Law in the Internet Society

The Counterculture Movement And Computers: Despite Similarities And Corporate Influence, Historical Materialism Suggests That This Time May Be Different

-- By BrendanMulligan - 13 Nov 2009

Countercultural Ethos

"We're facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom and a better environment for the whole world. You got a problem with that?" This statement graced the cover of a 1997 edition of Wired magazine, but given the optimism embodied in this statement, it may have been said 30 years earlier on some corner in the Haight. A variety of factors influenced the counterculture movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s: resistance to hyper-militarization that fueled the arms race and the Vietnam War, rejection of “technocracy,” and communitarian politics informed by an anarchic tradition. When lucid, hippie ideology attempted to discard political and cultural orthodoxies, provide for equality, and reject individual ownership and consumerism. In many respects, these values are consistent with a utopian vision of computers and interconnectedness.

Co-Option by Advertisers

Although the counterculture movement may have intended its weakening or demise, capitalism has a slippery way of controlling what was meant to destroy it. Advertisers immediately responded to this anti-capitalist threat. “Every rock band with a substantial following was immediately honored with a host of imitators; the 1967 'summer of love' was as much a product of lascivious television specials and Life magazine stories as it was an expression of youthful disaffection; Hearst launched a psychedelic magazine in 1968; and even hostility to co-optation had a desperately ‘authentic’ shadow, documented by a famous 1968 print ad for Columbia Records titled ‘But The Man Can't Bust Our Music.’” In effect, this may have reduced the counterculture's influence to only cultural import. Peter Coyote said, “If you look at all the political agendas of the 1960s, they basically failed. We didn't end capitalism. We didn't end imperialism. We didn't end racism. Yeah, the war ended. But if you look at the cultural agendas, they all worked.” Much of the political agenda did not stick, but the cultural agenda did because marketers tapped into the sexiness of the movement. Advertisers harnessed a movement intended to castrate their interests and used it to strengthen capitalism.

Hippie Influence on the Modern Personal Computer

The modern computer has decidedly counter-cultural origins. In a 1995 Time Magazine article, Stewart Brand, says: "Forget antiwar protests, Woodstock, even long hair. The real legacy of the sixties generation is the computer revolution." In the late 60’s and early 70’s, computers were corporate and university mainframes, locked in basements and guarded by technicians. By the early 1980's, computers were abundant, empowering desktop tools for individuals. Brand argues that programmers combined countercultural ideals such as decentralization and personalization with an understanding of information's transformative potential to build liberating machinery in the computer. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak also describes the founding of his company as deeply influenced by countercultural influences, saying he was “surrounded by a lot of the old hippie thinkers from the counterculture movement, basically trying to apply the same internal drives and passions into the use of technology to get us to that better, good world where people were equal and not so subject to the major corporations of the time, having all the power. . . . It was so tied in with empowering the normal low-level people.”

Capitalists, Again, Have Attempted to Harness and Market the Movement

As Wozniak admits, “That's not where it turned out now.” He's right in at least two major ways: marketing and tracking. Technology companies often sell under the guise of liberating people. Hewlitt Packard’s slogan is “the computer is personal again.” Apple targets younger audiences with hip music, trendy colors, and promises of delivering people from "big brother". Motorola’s Droid advertises open development, but only if you lock yourself to Verizon’s network. More problematic than that, the computer has been used to reinforce corporate domination, not to break it down. It can be used to monitor thoughts via web searches, and is a form of control capable of predicting and understanding human beings on an individual basis. As Prof. Moglen suggested in class, this is where action can be taken about you or for you without meaningful opportunity to act. Instead of liberating personal machinery, it can be used for unadulterated control.

Where Does This Leave Us?

On the surface the power struggle of the two movements looks very similar: a dominant structure evolves in a response to a threat and uses it to strengthen its power. However, what is going on with the computer might be very different. This may be a real social revolution.

Karl Marx's theory of historical materialism suggests that societal changes are an outgrowth of changes in production. Essentially, capitalism arose because the forces of large scale industry production required it to. As a corollary, class structures in society and the class struggle are determined by the forces of production. In “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” Marx said, "Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out." The development of the computer and internet provided for the ready availability of zero marginal cost goods. This changed production profoundly, in a manner not remotely similar to production changes which precipitated the counterculture movement. Although the freedom of the modern computer shares ideologic, social, and political similarity with the counterculture movement, the underlying production structures are now entirely different. If we can buy into historical materialism, there is reason to believe that this may be a real social revolution, that the computer revolution may have a more than cultural effect.

I think this is an interesting and complex essay. It has some problems that arise from trying to cover too much ground, but without its ambition it wouldn't have its value.

Marx's form isn't the only species in the genus of historical materialisms, by any means. I tried to show in the dotCommunist Manifesto why the analysis offered by Marx and Engels is particularly valuable in thinking about our contemporary situation, but the point you are concerned with, namely the consequences of a shift to significant economic reliance on production of goods with zero marginal cost, will be of overwhelming importance to any social historian, regardless of the nature of her outlook on historical materialism. One wouldn't need to be deterministic to assume the epochal nature of the consequences of such a change.

So I think the question from my point of view about your conclusion, like that of commentators below, is why you don't try to think more specifically about the social changes that result from this shift. You can afford much less windup here to get to that pitch, but we'd like in the end to see it thrown.

This reminds me of Apple's 1984 commercial -- the computer as political statement rather than just utility.

The free software movement is the real deal. But Apple has captured the counterculture image with advertising. When most people think "geek chic" or "computer counterculture" Apple comes to mind, not Linux. It must be pretty galling to the free software people, who know how closed Apple's system is -- and I'm guessing this is partly why Professor Moglen dislikes Apple so much.

-- GavinSnyder - 30 Nov 2009

"The obvious answer is greed. Early entrants to the computer/internet marketplace stumbled upon a goldmine. Everything has its price."

I think that certain early entrants to the marketplace might have sold out. Others did not. I would be interested to see how this story could include both those who did sell out and those who didn't in both movements and the influence that those idealists continue to make.

-- StevenWu - 30 Nov 2009

Brendan -- I like your observations here, but as I think you recognize in the last paragraph it leaves the reader (or me at least) feeling empty in that you propose no solutions to help combat the problem you identify. Also, I think that one implication of the internet is that spending advertising dollars doesn't get you the huge audience that it used to, and so it might become increasingly difficult to subvert culture through advertising. There is a flip side to this as well: the internet allows groups of like-minded people to stick together and coordinate more easily than in the 60's and 70's, making it harder for the counterculture to be appropriated. I think that these dynamics are important differences that you might address as a counter argument to your thesis, and, if you have the space, as a way of suggesting some hope that history will not repeat itself.

Finally, just to add strength to your argument, consider the new Windows 7 commercials. Microsoft touts the implementation of customer ideas ("Windows 7 was my idea") perhaps in order give consumers a sense of empowerment when dealing with the technology, which is taken away by not allowing customers to implement their own ideas without a license (if its a program) or at all (if they want to modify the OS).

-- JustinColannino - 30 Nov 2009

Thanks for your comments, guys. This is a work in progress and the writing and argument both need refinement, so I appreciate your help in shaping the paper. I will try to edit with your thoughts in mind.

12/5 update: I've made substantial edits and believe that most of your comments should be addressed (at least to the extent that space allows), but let me know if there is something else that I should consider. Thanks again for the comments. They helped focus my thoughts.

-- BrendanMulligan - 01 Dec 2009

I thought this was a really interesting comparison, Brendan. Echoing Steven's early comment, I am still curious if you have examples of the social revolution you consider possible. From what I understand, you believe the availability of zero cost distribution is what may result in actual social revolution this time around. I am struggling, however, with what must actually happen for a "social revolution" to occur, rather than just a "cultural effect"?

-- BradleyMullins - 06 Dec 2009



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