Review: Borg Like Me

Borg Like Me & Other Tales of Art, Eros, and Embedded SystemsBorg Like Me & Other Tales of Art, Eros, and Embedded Systems by Gareth Branwyn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(This ended up becoming almost more like a blog post than a review, but let’s call it new Books Journalism – a riff on new games journalism, which is really just Gonzo from the 70s repackaged for the children of the 80s and 90s)

I heard about the Borg Like Me Kickstarter on Boing Boing. I read the titular essay and, for some reason I was hooked. I participated in the Kickstarter (you can find my name on pg 273 according to my Nook) and anticipated the release. Like the majority of the crowd-funded projects I supported, this one was late. Once it arrived, I loaded it on my Nook and couldn’t wait for the chance to read it.

Before I get to the content of the book, I’d like to address the production, especially since the ePub version (the one I got) was delayed a little extra by formatting issues; apparently it wasn’t as simple as tranforming the PDF into an ePub. Even though Gareth has the icons as separators between his introductions and the actual article, I do appreciate the use of different fonts for each section. It helps me make sure I’m in the right headspace for each section. I read it in a black and white e-ink Nook. The illustrations and photos worked just as well in black and white as they would in color. I would have liked a way to jump back to the table of contents from each article, but other than that, it was well put-together.

Now for the content of the book: Gareth represents the penultimate generation that did not grow up with ubiquitous computing. He used typewriters and worked on zines that had to somehow find a distribution method. Nowadays anyone can post anything on a blog, Facebook, or Twitter and it can go truly viral. Back then, self-produced things could only go viral within a niche culture. Whenever I read about the time period Gareth eventually gets to – late 80s through mid 90s computer and Internet culture, I have mixed emotions. My age group (not even my whole generation) is the last to have known a world before the World Wid Web. We had to go to libraries to do research. We had to go to the store to buy things. I get mixed emotions because I understand this world that Gareth talks about, but for social and economic reasons, I didn’t get to participate in the culture.

I remember seeing BBS numbers in the back of my computer game manuals. But I didn’t know what those were. I should have been on BBSes and the early web. I was a nerd and no one around me seemed to be in my tribe. I could have found them online – but my family was very low middle-class and we could barely afford our first Windows 3.11 computer. It didn’t have a modem and, even when we did eventually get a computer with a modem, we didn’t have the money for the monthly rates. We surfed from free trial to free trial. We even tried the CompuServ attempt to have a hip off-shoot, WOW. So it’s somewhat sad that I could have interacted with these people who would have validated me and my struggle. Although, I would have been a quite different person, and I like me the way I am.

While Gareth’s essays stand on their own, they are also products of the time and publication they were a part of. The book would not be nearly as effective without his introductory essays (sometimes 50-75% as long as the essay they proceed). He’s also done a good job of structuring the essays so the content of the essays is roughly chronological (even if the publication date isn’t). The reader is essentially given a view of how Gareth grew up into the person he is today and how his formative experiences coincided with the growth of what might be called Cyberculture if the cyber prefix hadn’t gone out of style with the mid-to-late 90s. Web culture wouldn’t be an adequate replacement, because it’s about so much more than just being online – it’s the Maker culture, the punk rock political stylings, and more. I can almost see Gareth as a character in one of fellow Boing Boing writer Cory Doctorow’s novels. He grew up expecting Gibson’s future, the way children of the 50s were sure we’d be traveling the stars by now, he thought we’d be traveling the net. We’ve had various fits and starts – Second Life – came quite close to Snow Crash’s realitya, but it doesn’t seem to have caught on widely. The Occulus Rift seems like it may finally make VR a reality that won’t make people sick and Facebook’s acquisition means it may become mainstream, but we will have to wait and see.

Gareth’s writing definitely drips with a humor and pathos that leaves the reader understanding his mindset and his feelings – both as a wiser man looking back and the way he was feeling at the time. Even though I was a backer because of his nexus to technology as it evolved and his work at Wired and Boing Boing, the stories that affected me most profoundly were the ones that weren’t really about technology. They were both about his wife and, fittingly, were about the beginning and end of his time with her. The first story tells of his time at the hippie commune and, in the belief that spoilers can’t ruin good writing, he meets his wife. In the second he recounts his attendance of a Thievery Corporation concert after his wife’s death and some memories of her final performance with the band. Both of these stories hit me for different reasons. The first story reminded me of how I met my wife in the summer before college as we lived in the dorms. It was a similar bit of serendipity that led to us coming together and eventually getting married. Now I’ve been married for nearly a decade and the fragility of the relationship is ever-present as we navigate being parents and the extra stresses that brings to the relationship. Additionally, some people very close to me have dealt with depression and we just had Robin Williams die of depression and if he, the source of hilaritas of the universe, can’t get over it, what chance do we mere mortals have? Also, death has always fascinated me in every possible way – thoughts of fear, nihilism, hope, faith, and more have come through thinking of mortality.

Finally, I always envy people like Gareth who can have such full lives. I don’t have the flexibility and risk tolerance to do what he’s done. He lived with hippies for a few years, lived in a group home, lived at the Patch Adams house, written for a living, and more. Meanwhile, I’m cursed with the risk profile of a salaryman while yearning for a more exciting life. Then again, we always want what we don’t have – curly haired people want straight hair and vice-versa, small-breasted women want larger breasts and vice-versa, tall people want to be short and…well, you get the picture. (I know I’m violating a lot of Gareth’s rules of suck-less writing)

A while ago I read that there’s a reason most reviews hover around upper numbers – and it has nothing to do with stats. It’s supposed to be a confirmation bias thing. Unless something has pissed me off so badly that I want to write a 1-star, I’m going to unconsciously want to rate it higher to show that I have good taste – I bought something that’s a 4 or 5 star item. I imagine this is doubly so for a Kickstarter project. This is not just something I bought, it’s something I believed in and funded before I even knew exactly what the final product would be. That said, I think this is a great book. I can’t predict whether or not it will appeal to a general audience, but I am fairly certain it will appeal to people who grew up during this time and people who are curious about the time before and during the WWW. It helps to like autobiographical material. If that’s you, I’d seek it out.

I tend to end my reviews with the content warnings to try and head off those who rate something a 1 star just because it had profanity or talked about Jesus the wrong way. So, this book has consequence-free drug use, mild profanity, mentions of sex and arousal (no explicit descriptions of sex acts), and mentions of the occult and descriptions of occult practices. None of that bothered me, but if it bothers you to the point of inhibiting your ability to enjoy a book, this is probably not the book for you.

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