LSD is in vogue again. The “classic rock” of the sixties rules FM radio. Jimi Hendrix has been trance-channeled by the retrorocker Lenny Kravitz, whose flowered shirts and squalling wah-wah guitar pay devoted homage to Hendrix’s style and sound. Oliver Stone has refought the Vietnam war (Platoon), resurrected Jim Morrison (The Doors), and obsessed on the blurred phantoms of the Zapruder film and the hermetic meanings of the Warren Report (JFK). On August 13, 1994, hordes of Generation Xers and an attendant army of hucksters and roving reporters descended on Saugerties, New York, for Woodstock “94, a hyped-to-death attempt to regain paradise at $135 a head.
As with all revisionist fads, the sixties redux is largely a fashion statement, skinning the look of the decade and leaving its stormy politics and troubling contradictions behind. A bell-bottomed naif gambols across a 1993 Macy’s ad: ‘dOn’t WORRY, BE HIPPIE,” counsels the caption.
2 A Details pictorial from the same year reconciles boomers and Gen Xers in images of longhaired, love-beaded models in fringed vests and paisley-printed jeans: “Counterculture style returns to where it once began. . . . [T]hese hippie-inspired clothes bridge the gap between grunge and glamour.”3 Time travel is a snap and decades can be mixed and matched when history is reduced to a series of frozen poses and kitschy clich’s. The politics of style supplant the politics of the generation gap.
But the superficial faddishness of bell-bottoms and baby-doll dresses belies a deeper cultural tug-of-war over the meaning of the sixties. This pitched battle was a subplot of the 1992 presidential campaign. In his campaign ads, Bill Clinton positioned himself as a grown-up exemplar of John F. Kennedy’s idealistic “new generation of Americans.” Flushed with his Gulf War exorcism of the ghost of Vietnam, George Bush turned Clinton’s sixties exploits–dodging the draft, protesting the war, smoking (but not inhaling) dope-into campaign issues. “[T]he GOP has found a new all-purpose enemy: the “60s,” observed the Newsweek writer Howard Fine-man. “The critique is that in a mad, “permissive” decade the nation threw away its will, its discipline, its faith in the family and the military, in moral absolutes and rightful authority.”4
The return of the sixties, and the culture war raging around the memory of that turbulent decade, is at the heart of the cyberdelic wing of fringe computer culture. Not surprisingly, many of cyberdelia’s media icons are familiar faces from the sixties: No magazine cover story on the phenomenon is complete without the septuagenarian Timothy Leary, admonishing readers to “turn on, boot up, jack in” and proclaiming that the “PC is the LSD of the 1990s,” or Stewart Brand, the former Merry Prankster and creator of the back-to-the-land hippie bible, the Whole Earth Catalogue (whose prescient motto was “ACCESS TO TOOLs’). Other prominent cyberdelic spokespeople, such as the Mondo 2000 founders Queen Mu and R. U. Sirius; Howard Rheingold, the author of books on virtual reality and on-line communities; John Perry Barlow, an advocate of computer users’ rights; and the virtual reality innovators Brenda Laurel and Jaron Lanier, are steeped in the Northern California counterculture of the sixties.
Rooted in Northern California and rallied around the Berkeley-based quarterly Mondo 2000, the cyberdelic phenomenon encompasses a cluster of subcultures, among them Deadhead computer hackers, “ravers’ (habitu’s of all-night electronic dance parties known as “raves’), techno-pagans, and New Age technophiles.
Cyberdelia reconciles the transcendentalist impulses of sixties counterculture with the infomania of the nineties. As well, it nods in passing to the seventies, from which it borrows the millenarian mysticism of the New Age and the apolitical self-absorption of the human potential movement. As the cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling points out,
Today, for a surprising number of people all over America, the supposed dividing line between bohemian and technician simply no longer exists. People of this sort may have a set of windchimes and a dog with a knotted kerchief “round its neck, but they’re also quite likely to own a multimegabyte Macintosh running MIDI synthesizer software and trippy fractal simulations. These days, even Timothy Leary himself, prophet of LSD, does virtual-reality computer-graphics demos in his lecture tours.5
In his cyber-hippie travelogue, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyper-space, Douglas Rushkoff uses the “trippy fractal simulations’ Sterling mentions-intricate, involuted abstractions generated by computers using complex mathematical formulae-as a root metaphor.6 To Rushkoff, the fractal is emblematic of the cyberdelic subcultures he collectively calls Cyberia (a coinage borrowed from the Autodesk company’s Cyberia Project, a virtual reality initiative). It serves as a cyber-hippie yin-yang symbol, signifying the union of the “two cultures’–the scientific and the nonscientific-into which society has been split by the scientific advances of the twentieth century, to use the scientist and essayist C. P. Snow’s famous phrase.
In cyberdelia, the values, attitudes, and street styles of the Haight-Ashbury/Berkeley counterculture intersect with the technological innovations and esoteric traditions of Silicon Valley. The cartoon opposites of disheveled, dope-smoking “head” and buttoned-down engineering student, so irreconcilable in the sixties, come together in Sterling’s hippie techno-phile and Rushkoff’s cyberians. Increasingly, the media image of the Gen Xers who predominate in high-tech subcultures is that of the cyber-hippie or, in England, the “zippie” (“Zen-inspired pagan professional”). Toby Young, the associate editor of England’s Evolution magazine, defines zippies as “a combination of sixties flower children and nineties techno-people.”
Like his or her sixties predecessor, the archetypal cyber-hippie featured in Sunday supplement articles is largely a media fiction, synthesized from scattered sightings. He or she sports jewelry fashioned from computer parts by San Francisco’s Famous Melissa and dresses in “cyberdelic softwear” from the San Francisco designer Ameba-op-arty T-shirts printed with squirming sperm, leggings adorned with scuttling spiders, belled jester caps popular at raves. He or she meditates on cyberdelic mandalas like the New Electric Acid Experience video advertised in Inner Technologies, a mail-order catalogue of “tools for the expansion of consciousness.” ‘recreate the Summer of Love with this “90s version of a “60s light show,” the blurb entreats.
There’s something for everyone here: soft swatches of moving color, hypnotic, pulsating mandalas, psychedelicized fractals, surreal film imagery, computer animation, and advanced film graphics. A guaranteed mind-warping experience!7
In addition, cyber-hippies sometimes seek switched-on bliss through Mindlabs, InnerQuests, Alphapacers, Synchro-Energizers, and other ‘mind machines’–headphone-and-goggle devices that flash stroboscopic pulses at the user’s closed eyes, accompanied by synchronized sound patterns and, in some cases, low-level electrical stimulation of the brain. Advocates claim the devices induce trancelike states characterized by deep relaxation, vivid daydreams, and greater receptivity toward autohypnotic suggestions for behavior changes.
Alternately, a cyber-hippie might choose to boost his or her brain power with ‘smart drugs’–Piracetam, Vasopressin, and other central nervous system stimulants and so-called “cognitive enhancers’ that allegedly increase the production of chemicals associated with memory or speed up the rate of information exchange in the brain’s synaptic structure.8
What distinguishes the cyberdelic culture of the nineties from psychedelic culture, more than anything else, is its ecstatic embrace of technology. In his 1993 Time cover story on the phenomenon, Philip Elmer-Dewitt asserts that cyberdelia “is driven by young people trying to come up with a movement they can call their own. As [Howard Rheingold] puts it, They’re tired of all these old geezers talking about how great the “60s were.”. . . For all their flaws, they have found ways to live with technology, to make it theirs–something the back-to-the-land hippies never accomplished.”9 Similarly, in his introduction to Mirrorshades, the 1986 cyberpunk omnibus that brought the SF subgenre into the mainstream, Bruce Sterling argued that cyberpunk signaled “a new alliance . . . an integration of technology and the “80s counterculture.”10 Sixties counterculture, by comparison, was “rural, romanticized, anti-science, anti-tech.”11
To the extent that they define themselves in opposition to the Woodstock Nation, high-tech subcultures–whether cyberdelic or cyberpunk–insist on this reductive reading of sixties counterculture. Even so, there is more than a grain of truth in the widespread dismissal of sixties counterculture as “a return to nature that ended in disaster,” to quote Camille Paglia.12 Hippiedom inherited the Blakean vision of a return to Eden and the Emersonian notion of a transcendent union with Nature by way of Beat poets such as Gary Snyder, who counseled a tribal, back-to-the-land movement, and Allen Ginsberg, whose “Howl” demonized America as an industrial Moloch “whose mind is pure machinery.” Such intellectual currents led, for some, to the antitechnological utopianism expressed in the rural commune. “It was inevitable that hippie values would lead true believers back to nature,” the popologists Jane and Michael Stern write in Sixties People. “Although virtually all of them were Caucasian, hippies relished their romantic self-image as nouveau red men, living in harmony with the universe, fighting against the white man’s perverted society of pollution, war, and greed.”13
Nonetheless, sixties counterculture simultaneously bore the impress of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s technetronic age. As Sterling notes, “[N]o counterculture Earth Mother gave us lysergic acid–it came from a Sandoz lab.”14 A popular button turned the E. I. Du Pont slogan, “BETTER THINGS FOR BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY,” into a sly catchphrase for acidheads. At the same time, as Theodore Roszak points out in The Making of a Counter Culture, the Learyite article of faith that the key to cosmic consciousness and sweeping societal change could be found in a chemical concoction sprang from a uniquely American faith in technology. In that sense, he argues, the Du Pont slogan on the hippie button
[wasn’t] being used satirically. The wearers [meant] it the way Du Pont means it. The gadget-happy American has always been a figure of fun because of his facile assumption that there exists a technological solution to every human problem. It only took the great psychedelic crusade to perfect the absurdity of proclaiming that personal salvation and the social revolution can be packed into a capsule.15
The archetypal hippie experience was not dancing naked in a field of daisies, but tripping at an acid rock concert. The psychedelic sound-and-light show was as much a technological as a Dionysian rite, from the feedback-drenched electric soundtrack to the signature visual effects (created with film, slides, strobes, and overhead projectors) to the LSD that switched on the whole experience.
The emergent computer culture of the sixties overlapped, even then, with the counterculture. ‘students were signing up in droves to take courses in computer studies,” report the authors of The “60s Reader, “though having a home computer was beyond the wildest imaginings of most of them.”16 Prophetically, one of Ken Kesey’s ragtag hippie troupe the Merry Pranksters was a not so distant relative of Sterling’s bohemian techie–a computer programmer named Paul Foster whose life ‘seemed to alternate between good straight computer programming,” when he wore the standard-issue suit and tie, and wilder times with the Pranksters, during which he sported a homemade psychedelic jacket festooned with “ribbons and slogan buttons and reflectors and Crackerjack favors.”17
Similarly, the electrical engineer and hardware hacker Lee Felsen-stein “balanced the seemingly incompatible existences of a political activist and a socially reclusive engineer,” writes Steven Levy in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.18 Swept up in the political radicalism of the Berkeley-based free speech movement but obsessed with electronics at a time when technology was regarded with deep suspicion by radicals, Felsenstein strove to reconcile his divided loyalties. He and another activist hacker, Efrem Lipkin, went on to create the Bay Area electronic bulletin board Community Memory in 1973. Dedicated to the proposition that alternative networking was inherently empowering, Computer Memory was free to any and all through two public access terminals. “By opening a hands-on computer facility to let people reach each other, a living metaphor would be created,” writes Levy, “a testament to the way computer technology could be used as guerrilla warfare for people against bureaucracies.”19
Felsenstein and Lipkin weren’t the only members of the counterculture to champion personal computing as an engine of social change. Bob Albrecht, a longhaired, wild-eyed zealot with a background in computing, founded a newspaper and a computer center, both called the Peoples’ Computer Company. The technovisionary Ted Nelson self-published a “counterculture computer book” titled Computer Lib, an impassioned manifesto for an imagined movement whose battle cry would be “COMPUTER POWER TO THE PEOPLE!” Intriguingly, Roszak recently countered Newt Gingrich’s use of the term “countercultural” to demonize boomer Democrats with the charge that Gingrich is
more beholden to the “60s than he may know. It was guerrilla computer hackers, whose origins can be discerned in the old Whole Earth Catalogue, who invented the personal computer as a means, so they hoped, of fostering dissent and questioning authority. Ironically, this is the same technology on which Mr. Gingrich, the “conservative futurist,” is banking to rebuild the economy.20
Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand, who put the hacker subculture on the map with his 1972 Rolling Stone article, “Frantic Life and Symbolic Death among the Computer Bums,” has straddled fringe computer culture and the counterculture almost since their inception. “It’s all connected,” he says. “It’s certainly true that psychedelic research, on back to Aldous Huxley in Los Angeles, is very much a Californian phenomenon, as is the personal computer revolution, which is probably reflective of the frontier status of the American West Coast. The early hackers of the sixties were a subset of late beatnik/early hippie culture; they were longhairs, they were academic renegades, they spelled love l-u-v and read The Lord of the Rings and had a [worldview] that was absolutely the same as the Merry Pranksters’ and all the rest of us world-savers.
“But they had a better technology. As it turned out, psychedelic drugs, communes, and Buckminster Fuller domes were a dead end, but computers were an avenue to realms beyond our dreams. The hippies and the revolutionaries blew it, everybody blew it but them, and we didn’t even know they existed at the time! They weren’t getting on television like Abbie [Hoffman] and blowing their own horn; they were just inventing the future and they did it with an astounding sense of responsibility, which they embodied in their technology, right there in the chips–a complete blending of high technology and down-and-dirty pop culture.”
Where Brand sees the PC revolution as the phoenix that rose from the ashes of hippie romanticism and New Left radicalism, Timothy Leary sees it as a vindication of the counterculture; without the psychedelic revolution, he suggests, the personal computer would have been unthinkable. “It’s well known that most of the creative impulse in the software industry, and indeed much of the hardware, particularly the Apple Macintosh, derived directly from the sixties consciousness movement,” he asserts. “[The Apple cofounder] Steve Jobs went to India, took a lot of acid, studied Buddhism, and came back and said that Edison did more to influence the human race than the Buddha. And [Microsoft founder Bill] Gates was a big psychedelic person at Harvard. It makes perfect sense to me that if you activate your brain with psychedelic drugs, the only way you can describe it is electronically.”
Indeed, throughout the sixties, the social effects of psychedelic drugs, electronic technologies, and youth culture were perceived as synergistic. In a 1969 Playboy interview, Marshall McLuhan theorized that hallucinogenic drugs were “chemical simulations of our electric environment,” a method of “achieving empathy with our penetrating electric environment, an environment that in itself is a drugless inner trip.”21 ‘movies That Blitz the Mind,” a Life article on the wraparound, multiscreen extravaganzas at Expo “67 in Montreal, likened the disorienting whirl of high-tech multimedia to the sensory derangement of psychedelics: Spectators were ‘deliberately thrown off-balance mentally and even physically” by the LSDlike sensory assault of a “visual blitz” that made “audiences understand more through feeling than through thinking.”22
In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s picaresque chronicle of the novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, Kesey’s proto-cyberdelic commune maintained a shaky equilibrium between psychedelics and cybernetics, between the counterculture’s back-to-nature folksiness and its neon nowness. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is largely an account of the Pranksters’ manic, cross-country trip, in which the wackily costumed, acid-addled troupe challenged consensus reality with hit-and-run guerrilla theater. Significantly, the drug-soaked Pranksters employed both psychedelic and electronic technologies in their demolition of square reality. Their refurbished 1939 school bus, hand-painted with a riot of psychedelic Day-Glo motifs, was loaded down with gadgetry, wired for sound from stem to stern:
Sandy . . . rigged up a system with which they could broadcast from inside the bus, with tapes or over microphones, and it would blast outside over powerful speakers on top of the bus. There were also microphones outside that would pick up sounds along the road and broadcast them inside the bus. There was also a sound system inside the bus so you could broadcast to one another over the roar of the engine and the road.23
A Prankster could listen to the various sound sources simultaneously, on headphones, and free-associate into a microphone hooked up to a tape delay system, improvising over layers of his own echoed words. When the Pranksters returned to their headquarters in rural La Honda, California, Kesey created an electronic Arcadia, wiring nature itself: “There were wires running up the hillside into the redwoods and microphones up there that could pick up random sounds . . . [and] huge speakers, theater horns, that could flood the gorge with sound.”24 In The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Todd Gitlin describes the Prankster-sponsored acid tests as public mental meltdowns made possible by free acid,
pulsating colored lights, Prankster movies, barrages of sound and music, weirdly looped tape-recorders, assorted instruments, a flood of amplified talk. For Kesey, like Leary . . . had a vision of “turning on the world,” electrifying it courtesy of the most advanced products of American technology.25
The slang says it all: The inhabitants of the sixties counterculture exemplified by Kesey and his Pranksters may have dreamed of enlightenment, but theirs was the “plug-and-play” nirvana of the “gadget-happy American” –cosmic consciousness on demand, attained not through long years of Siddharthalike questing but instantaneously, by chemical means, amidst the sensory assault of a high-tech happening. And when the Pranksters and their ilk attempted to go back to the garden, they brought the madcap, sped-up “electric circus’ of modern media culture with them, wiring the garden for sound.
To some sixties futurologists, the machine and the garden were not irreconcilable. Writing in the December 1968 Playboy, the science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke imagines an “uninhibited, hedonistic society” of cradle-to-grave leisure, made possible by “ultraintelligent” machines. Much of the planet will revert to wilderness, he predicts, and people will spend youthful idylls in this paradise regained ‘so that they never suffer from that estrangement from nature that is one of the curses of our civilization.”26Anticipating the techno-eschatology of the nineties, he concludes, “In one sense . . . History will have come to an end. . . . It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God–but to create him. And then our work will be done. It will be time to play.”27 Yoking the counterculture’s Rousseauistic dream of idling away the hours in Elysian Fields to the promise of artificial intelligence, he resolves the atheistic empiricism of modern science with the paternalistic God of Genesis in a clockwork caretaker.
In “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” the hippie poet Richard Brautigan echoes Clarke’s sentiments, auguring a “cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers / live together in mutually / programming harmony”:
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.28
Analyses of sixties counterculture that characterize it as intractably antitechnological neglect the cyberdelic motifs that counterpointed its back-to-the-land primitivism: the perception of psychedelics as liberatory technologies and of electronic media as mind-expanding psychedelics; the embrace of the public access computer terminal as an instrument of empowerment (“guerrilla warfare for people against bureaucracies’); SF visions of an earthly Elysium made possible by machines of loving grace.
Nonetheless, the reduction of the countercultural attitude toward technology to a retrograde neo-Luddism persists because it serves the needs of conservatives, the Left, and libertarian cyber-hippies alike. Time and again, we are reminded that the difference between the cyberdelic counterculture and its sixties prototype is, as Elmer-Dewitt observes, that the cyber-hippies “have found ways to live with technology, to make it theirs.”
In an early Mondo 2000 editorial, Queen Mu and R. U. Sirius (the magazine’s publisher/’domineditrix” and then editor in chief, respectively) breathlessly promise to report on “the latest in human/technological interactive mutational forms as they happen.”29 Significantly, they place the Zeitgeist of the nineties in opposition to sixties counterculture, locating cyberculture squarely on the “culture” side of the nature-versus-culture polarity:
Back in the “60s, Carly Simon’s brother wrote a book called What to Do Until the Apocalypse Comes. It was about going back to the land, growing tubers and soybeans, reading by oil lamps. Finite possibilities and small is beautiful. It was boring!30
In the next breath, however, the authors celebrate the decade’s bacchanalian side, which they imply lives on in the thrill-a-minute Nintendo futurism (“High-jacking technology for personal empowerment, fun and games’) to which Mondo is dedicated:
[T]he pagan innocence and idealism that was the “60s remains and continues to exert its fascination on today’s kids. Look at old footage of Woodstock and you wonder: Where have all those wide-eyed, ecstatic, orgasm-slurping kids gone? They’re all across the land, dormant like deeply buried perennials. But their mutated nucleotides have given us a whole new generation of sharpies, mutants and superbrights.31
Mu and Sirius’s Nietzschean ‘superbrights’ are synonymous with Rushkoff’s cyberians, personified by the cyberpunk surfers in “Probability Pipeline,” an SF story by Rudy Rucker and Marc Laidlaw. Rucker and Laidlaw’s characters “are riding the wave of chaos purely for pleasure,” writes Rushkoff.
To them, the truth of Cyberia is a sea of waves–chaotic, maybe, but a playground more than anything else. The surfer’s conclusions about chaos are absolutely cyberian: sport, pleasure, and adventure are the only logical responses to a fractal universe . . . a world free of physical constraints, boring predictability, and linear events.32
The rhetoric of Rushkoff and the Mondo editorialists reveals how selected intellectual threads have been teased out of sixties counterculture and woven into the cyber-hippie worldview, while others have been dismissed as irrelevant to the nineties. The profound disjuncture between political radicalism (the antiwar movement, the civil rights struggle, black power, the New Left, feminism) and psychedelic bohemianism created a fault line in sixties youth culture. Gitlin sums up the “freak”–politico dichotomy, circa 1967:
There were tensions galore between the radical idea of political strategy-with discipline, organization, commitment to results out there at a distance–and the countercultural idea of living life to the fullest, right here, for oneself, or for the part of the universe embodied in oneself, or for the community of the enlightened who were capable of loving one another–and the rest of the world be damned (which it was already). Radicalism’s tradition had one of its greatest voices in Marx, whose oeuvre is a series of glosses on the theme: change the world! The main battalions of the counterculture–Leary, the Pranksters, the Oracle[a hippie newspaper]–were descended from Emerson, Thoreau, Rimbaud: change consciousness, change life!33
This dichotomy is resolved, in the cyber-hippie subculture, by jettisoning “the radical idea of political strategy” and updating “the counter-cultural idea of living life to the fullest, right here, for oneself.” In cyberdelia, the victory of the countercultural tradition over political radicalism is all but complete. As Gitlin notes, countercultural phrasemakers such as Leary were “antipolitical purists’ for whom politics was “game-playing, a bad trip, a bringdown, a bummer. Indeed, all social institutions were games. . . . The antidote to destructive games was–more playful games.”34 In like fashion, movement politics or organized activism of virtually any sort are pass’ among the cyber-hippies, for whom being boring is the cardinal sin and “high-jacking technology for personal empowerment, fun and games’ the be-all and end-all of human existence. After all, ‘sport, pleasure, and adventure are the only logical responses to a fractal universe.”