In an interview for the BBC’s Virual Revolution documentary – a programme I worked on tangentially – Charles Leadbeater praises Fred Turner’s book From Counterculture to Cyberculture. The book describes the connection between 60s counterculture and modern silicone valley. It pricked my curiosity so I bought a copy.
I’d like to say it’s a great read, but it didn’t live up to Mr Leadbeater’s promise. It laid the facts out, but they never took on a significance beyond intellectual curiosities. Becky Hogge’s Barefoot into Cyberspace (which also references Turner’s book) transforms the same facts into an epiphany. The book evokes epochal urgency, pessimism and outright fear set against a backdrop of technological utopianism – everything it touches takes on gravitas.
Although Hogge deals with much else in Barefoot into Cyberspace, preoccupation with the link between the hallucinatory 60s and the then nascent digital economy this aspect of the the book fairly gripped me for the first few chapters.
What struck me was this: isn’t it weird that two of the most obvious, and well documented, cultural phenomena ever are profoundly linked and nobody talks about it? San Francisco 60s counterculture must be one of the most intensely chronicled moments in history. The catalytic Merry Prankster bus trip, which was at the centre of the wider hippie movement, was paid for by the celebrity author Ken Kesey. The trip itself was documented by Tom Wolfe and Jack Kerouc, with both texts going on to become pillars of American literature. There is an episode of The Simpsons about the bus trip, the ultimate signifier of cultural significance. When people refer to the 60s – surely the most iconic decade since it’s been possible for decades to be iconic – they frequently have this tiny cultural nexus in their minds.
Of course the cyberculture of Silicon Valley itself has also been much celebrated. I was going cite the film about Mark Zukerberg as evidence, then I realised the film is a footnote compared with the fact that a kid in his University dorm built a website that is nearly as popular as watching TV. And he’s appeared in The Simpsons.
The link between counterculture and cyberculture is personified by Stewart Brand. A member of Ken Kesey’s famous bus trip, he organsied the psychedelic TRIPS festival, one of the first Acid Tests. In Hogge’s book’s he quoted as having concluded “[computers are] the kind of revolution that we thought psychedelic drugs [were] going to be”. That’s to say, he made a completely explicit decision to stop taking acid and start experimenting with networked computers instead.
I’m not going to retell the whole story here – there’s too much of it – but Brand went on to set up a magazine evangelising computer technology called the Whole Earth Catalogue. He gave some of the proceeds to Fred Moore – the man who set up chip manufacturer Intel. Fred Moore in turn set up the Home Brew Computer Club, whose members included Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Tellingly, the club also got into a bit of a tiff with a young Bill Gates.
Brand was friends with Douglas Engelbart who gave a legendary demo at Stanford University, showing technologies such as hypertext, email and the mouse. He was assisted in the video by none other than a Mr Stewart Brand. Incidentally, Stanford University is also where the Larry Page and Sergy Brin wrote the paper that founded Google.
You get the picture. Many of the major players of the computing industry knew each other long before they were major players in the computing industry, their connection springing from their various counterculture associations. If I didn’t manage to make that sound profound, read the book and it will do.
There’s a lot to the book which isn’t about coutercultural origins. Hogge also reshapes the topography of the news landscape so that Internet activism becomes the single point that knits together some of the most significant stories of recent times. From the influence of the NO2ID campaign on the formation of the coalition government to the meaning of Wikileaks and the recent revolutions across the Middle East, cyberculture is pervasive. The global influence of Wikileaks is a particular focus and, as the author herself points out, a political story that has not had nearly enough attention.
The view is “from other side” as it were, with Hogge focusing mainly on her acquaintance or friendship the protagonists in these news events. This method of relaying the narrative means that we get an intimate feel for Internet activism , and an insight into Hogge’s own unpleasant experience of lobbying Westminster.
Possibly deepest topic that the book broaches is the political influence of architecture, in it’s broadest sense. I’ve thought a lot about what to make of the possibly exclusively titular similarity between the job titles of “Architect” and “Information Architect”. Hogge has an answer, and it’s best summed up by this quote:
“To a hacker, architecture is politics: how you build something will dictate how it will get used. The rest of the world is just getting used to this concept with regard to buildings. Watching the demolition of sixties tower blocks that had dictated community life in my one-time neighbourhood of East London I knew that this was a political act, a confession, that old ways of thinking about welfare provision and social justice had been forced to change by the failure of sixties idealism.”
To me it’s a very profound way of understanding the virtual world, and it makes the analogy alluded to those job titles entirely apposite. The theme is revisited in several places in the book; it’s a topic I’d love to hear more from Hogge about.
I have to admit to finding the Tom Wolfe nonfiction-novel style of the prose a little jarring at first – it’s something that I found difficult Wolfe’s writing too – but don’t let it put you off. As soon you’re sucked into the content you’ll realise it’s a mechanism for bringing you closer to the story in hand.
If you work in tech, this book lends a context to the nuts and bolts of your job. Even if you don’t, I bet you use Google, and this book gives an immediate perspective on what Google means. I found it an utterly compelling. Reading, as I did, the book in every available moment I might have been tempted to reach for the unputdownable cliche. Being virtual, it’s actually unpickupable. Here’s the link:
or get the unputdownable version here: