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Author: Jeffrey Kaplan


Bay Area counter-culture veteran responds to the Californian Ideology

I was one of the demonstrators at People’s Park in Berkeley in 1969. And I now make my living as a computer consultant in the San Francisco Bay area. I share your dismay at the rise of the cyber-libertarian market ethic. At the same time, I find your attempt to link the rise of that market ethic to the counter-culture of the 1960′s to be way off the I see very little evidence to support your claim that many of the computer consultants are former hippies. For the most part, the independent computer consultants – and employees in computing in general for that matter – that I have encountered over the last fifteen years in this business have not been former hippies nor have they displayed any affinity for the counter-culture. It is true that some people from the counter-culture have turned to computers as a way to make a living. But most, like myself, have done so more as a concession to current economic reality than to any belief in technical determinism or the sancitity of the market place.

Your attempt to link the development of the PC to the counter-culture is equally flawed. Yes, there undoubtedly were some freaks in the Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley who believed that computers would liberate us from the grip of corporate greed. No doubt some of them made important contributions to the development of computers. But the home-brew computer clubs were almost entirely centered well to the south of San Francisco, in the Peninsula which includes Palo Alto and what is now Silicon Valley. The area was home to a number of important high-tech defense contractors as well as Stanford University, a very elite and very expensive private university. As a result, there were a lot of engineers in the Valley even then, and a lot of money. That probably had more to do with its prominence in the history of computing than any association with hippies. Every one I knew in those days considered that area a cultural wasteland and would venture there only in transit to another outpost of the counter-culture such as Santa Cruz. Those folks from the Peninsula who identified with the counter-culture usually left for San Francisco, the Grateful Dead being a prime example.

It is true that the counter-culture was somewhat ambiguous in its attitude towards technology, embracing LSD and amplified music while claiming to be developing a more “natural” way of living. But technological utopianism was hardly a defining characteristic of the counter-culture. Technological utopianism has been a major theme in European civilization at least since Francis Bacon. And Karl Marx assured us that once the workers seized the means of production, the industrial revolution would enable them to create a paradise where humanity would be freed from physical labor. Despite its lapses in this regard, the counter-culture was generally less tied to high technology than the general society that surrounded it. The first things the occupiers of People’s Park did with the land was plant a community garden and put up a childrens’ playground. This emphasis on community interdependence and the rejection of a society based on the production and consumption of commodities were the true hallmarks of the counter-culture of the 1960′s and 1970′s. I don’t know where your libertarian followers of McLuhan were in those days, maybe they were smoking their weed in Cupertino, or New York, or London. But they weren’t much of a factor in Berkeley or the Haight.

In fact they still aren’t. The voting record for San Francisco and Berkeley shows a political direction almost diametrically opposed to the conservatism that has overtaken much of the rest of California. While the rest of the state has voted in favor of ballot propositions attacking the rights of immigrants and enhanced employment oportunities for minority groups, San Francisco and Berkeley have opposed them by margins as high as 2 to 1. Those cities recently voted in favor of universal, government-sponsored health care – anathema to the libertarians. Democratic political candidates carried Berkeley and San Francisco throughout the 1980′s even when the rest of the state and the country was voting for Ronald Reagan or George Bush by a wide margin.

It would be difficult for your readers to know, but People’s Park is still in existence. Shortly after the 1969 riots the University of California agreed to lease the land to the City of Berkeley for one dollar a year so that the city could maintain it as a park. Over the years, the park has become a hangout for a rather rough crowd. Two or three years ago the city and the univeristy agreed to end the lease so that the university could build housing on the site. There was another riot. A much smaller one to be sure. But then again no one had even put up any fences yet. And a very significant portion of the taxpayers and homeowners of Berkeley – the aging hippies who you claim have given up on their ideals – demanded that the park be preserved. Most of these people were professionals in their forties who wouldn’t feel safe walking around Peoples Park. But the symbolic importance of that little piece of land was still sufficient to bring angry groups of them down to city hall. The potentially explosive situation scared the hell out of the local authorities and they quickly agreed to guarentee the park’s continued existence.

I am not claiming the counter-culture is nearly as strong and vibrant as it was twenty-five years ago. For the most part people have simply drifted away – into libertarianism in some cases, but mostly into a more mainstream American existence. Nonetheless, what remains is more than a tattered remnant, although it is certainly les visible. Age is partly responsible. People tend to be less outrageous in their behavior. Nonetheless, significant numbers of people are still working on community supported agriculture, child-care, community health and hospice care. The Bay Area is still an important center of opposition to American military intervention overseas, and more recently, the global economy.

Meanwhile, the closing paragraphs of your own manifesto on “The Californian Ideology”, display the same technological naivete and elitism that befuddled your McLuhanite hippies of twenty-five years ago. You proclaim the “Promethean possibilities of hypermedia” which will allow a liberated “virtual class” of “digital artisans” to “create a new machine aesthetic for the information age.” How is all of this going to lead to social emancipation for those who are not in the privileged group of “artist-engineers -designers of the next stage of modernity?” Are folks who are not digital artisans going to have any say in what the next “stage of modernity” is going to look like? What is the likelihood that a group of digital artisans could ever retain control over a large-scale, capital-intensive technology such as hypermedia?

And what makes you think that your revolutionary efforts won’t be co-opted if they are successful? I suggest you think about some basic things such as where your food comes from or how you care for your children. Think about what resources you really have which are independent of international corporate interests. Unless your creative efforts address those kinds of issues, you won’t change a damn thing.

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.