NEW SOCIAL MOVEMENT, THE MEDIA-ANVIRONMENT AND GLOBAL RESISTANCE by Tom Cahill
This essay is an investigation into New Social Movements and resistance in the
area of the media environment, the mediasphere.
The basic presupposition is that the natural environment of humankind
becomes, in the age of the information society, to a great extent
substituted by mediated environments. So in an urban context where most
people live in our societies, the media-environment is often predominant
to the natural surrounding. ' Media' in this context can be seen as
everything from billboards to VR-equipment. A main focus shall be put on
the universal medium computer esp. in its networked version.To be exposed
to media, to be in a mediated environment makes up most of the time of a
normal urban citizen. For urban people media represent their ' natural'
environment. The media-sphere is therefore often described by terms which
express a spatial connotation: Cyberspace, Cyberia, Information-highway or
even second nature are often used synonyms for the media- or data-sphere.
space a lot of the counterculture is constituted around ecological issues.
But both kind of spaces, real spaces and virtual spaces, are nowadays not
separable anymore. So the question is whether there are similarities
between what ecological movements do in real space and what kind of
countercultural activities take place in cyberspace. The most significant
counterculture in cyberspace is the Cyberpunk-movement. It shall therefore
be investigated in direction how they can be understood as a movement with
environmental issues in Cyberspace. Their origins, their shared identity,
but also their social organisation and countercultural potential shall be
viewed. A special focus shall be put on a comparison to the environmental
movement. For this sake some generalisations about the environmental
movement were unavoidable.
2. Cyberpunk: The Literature-Movement
The term cyberpunk was first used in a Bruce Bethke short story called
'Cyberpunk', published in the November 1983 issue of Amazing Stories. (Compare
Featherstone and Burrows 1995: 7) It later served as a description of a
special genre of science fiction-literature, which became known as CY-FY (instead
of Sci-Fi). The most influential piece of literature is William Gibson's
Neuromancer 1984, who is often supposed to create the Cyberpunk
movement on his own just with this work. William Gibson also coined the
term 'Cyberspace'. Also many other authors especially Rudy Rucker, John
Shirley, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson belong now to this genre as
well as certain books from William Burroughs, John Brunner, Phillip K.
Dick, George Orwell and Thomas Pynchon, which were retroactively labelled
Cyberpunk. Also some science-fiction movies are labelled Cyberpunk, esp.
Scott Ridley's Bladerunner 1982, Verhoeven's Total Recall,
the TV series Max Headroom, the Terminator-movies, the
Alien-trilogy, Wargames, Johnny Mnemonic etc. and so the
concept of Cyberpunk swept through the popular culture.
Also a lot of music can be suppossed to be Cyberpunk: for example Billy
All these literature and films deal with a certain plot, which make up
also the belief-system of Cyberpunks. This plot is summarized in the
Cyberpunk-FAQs (Frequently asked questions) as:
literature, in general, deals with marginalized people in
technologically-enhanced cultural 'systems'. In Cyberpunk stories' settings,
there is usually a 'system' which dominates the lives of most 'ordinary'
people, be it an oppressive government, a group of large, paternalistic
corporations or a fundamentalist religion. These systems are enhanced by
certain technologies, particularly 'information technology' (computers, the
mass media), making the system better at keeping those within it, inside
it. Often this technological system extends into its human 'components' as
well, via brain implants, prosthetic limbs, cloned or genetically
engineered organs, etc. Humans themselves become part of 'the Machine'.
This is the 'cyber' aspect of Cyberpunk.
However, in any cultural system, there are always those who live on its
margins, on 'the Edge': criminals, outcasts, visionaries or those who
simply want freedom for its own sake. Cyberpunk literature focuses on
these people, and often on how they turn the system's technological tools
to their own ends. This is the 'punk' aspect of Cyberpunk." (Frank 1997: 2)
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setting of Cyberpunk novels is urban, the mood is dark and pessimistic.
Model for this setting is often the landscape of the movie Bladerunner.
Also the style expresses a certain realistic attitude. "Concepts are
thrown at the reader without explanation, much like new developments are
thrown at us in our everyday lives."(ibid.: 2)
So the main subject of Cyberpunk-literature is of a dystopian view of the
future, where a good David fights a bad Goliath. The story very often
resembles the one of a conspiracy-theory namely the belief that there are
certain groups in society which aim for despotic power. Very good examples
hereford are Stephenson's Snow Crash or Gibson's Neuromancer.
Conspiracy-theories are most of the time not provable, however they make
sense and follow a logical coherence.
"Whereas the majority of media-consumers have capitulated a long time
ago to the multi-colored word- and picture-salad and have surrendered to
the dull twilight, people who believe in conspiracy-theories insist with
an astonishing optimism on the belief, that a meaningful explanation of
the daily chaos/welter must be possible." (Freyermuth 1996: 7- transl.
Cyberpunk-literature makes its reader believe that resistance against the
system is possible, but this belief has also dangerous aspects inherent.
"Conspiracy-theories are therefore a reaction to the loss of meaning
in the mass-media, they work with a strict logic and have a strong inner
coherence. But this logic and coherence can also be seen as delusion and
the coherence as contingency. [..] Marshall McLuhan thought, that the
belief in such a sense is perishable, a superstition from past epochs,
which only can do harm today. In an electronic environment it is not
advisable, he claimed, to think or act coherently." (ibid.: 10 -
transl. by S.J.)
Cyberpunk-literature can also be seen as an attack on the mainstream
science fiction movement. It shifted the notion of science fiction to a
much more realistic account. Larry McCaffrey analysed in his great book
about Cyberpunk and postmodern fiction: Storming the Reality Studio
1991, Cyberpunk as "SF that mixes surrealism and pop culture imagery
with esoteric, historical and scientific information. " (McCaffrey
1991: 272) " It's the realism that cyberpunk supplies, that sense of
what it really feels like to be alive in our place, at our time."
(ibid: 276) Also scientific futurology such as Alvin Toffler's The
Third Wave 1980 (Cyberpunk-bible) and a certain type of social theory
such as books by Jean Baudrillard, Arthur Kroker and Paul Virilio etc.
became classified as some sort of Cyberpunk. The realism of
Cyberpunk-literature blurred therefore the boundaries between science
fiction and social theory as stated by Mike Featherstone, William Bogard
or Donna Haraway: " The boundary between science fiction and social
reality is an optical illusion." (Haraway 1991: 149) And so the
Cyberpunk-literature could become an " illusion-making system
producing Reality." (McCaffrey 1991: 206)
3. Cyberpunk: The Social Movement of Resistance
future has imploded onto the present. There was no nuclear Armageddon.
There's too much real estate to lose. The new battle-field is people's
minds. ... The megacorps are the new governments. ... The U.S. Is a big
bully with lackluster economic power... The world is splintering into a
trillion subcultures and designer cults with their own language, codes and
lifestyles. ... Computer-generated info-domains are the next frontiers.
... There is better living through chemistry... Small groups or
individual 'console cowboys' can wield tremendous power over governments,
corporations etc. ... The coalescence of a computer 'culture' is expressed
in self-aware computer music, art, virtual communities, and a hacker/street
tech subculture. ... The computer nerd image is passé, and people are not
ashamed anymore about the role the computer has in this subculture. The
computer is a cool tool, a friend, important human augmentation... We're
becoming cyborgs. Our tech is getting smaller, closer to us, and it will
soon merge with us. Gareth Branwyn (quoted by Featherstone &
Burrows. 1995: 9f.)
Inspired by Cyberpunk literature in the mid-1980's, certain groups of
people started referring to themselves as Cyberpunks, because they noticed
the seeds of the fictional 'techno-system' in Western society today, and
because they identified with the marginalized characters in Cyberpunk
stories. So the fictional Cyberpunk-literature created a
real-life-movement which became real in the computer-underground. The
belief coming from cyberpunk literature shows the political and cultural
conflict, Cyberpunks are engaged with: the techno-system which invades
more and more aspects of everyday life. To be subject to the techno-system,
to live on its edges and to see conspiracies in the techno-system
represent the basis for a shared identity of Cyberpunks.
According to Mario Dianis definition of social movement: " A social
movement is a network of informal interactions between a plurality of
individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in a political or
cultural conflict, on the basis of a shared collective identity." (Diani:
13), Cyberpunk can be seen as a social movement. But Cyberpunk is not one
monolithic group of individuals. The movement is often divided into
specific subgroups, with different interests. The main-division in
Cyberpunk is between Hackers, Crackers,
Phreaks and Cypher-punks:
# 'Hackers' are the 'wizards' of the computer community; people with a
deep understanding of how their computers work, and can do things with
them that seem 'magical'.
# 'Crackers' are the real-world analogues of the 'console cowboys' of
Cyberpunk fiction; they break into other people's computer systems,
without their permission, for illicit gain or simply for the pleasure of
exercising their skill
# 'Phreaks' are those who do a similar thing with the telephone system,
coming up with ways to circumvent phone companies' calling charges and
doing clever things with the phone network.
# 'Cypher-punks': These people think a good way to bollock 'The System' is
through cryptography and cryptosystems. They believe widespread use of
extremely hard-to-break coding schemes will create 'regions of privacy'
that 'The System' cannot invade." (Frank 1997: 3)
These four groups of people form the inner circle of Cyberpunks, but also
many other groups are often referred to as Cyberpunks, from intensive
internet-surfers to people seeking immortality through virtual existence
to ravers who use synthesized and sampled music and computer-generated
psychedelic art and virtual reality equipment for all-night dance-parties
Radical thinkers like Timothy Leary even see in Cyberpunk a new form of
" Timothy Leary declares that Gibson has produced nothing less than
the underlying myth, the core legend, of the next stage of human evolution.
He is performing the philosophic function that Dante did for feudalism and
that writers like Mann, Tolstoy [and] Melville ... Did for the industrial
age. " (Leary quoted by Featherstone; Burrows 1995: 7)
He sees a long tradition of Cyberpunks, whereas cyber means something like
Pilot, coming from the Greek word kubernetes to navigate. " The
cyberpunk person, the pilot who thinks clearly and creatively, using
quantum electronic appliances and brain know-how, is the newest, updated,
top-of-the-line model of the "21st Century: Homo sapiens sapiens
cyberneticus." (Leary 1994: 64). According to this broad definition
" inventors, innovative writers, technofrontier artists, risk-taking
film directors, icon-shifting composers, stand-up comedians, expressionist
artists, free-agent scientists, technocreatives, computer visionaries,
elegant hackers, bit-blitting Prolog adepts, special-effectives, cognitive
dissidents, video wizards, neurological test pilots, media explorers - all
of those who boldly package and steer ideas out there where no thoughts
have gone before" (Leary 1994: 67) are all Cyberpunks.
In Leary's evolution of countercultures from the beats to the Hippies, to
cyberpunk he describes Cyberpunks (1975-1990)
# Mood: gloomy. Hip, but downbeat.
# Aesthetic-Erotics: leather and grunge, tattoos, piercings. Hard drugs,
psychedelics, smart drugs. Various forms of rock from metal to rap.
# Attitude: Angry, cynical, feel undervalued by elders.
# Brain-Tech: High-tech electronic.
# Intellectual Viewpoint: informed, open-minded, irreverent. Inundated with
# Humanist quotient: Non-sexist, ecological, global minded.
# Politics: Alienated, skeptical.
# Cosmic view: Pessimistic, but closet hope fiends." (Leary 1994: 81)
In a comparison of Cyberpunk- and Hippie-movement many differences can be
seen. Cyberpunk " preferred the rave, with its hyperaccelerated
remixed digital music, to simple acoustic folk songs; their drug of choice
was Ecstasy, not pot. These were not New Age flower children looking
for 'peace and love'; instead they were New Edge hiphoppers out for 'tech
and cred.' Rather than having some kind of 'back to nature' romanticism,
these folks preferred the urban disorder of the city, and they saw
technology as their weapon of choice, not the enemy. Their heroes were not
the Hippies of Peoples' Park - instead they looked to the pioneers of
pirate radio as their icons." (Mizrach: 1)
But there are as many similarities as there are differences: their
sympathy for drugs, their civil disobedience and the fact that " The
computer culture of the 1980s was as global as the youth culture of the
1960s." (Hafner; Markoff 1991: 10) For Timothy Leary the basic
philosophy for both movements stayed the same: " Think for yourself;
question authority (TFYQA)." (Leary 1994: 69)
Though this wide notion of the term Cyberpunk, for the further analysis of
Cyberpunk as a Social movement of resistance in the media-sphere and the
comparison with the environmental movement especially the notion of the
hacker, the cracker and the cypher-punk shall be kept in the eye. And
their philosophy is often reduced to the simple formula 'information wants
to be free' which may not sound very radical at first, but they mean that
every kind of information should be free: Everything from: " How to
rig vending machines and payphones. How to bootleg music concert tapes.
How to snatch classified information from the government. How to write
viruses [..] How to make pipe bombs and homebrew your own LSD. How to
sabotage the workplace." (Mizrach: 2) to a total refusal and
disregard of the copyright-system.
Some Cyberpunks also tried to define or 'hack out' as they like to say a
more comprehensive philosophy which became famous under the ten
commandments, but is not true for all Cyberpunks.
# The Hacker Ethic: 'Attack anything that tries to hide information
from the masses.'
# Rebel against harmful or oppressive authority.
# Screw everyone but your friends.
# Never trust anyone.
# Style over substance, blur meat and machine (more on cybernetics later).
# Anti-totalitarianism. Anarchy preferred.
# Striving for a moral and spiritual utopian 'enlightened despotism'.
# Related to Post Modernism Movement.
# Democracy does not really figure in (individual not mass dictatorship).
# Striving for 'freedom' as either personal dependence or independence
Through all of these commandments and formula, Cyberpunk stayed in its
forms of social organisation a very chaotic and loose network of
individuals and although there is some solidarity between them, they share
knowledge, software and so on, it stayed full of contradictions and inner
fights. Cypherpunks for example seem to do the total opposite of crackers,
they try to protect information and therefore create a private spheres.
Radical crackers want every kind of information even private one to be
free. Although or even because their common belief, solidarity and a
common direction seem not to be an easy thing for Cyberpunks."
Cyberpunks are notorious for ratting on each other and turning each other
in. And they are famous for backstabbing each other in every way possible.
Hacker paranoia is legendary - they don't trust anybody, and since most of
them use 'social engineering' to trick people, they expect others to try
and trick them." (Mizrach: 3)
Secret-services view the computer underground as 'a loose confederation of
criminal organisations' and in fact many of the crackers and phreaks can
for sure be seen as just criminals, cracking systems for the matter of
money or just for fun. Nevertheless many of them can also be seen as
highly socially engaged individuals who fight their fight as something
like 'Guerilleros in the jungle of the Internet'.
So, though all these inner contradictions and disputes some
institutionalisation has taken place and some organisations have been
build to lead the fight in a certain direction. Some
of the most famous ones are probably the 'EFF' (Electronic Frontier
Foundation) (http://www.eff.org), the 'CCC' (ChaosComputerClub) in
Germany (http://www.ccc.de) and 'Hacktic' in Holland (http://www.hacktic.nl).
Other Cyberpunks are formed around certain E-zines, as a continuation of
the Punk movement's fanzine, especially Mondo2000, bOING-bOING, Wired, SF
EYE, Phrack, 2600 Magazine and 21C. Some of these E-zines such as Wired and Mondo2000
have a questionable cyberpunk-status nowadays, as they became less
critical and are more famous as utopian cybercultural magazines, but they
all started as Cyberpunk-E-zines.
The form of resistance of Cyberpunk can be described as 'glocal' (a term
that came known through Paul Virilio and other social theorists). They
resist local and global at the same time and they use the weapons of 'the
system'. They use highly advanced media-technology and even push the
development further, by realising their science-fiction-vision. But they
also misuse the technology of the system for their own sake. For example,
most computer-crack-programs like the famous 'Devil' were originally
designed for system-administrators to find security risks. Encryption
programs like the PGP (PrettyGoodPrivacy) are developed and used to make
the Internet a secure place. By Cypher-punks they become used for the
fight for privacy.
" Some cypherpunks believe encryption can ultimately destroy the
State -if one enciphers their monetary transaction, taxation will become
impossible. It's not for no reason that many of them are
called 'cryptoanarchists'." (Mizrach: 3) And similar thinks 'the
system' about encryption software. Highly secure encryption software is
even declared as munitions in the U.S. and therefore illegal to export.
By printing the Perl-source-code of PGP here I am already committing a
violation against US-law.
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#!/bin/perl -s-- -export-a-crypto-system-sig -RSA-3-lines-PERL
These couple of characters are technically classed as munitions by the
U.S.-government. So do not send it from the US to any other country.
Cyberpunks enjoy to misuse technology and break the law. So it is no
problem to get this illegal software.
This demonstrates how hard it is for public authorities to deal with the
loose organisation of the computer-underground, how much fear and
ridiculousness there is in the fight against this computer-underground.
Their methods of resistance build a great threat to the established
4. Cyberpunk and the Environment
There are a number of surprising similarities between the Cyberpunk- and
the environmental movement.
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Computernetworks, the domain of Cyberpunks are often also used as
alternative media for environmental groups. Many of the early
grassroot-BBS-systems (BBS= Bulletin Board System) started off as
alternative information-systems for ecological issues. For example the
z-net (zerberus-net: a former linked BBS-system: today a subnet of the
Internet) started off as an alternative medium for sharing information
about contamination after the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl.
And so Cyberpunk and the environmental movement often meet in using the
same media. Also the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic 'Link-system) started in
1985 in San Francisco as an Information-system for many environmental
issues. The WELL nowadays is the most famous virtual community in
Cyberspace and one of the strongest bases for the resistance in
In their fight for free information both movements seem to support each
other. For example, in the aftermath of the massive protest against
nuclear-waste transport to Gorleben, Germany, the German government tried
to censor radical web-pages in the internet about direct action and
techno-terrorism like blocking railways especially the journal Radikal at http://www.xs4all.nl.
The government afraid of these instructions for direct action was
successful in forcing internet-service-providers to install filters for
this server. Cyberpunks protested massively against the censorship and
made the information available again on many other servers.
As already mentioned there are also a number of similarities between the
Hippie-movement, which is often viewed as an ecological movement, and the
Cyberpunk-movement. So it is no wonder that old Hippie-icons like Timothy
Leary, John Perry Barlow or Robert Anton Wilson are also icons of the
Cyberpunk movement. John Perry Barlow, former Grateful Dead songwriter is
also one of the founder of EFF and Timothy Leary made his shift from
direct-action methods of environmental movements and the
Cyberpunk-movement have a lot of similarities. They just take place in
different types of environments. Whereas environmental groups block
streets by street-protesting, cyberpunks under the leadership of the EFF
organize black days in the internet to block the information-highway and
protest against new laws for censorship.
So just as the environmental movement takes care that the environment is
not polluted, spoiled or exploited and tries to protect natural reservoirs,
in a metaphorical sense Cyberpunk can be understood as a movement which
takes care that the second nature, the media-sphere is not spoiled,
polluted or exploited and tries to protect reservoirs in the media-sphere,
proclaiming 'reclaim the Cyberspace' instead of 'reclaim the street'.
In the new forms of techno-terrorism, Cyberpunk-methods have also become
methods of the environmental-movement. So airport-protests become
performed by cutting the information-pipelines of the airport, like two or
three years ago in Frankfurt-airport or bringing the computer-systems to a
standstill by attacking the computer-systems in cracking the system or by
Both movements also share often a similar dystopian view of the world to
come. The grey city setting of Cyberpunk-novels and -movies often resemble
apocalyptic visions of environmental groups.
Also the way of thinking the world as an organism can be found in both
movements. Cyberpunks often think of the mediasphere as an ecological
" Today's activists understand media as extension of a living
organism. Like ecologists comprehend the life on this planet as part of a
single biological organism, media-activists view the data-sphere as a
circulatory system for information, ideas and pictures of the day." (Rushkoff
1995: 12 -transl. by S.J.) This 'deep insight' into the way media work
became known as 'information-ecology' and become very popular in the
Cyberpunk-movement. The understanding of the mediasphere as an ecological
system is strongly based on chaos-theory and memetics.
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News and ideas in the media-sphere become according to this view spread
like viruses with different memes. The term meme and the concept of
memetics originally comes from the British biologist Richard Dawkins.
" Dawkins claimed in The selfish Gene 1976, that all living beings
are basically only tools of inherent dominating genes, whose only aim is
to reproduce and spread." (ibid.: 237) Cultural 'memes', often widened
to 'meme-complex', act so just like genes manipulating their environment
for the sake of their own reproduction. These memes can so easily
transport and spread ideas, convictions and systems of belief. "
Dawkins has suggested the word 'memes' to describe these self-replicating
ideas that sweep across human populations, bringing about cultural
mutations." (Leary 1994: 71)
Any kind of news or idea which enter the media-sphere, enters the process
of repetition and recycling and can have enormous effects. So just like
Chaos-theory's 'a butterfly's wing in China can cause a tornado in the
U.S.', a small media event when it spreads like a self-replicating virus
can have an enormous impact. " The hacker-subculture picked up these
conceptions of Dawkins in the 80s with enthusiasm and understand
themselves as meme producing complex." (Rushkoff 1995: 238 -transl.
by S.J.) Cyberpunks use the theory of memetics in many different and
sometimes very obvious ways, in making propaganda or advertisements
through so called neuro-lingual viruses like virus
23 or through pseudo-religions like the Church of the Virus at http://www.lucifer.com.
Information-ecology or memetics is also the information-theoretical idea,
underlying software-weapons like viruses, worms, trojan horses etc.
To understand the media-sphere as ecological organism has, on the one
hand, an implication of empowerment, because small events can have great
effects. To realise the empowerment through media can be also important
for small ecological groups which want to spread their ideas.
The understanding of the information-sphere as ecological system inspires
on the other hand many people to apocalyptic visions. Small bugs or
accidents can also have catastrophic effects on the physical world. So for
example predicts Paul Virilio, a French Social Theorist: " After the
globalization of telecommunications, one should expect a generalized kind
of accident, a never-seen-before accident.[..] A generalized accident
would be something like what Epicurus called 'the accident of accidents'.[..]
The stock-market collapse is merely a slight prefiguration of it. Nobody
has seen this generalized accident yet. But then watch out as you hear
talk about the 'financial bubble' in the economy: a very significant
metaphor is used here and it conjures up visions of some kind of cloud,
reminding us of other clouds just as frightening as those of Chernobyl."
(Virilio 1995: 3) So for example little bugs like the Millennium bug
in computer-software could have huge effects also in the physical world,
and an accident in cyberspace can cause catastrophical effects in the
natural environment, from a Nuclear meltdown, caused by a computer- bug or
a software-attack to wrongly started missiles everything is possible.
Cyberpunks, especially crackers play an ambiguous role in this area . On
the one hand, they are the ones who can perhaps cause such accidents on
the other hand they are the ones who also have the ability to show the
security-risks of the computer-systems and therefore prevent them. They
are highly empowered individuals and in the end it all depends on the
moral standards they have.
So it is also understandable that although these striking similarities
between Cyberpunk and environmental movement the relationship between both
movements is not an easy one. Especially in many environmental groups
there are lots of prejudices against media at all, which can be seen
around movements which one could call immediatism or media-ecology. And
also on the side of Cyberpunks there are many prejudices against
environmental groups criticizing their 'back to the nature' romanticism.
Cyberpunk starting as a kind literature in the 1980s swept all over the
popular culture. It became realised and can be seen nowadays as something
from a loose organisation of criminals to a social movement of resistance
or counterculture . They do not fight against technical development but
their science-fiction element even precedes the technical development and
pushes it further. They stay with their struggle within 'the system', using
its weapons. They can be seen as the first warriors in a fight for an
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There are also numerous similarities which they share with the ecological
movement. Their concerns, belief and thinking, but also their methods show
similarities, but the relationship is nevertheless not an easy one. A
closer interaction could be helpful for both movements.
Although some institutionalisation has taken place in Cyberpunk, the
movement as a whole still stays full of contradictions and inner struggles.
So to become a movement which fights against its dystopian view, they
still have a lot of lessons to learn from the movement history. They have
a much greater potential to challenge the system then other movements. But
for the same reason cyberpunks are also a greater danger to society as a
whole and for the environment, not just the powers that be.
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Leary, Timothy ?: ?
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Paradise Programme 1991: Paradise Programme. Sony-Records