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Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold

Mind to Mind

With Mark Dery

Escape Velocity

Is this the dawn of the post-human era? Are we leaving our bodies behind in our rush into cyberspace?

These are questions worth asking today, especially by enthusiastic cybersymbiotes like me -- and readers like you, who are viewing this message through your web browsers. But nobody who has taken up the sword against the digital life has convinced me thus far that they know a cyborg from a hole in the ground. Mark Dery's new book, "Escape Velocity," changes all that.

Here's Dery's description of our era's techno-euphoria, from the introduction to "Escape Velocity"

"As the millennium draws near, we are witnessing the convergence of what Leo Marx has called "the rhetoric of the technological sublime" -- hymns to progress that rise "like froth on a tide of exuberant self-regard, sweeping over all misgivings, problems and contradictions" -- and the eschatology that has structured Western thought throughout history, in one form or another: the Judeo-Christian Second Coming, the capitalist myth of never-ending progress, Marxism's predestined triumph of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie."

Dery goes beyond letting the air out of the tires of techno-utopia. His report from the hairy fringes of cyberculture forces us to examine the possibility that literal lust for technology is not just seducing us, but converting us into something other than human. I'm not so sure I swallow his whole cosmology, but it's hard to miss what he's getting at. All the coolest technologies, Dery points out, have to do with disembodying us, altering our bodies, or creating worlds in which our bodies are irrelevant. His conclusion has a scary music to it:

" Assume, then, that the mind could be distilled from the body, that we could follow to its ultimate conclusion, the process of bodily extension and "auto-amputation" which, according to McLuhan, constitutes the history of technology, "downloading" our selves after having delegated, one by one, all of our mental and physical functions to our machines. Still, a shadow of a doubt remains, nagging at the edge of awareness -- the doubt that once our bodies have been "deanimated," our gray matter nibbled away by infinitesmal nanomachines and encoded in computer memory, we might awake to discover that an ineffable something had gotten lost in translation. In that moment, we might find ourselves thinking of Gabe, in [Pat Cadigan's novel] "Synners," who unexpectedly finds himself face-to-face with his worst fear while roaming disembodied through cyberspace: "I can't remember what it feels like to have a body. He wanted to scream in frustration, but he had nothing to scream with.""

I asked Dery three questions.