Counterculture, hope and hubris

I got involved with cutting-edge technology as a kid. Growing up in Eastern Europe, “cutting edge” was about a decade back from the developed world, but my Commodore Plus/4 (a vastly unsuccessful business/home hybrid, and intended successor of the Commodore 64, that had its superfluous stock dumped east of the Iron Curtain after discontinuation) was at that time a gateway into the cutting edge then: personal computing.

Jeff Minter’s Attack of the Mutant Camels

I was there at the golden age of the European Demoscene. Beside competing in coding ingenuity, we were chasing after new frontiers in communication — dial-in BBSes, CD-ROM diskmag copyculture, and finally the Internet. I was too young at the time to meaningfully participate as some of the older kids did, but I still learned rudimentary Assembly in early grade school, and explored avenues of communication that were completely novel and external to the mainstream at the time.

At the time I didn’t think of it as such, but looking at it through the lens of my involvement in first the metal, then darkwave, then punk, then psychedelic musical subcultures, and their ancillary worldviews and streams of consciousness, I cannot unsee the link between these and my tech journey. Most of my life, thus, was spent in a silent revolt against the mainstream, a constant search for freedom and alternatives.

This isn’t my own, original insight — the common themes between traditional counteculture and tech is something others have already written about and explored multiple times. Silicon Valley was mostly founded by hippies and psychonauts. Blockchain technology and cryptocurrency, the cypherpunk culture before that, and before that the underground, egalitarian walled garden of Usenet, diskmags, BBSes and the Demoscene, are all forms of counterculture and a focused escape attempt from all that we saw as oppressive and backwards.

Note that the Demoscene itself grew from the culture of defeating copy protection. Fighting “the Man”, showing everybody that no one may stand between a coder and what they can do with their machine. Eventually, the piracy part kinda sank into the background. What was the point of pirating the dime-a-dozen creations of corporations, when we could do (literally) incredible things with our computers instead?

Tech as a counterculture has, though, in a way, failed us. Silicon Valley became a traitor to all the values that brought it to life. Revolutionary tech, having started out as a vehicle of freedom, has become a tool of oppression. Uber still dares associate itself with the word “sharing”, trying to position itself as hip and liberating, when in fact it has the most in common with avaricious, evil bosses from Dickens’ novels of laissez-faire capitalism running amok.

It was my profound disillusionment with the positive potential of tech, the rise of “angry techbro” culture (ranging from self-proclaimed comic-book supervillain Martin Shkreli to jobless basement-dwelling alt-right trolls), the ever increasing corporate powergrab over our desktops, on-line mass surveillance, and the feeling that technology is no longer working for me, but against me, that made me seriously consider if tech can indeed save us (or at least not destroy us).

Sometimes I think it wouldn’t be too bad to see it all crashing down in a gigantic cleansing. Revolting crowds cutting the power cables to cloud datacenters and Bitcoin mining farms, and dumping the hardware to be crashed under steamrollers; ransacking the Apple and Google campuses, spraying graffiti on the pristine walls and demonstratively shitting in the middle of every single faux-Zen garden and “social gathering spot”.

Even if the baby boomer generation has messed up every single thing they could, I’d say there is at least one saving grace they left us with. They managed to leave us a tiny sliver of their hope. Meeting the Rainbow Family of Living Light for the first time — a sole surviving and still-evolving movement remaining of what hippies stood for back in the day — was an incredible revelation to me.

All my disillusionment with technology led me to enthusiastically embrace the mild ludditism of the Rainbow Family — especially the European branch, where a Vision Council decision was made years back that Rainbow and the Internet do not mix. I’m so grateful for this (I LOVE YOU, FAMILY!) I remain a technologist, but that only makes me value removing ourselves from all this crap so much more.

The Burner and Maker subcultures stand as a bridge between the semi-stone-age society hippies of the Rainbow Family, and the mainstream. There is a lot I dislike about Burning Man, but enough that I like to consider myself a burner. The Hackerspace / Maker movement was the gateway poison that first led to my meeting of burners, to join in on some tech/art projects, and participate in burner parties as a partygoer and volunteer.

Burners and makers are all about tech. It’s not the kind of tech that you meet at your local Starbucks, though. It’s old computers, Arduinos, RPis, DIY camera drones, movement sensor dev boards, all kinds of colorful lighting, and more loose wiring than you’d see in 60s sci-fi movies. It’s people being the masters of tech, and enjoying the hell out of it.

Plus you have the burlesque, Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Woodstock ethos of burner parties, which is another interesting stream in counterculture.

My point is, there is plenty of cool and incredible stuff going on. Plenty that is worth being a part of. Plenty that shows us that we do have an alternative, that we do have hope.

I would love for my future kids to learn Assembly at seven, like I did. But I also want them to learn to build a bonfire, to carve a makeshift spoon from driftwood, to sing without reservations in the food circle, to connect and feel, or to make mardi gras costumes that light up with movement. To understand and feel in their muscles, their bones, the surging of their blood the difference between the real and the virtual. I want them to learn to be masters of technology, not its serfs. After all, computers were invented to be our servants, not our overseers.

What I’d like to see addressed more though, is the inherent hybris of the underdog, of counterculture. The apotheosis of the “alternative” and the lack of critical thought in relation to oneself. Hippies buying into right-wing conspiration theories because they are contrary to the “official”, or burners thinking of themselves as egalitarian and revolutionary, when often being a gathering of the privileged and powerful.

Lack of reflection is what gave us today’s Silicon Valley. It’s what gave us the state of the cryptosphere. Please, by all means, go out and revolt. But do keep an eye on yourselves in the process.

There’s two kinds of programming: functional and dysfunctional.