Computing and the Counterculture

Think Different(ly)

The Macintosh has from its introduction been viewed-- and among some of its users, cherished-- as a computer that brings (as the 1960s slogan put it) "power to the people." News accounts casting its development team as fearless rebels and advertising describing it as "the computer for the rest of us" projected an image of the Macintosh as a machine for creative types, freethinkers and free spirits.

This connection between computing and anti-authoritarianism was successful in part because it played on an assumption held by many people involved in early personal computing: that the invention of the personal computer owed as much to the counterculture's desire to oppose centralized authority and technology, as it did to the invention of the microprocessor. Many of the early developers of personal computers had strong countercultural credentials. Lee Felsenstein wrote for the East Bay underground newspapers Berkeley Barb and The Tribe while founding Resource One and Community Memory. Stewart Brand was founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and co-founder of the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (and later the Electronic Frontier Foundation). The Whole Earth Catalog, in turn, was connected to the Portola Institute, founded by former CDC engineer Robert Albrecht. As inventor Jim Warren put it, the personal computer "had its genetic coding in the 1960s'... antiestablishment, antiwar, profreedom, antidiscipline attitudes." User groups likewise shared some of the philosophical foundations (and problems) of community activist projects and employee-owned businesses.

Given the popular perception of the Macintosh as a computer whose qualities put it in opposition to either mainframes (whose cost and complexity kept them in the hands of corporate-sponsored priesthoods), or business-oriented personal computers (such as the IBM PC), it is necessary to explore this connection in greater detail.

Suggested Paths Through the Documents

A complete list of the documents related to the counterculture and computing is on a separate page. The place to begin is with Theodore Roszak's From Satori to Silicon Valley, the most articulate presentation of the argument that the path to the personal computing began with the counterculture. Roszak first came to public prominence in 1968, with the publication of his The Making of a Counterculture; From Satori to Silicon Valley is based on Roszak's 1985 Alvin Fine Memorial Lecture at San Francisco State University. For this electronic printing, Roszak had added two new essays, and made available the slides used in lectures dealing with this subject (and unpublished until now).

The philosophical roots of user groups are discussed in several articles published in user group newsletters. Scot Kamins' Introduction [to SF Apple Core], published in Ken Silverman, ed., The Best of Cider Press 1978-1979 (San Francisco Apple Core, 1979) places the founding of Apple Core in the context of radical activism. Ed Seidel, What a Users' Group Ought To Be, The DeskTop Journal 3 (Winter 1984), describes the impetus behind the founding of the Yale Macintosh Users Group. Raines Cohen and Stephen Howard, The State of the User Group, BMUG Newsletter (Fall/Winter 1987), and Reese Jones, BMUG After One Year, BMUG Newsletter (Fall 1985) reflect on the origins and aims of the largest of the Mac user groups.

User groups' connections with the counterculture are also discussed in two interviews. Apple documentation manager Chris Espinosa describes early user groups' reflection of radical values, and its pros and cons, while BMUG co-creator Reese Jones discusses BMUG's philosophy.

Document created on 14 July 2000;