder and editor of Mondo 2000, an influential cyberculture magazine published in the late ’80s and ’90s. He’s using Kickstarter to fund a collective memory project about the magazine, including a physical book and possible documentary.  

This week on the Kickstarter Podcast, we talk to R.U. about his project to open-source Mondo’s history. (Read more about the project.)

Download the 24-minute podcast, or listen below.

This project stemmed from your original desire to do a memoir, but seems to have become something much more. 

Originally, I had the idea that I could work with the idea of memory and perception in the context of writing a memoir. I probably didn’t remember my life that accurately, and perhaps not that interestingly, but if I made my memoir open-source and brought people who had their own memories of interacting with me in their own lives — during the late ’60s/’70s and the period when I was doing Mondo 2000 and earlier magazines — then something really interesting would come of that. It’d be a literary experiment and an exploration of memory and psychology.  That’s where it started.

On one level it seemed really self-indulgent; in another way, it seemed like a fairly original project.  There’ve been a lot of books where it’s “as told to,” starting with a book called Edie by George Plympton, where they go around and talk to a whole lot of different people and quote them verbatim about some person’s life and what they witnessed.

My feeling was this would dig a little bit deeper, more interactive and more probing. Eventually, largely as a result of thinking about raising capital to get started on Kickstarter, trying to get the equivalent of the small amount book companies give for an advance, I decided I needed to narrow my focus.  People would be interested in doing this just with Mondo 2000 and the magazines that preceded it.  So it was narrowed down to a period from 1984-1997, starting with a magazine called High Frontiers that mutated into Reality Hackers and then Mondo 2000.

If it’s collaborative, but also your memoir, what happens when there’s conflict of memory?  When your memories of what happened are completely different than the people participating in the book?

That’s kind of the experiment.  That’s something you discover in the process of writing, co-writing, or editing the book.  I have no particular prejudice towards the truth. If somebody gives me a colorful story, I may run with that.  I may run with some people denying that it happened, or I may choose to deny something happened that someone else thinks, or I may not.

To me, it’s not a process of journalism or a conventional memoir, but a process of trying to create a piece of literature largely out of reality — but not confined entirely to reality.  It’s become a cliche, like in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in which each character goes through the same experience but remembers it in vastly different ways.

It could be interesting to have some of that in a way that’s literary and exposes something about the human being. And also, hopefully, amusing and funny.

You play with reality in one of the project’s rewards too. For $750, letting anybody insert themselves into Mondo’s history.

Right, I definitely think this is in the spirit of Mondo 2000.  Anybody who’s looking for responsible journalism should look elsewhere. Mondo was always playful.  We always threw some pranks into our content, some stuff that wasn’t real.  So this is a continuation on that idea.

I think it’s possible to do a book that’s revelatory, that exposes aspects of what happened with Mondo 2000, and also have a few hidden pranks in there.  The sort of audience who can appreciate that’ll be able to live with both of those things in there.

We do have one person, Joi Ito, who actually has put in the $750 to write himself fictively into the Mondo 2000 history.  And Joi is actually part of the history, so he can write himself in truth and fiction at the same time.  But it’d be great to have some complete stranger come in and create a persona, and than dialogue with them about some of the limits of what they can say or can’t say — they might say they had sex with all these people.  There might be a negotiation process there, asking other people if it’s okay, but largely, it’ll probably be a free-for-all.

Part of the character of the magazine and why it was so fun is that it felt like anarchy. It felt anti-corporate and authentic.  I remember when Wired launched, there was a lot of controversy there.  To anybody familiar with Mondo, it was clear where some of their inspiration had come from. Going back through the archives on The Well, I found comments from you about how Wired appropriated Mondo. You mocked them as the Monkees to Mondo’s Beatles.

(laughs) The days of large egos, on both parts.  I’m sure there will be a lot of that in the book, about the competition between Mondo and Wired.  And about this transitional period where Mondo was really the only technoculture magazine with a large distribution, over 80,000 or so.  Actually, there was bOING bOING, but they had a much smaller audience at that time.

Then Wired came along and made it pretty corporate-friendly and safe.  There wasn’t too much that was disturbing about Wired, and Mondo was very anarchic and ran some pretty wild stuff.  There was definitely competition and some bitterness that happened there.

In retrospect, they certainly had the right to go and create a magazine and be inspired by Mondo 2000 as one element of what they were doing, and try to create a hip technoculture magazine that wasn’t too extreme or caused anxiety to potential advertisers.  When they embarked on their early advertising campaign, we were just starting to get some mainstream digital corporation ads into the magazine.  Way back, we got Microsoft, but it was slow with most of them.  (I don’t think Microsoft was really paying attention to what they advertising in.)

But one of the lines that Wired’s advertising salespeople used was that Mondo 2000 was about drugs, and that they definitely didn’t want to advertise there.  So they were very direct about competing with us and sort of using raw tactics to do it.

It seems they tried to marginalize Mondo, even in that first issue.

Yeah, they actually had a mention of us as “fave cult magazine.”  They did try to put us in that “cult” area, and we felt like we were busting into the mainstream.

But I think we might have been a little delusional there.  As issues of Wired came out, I started to see letters to the editor from people who believe in conventional mainstream political and social ideas.  I’m sure their circulation was getting into the high 100,000s, and ours had peaked just shy of 100,000.  I looked at those letters and said, we could never have reached those people.

I’d have been shocked if I’d gotten letters from an ordinary Republican, or even an ordinary Democrat…

Shocked or offended?

Yeah, shocked or offended!  We’d get crazy letters about Hitler’s drug habits and crazy conspiracy theories, plenty of direct sexual commentary and pornography, and that seemed pretty natural to us.  But when I starting seeing these letters in Wired, in some ways, we were a cult magazine.

We might have been able to broaden our audience to a couple hundred thousand, but there was probably a ceiling on how many people could deal with the way we approached doing a magazine.

It seemed like even before Wired was released, you knew it wouldn’t be able to go forever.  I saw an interview you did in 1992 when A User’s Guide to the New Edge was released.  You were asked about the evolution of Mondo and where it was going to go, and you said, “Mondo 2000 has an expiration date.  Eventually, it’s gotta be something else.”

In Time Magazine, when they did the special on cyberpunk that was largely about Mondo 2000, kind of our last hurrah in some ways, I said this is only magazine with an expiration date.  And I kind of meant it.

We sort of had this attitude that the speed of change was going to be so fast that 2000 was the singularity, rather than the 2030s or whatever.  I don’t think we completely believed it, but because we had the “2000” in our name, it was a good illusion to play with and quasi-believe in.

We told people we were working in an obsolete medium.  I found it very important to move Mondo into other mediums, which is something my co-publisher Alison [Bailey Kennedy aka “Queen Mu”] and Linda [Murman, business manager and minority owner] didn’t see as much.

Whenever I heard of an opportunity — from people in Hollywood to develop a TV show, the possibilities of doing stuff with the web starting in around 1993, trying to move it into rock n’ roll with a band called Mondo Vanilli — I was desperately grabbing onto probably the only wave I was ever going to catch and try to spread it out into other mediums that might hold out for a longer time, and might be more profitable or more glamorous.

What do you think was the long-term impact of Mondo?  When people come up to you now and talk to you about their memories of Mondo, what do they say?  How did it touch them?

I get emails from a lot of people who are now hackers, working in various form of technology — digital, biotech, nanotech, pretty much everything you can think of. People who do hands-on stuff, augmented reality, all that stuff, who say they were turned onto Mondo 2000 when they were in high school or even younger. This is what brought them around, made them want to do this.  

If we’d left it up to the more prosaic, straightforward tech publishers… Magazines about technology up until that point looked more like Car & Driver magazine, all just products and nuts & bolts.  If we hadn’t pushed that, some of these people who are developing emerging technology might not have had the impulse or the excitement in this area.

We certainly dragged San Francisco club culture and counterculture into the tech era, and not kicking and screaming, very willingly.  A counterculture that was sort of paranoid and negative about technology adapted to having parties about virtual reality and so on, celebrating these possibilities and investigating it.

I think we really helped to move the alternative types towards an openness to technology as a tool for creativity and political organizing.  I don’t know what would’ve happened without us, we didn’t do it alone.  The Whole Earth Review were doing something, bOING bOING was doing their thing, FringeWare in Austin, Texas. The cyberpunk guys were doing what they did in fiction and talking about what was going on in reality.  

But I think we definitely helped to push that enthusiasm.

The design of Mondo, with its psychedelic neon and glossy Photoshop manipulation by art director Bart Nagel, was one of the things that always stuck out for me. Is there any way to incorporate that into this book?

I think we’re going to see.  There are two things being promised on the site, one thing being dangled as a possibility in front of people.  The first thing is an open-source private online interchange using text, some video and audio from interviews, letting people comment.  Then we’ll edit what we have on the website and create something for public display.

The public website release can be as dynamic and colorful and surreal as it wants to be, using video and visuals and so forth.  A book is, of course, much more expensive. Printing in color is going to cost some money.  We’ll see what comes along in terms of publishers who might want to get involved.  Chronicle Books in San Francisco does wonderful coffee table books that are full of photographs and visuals, and we have some friends there, so maybe when they see what we’ve done, they’ll go for that.

My dream is to include the lost issue of Mondo 2000.  The last issue, put together mostly by Queen Mu, has more in common with High Frontiers than with Mondo 2000. Very psychedelically-oriented and just a visual feast.  Designed by Heidi Foley, the assistant art director who took over from Bart Nagel and worked in much the same style.

I’m hoping that if a mainstream publisher is interested in it and if Queen Mu, who owns the title, is agreeable to it, we can take some of that color from Mondo 2000 directly and put it in the book.

Is Queen Mu going to be involved with the writing project?

As far as I know, she’ll probably be interviewed and transcribed for film and the book. She’ll definitely make available her memories and comments.

Can you tell me a little about the film?

Yeah, we’ve also decided to do a film.  Bart Nagel, the art director for Mondo whose visual style and sense of humor had a lot to do with what made the magazine so much fun, is ready to start shooting interviews.  Basically, we’re doing this on a shoestring but it ties in well with the text project.

We’re going to be interviewing people anyway, and we might as well get them on video. So we can do both at the same time with very little expense.  The only big expense for the film will be the editing, but we can gather hundreds of hours of material.

The style of the film will be very playful and funny, and equally revealing.

And clips from those interviews will go up on the website?

I believe so, some of the clips from the interviews will go up on the website.

So why Kickstarter for this, instead of going with a traditional publisher?

It seems like a good way of going at this point in time.  The publishing industry is just a trainwreck. The worse it gets, the more you get the intervention of very timid, sheep-like editors who are only interested in signing books that are like other books that are selling well at this particular moment. A little bit like Wall Street and the stockmarket, it’s a very hysterical environment in which they’re frightened of doing something similar to something else that just failed five minutes ago.

So, it’s a terrible environment.  And I think the democratization of what people can write and publish prior to the actual publication is a great thing.  Because you’d have an editor or a giant publisher standing between you and your audience saying this isn’t what the audience isn’t wants.  

Here, you go directly to an audience and say, “Do you want this?”  And at a certain monetary level of value, they can turn around and say, “Yes. We want this, and we want to buy the prizes you’re offering to help make this thing happen.”

With the exception of some small press books, and even those were slightly compromised by a small advance, it’s only the second book where I’m actually deciding what I want to do and then doing it. The first book was How to Mutate and Take Over the World, and while I was able to sell the idea of the book the way I wanted it, I wasn’t given the time or design the book needed, so that turned out to be something of a failure.

I think that’s true for a lot of people.  This is a way to choose what you want to do first, and then go ahead and do it, rather than create something pitchable to a book or film company in terms of other projects.

Well, it looks like the project’s going to be a success. I’m excited to see it, I backed it myself for a signed copy. 

Thank you, Andy!

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