CHAOS AND CYBERCULTURE

Timothy Leary; Ronin Press, 265 pages, $19.95
Doesn't Timothy Leary ever quit? When will he learn that the last generation's countercultural remnants -- especially those in their 70s -- are supposed to age gracefully into non-threatening nostalgia, film-clip fodder for VH-1? Why doesn't Leary collect his test tubes, books and kaleidoscopic hoard of knowledge, go away and do some knitting? Why doesn't he just get a hobby?

Perhaps because living is Timothy Leary's hobby. Living, listening and thinking, and telling us what he's lived and heard and thought. It's a good hobby to have, for us as well as him. Chaos and Cyberculture is a dazzlingly optimistic collection of interviews, essays and irreverent stray thoughts on where the universe has been and where it may be going, bound together with graphics, illustrations and a fast-reading layout that makes you feel like you're browsing the Web instead of reading a book.

Leary discusses his favorite writers, interviews his favorite people (from William S. Burroughs to David Byrne to his goddaughter, Winona Rider) and addresses topics including the drug war, death, politics, cybersex and cyberrevolution. The thrust of it all: We live in interesting times, with some of the most potentially life-changing technology ever invented, with knowledge increasing at a faster rate than ever before. The motif of questioning authority courses throughout Leary's life and work, and here he asks us to question who controls this technology -- if we don't understand it and use it, he warns, someone else will.

I personally don't find myself rapt in anticipation of a virtually real world. Leary is prone to the hard sell and his relentless optimism makes me reflexively nervous at times. But his book spreads before us a plethora of possibilities and questions: Do we have to die? Are there other ways to use our brains to have better lives, better bodies, better orgasms? What is religion? And most importantly, who's really in charge here? How can we make sure it's not some faceless committee, instead of the people who best know how to run our lives -- us?

Leary's smorgasbord approach to information lays it all out, from the silly (Andy Warhol and Walt Disney, cryogenic popsicles in California) to the sublime (Joyce and Burroughs, literary brothers under the skin). Leary's viewpoint, bolstered by seven decades of experience and education, is refreshingly rare. He discusses controversial and disturbing subjects in passionate, goofy language. You don't have to agree with his ideas -- Leary doesn't care. But when it comes to freedom of ideas, information and choice, Leary cares deeply, and it shows.

In every tribal society and small village of previous times, there was usually a fool. Call them shamans, village idiots or poets, but when they spoke people laughed -- and listened. In this age of Prozac and therapy and corporate-owned media, we need more than ever to listen to and preserve our fools. Chaos and Cyberculture is foolery of the best sort.

-- Barbara Strickland

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