Screen Circuits: Fear and Paranoia in the Sprawl (circa 1995)




cyberculture, william gibson, rodney king, millennium

How to Cite

Goodwin, M. (2018). Screen Circuits: Fear and Paranoia in the Sprawl (circa 1995). M/C Journal, 21(5).
Vol. 21 No. 5 (2018): nineties
Published 2018-12-06

Fig. 1: Smith Street Sprawl (circa 1995), Mitch Goodwin, 2018

The nineties were more of a feeling than a knowing and Gen X felt the kinetic edges of cyberculture most keenly. The millennium was in approach as the planet groaned and the network readied itself for a reboot. We were becoming the 21st century whether we liked it or not.

Yep, I was there in the nineties, with a rag-tag bunch of University peers supposedly studying Brecht and Chekov, writing like Camus and Garner and thinking like Lacan and Kristeva. Instinctively, we were suspicious of them all. We were instead seduced by the boldness of network culture, by the back-and-forth of data flows, the trade in fixes and patches and version ware. I didn’t understand much of it, I was enthralled by the rawness of the circuitry and the promise of the mysteries within. The immediacy of networked gaming was the big show. Hunkered down in a sandy Gold Coast flat, a place of humidity and testosterone, of put-downs and pop-cultural riffing we confronted hordes of the undead and the unreal in Doom (1993), Red Alert (1995), Quake (1996) and Duke Nukem (1996).

Peer-to-peer file sharing was also a mind-blowing development. This assemblage of historical artefacts via ISP by amateur archivists was clearly the future. We downloaded the Chemical Brothers, Spiderbait, Devo and the Rolling Stones on Limewire, burning and binning countless CD compilations for every mood and occasion. Technology merged with mobility and social fixes. Punching the spongy buttons on my first mobile phone – a Phillips Diga (circa 1997) – between the tap-tap of brass cones on glass ashtrays and whatever heady concoction the weekend demanded. They were fucking great times. They were also the end times.

There was a very real sense that the analogue was crashing into the digital and it was happening at speed. “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts” but this felt different: the charts were in bits and the barometer of success was all messed up. Perhaps a new consciousness was indeed in the offing. Paradigms were shifting, we were told. This would become evident as the decade unfolded – in the Baltic states, in Seattle, and in LA while the genocides in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda were indifferent to history, reminding us how some human stains remained the same.

Sensory slippages were occurring across time between beats and within shifting frames of reference. Textually meaning was all-a-jitter, diluting the binary narrative of the Cold War and challenging tribalism with a new global imaginaire. As narrative genres began to meld and hybridise, ambiguity and multiplicity were the neat new tricks on the block, stuff was getting meta: David Carson, Bret Easton Elis, Tony Kushner, Bjork, Beck, Bowie (again) – they were all at it. History was being trashed and re-hashed right before our eyes.

This is your life, right here, right now. It’s real time – you hear me, real time!
— Lornette "Mace" Mason (Angela Bassett), Strange Days, 1995

Machines of vision, manipulation and calculation are central to this shift. Key enabling technologies for the production of media were released in the early nineties supercharging the means of production via a push towards standardisation, interoperability and multitasking. The MPEG-1 video codec and the infamous MP3 audio codec (1993) along with the SVGA video display standard (1990) and Creative Labs audio cards (1991) brought coherence to the handling and exchange of audio and video files for the creators and consumers of media. The advent of the Intel Pentium Processor (1993) enabled more complex digital media processing, while the Zip Drive made creative media portable (1995). Software was also maturing, Photoshop (1990), the Multimedia Extensions update for Windows 3.0 (1991), and the Linux kernel (1991) were all important first steps taken in the 1990s. This confluence of innovation in software and hardware helped to make advanced computing tasks affordable and accessible for artists, effectively creating an eco-system of connectivity and production. The Internet’s first Big Bang occurred in 1993 at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign with the release of the Mosaic web browser which not only provided a link between the off-line and online worlds, it provided a venue for the distribution and consumption of digital culture.

As the decade unfolded, CPU speeds simplified the capture, design and manipulation of the analogue world. The art of sampling had served out its apprenticeship on canvass, on tape decks, on VHS recorders, at block parties, in scrapbooks and in poetry. What had begun with the work of pioneers such as Tom Moulton and Grandmaster Flash was being supercharged by the media interventions of Negativeland, David Carson and the Emergency Broadcast Network. The cut & paste routines of desktop publishing and digital compositing, the construction of audio loops, the remixing of video and the synthesising of digital effects were all critical computer-enabled extensions of the collage and pastiche techniques of traditional art making (Lessig 68). This not only expanded the pallet of what was possible in the assemblage of media fragments but also, through network technology, forged a connection to a diverse archive of historic digital and analogue source material (Manovich 136). In the hands of an emergent tribe of “culture jammers” these new media conditions amplified the dexterity of the art making process while making its operation as a networked object and its meaning as a piece of text more sophisticated and more direct (Dery; Jenkins 219).

Indeed, the most adroit practitioners of the decade were students of 1980s image culture – Banksy, Madonna, Cindy Sherman, Quentin Tarnatino, Robert Longo, Don DeLillo – they understood the malleable nature of the cultural artefact within a pre-fragmented media culture while also being cognisant of the persistence of the screen as an accomplice to shifting powers of the gaze. Although television was still king, cyberculture, itself a postmodern turn, demanded a move away from the centralised broadcast – from the linear tape deck and the prime-time scheduling – to a new kind of thinking about media not just as dutiful consumption but as an interaction and a site of potential manipulation. The televisual image, in its myriad of forms, was being leveraged as an object of, and an instrument for, media critique.

Fig 2: Portable Gibson, Mitch Goodwin, 2018

The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated…
— Bernard Shaw, CNN correspondent, Iraq, 16 January 1991

With the end of the millennium nigh, America’s powers of seduction were (politically, at least) in the ascendency: the neoliberal agenda was in full swing, Iraq 1.0 was a clinical if ostentatious success and a saxophone playing president waltzed into the White House filling a Cold War vacuum with his re-assuring Arkansas drawl and celebrity schtick. Cultural production in the US during the 1990s would follow a well-established template for the promotion of outward-facing American exceptionalism forged as it was in the peak-Americana of the 1980s. Reagan’s “Ameritocracy” on steroids became Team USA the brand, birthed as it was in a hockey game in 1980 against those pesky Russians at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics – the so called miracle on ice. Brand USA reached its zenith in the 1990s, consolidated by the men’s swim team at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. It of course inevitably evolved, becoming a perverse somewhat unsettling rally cry on the streets of American cities in the aftermath of the successful Navy Seal raid on the compound of Osama Bin Laden in 2011: “U-S-A, U-S-A!” (Fromson)

Growing up in the 1980s in Australia, we were hoodwinked by the moralising nature of American sitcom television, believing as we did in the exceptionalism of Alex P. Keaton and the contrarian analysis of Rosanne. We aspired to Hawkeye’s indignant rage and the Fonze’s manufactured cool and we believed Kevin Arnold had nothing but wholesome thoughts for Winnie Cooper.

Of course, there was static in the signal, David Lynch’s gothic enclosure Twin Peaks (1990-91) was a very different kind of suburban seduction, while The Larry Sanders Show (1992-98) took a self-depreciating swipe at the industrialisation of entertainment. The creation of comedian Gary Shandling, its prickly reality TV aesthetic, like Lynch’s sense of the uncanny, still resonates today.

From the antipodean south we were world-watching through a fine-grained distinctly American filter. As Gen X constituents we recognised this tele-world as a false paradigm. The traditional Cold War battle lines were fast becoming inconsequential and silly – in a Reagan, Rocky, Top Gun, Xenia Onatopp kind of way. America’s opaque hyper-capital DNA was not only being subverted through fictional critique but was also exposing an unsettling inner trauma. Woven into this imaginary of sound and vision, was an ecology of fear and paranoia of the machinations of techno-culture and their intersection with capital – a feeling that preceded the knowing. This was both an internal struggle (Leaving Las Vegas, Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace) and an external one (Do the Right Thing, Rage against the Machine, Bill Hicks). This emergent anxiety rejected the commodification of youth and the stereotypical casting of middle-American rites of passage. While they were not solely American symptoms they did foreshadow a global pathogen of distinctly American origin: post Y2K, post 911, deep into permanent recession, deep into the ‘forever war.’ 

We saw it in grunge and industrial-electro music, we saw it in the cyberpunk ethos, we saw it in goth culture, we saw it in Nathan Adler and Lester Burnham and we saw it in Matthew Barney. Culture was watching us now, the cameras were reflecting a different shade of America, an America seemingly full of characters looking at televisions. Or were they looking at us? Recall the knowing wink (The Simpsons), the curled snarl (Married with Children) or the suspicious glance (Seinfeld). TV sitcoms set in living rooms with agitated characters conversing on lumpy sofas while looking at televisions were big in the nineties.

The news packed the biggest punch. Broadcast media images were the visual refractions of a troubled American decade, dominated by the “live telecast”: OJ Simpson in his white Bronco pursued by the LAPD and cable TV, the camcorder footage of Rodney King splayed on the streets of LA; the CCTV footage of the Columbine massacre and the tear gas and the truncheons on the streets of Seattle. There was a very real sense that the underbelly of American culture had become a global media contagion and that the rapidly approaching millennium was less a moment of transition but a time of reckoning. 

Caesar had his legions, Napoleon had his armies, I have my divisions. TV, news, magazines.
Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), Carver Global Media, Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997

During the early to middle period of the 1990s Hollywood struck a rich vein of netploitation cinema, some 10-15 years after writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling had established cyberpunk’s DNA. The studio execs however had been doing their homework, they recognised a viable new aesthetic when they saw it. While the technically ground-breaking Lawnmower Man (Leonard, 1992) anticipated the fusion of virtuality and internet cultures, it would be followed in quick order by a series of films that spoke to the ambiguity of cyberspace and the techno-goblins within the circuits of the network: Sneakers (Robinson, 1992), Disclosure (Levinson, 1994), Johnny Mnemonic (Longo, 1995), The Net (Winkler, 1995), Hackers (Softley, 1995), Strange Days (Bigelow, 1995), Virtuosity (Leonard, 1995) Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995), GoldenEye (Campbell, 1995) and Tomorrow Never Dies (Spottiswoode, 1997). It was alive this cyber space, the technological ecologies of its making were intoxicating, networked virtuality its most addictive drug. Cinematic cyberspace became a melting pot of techno-cultural diaspora: from Japanese anime and Blade Runner neon to Orwellian bureaucracy and steam punk engineering. The futurist dreamscape of cyberspace was being presented as the information revolution’s most threatening—and thrilling—place to hang out. In the cinematic universe however, the metrics of the box office would ensure it would only take one year to dismantle cyberspace. That year was 1995.

Fig 3: Thursday at the Gaso, Mitch Goodwin, 2018

This is not ‘TV only better’, this is life. A piece of someone’s life, pure and uncut straight from the cerebral cortex.
— Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), Santa Claus of the Subconscious, Strange Days, 1995

Strange Days (Bigelow) is set in the last days of the millennium. Los Angeles is in lock down, riot police are everywhere, cars burn and sirens blare while violent protests flare up on every street corner. Made in 1995 but prophesising the near future of 1999, the film offers a glimpse of a possible trajectory that seemed very real given the riots in LA only a few years earlier. Strange Days is as much a cyberpunk mash-up of Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich) and Out of the Past (Tourneur) as it is a contortion of Slavoj Žižek’s notion of the present as a state of “endlessness.” It was an affliction that permeated the nineties, immune as it otherwise was to the horrors of Bosnia and Rwanda and the conflation in Europe. The Cold War vacuum produced a strange sense of transience in the West. The clock pointed to a defining moment but without definition, there was nothing left to do, but to watch and to wait.

Katherine Bigelow captured this in Strange Days: Tom Sizemore—long hair, bug eyed and terminal—sits in a dive bar with his ex-cop buddy, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes). On a TV above the bar a local LA news network is reporting on the gangland-style murder of the hip-hop artist and black activist, Jeriko-One. Sizemore is morose, he drops his eyes to the bar and laments the nothingness:

Do you know how I know it’s the end of the world honey? Because everything has already been done, you know? Every kind of music has been tried, every government’s been tried, you know? Fuckin’ hair style, fuckin’ bubble gum flavours, every breakfast cereal, every fuckin’ … I mean what are we gonna do for the next thousand years for Christ’s sake? I’m tellin’ ya man, it’s over.

Little wonder then that the new craze in LA in the shadow of Y2K is “wire tripping”—first person video memories recorded and played back via a SQUID headset. The more extreme “squid disks” are traded as an illicit substance—known colloquially as “blackjacks”—and feature mostly erotic, subversive or high adrenaline “playback” experiences. This is reality re-wired in the form of a simulation, a total hack of the senses—sight, sound, taste, emotion, metabolism. Here it is again, in the 1990s mid-decade late century, that feeling of becoming.

“Playback” is the perfect manifestation of not only Baudrillard’s simulacra—as signalled so explicitly by the Wachowskis in the Matrix (1999) but also the psychedelic potential of one of postmodernism’s most defining characteristics: magic realism. The fantastic is now a navigable space—see The Fisher King (Gilliam), LA Story (Jackson) and later the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman—time has become suspended, the impossible is within reach, the persistence of the uncanny renders this not a slippage but a seepage. Have too much though, and you get the shakes. In fact, both Strange Days and Johnny Mnemonic (Longo) characterise the intersection between human and machine—consciousness and information, the real and the virtual—with a debilitating medical affliction.

In Johnny Mnemonic, “a new plague convulses the cities: Nerve Attention Syndrome (NAS), an incurable, fatal, epidemic” otherwise known as “the black shakes” (Gibson). In Strange Days, it is the cybernetic addiction to “playback” squid disks traded as cognitive heroin: “He’s acting crazy, he’s doing way too much playback. He’s gotten completely paranoid” (Bigelow). Given the context of the period, it follows that these film makers—Gibson and Longo (Johnny Mnemonic), Cameron and Bigelow (Strange Days)—would be compelled to incorporate a viral contagion into their plots. Yet, unlike AIDS, or H5N1 or mustard gas this was derived from a mediated affliction born from the substance of networked information.

Viewing Johnny Mnemonic again recently, I couldn’t help but think of that opening sequence from 28 Days Later (Boyle) in which a troop of captive monkeys are served up a multi-screen barrage of violence, war and murder that incites “the rage.” This we are led to believe, becomes the pathogen that zombifies a nation. Is this the end game of Gibson’s dreaded black shakes a screen induced seizure from over exposure to electromagnetic propaganda?

Fig 4: Johnny on Rae Street, Mitch Goodwin, 2018

I have to get online, I need a computer.
— Johnny Mnemonic (Keanu Reeves), Data Courier, Johnny Mnemonic, 1995

William Gibson published his short story, Johnny Mnemonic, in Omni magazine in 1981. The story was accompanied by an illustration by artist István Sándorfi, Self Portrait in Siamese Brothers or The Walk to the Invisible (1979). A tangle of howling faces and bleached flesh perfectly captured the traumatic melding of mind and data and the bending of time and vision that would befall data courier Johnny during a data spill, “and then it all faded to cool grey static and an endless tone poem in an artificial language. I sat and sang dead Ralfi’s stolen program for three hours” (Gibson). There it is—the “grey static”—a visual motif for a world of broken signals, the television image in distress.

Like Strange Days the film version of Gibson’s short cyberpunk text relies heavily on screens and the language of telecommunications to deliver its critique. The television becomes the antithesis of the cool green code of cyberspace. This differentiating factor is made explicit in Johnny Mnemonic as the televisual screen is deployed as an instrument for disruption and knowledge re-distribution as much as it is a residual haunting from a post-media age. At one point Johnny (Keanu Reeves) walks past a video wall hacked by the LoTek media rebel J-Bone (Ice T), his face snarling through the static challenging all those in ear-shot: “Snatch back your brain zombie, snatch back your code!” and later, a similar warning: “Make your own images, get your life back!” This critique recognises a screen world transfixed by the one way linear media stream. This is the lean back of Wall-E not the lean forward of The Matrix, this is Virilio’s mega-scopic lounge lizard buzzing on cathode-ray:

Since the wave of electromagnetic fields flooded the earth with audiovisuality, not only has the skyline been locked down in the rectangle of the screen, of all screens, but the spectator has now morphed into a televiewer who stretches out or, rather, lies in front of it. (Virilio 23)

For William Gibson, his screenplay for the film version of Johnny Mnemonic was designed as a “fable for the information age” (Van Bakel), while its punk ethos was born from a retro longing for the bohemia of another time, a time before extreme capitalism. “It’s possible,” he told Wired magazine in 1995, “that commercialization has become so sophisticated that it's no longer possible to do that bohemian thing […] I'm sad to see the phenomenon disappear. I think bohemians are the subconscious of industrial society. Bohemians are like industrial society, dreaming” (Van Bakel).

Gibson recognised this rusted-on-tech aesthetic in the production design of the film that emulated the story world he had described in Johnny Mnemonic and the Sprawl trilogy that would follow. When he visited the set, Gibson was confronted by his own imaginary, a tangible rendition of the rusted-out core of the Net: “I could hardly talk. It was such a moving experience to be completely surrounded by the product of your own imagination ... seeing [an environment] constructed, full-size, in much greater detail, much higher resolution than I was expecting … it looked like a place. A very real place. And it was a place” (Van Bakel). Suffice to say Hollywood knew a thing or two about dystopian visions, after all this was also the year of Waterworld, Tank Girl and Judge Dredd. Creating the burnt out shell of a doomed future metropolis was a cinematic cottage industry in the 1990s. The Sprawl in Johnny Mnemonic was an assemblage of apocalyptic tropes – piles of burning tyres, shells of burnt out cars, sparking wires and flickering arc lights, crumpled shipping containers and the skeletons of decommissioned bridges drooping into the Hudson.

High above all of this is LoTek HQ. A place they call Heaven, the “heart and soul” of which was a huge sculptural construction of televisions, a giant remix system: “This is where we fight back. We strip all the pretty pictures from their 500-channel universe, re-contextualise it and then we spit the shit back at ‘em” (Longo). It’s elaborate construction is reminiscent of Nam Jun Paik’s Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (1995-96) while the jumbled mess of wires and vintage VR headset that Johnny straps himself into has more than just a passing resemblance to Ghost in the Shell (1995). 

Fig 5: The SQUID Doctor, Mitch Goodwin, 2018

Information overload. All the electronics around you, poisoning the airwaves. Technological fucking civilization! But we still have all this shit, because we can’t live without it.
— Spider (Henry Rollins), Squid Hacker, Johnny Mnemonic, 1995

The accident of television as an out of control viral technological ecology – a culture of signals both manufactured and surveillant – is a common thread in the netpolitation cinema of the nineties. As Paul Virilio has noted, the technological invention brings with it the technological accident and finally the digital object of our examination (Virilio and Lotringer).

The SQUID of Jeriko-One’s execution in Strange Days becomes a powerful symbol in the context of the social and economic oppression of nineties LA, especially if you are black man. As Peter Labuza observes, the critical point about Jeriko-One’s death is “not that he was killed, but that there is a tape that reveals how it happened” (Labuza). We have lived with this uneasy relationship between the event and its documentation for some time now. Historical reels like the Zapruder film (1963) or the video footage of the Rodney King assault (1992) or the morning news on September 11, 2001 are all indicative of the powerful currency of the visual artefact and its televisual repetition. “Actual events are less harmful than their media documentation, which amplifies its reception and thus its consequences.” (Labuza) 

This is where we fight back. We strip the picture from their 500-channel universe. Recontextualize it. Then we spit the shit back at them. Special data. Things that'll help people...
— J-Bone (IceT), Leader of the Lo-Teks, Johnny Mnemonic, 1995

In nineties America, as remains the case today, the race debate continued to haunt mainstream culture and was indicative of the social conditioning that results from embedded inequality on and off the screen. As the media-jammer J-Bone in Johnny Mnemonic rapper come actor Ice T proclaimed the “straight world” was ready to be messed with: “wide-band it. Broadcast it. Go global. Bounce it off the satellites.” This is the accident as activism.

As the nineties broke black American film auteurs like Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, 1989), John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood, 1991) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) conjured a sequence of films that constitute that rare cinematic moment – when social critique and community activism collide with a youthful clear eyed artistic swagger. Like the blues musicians and hip-hop poets before them, this group of film makers were deploying a “strategic arsenal of group consciousness” in resistance to racism and cultural marginalisation (Lusane, 1993). On the radio, Public Enemy’s rally cry “911 is a joke” on Fear of a Black Planet (1990) shared the air waves with Banned in the USA (1990) by 2 Live Crew that begged the question, “The First Amendment gave us freedom of speech. So, what you sayin’? It didn’t include me?”. Ice Cube, in his first solo recording since N.W.A—a group that helped to define the emergent gangsta rap form—delivered the visceral AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted in which he pointed to the entrenched racism and bigotry of the L.A.P.D:

I think back when I was robbin' my own kind

The police didn't pay it no mind

But when I start robbing the white folks

Now I'm in the pen with the soap-on-a-rope

I said it before and I'll still taught it

Every motherfucker with a color is most wanted

There is of course a historical resonance here too. Since the “divide and conquer” of Africa and the enslavement of its people, music was often the only form of communication available to segregated and suppressed peoples. “Not only was song an expression of the continual distresses of enslavement, but it was also an alert to the dangers of an oppressive society.” Rap is an extension of this tradition. As an expression of the contemporary African-American experience it provided “a description as well as a means of coping with social and political oppression” (Howard, 1999). The struggle of black America under Reagan-omics was amplified in the nineties by both radio and screen media. Cable news, MTV, independent cinema and later the web provided artists with not only a readymade archive and a new means of distribution but also an audio visual connection with the language and artefacts of recent media history. Spike Lee provocatively placed the Rodney King camcorder footage at the front of his polemic Malcolm X (1992) while Ben Harper in his searing ode to LA, Like a King (1993), observed that the Rodney King bashing was reminiscent of “the days strung up from the tree,” and lamenting that “Martin's dream has become Rodney's worst nightmare.” Katheryn Bigelow used a fictional echo of the incident in Strange Days (1995) in which activist rapper Jeriko-One cites Martin Luther King in a televised public rally, proclaiming: “I never had a dream, ‘cause my life is a nightmare. America has been my boogie-man for 400 years.”

Fig. 6: Strange Days in Fitzroy, Mitch Goodwin, 2018 

A man drives a plane into the Chrysler building ...
— Soul Coughing, Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago, Ruby Vroom, 1994

Johnny Mnemonic opens with a screen crawl that indicates we are living in a time of extreme inequality, where data is currency and corporations are omnipresent.

New century. Age of terminal capitalism. The armoured towers of the multinational corporations rise above the ruins of the democracies that gave them birth. Soldiers of Yakuza defend them. Hackers, data-pirates, Lo-Tek media-rebels are the enemy, burrowing like rats in the walls of cyberspace.

In the film’s final sequence, the data – which we have learnt is the cure for Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (NAS) – is to be downloaded from Johnny’s brain and broadcast to the world so the NAS afflicted masses can access the data and distribute the cure. This is lo-fi Wikileaks, data extraction on an oily rag, gritty cyberpunk hacking at its best. Effectively, the Lo-Teks are open sourcing the treatment for the black shakes by “freeing the data” from corporate control and thereby echoing the ethos of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace: “In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.” 

It might seem strange now but tapping into the contents of Keanu Reeve’s brain was a utopian data moment in 1995. This was still the digital frontier when the network was as yet not fully colonised by corporate America. The Lo-Teks effectively delivering a global moment of healing via satellite. These were the dreams we had in the nineties.

Right here, right now.
— Fat Boy Slim (Norman Cook), You’ve Come a Long Way Baby, 1999

Johnny Mnemonic and Strange Days were showing us this future in 1995, but we could not have foreseen the totality of what was to follow this convergence of technology, culture and politics: not just a “global war” on terror but a “forever war”: Seattle, Occupy and Tariq Square / the rise of total surveillance and the commodification of identity and desire / the GFC and austerity / the Snowden files and Wikileaks / Stuxnet and Tinder / #deepfakes and post-truth / Sandy Hook / Trayvon Martin / Donald J. Trump and Slender Man / … :-/ …

When the millennium did arrive, maybe all the fear and paranoia was justified. It is perhaps instructive that Primal Scream – a British band that knew a thing or two about riding the crest of the zeitgeist – began the decade singing Come Together and ended the decade with the rally cry Kill All Hippies. We had been prophesising the meaning of the arrival of the millennium since Nostradamus, since Kubrick, since Fukuyama and, let’s be honest, since Prince. Bowie had dedicated two brutal industrial-electro albums to its character and shape, William Gibson and Robert Longo had crafted a nightmarish cyber dance around its gritty fallout, while James Cameron, Katherine Bigelow and Brett Leonard set their dystopian allegories at its grubby violent gates. While Seattle burned and network administrators quivered, the rapture was no more real than the quickening had been for Christopher Lambert in the Highlander (Mulcahy). The atomic clock would tick over seemingly without incident, the Five Eyes barely registering a blink – Times Square, the Sydney Harbour bridge, the London Eye they all looked a million bucks.

The seeds had been sown, however: fear, paranoia and self-loathing were out of the box. We’d seen the rushes; the camera work was solid the performance convincing. Without 1995, 1999 would not have been possible and Neo would have most likely gobbed the wrong pill.

Fig. 7: The Panda Matrix, Mitch Goodwin, 2018 


Somewhere near Airlie Beach, on the first morning of the new millennium, a compact disc curated from hours of dial-up Limewire downloads and kept aside especially for this moment warbled from the speakers of an old mustard coloured 1985 Volvo sedan, skewered into the side of a dune, amidst the long grass and pandanus palms.

We’d barely seen a quarter of it, but there was a century behind us and we felt it; lowering ourselves onto a pontoon overlooking a glassy fresh water lake, we smoked deeply, channelling ripples of amphetamines and vodka. I had graduated to a Nokia 6610, lying silent on the decking. No signal.

The sun had yet to rise but the sky was Miami Vice – blushes of pink across the blue neon. Everything had come together in that moment: a road trip, a bush doof, old friends, new friends, mango daiquiris, a gentle warm ecstasy. The drive back to the Gold Coast would be long, the year ahead definitive – creatively and emotionally exhausting. Endless. The 1990s were over. Impermanence was everywhere. It was more than just a feeling now.


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28 Days Later. Dir. Danny Boyle. 20th Century Fox, 2002.

Disclosure. Dir. Barry Levinson. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1994.

Ghost in the Shell. Dir. Mamoru Oshii. Manga Entertainment, 1995.

Goldeneye. Dir. Martin Campbell. MGM, 1995.

Hackers. Dir. Iain Softley. United Artists, 1995.

Highlander. Dir. Russell Mulcahy. EMI Films (UK), 20th Century Fox (USA), 1986.

Johnny Mnemonic. Dir. Robert Longo. Sony Pictures, 1995.

Judge Dredd. Dir. Danny Cannon. Buena Vista Pictures, 1995.

Kiss Me Deadly. Dir. Robert Aldrich. United Artists, 1955.

LA Story. Dir. Mick Jackson. TriStar Pictures, 1991.

Lawnmower Man. Dir. Brett Leonard. New Line Cinema, 1992.

The Larry Sanders Show. Dir. Ken Kwapis et al. Columbia TriStar Television, 1992-1998.

Malcolm X. Dir. Spike Lee. Warner Bros, 1992.

Married … with Children. Dir. Linda Day. Columbia Pictures Television, 1987-1997.

Out of the Past. Dir. Jacques Tourneur. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947.

Seinfeld. Dir. Art Wolff et al. Columbia TriStar, 1989-1998.

Sneakers. Dir. Phil Aden Robinson. Universal Studios, 1992

Strange Days. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. 20th Century Fox, 1995.

Tank Girl. Dir. Rachel Talalay. United Artists, 1995.

The Fisher King. Dir. Terry Gilliam. TriStar Pictures, 1991.

The Net. Dir. Irwin Winkler. Columbia Pictures, 1995.

The Simpsons. Dir. David Silverman et al. 20th Century Fox, 1989.

Twin Peaks. Dir. David Lynch. CBS Television, 1991.

The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999.

Tomorrow Never Dies. Dir. Roger Spottiswoode. MGM, 1997.

Virtuosity. Dir. Brett Leonard. Paramount Pictures, 1995.

Wall-E. Dir. Andrew Stanton. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2008.

Waterworld. Dir. Kevin Reynolds. Universal Pictures, 1995.

Author Biography

Mitch Goodwin, University of Melbourne

Mitch Goodwin is a media artist and academic with a research interest in emergent media ecologies and digital aesthetics. An interdisciplinary academic, Mitch has presented at SXSW Interactive (Austin, TX), the Art Association of Australia (GOMA, Brisbane), the David Bowie symposium (ACMI, Melbourne) and at the Australian Anthropology Society in which he interrogated the ethics of drones and autonomous systems. His media work has screened widely, including the IEEE VISAP (Baltimore, MD), Lumen Digital Arts Prize (Cardiff), MADATAC (Madrid) and the WRO Media Arts Biennale (Poland).