|Cybernetic culture research unit|
A Short Prehistory of Ccru
The question of 'the' history of the Ccru is problematic, not least because Ccru activity is characterised by its antagonism towards stable temporality. It's the business of the great sedentary assemblages to establish settled lineages and well-ordered sequences, whereas Ccru-process attaches itself to coincidences, glitches and unforeseen consequences - breaks, twists and bends in time.
History insists upon a linear causal progression - a neat passage from the past (which is already decided) to the future (which is merely the playing out of what has been laid down in the past). Tell me about your mother, then, and I'll understand everything about you. Beyond this causality is another temporality, uncovered at the point where schizonanalysis meets pulp horror. Here, cause does not follow effect: there is a process of retrocontamination in which the deep past finds itself already infected with the far future. The crucial question is one of becoming: what are you changing into, what is growing out of you? Lovecraft, who specialised in narratives that looped the ancient palaeo- past into the far future, did not know that he was already infected with Ccru-virus any more than Ccru can know what strange entities are using its body to incubate the eggs from which they will emerge.
Let's begin at the end, with Ccru's 'latest' publication, Digital Hyperstition. Just now, it's the best place to look for clues as to what Ccru is becoming. Precisely because it is a mass of loose ends, unresolved questions, undecrypted signal. The Digital Hyperstition volume is an unexploded bomb: a text that, in decoding the esoteric traditions of the past, awaits its deployment in the near-future by populations it will itself machine.
Ccru is pleased to announce a deal in which key concepts from Digital Hyperstition have been sold to the games design company, Abstract Machines, who will be weaving them into the architecture of a digital game. From the point of view of the game and its consumers, Ccru is only important as the producer of Digital Hyperstition, and Digital Hyperstition is significant only as a handbook to the game.
In which case the history of the Ccru would be a prehistory of the game...
In Chronos, or conventional linear time, Ccru begins as the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick, in K0 +95. But in Chronos, Ccru has never existed. An official statement from the Ccru's former institutional base had it that, "Ccru does not, has not and will never exist." You could say that the university phase of Ccru's activity was dedicated to its escape from its status as an institutional non-entity. A series of events, including Virtual Futures: Datableed and Afro-Futures in K0 +96, and Virotechnics in K0 +97, and the emergence of the swarm-journal Abstract Culture, functioned as provisional escape-hatches, portals connecting Ccru to the outside of the university where its own future lay. By the time of this year's Syzygy, the event for which Digital Hyperstition was the accompanying publication, the Ccru's institutional history was over before it had begun, and Ccru was well on the way to transforming itself into a rumour mill, an agency of cyber-hype.
Currently, much Ccru activity seems to be dedicated to spreading hype about Y2K. And you'll understand much more about Ccru - and Digital Hyperstition - once you appreciate why it so obsessed with Y2K. So let's say the history of the Ccru begins here, in the - very - near future, with Y2K.
By now, of course, everyone is familiar with the Y2K - or Millennium Bug - phenomenon. The common perception of Y2K is that it is - merely - an accident. A technical oversight. Not imagining that their programs would still be used come the Year 2000, programmers used a two-digit protocol to code for the date, with the result that, come January 1st, computers still reliant on such programs will be terminally confused, unable to distinguish the year 1900 from the Year 2000.
Ccru learned from cybernetics the lesson that there is nothing 'merely' technical, and sees Y2K as an event exemplifying a whole complex of intermeshing themes, including: the crash of Science Fiction (and the emergence of cyberpunk), the death of postmodernity, and the re-start of chronopolitical conflict.
Y2K is an event that may ultimately be entirely constructed out of hype. But it is only pre-cybernetic nostalgia that could think of hype as something merely illusory ; like panic, which it parallels and bleeds into, hype is an immediately effective cybernetic process, operating by intense feedback spirals. Hype and panic cannot simply be thought of as precursors to events: they are the event already happening. So it's not a matter of waiting for Y2K. As a potential, it's already active. Even if not one computer malfunctions on New Year's Day, Mbug has already been a major disaster for capitalism, of an unprecedented scale. (Estimates of the cost of Y2K to date have gone stratospheric.)
So far as Ccru is concerned, this means the crash of Science Fiction. Y2K plugs into the fears that have haunted Science Fiction since its inception: the idea of a human population becoming dependent upon machines over which it has no effective control. As technological integration increases, human control lessens, and the possibility of something crashing the entire system grows. SF disintegrates into cyberpunk.
Where Science Fiction can be defined as the implementation of the project of Progressive Technology - a vision of uninhibited technological growth spreading out into a far future that has been speculatively planned - cyberpunk lurks in the near future, building itself out of the unanticipated consequences of technical development.
SF conceives of machines in terms of human use-value, thinking of them as (temporarily troublesome) tools with which humanity is ultimately destined to be reconciled . The famous jump-cut in Kubrick's 2001 - from caveman's primitive weapon to gleaming space vehicle - gives you a handy summary of the Science Fictional version of history.
>From the POV of Y2K, of course, 2001 never happens. And it is almost as if the popular unconscious and Y2K have colluded in the elimination of any date after 1999. In the early-to-mid 90s, when Y2K began to emerge as a problem, the year 2000 still seemed as far distant as it did in the 1950s, when programmers agreed upon the two-digit date protocol. In the popular unconscious, the year 2000 and beyond belong to the far distant time of Science Fiction - with the ironic effect that SF's long-term has suddenly collapsed into cyberpunk's near future.
Y2K is not only everywhere computers are, it is everywhere silicon chips are: it is a molecular bug, infecting even the tiniest interstices of the technical environment, an invisible invader into technical systems that have themselves tended to shrink out of human sight. It is a global problem that can only be tackled locally. Even if, say, airlines do manage to root out all their Mbug infections, they are still dependent upon agencies who may not have been so successful in debugging their systems.
So Y2K is not so much a catastrophe as a hyper-catastrophe. Y2K-os can be extrapolated from any number of contingencies and their potential interexcitations: traffic failure, food shortages, ATM malfunction, stock market crashes, exchange of nuclear weapons... Anything that is dependent upon computers is potentially infected with Mbug. Which is bad news for us, who are symbiotically intertwined with them.
Y2K is just one more example of the way in which capitalist reality is indistinguishable from fiction: in capital's world of simulation and cybernetic anticipation, all that is solid has melted into the abstract and virtual. Which is not to subscribe to some melancholy postmodern story about derealization so much as to point to ways in which virtual agencies - such as potentials - have the most material effect imaginable.
Cyberpunk begins with Y2K, but when does Y2K begin? Y2K transforms the dynamics of chaos theory into the logic of fatality. At one level, you couldn't be more precise about when Y2K will happen; at another, it's a massively distributed event, involving the whole century. You could date Y2K at the point, in the 1950s, when the 2-digit protocol was put in place, or at any point since, when the decision to modify it was not taken. As with any fatal loop, ironies abound. It was the military forerunner of the internet, ARPANET, that established the 2-digit dating system. Now, with the Cold War ended, the biggest threat to western security may be a - literal - time-bomb planted by the US military itself some forty years ago.
When the Economist questioned last year whether two digits can /really mean the end of civilization, it expressed what is a widespread inability to come to terms with the real and effective (not merely signifying or representational) power of signs in cybernetic culture. Y2K is a semiotic event, but it does not belong to postmodernity's regime of signs. Rather, Y2K signals the virtual termination of PoMo. The widespread failure of the academy to offer any effective response to Y2K (or any sort of response at all) is testament to the bankruptcy of its theoretical commitments. It was one thing for out-of-touch theorists to fail to anticipate the events of 1968; but to be unable to respond to Y2K - an event - is an oversight of another magnitude entirely.
The problem is that Y2K scrambles the PoMo radar, discomfiting the by now cosy set of assumptions on which postmodern thought rests. Y2K is culturally-generated but it does not belong to "discourse"; it is a disaster, but it is entirely "unnatural". The notion of cultural construction to which PoMo is so attached has always carried with it the implicit idea that what has been constructed can be taken apart again. The assumption belongs to a pre-cybernetic opposition between Nature (as the realm of the given) and Culture (as the province of the mutable) that Y2K - like the cybernetic capitalism which has incubated it - is effectively dismantling. Y2K is no less of a catastrophe, and no less ineradicable, because it is totally artificial.
Against the PoMo dictum that signs are arbitrary (and therefore effectively interchangable), Y2K promises that global disaster could be precipitated by a specific semiotic trigger. When next some media pundit yawns about the Year 2000 being an arbitrary date, reflect on the fact that Y2K is happening not on a date, but because of a date. More radically put, the event is the date. At no other point in history have semiotic dating practices themselves caused a catastrophe: when people looked to the skies in trepidation in 999, they didn't imagine that the date itself would bring calamity.
Y2K is simultaneously about friction (between humans and computers) and convergence (of time systems). Things click together on the machinic unconscious just as they fall apart in the social world. At the moment of Y2K, the two-digit convention converges the date with the time: 99 becomes 00 at 00:00 hours precisely. This string of noughts should give pause to PoMo relativists who insists that any sign will do; it is the very precise function of zero that allows Y2K to happen as (and when) it does, effectuating a collision of the Hindu-Arab numeric system with Roman numerals. Although translated into Hindu-Arab numerals, the Gregorian calendar still effectively runs on a Roman numeric system ignorant of zero. Y2K ciphers what will not happen in undebugged cyberspace: the Gregorian Year 2000. Skipping SF's 2000 AD, computers will cyberpunk the date, counting what the Gregorian calendar never has: zero. An anti-PoMo and anti-Gregorian weapon, Y2K quite literally signifies nothing. The effect is a calendric revolution carried out entirely by the machinic unconscious. Unraveling the virtual computer calendar is complicated. When is Y2K's year zero: the Gregorian year 2000, or Greg year 1900? Both are candidates, since, in addition to treating January 1st "2000" as year zero, the implicit computer calendar has retrospectively coded January 1st "1900" as its start-date. And, at the level of the unconscious, anyone logging onto a computer has been in complicity with the computer-calendar. On the darkside of the Net, news is breaking of 00-cults dedicated to the computer-generated calendric system...
These denizens of the darkside of cyberspace are practitioners of what Ccru calls digital hyperstition. It's time to look closer at what is involved in this term, and the best place to begin is with one of the writers who have written most extensively on the subject, Iris Carver.