Bruce Sterling on Wed, 6 Dec 2006 06:47:04 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Ken's Taking No Prisoners

...deep dark sticky roots of the California Ideology...


Counterculture and the Tech Revolution
By RU Sirius
November 19th, 2006

Back in the day, when people were still asking me to explain "Mondo  
2000," I used to tell them that we were doing this psychedelic  
counterculture magazine called "High Frontiers" in the mid-1980s and  
we were shocked ? just shocked ? when we were befriended by the  
Silicon Valley elite. Suddenly, we found ourselves at parties where  
some of the major software and hardware designers of those early days  
were hanging out with NASA scientists, quantum physicists, hippies  
and lefty radicals, artists, libertarians, and your general motley  
assortment of smart types.
I was being a bit disingenuous when I made these comments. "High  
Frontiers" already had a tech/science bias, largely because we'd been  
influenced by the "Leary-Wilson paradigm." So we were technologically  
progressive tripsters. I'd also followed Stewart Brand's work with  
interest through the years.

The connection between the creators of the driving engine of the  
contemporary global economy, and the countercultural attitudes that  
were popular among young people during the 1960s and 70s was sort of  
a given within the cultural milieu we ("High Frontiers/Mondo 2000")  
found ourselves immersed in as the 1980s spilled into the 90s.  
Everybody was "experienced." Everybody was suspicious of state and  
corporate authority ? even those who owned corporations. People  
casually recalled hanging out with Leary, or The Grateful Dead, or  
Ken Kesey, or Abbie Hoffman. You get the picture.

But these upcoming designers of the future were not prone towards  
lots of public hand waving about their "sex, drugs and question  
authority" roots. After all, most of them were seeking venture  
capital and they were selling their toys and tools to ordinary Reagan- 
Bush era consumers. There was little or no percentage in trying to  
tell the public, "Oh, by the way. All this stuff? This is how the  
counterculture now plans to change the world."
And while there has been plenty of implicit ? and even some explicit  
? talk throughout the years about these associations, no one really  
tried to trace the connections until 2005, when John Markoff  
published What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped  
the Personal Computer.

Markoff's narrative revolved largely around the figures of Douglas  
Engelbart and Stewart Brand. His book, according to my May 2005  
conversation with him on the NeoFiles podcast, covered "the  
intersection or convergence of two cultures around the Stanford  
campus in Palo Alto, California throughout the 1960s. One was a  
psychedelic counterculture and the other was the anti-war movement;  
and then you have the beginnings of computer technology intersecting  
them both."

Engelbart, in contrast to the mainstream in computer science back  
then, started thinking about computers as something that could  
augment and expand the capacity of the human mind. At the same time,  
another Palo Alto group was researching LSD as a tool for augmenting  
and expanding the capacity of the human mind. And then, along came  
the whole anti-war, anti-establishment movement of the sixties and  
all these tendencies become increasingly tangled as a "people's"  
computing culture evolves in and around the San Francisco Bay Area.

What the Dormouse Said is a marvelous read that gives names and faces  
to an interesting dynamic that helped give birth to the PC. The story  
is mostly localized in Palo Alto in Silicon Valley, and it?s largely  
about how connections were made. In this sense, it's a story that is  
as much based on proximity in physical space and time, as it is a  
story about the evolution of the cultural ideas that might be  
associated with that word: "counterculture."

Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the  
Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism digs more  
deeply into how the seeds of a certain view of how the world works  
(cybernetics) was planted into the emerging 60s counterculture  
largely through the person of Stewart Brand, and how that seed has  
succeeded ? and how it has continued to exfoliate in new and  
unexpected ways. While Markoff's book blew the cultural lid off of a  
partly-suppressed truth ? that computer culture was deeply rooted in  
psychedelic counterculture ? Turner's book takes a broader sweep and  
raises difficult questions about the ideological assumptions that  
undergird our counterculturally-inflected technoculture. They?re both  
wonderful reads, but Turner's book is both more difficult and  
ultimately more rewarding.

What Turner does in From Counterculture to Cyberculture is trace an  
arc that starts with the very mainstream American interest in  
cybernetics (particularly within the military) and shows how that  
implicit interest in self-regulating systems leads directly into the  
hippie Bible, the "Whole Earth Catalog" and eventually brings forth a  
digital culture that distributes computing power to (many of) the  
people, and which takes on a sort-of mystical significance as an  
informational "global brain." And then, towards the book's  
conclusion, he raises some unpleasant memories, as Brand?s digital  
countercultural elite engages in quasi-meaningful socio-political  
intercourse with Newt Gingrich?s Progress and Freedom Foundation and  
other elements of the mid-90s "Republican Revolution."

While I welcome Turner?s critical vision, I must say honestly that,  
although I was repulsed by the Gingrich alliance and by much of the  
corporate rhetoric that emerged, at least in part, out of Brand's  
digital elitist clan ? I think Brand?s tactics were essentially  
correct. Turner implies that valuable social change is more likely to  
happen through political activism than through the invention and  
distribution of tools and through the whole systems approach that is  
implicit in that activity. But I think that the internet has ?  
palpably ? been much more successful in changing lives than 40 years  
of left oppositional activism has been.

For one example out of thousands, the only reason the means of  
communication that shapes our cultural and political zeitgeist isn't  
COMPLETELY locked down by powerful media corporations is the work  
that these politically ambiguous freaks have accomplished over the  
past 40 years.

In other words, oppositional activism would be even more occult ?  
more hidden from view ? today if not for networks built by hippie  
types who were not averse to working with DARPA and with big  
corporations. The world is a complex place.

In some ways, Turner's critique of cyber-counterculture is similar to  
Thomas Frank's criticism of urban hipster counterculture in his  
influential book, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture,  
Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. It, in essence,  
portrays hipsterism as a phenomenon easily transformed into a  
titillating, attractive, libertine whore for big business.

Frank argues that American businesses felt stultified by the  
conformism of the American 50s and needed a more expansive,  
experimental, individualistic consumer base that would be motivated  
by the frequent changes in what?s hip and who would desire a wider  
variety of products. So the hippie culture, despite its implied  
critique of consumerism that they inherited from the beats, actually  
energized consumer capitalism and, through advertising and mainstream  
media, the business world amplified the rebellious message of sixties  
youth counterculture, encouraging consumers to "join the Dodge  
rebellion" and "live for today."

These books by Frank and Turner raise interesting questions and  
challenge most folks' usual assumptions about the counterculture. But  
one of the interesting questions that might be raised in response to  
these critiques is, "So what?"

In my own book, Counterculture Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid  
House (with Dan Joy), on counterculture as a sort of perennial  
historical phenomenon, I identify counterculturalism with the  
continual emergence of individuals and groups who transgress some of  
the taboos of a particular tribe or religion or era in a way that  
pushes back boundaries around thoughts and behaviors in ways that  
lead to greater creativity, greater enjoyment of life, freedom of  
thought, spiritual heterodoxy, sexual liberties, and so forth. In  
this context, one might ask if counterculture should necessarily be  
judged by whether it effectively opposes capitalism or capitalism's  
excesses. Perhaps, but complex arguments can be made either way, or  
more to the point, NEITHER way, since any countercultural resistance  
is unlikely to follow a straight line ? it is unlikely to reliably  
line up on one side or another.

These reflections may not be directly related to one of Turner's  
concerns: that an elite group of white guys have decided how to  
change the world. On the other hand, one might also ask how much  
direct influence the last decade's digerati still has. The "ruling  
class" in the digital era is an ever-shifting target; all those kids  
using Google, YouTube, the social networks, etc., don't know John  
Brockman from John Barlow, but a good handful of them certainly know  
Ze Frank from Amanda Congdon.

Meanwhile, the corporate digital powers seem to be pleased to have an  
ally in the new Democratic Speaker of the House. And that may be the  
coolest thing about the world that Stewart Brand and his cohorts have  
helped to inspire. In the 21st Century, the more things change, the  
more things change.

I interviewed Fred Turner recently on NeoFiles?
To listen to the full interview in MP3, click here. 

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