From Satori to Silicon Valley

by Theodore Roszak
Copyright 2000 by Theodore Roszak. All rights reserved.

Machines of Loving Grace

Industrialism redeemed, technology triumphant: this is the familiar scenario of technophiliac utopianism. But now we come upon something new -- and puzzling. For there were those in the ranks of the counter culture who sought to work an odd variation on the futuristic theme. They insisted they could have it both ways: the best of high tech, the best of the Haight-Ashbury lifestyle . . . together. The technophiliac route forward would lead to a reversionary future. When H. G. Wells envisioned Things To Come, he saw a gleamingly sterile urban world run by a benevolent technocratic elite. But for many in the counter culture, the result of high industrial technology would be something like a tribal democracy where the citizenry might still be dressed in buckskin and go berry-picking in the woods: the artificial environment made more artificial would somehow become more . . . natural. Thus, the odd mix of rustic savvy and advanced technology displayed in the pages of The Whole Earth Catalog was not confusion but synthesis. The motto of the philosophy might almost have been "Forward .to the Neolithic!"

At times, this synthesis seemed to stem from nothing more than some very slippery metaphors. For example, McLuhan's conception of the urbanized mass media, pressed to its extreme, becomes a "village." For O'Neill, the space rocket and satellite, developed on a gargantuan scale, return us to a "frontier": the high frontier, which, its enthusiasts seemed to think, would be something like the world of the log cabin and wood-burning stove. The fans who organized the L-5 Society to promote O'Neill's ideas liked to imagine vistas of homesteads and organic gardens inside their orbiting steel canisters, plus no end of weightless fun and games, sky-diving and wind-surfing in zero gravity. Even Soleri's human ant-heaps were seen as a way of preserving the wilderness in its pristine condition -- though one can only shudder at the prospect of the tens of thousands of arcological tenants lined up at every elevator shaft in the structure, waiting to get to the picnic grounds.

I can offer a striking personal example of this strange amalgamation of reversionary and technophiliac values in action. Somewhere in the mid-seventies, one of the New Age religious groups -- it was Yogi Bhajan's 3HO (the Holy, Healthy, Happy Organization, a transplanted Indian Sikh group) -- invited me to participate in a "planetary symposium" that would be held simultaneously in three major cities. (Buckminster Fuller would, of course, be the keynote speaker.) The themes of the event would be such staple countercultural values as economic simplicity ("small is beautiful"), ecological sanity, spiritual fulfillment, participative democracy. It would be a sort of planet-sized Woodstock. But how would it all be held together, I asked. The answer was: by continuous, day-and-night telecommunications coverage broadcast via satellite and projected on giant video screens in each city. The global village would at last have been realized. Yielding to my usual Luddite instincts, I suggested that such means might conflict with the desired end. My doubts were met with blank incomprehension, but they only deepened when the entire event was finally delegated to a production crew from Walt Disney enterprises. As it turned out, the cost of the technology finally overwhelmed the modest budget available, reduced the symposium to a fiasco, and bankrupted its organizers.

The personal computer might be seen as another example of this wishful alliance of the reversionary and technophiliac visions. Once again, we have the same mix of homespun and high tech. After all, in its early days, home computer invention and manufacturing did resemble a sort of primitive cottage industry. The work could be done out of attics and garages with simple means and lots of brains. The people pioneering the enterprise were cut from the mold of the Bucky Fuller maverick: talented drop-outs going their own way and clearly outflanking the lumbering giants of the industry, beating them to the punch with a people's computer.

For that matter, even before the personal computer had matured into a marketable commodity, there were idealistic young hackers who wanted to rescue the computer from the corporations for radical political uses. The earliest effort of this kind in the United States was Resource One, the creation of a group of Berkeley computer folk who had come together during the Cambodian crisis of Spring 1970. Distressed at the near monopoly of computer power by the government and the major corporations, this small band of disgruntled computer professionals set about building a people's information service. By 1971 they had managed to acquire a retired XDS-940 timeshare computer from the Transamerica Corporation and had quartered it in the Project One warehouse-community on Howard Street, south of Market in San Francisco, where they hoped it might be used by political activists to compile mailing lists, coordinate voter surveys, and serve as an all-purpose social-economic database. Resource One was never a great success, perhaps in part because, by the time it got under way, many radical hackers had transferred their hopes to the new generation of compact, more affordable desktop computers, which seemed to be a more practical way to democratize access to information -- as if information were what radical social change most requires..

But before its demise, Resource One had transmuted into a form of computer street politics; it had become the project called Community Memory. Community Memory's aim was to locate free computer terminals in public places -- like the Mission branch library in San Francisco or Leopold's Record Store in Berkeley -- where they could be used as a totally open, unexpurgated people's electronic bulletin board. This effort was launched by a parent company called Loving Grace Cybernetics. Its title was taken from a poem by Richard Brautigan that captures perfectly the much-prized synthesis of reversionary and technophiliac values.

I like to think
(and the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms

i like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace

Throughout the later seventies, many of the inventors and entrepreneurs-to-be of the rising personal computer industry were meeting along the San Francisco peninsula in funky town meetings where high-level technical problems and solutions could be swapped like backwoods lore over the cracker barrel of the general store. They adopted friendly, folksy names for their early efforts like the Itty Bitty Machine Company (an alternative IBM), or Kentucky Fried Computers, or the Homebrew Computer Club. Stephen Wozniak was one of the regulars at Homebrew, and when he looked around for a name to give his brainchild, he came up with a quaintly soft, organic identity that significantly changed the hard-edged image of high tech: the Apple. One story has it that the name was chosen by Steven Jobs in honor of the fruitarian diet he had brought back from his journey to the mystic East. The name also carried with it an echo of the Beatles spirit. And, in an effort to keep that spirit alive, Apple made the last heroic attempt to stage a big, outdoor rock gathering: the US Festivals of 1982 and 1983, on which Wozniak spent $20 million of his own money.

For the surviving remnants of the counter culture in the late seventies, it was digital data, rather than domes, arcologies, or space colonies, that would bring us to the postindustrial promised land. The personal computer would give the millions access to the databases of the world, which -- so the argument went -- was what they needed in order to become a self-reliant citizenry. The home computer terminal became the centerpiece of a sort of electronic populism. Computerized networks and bulletin boards would keep the tribes in touch, exchanging the vital data that the power elite was denying them. Clever hackers would penetrate the classified databanks that guarded corporate secrets and the mysteries of state. Who would have predicted it? By way of IBM's video terminals, AT&T's phone lines, Pentagon space shots, and Westinghouse communications satellites, a worldwide, underground community of computer-literate rebels would arise, armed with information and ready to overthrow the technocratic centers of authority. They might even outlast the total collapse of the high industrial system that had invented their technology. Surely one of the zaniest expressions of the guerrilla hacker worldview was that of Lee Felsenstein, a founder of the Homebrew Computer Club and of Community Memory, later the designer of the Osborne portable computer. Felsenstein's technological style -- emphasizing simplicity and resourceful recycling -- arose from an apocalyptic vision of the industrial future that might have come straight out of A Canticle for Liebowitz. He worked from the view "that the industrial infrastructure might be snatched away at any time, and the people should be able to scrounge parts to keep their machines going in the rubble of the devastated society; ideally, the machine's design would be clear enough to allow users to figure out where to put those parts." As Felsenstein once put it, "I've got to design so you can put it together out of garbage cans."

It is important to appreciate the political idealism that underlay the home computer in its early days, and to recognize its link with tendencies that were part of the counter culture from the beginning. It is quite as important to recognize that the reversionary-technophiliac synthesis it symbolizes is as naive as it is idealistic. So much so that one feels the need of probing deeper to discover the secret of its strange cogency. For how could anyone believe something so unlikely?


Some Afterthoughts in the Year 2000

From Satori to Silicon Valley by Theodore Roszak
Copyright 2000 by Theodore Roszak. All rights reserved.