Fred Turner, Professor at Stanford, spoke the other day at SCU on “Counterculture into Cyberculture: How the Whole Earth Catalog Brought Us “Virtual Community”. Basically a history talk of the WELL and the organizing power of the hippie movement through the “whole earth” commercial powerhouse of the time. I found it curiously amusing – kind of like watching your mom in a “Granny dress” or your dad with a beard strumming a guitar.
While I’m not quite the age of the “summer of love” crowd (I think I preferred collecting Breyer horses then), I have watched the evolution of these communities from a technology standpoint, and have seen both their strengths and weaknesses as they grew (and in some cases died). As history and anthropology are an avocation and since I’ve been involved in developing and growing relationships using technology, it is a serious topic. So I went and listened.
One of the clear as bells problems stemmed from the willful misunderstanding of what the technology of the time provided and how it could be used. The WELL provided a novel community experience all right, but it was basically too limited to be of great use to build the kind of movement envisioned by the “counterculture” – it was just too early, and easily supplanted by the Internet.
The evolution, technology, and mechanisms which would become the Internet were actually quite separate in design and execution, rose colored glasses of the counterculture notwithstanding.
I know a lot of folks (even Al Gore) would like to stake a claim to the Internet’s success, or as the syllabus stated “the network technology of the WELL helped translate the ideals of the American counterculture into key resources for understanding the social possibilities of digital networking in the 1990s.” But I’m afraid it just isn’t so – it evolved independently and with funding from some of those guys – the DOD comes to mind – that the counterculture tended to protest against.
I’ve never found the hippie movement to be very progressive in using technology, except for television. It’s understandable, given the paroxysms of the time. Just like the nostalgia for this period by these guys isn’t so great for women and people of color.
But we should get real here: the right has used the Internet far more effectively to convey its message until Howard Dean went against his own party’s anti-tech bias and proved the Internet could be beneficial to the left.
It took thirty years, a lot of hard work, a ton of research funds, real tech visionaries like Cerf and Kahn and Berners-Lee to make the Internet the real world wide web.
Not all the cute stores that sold wood stoves, guitars and granny dresses could make one TCP/IP connection or HTTP web page.