John Kelsey, consulting writer for Synthetic Pleasures, interviews director iara lee


K: Synthetic Pleasures deals with a wild variety of subjects: mood altering drugs, plastic surgery, information technology, robots, controlled environments, etc. It’s how we look to cutting-edge technologies in the hope of transforming ourselves that ties it all together. This seems to be the critical idea behind your film.

L: Indeed, I have always been fascinated by human curiosity and the desire to expand consciousness. Humans have always had this desire for transcendence. We are essentially insatiable animals. To be human is to try to be more than human. Intrinsically, we don’t accept nature…this desire to change is innate. Technology seems to give us more power to change or at least the illusion that we can do it.

Do you think humans can really get any better?

I wouldn’t say better but different. We change, if for better or for worse, I don’t know. It is fun to change, that is what matters.

Tell me some of your favorite synthetic pleasures.

Dolby sound, e-mail, hi-tech graphic design, computer music, pro tools sound editing, virtual reality thrills.

I have a feeling you’re not telling me everything.

You expect me to say cybersex. Unfortunately, I am not so into sex.

What kinds of virtual pleasure do you look forward to as VR technology improves in the coming years?

I want to travel with my mind as much as I can. I want the body not to be an obstacle. I want the mind to be liberated and to discover experiences through VR which are not available otherwise. VR is not a substitute but another option. People keep emphasizing how dangerous it is to be lost in our VR worlds, but we can also see it as a liberating opportunity. It is a powerful tool and a new way of handling reality, but not an escape from reality.

Do you have a particular VR fantasy?

Many…adventures that are inaccessible in the physical world, which could only be enjoyed in the virtual one. Adventures which begin by leaving the body behind. Jaron Lanier believes that VR is an adventure which will last through the centuries, and that we need these long-term adventures. It will be centuries before we can fully assess its impact on the human condition.

I was struck by some of the extreme futurism that you show to be going on out West. The Extropians, TheCryonics Institute, etc. People out West seem most impatient with the slow pace of what the rest of us call civilization.

Silicon Valley, why is Silicon Valley where it is? Somehow they concentrate out West. Some kinds of vision just aren’t possible in New York. Out West people are able to imagine new kinds of civilization and are actively involved in their experimentation.

What about those culty, mini-societies forming around ideas like transhumanism, cyberspace, immortality. High-tech hippies. Is this something we should worry about?

As long as they don’t think they have the only answers, I don’t see why it is dangerous. As long as pluralism is accepted, we should be fine. You are wondering if they are becoming dangerous cults? Obviously fanaticism is dangerous, but they don’t seem to be fanatics, just a bunch of smart fringe scientists and intellectuals.

A lot of people feel uncomfortable with the imposition of technology, but I guess you can always opt not to be part of it You can send snail mail while others exchange e-mail, use a typewriter, while others use computers, etc. You can choose to become an outsider. The reality is that we are living in the postindustrial age and there is no way we can stop technology. We can only go beyond it by going through it.

People always try to associate with others that think alike. Cyberspace creates room for a variety of virtual communities and that is a positive thing. Just like in the physical world, we look for minds that think alike. On the west coast a lot of people like to speculate about post-biological technologies, and a lot of them happen to be the old hippies. As Leary says, they are hippies with beepers. These are the ones who made off with the good aspects of the 60’s without getting stuck there. The same way they explored hallucinogenics in the 60’s, trying to expand the boundaries of the physical world, they now explore technology as mind expanders. The anti-establishment, pioneering spirit is the same. It makes sense…LSD was for the sixties what computers are for the nineties.

Computers are like LSD?

Computers and VR help us transcend the physical world, therefore can be considered psychedelics. There is this infinite quest for expansion of the mind that goes back to ancient times and is being continued in our day through high technology.

Information technology seems to be fostering new lifestyles for those most involved with it…new ways of interacting, of socializing, of being (or not being) in the world.

Technology becomes a lifestyle. Synthetic Pleasures tries to get beyond hightech theory and engage technology where it is lived. The people you meet in the film think very carefully about high technology, but these are high-tech philosophers who think outwards from an everyday living of technology.

Is information technology as full of promise as magazines like Wired make it out to be?

It brings us a new set of solutions and problems. It is always like that. We now have access to infinite information…the problem it creates is the info overload, data management. Computers facilitate tasks, but somehow make us work even harder. Technology frees and enslaves at the same time. It is a wonderful contradiction.

The new digital technologies at our disposal keep us busier than usual, but this work is fun because we’re more involved with the design of our own worlds.

Hopefully technology will allow us to be more creative and in tune with what happens around us. We have direct communication with others, bypassing editors and the regular media. The individual that never had an active voice can now scream to the world without his or her ideas being censored or filtered by editors. It is quite amazing how direct the communication is through the Net. But I don’t know what will happen in the future with corporations taking over, government censorship, etc.

At a very young age, kids are learning how to affect the look, shape and texture of their worlds. Everyone has a say.

Exactly. In this sense it is a big revolution in communication and how the world is shaped.

So we can only hope the kids take all this in the right direction.

Kids grow up with the ubiquitous presence of computers and get used to a lot of information. I don’t think they experience this as information overload…it is normal for them, since they grow up used to digesting so much.

What would life be like in your ideal future world? What would be different?

Life would be more fun with the help of technology. Our minds would be engaged in more creative enterprises with the help of technology.

Do you find technology sexy?

Extremely. Nerd tricks really turn me on.

Nerds are turned on…showing us new ways of turning on.

Nerds are now seen as cool. Engineers, geeks, are sexy people.

What I love in SP is the idea throughout the film that the artificial and the natural have become blurred, the way they’ve started to blend together in these times. I mean, is an anthill really more natural than an indoor ski slope?

Exactly, the distinction is blurry. What is human, what is machine, what is natural, what is synthetic, what is reality, what is virtual reality? It all blends together. It is interesting to question those concepts. We say machines are extensions of humans, but we can also say that we are extensions of machines now.

Do you ever think about replacing body parts…any cyborg tendencies in you?

I feel I am a robot already, in the good sense…somehow people, when compared to robots, carry bad karma. I see it as positive in a lot of ways, becoming more intimate with machines.

Could you live in Japan?

I would like to try at some point. The technological bizarre attracts me. Gibson had a reason to write Neuromancer using Japan as the location for the story.

Is culture there more futuristic than ours?

I think so but they don’t. It is only bizarre and sci-fi for us because we observe from outside. They just live it.

I hear you’re collaborating with your sister Jussara Lee. Venturing into fashion?

The SP Activewear line is available in major department stores this fall ’95. We sold to Hong Kong, Tokyo, LA, NY. We imported hi-tech fabrics from Switzerland, almost like wet suit material and designed cool-looking garments. People really like them.

Does all this techno stuff ever strike you as campy?

Sure…look at web pages, cdroms, etc. They are poorly designed. We need more artists dominating the technical aspects of technology. More designers writing html language.

Many of the people in your film (Lanier, Barlow, Palac, Sirius, etc.) see
technology as highly liberating for the human imagination. Their vision of the digital age is an extremely human one. These are ideas one might not expect from the scientific community.

The Internet was created by the military. It is amazing to see that the cat is out of the bag, as Kaku says. Now millions of civilians take advantage of the communication network. Unfortunately the smart people, the scientists, need sponsors and a lot of times these sponsors work for war not for peace. Smart people are hired to propel war development. It is sad how true this is. We wish all this technology was used to enhance humanity, but unfortunately a lot of times it is used to enslave. While we have humanitarians thinking about technology as
creativity-enhancing, we have military people focusing on technology to dominate other countries.

SP shows the potential in technology for shaping our identities, the way identity is now seen as something we can change, improve, control. Plastic surgery, smart drugs and psychotropics, etc., are direct means of changing who we are.

We try to allign our exterior with our interior and be more comfortable with ourselves. We don’t need to accept Nature’s imposition, we control who we are and how we present ourselves to the world. There is more flexibility than before.

Have you tried any smart drugs?

I tried different ones, but kept forgetting to take them in a systematic way. I’m not sure if I became more concentrated because of them, but I found myself very energetic and focused. But maybe it wasn’t the drugs, just the constant stress of trying to finish my movie.

Why does the government make them so hard to get?

According to Max More it is a taboo. The government does not approve drugs that make you better than normal.

The government is nervous about people taking control of their own minds.

Obviously they would like to be the ones in control of our minds, but now the individual can be in control and that makes the government nervous.

Get our latest updates about arts and resistance, as well as info about screenings in your area. Sign up here!


We are very excited that Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Ehsani’s newest documentary, “Water Will Take Us,” is now screening at festivals. Check out the trailer! The film delves into the effectsof climate change in Iran, from water shortages to catastrophicfloods. Three women narrate the story, uncovering the causes andmismanagement that led to flooding in 2019.If you're in Seia, Portugal there will be a screening of “WaterWill Take Us” at the 29th Serra da Estrela InternationalEnvironmental Film Festival, which is running from Oct 5 - 13, 2023.Find out more information about the festival more about the support of our sister organization, the L/GFoundation, ... See MoreSee Less
View on Facebook
Privacy Settings
We use cookies to enhance your experience while using our website. If you are using our Services via a browser you can restrict, block or remove cookies through your web browser settings. We also use content and scripts from third parties that may use tracking technologies. You can selectively provide your consent below to allow such third party embeds. For complete information about the cookies we use, data we collect and how we process them, please check our Privacy Policy
Consent to display content from Youtube
Consent to display content from Vimeo
Google Maps
Consent to display content from Google