Cyberculture’s Historical Roots and Challenges

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The researchers who developed weapons that could end the world and the hippies who lived under geodesic domes and tripped out on LSD are to thank for today’s cyberculture. This is the gist of Fred Turner’s history of contemporary cyberculture, which he traces to 1960s counterculture and its forbearer, the military-industrial research culture of the 1940s and ‘50s. From Counterculture to Cyberculture focuses on Steven Brand, in particular, as an especially influential figure whose vision, ideals, entrepreneurial spirit and unique networking savvy helped to shape both how contemporary Americans perceive and use digital technology. Turner examines how the 1960s youth movements wrestled with, and adopted part of, the values and thinking of the adult world in the Cold War era. He concludes that the counterculture’s quest for an egalitarian and ecologically-friendly society was not fully met because its members neither recognized nor wanted to tackle implicit political challenges. Those challenges remain today for those interested in a cyberculture that retains the freedom-loving ideals of the 1960s counterculture. Turner takes an initial look at the “dark side of utopia,” showing some of the negative aspects of today’s cyberculture, despite its many gifts. I would add to Turner’s analysis that a more active conversation about the U.S.’s broader values and their interaction with today’s unfolding technology is sorely needed.
The 1960s generation lived in the shadow of nuclear annihilation and in a time of large, impersonal, centralized machines and bureaucracies. Many young people coming of age in the Cold War era were troubled by the contradictions they saw in their society. They did not want to become flannel-suited Organization Men in the psychologically fragmented scene of their parents. Turner is careful to point out that the youth movements of the 1960s shared a distaste for these negative elements of their society, but they didn’t completely reject that world either. The New Left sought solutions through traditional political techniques and direct engagement with society’s systems. The counterculture turned to individual consciousness as a source of answers. They did so drawing on the collaborative work style, systems thinking (e.g. cybernetics) and optimistic view of technology found in the military-industrial research culture.

Brand was squarely in the counterculture, though he was a brilliant networker who was able to connect people from different sectors (avant-garde artists, industrial researchers, intellectuals, journalists, hobbyists and so forth) around ideas and technology. Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a print publication, became a conceptual framework for the development of digital communications and networking. His catalog was meant to be a tool to aid back-to-landers and new communalists. It was also meant to facilitate a process whereby people in geographically disparate communities could communicate with each other in non-hierarchical, personal, multi-disciplinary, holistic and personal ways as they built experimental mini-societies. In addition to connecting people, Brand had a knack for promoting new thinking about technology through his journalistic and entrepreneurial skills. When microcomputers were developed, he as his cohorts helped Americans to see them as “personal” machines that could help them to explore new, promising digital frontiers.

In his book, Turner begins to lay out some of the challenges that have emerged since digital technologies ushered in the post-industrial, information-based “New Economy.” These challenges have their roots in the unaddressed aspects of the counterculture. Though Turner doesn’t put it exactly this way, the counterculture’s weakness was that it was too individualistic, which was particularly problematic because its members were primarily quite privileged. The political consciousness and structural critiques of power in society of the New Left were not present or not considered worth exploring and grappling with to counterculturalists. Perhaps their privilege made it easy to ignore those issues. As a result, the communards missed opportunities in their search for a more free society and often repeated patterns of inequality between the sexes, for example. They also seemed oblivious to the impact of their communities on local poor communities of color. Turner seems to suggest that these questions around power and social structures ought to be addressed because digital technologies do not solve or erase those issues on their own.

Turner spends a small part of his book looking at the challenges of cyberculture, which could be the great subject of another book. He includes an interesting summary of Ellen Ullman’s 1997 memoir in addressing how digital technologies have taken us away from the ideals of the counterculture. While Ullman, a programmer who started out in 1971 was a very mobile, agile worker, the number of programming languages she had to learn was quite exhausting. It was a rat race to keep up with changing technologies in order to remain employed in a world where work centers around projects and teams that assemble and dissolve quickly. While the countercultural value on individualism and being against centralized bureaucracies and hierarchies spoke to liberation on one level, Ullman suffers in this environment that does not recognize human interdependence on a deeper level and the value of organizational structures (Turner would call this “political”). This type of economy also has its underclass (e.g. women, undocumented immigrants and foreign workers doing dangerous work for low pay and few protections) and its information elite, despite its egalitarian-appearing surface.

Perhaps each generation has to evaluate its cultural values as technologies develop to create synchronicity. Technologies on their own do not necessarily bring human progress and community. Is digital technology something that enhances the materialism of today’s society and feeds individual narcissism? Does Facebook enhance our sense of community and connectedness or does it add to the many mindless digital distractions that keep us entertained and self-focused but not more edified or fulfilled? It is hard for me to see the idealistic hopes of digital technology in such a highly commercialized society where digital communications and technologies seem to fuel greater consumption more than new solutions to human problems. Though, domestic mobilizations for issues of freedom and human rights are certainly findable. On a global level, the Arab Spring was an exciting period (is it over?) that showed the potential for ordinary people to connect and mobilize against tyranny through digital technology. Can it continue to help societies build democratic institutions and dialogue that will be necessary for lasting political change? What should be our reaction to the growing picture of electronic surveillance by the U.S. government that Edward Snowden helped us to see? There are political issues to sort out for the individual and for society that speak to our deepest values. Turner has described how historical forces gave cyberculture shape. It will be interesting to see what cultural currents and choices our society will make that will shape the next phase of cyberculture’s history and how technology will in turn influence our cultural values.

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