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This is a synopsis of Chapter 4 (Digital Counter-Culture) from Charlie Gere’s book Digital Culture. The link to a pdf copy of the book is above. This is for academic purposes only and no infringement of the copyright law is intended.
The digital counter-culture era began upon the development of a post-industrial society. The cold-war paranoia on technology sets the stage to create utopian ideals of interconnectivity and self-realization using that same technology. For instance, due to the automated industry, the need for workers decreased despite the increasing employment on service sectors. Yet, this technology was also used by artists to create their artistic works and to introduce their utopian ideals to the audience.
During this time, theoretical knowledge was preferred over the empirical knowledge of an industrialized country. Rather than adopting technological determinism wherein culture was seen as something mediated by technology, technology became the means to realize a post-industrial society. The re-structured capitalism of the post-industrial society was understood not just as a technological shift but also as a cultural transformation, which included militarization and miniaturization. The computers became cheaper and smaller not just because of the technology but because of the culture such computers were situated in.
There were various causes of change that affected the emergence of the post-industrial society such as the information discourses, ‘second order,’ cybernetics, artificial life and the avant-garde. One of the key changes that occurred after such discourses was the development of a micro-electronics industry commonly known as the Silicon Valley. Such eventually became the center of a counter-culture.
The emergence of Silicon Valley started with the invention of transistors, particularly for military use. The creation of a more stable and efficient yet faster transistor became the center of military computing research. The discovery of silicon or germanium as a semi-conducting material to be used instead of wires and the use of integrated circuits (IC) instead of flat circuits started the microelectronics industry. Such efficient yet expensive technology attracted NASA. The use of microelectronics enabled them to send a man to the moon. Because of this, further researches on microelectronics were funded by both the military and NASA. Such researches resulted to the creation of cheaper ICs which made microelectronics available for ordinary consumers in the form of consumer electronics. From the invention of transistors, Silicon Valley developed into a large number of small semi-conductor companies. At this time, Intel started to develop the microprocessor, a microelectronic chip that is programmable to do various tasks rather than having one chip doing one task. This concept is very similar to the functions of a modern computer.
Alongside the quickly developing microelectronics technology, society itself was also rapidly changing. Counter-culture was developing partly because of post-war high employment and the so-called baby boom. The youth became empowered economically and culturally. There was a rise in youth culture and an increased consumption of “pop.” Included with the youth’s power was the visibility of numerous issues and problems which came from the mismanagement of previous generations such as atomic and nuclear weaponry, social discrimination, and the detrimental ecological effects of industry and technology.
The counter-culture is the creation of an alternative society based on the values other than the dominant. This was basically a white phenomenon which included self-realization and drug use. The popular drug of choice was lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD commonly used alongside rock music and performance. LSD is known as a psychedelic drug whose effect is commonly interpreted as an out of body spiritual experience. The alternative lifestyle of this period affected both the way of acting and thinking of the people, most especially the youth. Deviance and unorthodoxy became the norm for counter-culture and the imagination of California as the final frontier developed.
Though Silicon Valley and Counter-Culture are physically proximate to one another, Counter-Culture opposed much of what Silicon Valley is all about. Counter culture was opposed to technocratic rationality and believed in a back to basics lifestyle. Yet it is the combination of both that enabled Leland Stanford to create the Stanford University. It combined entrepreneural capitalism with counter culture thinking. This combination of silicon and acid, of new technology and counter culture thinking gave birth for the circumstances that created the personal computer which is the basis of the current digital culture.
The Whole Earth Project began to make catalogs to give people access to the tools and ideas of counter-culture and alternative lifestyles. Along with these movements, cybernetics also adjusted to be safe for counter culture. Counter culture provided the setting for personal computer to develop as an interactive media which eventually became a consumer product. The concept of building and owning a computer became possible. Though the military basically developed the computer, it was stripped of its militaristic and technocratic idealism. It became a tool of self-help and empowerment and was repurposed as a gentler and kinder tool for the new generation.
Mainstream computer and counter culture also combined in the arts especially in the multi-media performances. This was started by avant garde and psychedelic artists such as Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd. Technology was incorporated in various performances, visual arts, installation arts and multi-media performances and presentations. The personal computer context developed into a counter-cultural and revolutionary device. The human-computer interface became a three-dimensional virtual space that humans can interact with. Computer simulations became popular as well as computer assisted designs. Interdisciplinary approach was utilized in the development of technology which included not just computer programmers but also psychologists, film-makers, musicians, designers, anthropologists, designers and many others.
Such rapid developments also encountered problems particularly during Vietnam War. There were widespread civil disobedience, confrontation and violence as well as military funding of university research began to threatened academic independence. The Mansfield Amendment limited the military funded research as stated in the Military Procurement Authorization Bill, “none of the funds authorized may be used to carry out any research project or study unless such a study has a direct and apparent relationship to a specific military function or operation.” With this change, as well as the concept of a paperless office, many companies had to cope with drastic changes happening in a short span of time.
Silicon Valley once again started attracting young and unconventional computer scientist and researchers that preferred a laid-back campus atmosphere congenial to the work they are doing. With the high price of computer machines which became unsuccessful in the market, a computer counter-culture developed known as hacking. During the time, it does not have a criminal connotation. Rather, it is the term particularly for students who study on the capabilities of the current computers. Hacker Culture developed which involves a monastic devotion to computers and long engagement with complex programs. Hackers became the archetype of computer subculture wherein they are supposedly intellectually advanced but socially and sexually awkward male as well as being extremely dedicated to discovery of the possibilities of digital technology. Homebrew also developed with hacker culture wherein hackers come together to discuss various technological issues. At this time, it became necessary to own a computer despite its limited capabilities. Most hackers explored the capabilities of a computer for its own sake despite lack of functionality.
The development of Apple computer as a functional working computer with input keyboard and output screen became a commercially successful product. With such a leap against other companies, others had a difficult time catching up to the development. IBM PC tried to catch up by optimizing the hacker culture through selling machines with available technical specifications and encouraging software making and open market for other manufacturers. Microsoft was the main provider for the operating system (OS) of IBM PC for a flat rate fee but problems arose when they also provided licensed OS for cheaper PC clones.
Mondo magazine popularized concept of leaving the physical body and downloading mind into the computer. The idea of the individual became much more important that the collective along with the increased belief in the positive power of information technology. One of the most difficult and complex issue is with regards to internet usage. The naturalization of capitalism and technology denied the role of the government in these issues such as the discourse of freedom of expression and privacy in relation to the internet. Instead, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was dedicated to address such issues. The internet became a virtual disputed territory and an entity by its own right. With the invention of the modem, accessibility increased beyond the military, universities and industry. The concept of noonsphere developed wherein there will be a global consciousness, global village and the world brain through the internet. In this setting, it is believed that the atoms were replaced by bits, the material turned digital and the world became a neo-biological world.
Wired magazine proclaimed a definition of a Digital Citizen that occupies this current consciousness, “knowledgable, tolerant, civic-minded and radically commited to change. Profoundly optimistic about the future, they were convinced that technology is a force for good and that our free-market economy functions as a powerful engine for good.”
Despite the militaristic and capitalistic nature of the technology, the counter-culture that resisted such beliefs used that same technology to push and develop their vision. The internet lies at the heart of a utopian vision wherein the ideals of counter culture became the central constituent of capitalism. Gere stated that, “The internet is the paradigm of the emergent, self-regulating, self-organising structures that can develop and thrive without government intervention.” Entrepreneural capitalism and counter culture idealism was both contradictive as well as a combination for the development of society, culture and technology.