Open systems born of counter-culture (redux)

In response to an interview with Silicon Valley VC Peter Thiel in the Weekend FT on Dec 20, 2013 my letter defending hippie values was published a week later:

Of the many sweeping statements made by libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel during his “Lunch with the FT” interview (“People are not trying hard enough”, Life & Arts, December 21), none seems as wide of the mark as his claim that “when the hippies won … the idea of progress came to an end”. As someone who lives and invests in Silicon Valley, Mr Thiel should be familiar with the well-documented connection between 1960s radicals and innovations around open systems computing and the origins of the personal computer.

Open systems grew out of the variation of the Unix operating system developed at the University of California at Berkeley – hotbed of the 1960s counter-culture in the US. Open systems innovation led to a revolution every bit as real as the one hoped for by those manning the barricades on Telegraph Avenue.

Homebrew Computer Club founder Fred Moore was an anti-war activist. Club members Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs engaged in “hippie pastimes” such as phone phreaking, experimenting with LSD, and seeking spiritual enlightenment in India. They then went on to found Apple Computers, hardly a sign that progress had come to an end.

New YorkerNow, a long article in the Jan 13 edition of the New Yorker by Evgeny Morozov, details various elements of the rebellion against establishment ownership of the means of production–from the Arts & Crafts movement of the early 20th Century through the Whole Earth Catalog of the 1960s to the hackers of the 70’s and the Maker Movement today.

Whole Earth Catalog founder and computer revolutionary Stewart Brand contrasts the nature of the rebellion on different sides of the San Francisco Bay:

Around Berkeley, it was Free Speech Movement, “power to the people.” Around Stanford, it was “Whole Earth Catalog,” Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, people like that, and they were just power to people. They just wanted to power anybody who was interested, not “the people.” Well, it turns out there is no, probably, “the people.” So the political blind alley that Berkeley went down was interesting, we were all taking the same drugs, the same length of hair, but the stuff came out of the Stanford area, I think because it took a Buckminster Fuller access-to-tools angle on things.

Morozov writes that, in addition to Fred Moore, another leader of the Homebrew Computer Club was Lee Felsenstein. A veteran of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, he wanted to build a communication infrastructure that would allow citizens to swap information in a decentralized manner, bypassing the mistrusted traditional media. He founded the Club to help counter the power of IBM, then the dominant manufacturer of large and expensive computers, and make computers smaller, cheaper, and more useful in political struggles.

Morozov’s notes the irony that today “we carry personal computers in our pockets—nothing could be more decentralized than this!—but have surrendered control of our data, which is stored on centralized servers, far away from our pockets.”

While he criticizes the lack of a willingness of these movements to address institutional and political change, the overwhelming impact of the innovations that the counter-culture unleashed is undeniable.

3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

The leadership of the free and open source software movement are as many of them, if not more, hard core liber-tarians as liber-al hippies. You need to generalize at least one step up — liber-ation. “Free as in freedom, not free as in beer,” as we are likely to say.

We are the children of the Demoratic Enlightenment, I think, in a contentious rascally, argumentative, coffeeshop-haunting — and, yes, geeky tradition of American politics.

Look at our Constitution! Crafted by men, some of whom disagreed on the revolution itself which had forceably annealed them into something resembling a united set of states — many of them posted position papers under pseudonyms in the local papers so their thoughts wouldn’t be tainted by past grudges. This is how we get our Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers.

None of them wanted the others to dominate the fledgling state, so they wove hobbles into the bylaws by intent. “Checks and balances:” nobody wins; everyone gives up something; compromise is demanded. Not a majority, a minority, a president, judge, general, or Congress can rule by fiat. Tyranny is, as best as the best minds of the Radical Democratic Enlightenment could plan, locked out with alarms, failsafes — and gridlock, if tyranny should attempt it’s way, guaranteed to bring government to a grinding halt.

Clever procedural programming. Social engineering. Great spec.

But even then they had many of the same divides — Alexander Hamilton wasn’t much of a tree hugger, but look at the New England Transcendentalists, so influential in our early years!

But, no, I’ve lived in the whirl of the FOSS revolution and it’s business, social, and political impacts. I was the original PR volunteer for Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation, been friends and co-conspirators with Eric Raymond for three decades, and more recently, was founding executive director of The Tor Project.

Some might find it odd that a ghost/speech writer ends up in anonymity software supporting free expression, but it nearly runs the other direction, in causality. Who would you better trust as a confidential coach/ghost/speechwriter?

Regardless, I think blame is not with the movements, but with the transition from politics to “identity politics.”

Being a hippie — if you call yourself one today — means you shop at Whole Foods and wear hemp blend fabrics and suscibe to Simple Living and Yoga Journal. It does not mean you are out chaining yourself to fences to prevent government abuses from going through. OMG, that would totally screw with your resume!

No guts, no glory.

No movement.

Not for society. Not for justice. Because there is no “We, the People,” to take our outrage and act. Blog comments don’t count. Jinky web petitions don’t do crap (except fund moveon.org).

It’s all steam and no steam engine.

Did Edward Snowden think he’d wake my dear sweet sleeping giant, and she’d raise her sword and scales and head for DC? Every new release, the murmuration rises, but it’s nothing but gossip on the net.

We’ve drowned the Jeffersonian citizen in a bathtub, I’m afraid, and it may be too late to start over.

Stop it, you and Peter, both, and start looking for solutions, actions. A new constitutional congress, this time to revive the document before it too is drowned? God knows our Congress in DC is pretty useless.

Yes! Another commentator acknowledges the counter-culture roots of Silicon Valley:

Sixties and seventies originals such as Douglas Engelbart (inventor of the mouse and a conceiver of the web) and Stewart Brand (founder of the first online community The Well) hoped for wisdom and enlightenment through the spread of information, as a bulwark against The Bomb or World War Three. Counter-cultural rhetoric still suffuses the Valley tech industry.

Peter Thiel seems to have it in for anything associated with hippies. His latest broadside is aimed at the employees of San Francisco based Twitter for “too much pot smoking”. Maybe it’s medical marijuana?



Leave a comment
Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

(required)

(required)



seven − = 1