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“That Deep Romantic Chasm”: Libertarianism and the Computer Culture (1999), Hacker News







Thomas Streeter



[This is a draft of an essay that was published in in Andrew Calabrese and Jean-Claude Burgelman, eds.,Communication, Citizenship, and Social Policy: Re-Thinking the Limits of the Welfare State, Rowman & Littlefield, 1999, pp. 49-64.]
        [Gohere for a translation into Estonian.]



One step in the process of constructing a viable alternative to the       neoliberal paradigm in communication policy is developing an understanding       of why neoliberalism is so popular. It is important to counter the       neoclassical economist’s answer to that question – “it’s rational” – by       pointing to the many contradictions, irrationalities, and failures of       neoclassically-based policies (eg, Streeter, 1996). But as with most or       all successful political movements, the power of neoliberalism does not       seem to be purely a matter of scholarly argument. Furthermore, while it is       true that part of neoliberalism’s success can be explained in terms of the       corporate interests it serves, this is not always the case. As Robert       Horwitz 1989) and others have pointed out, some forms of market-oriented       policy have been instituted against the opposition of industry. And in any       case the broad political legitimacy of reforms undertaken on behalf of       businesses need to be explained. So the question remains: Why is the       current quasi-religious faith in markets as the solution to all problems       so compelling to so many? What makes it seem reasonable, forward-thinking,       even a little bit thrilling?


This chapter suggests that the answer lies, not just in economic or       technological logics, but also in cultural ones. This chapter focuses on       the careers and styles of two key figures in the development of today’s       “net culture,” Stewart Brand and Theodor Nelson, and explores some       elements of the politics of the culture of computers. On the one hand,       this essay confirms and elaborates an argument made or suggested by       others, notably by Barbrook and Cameron in “The Californian Ideology”       (1996) and Frank (1997) inThe Conquest of Cool, that the computer       culture can be understood as a deeply contradictory but politically very       powerful fusion of `60 s countercultural attitude with a revived form of       political libertarianism. Exploring the history and structure of that       fusion, I believe, helps explain both neoliberalism’s success and how it       might be undone.


On the other hand, this chapter elaborates on aspects of the “structure       of feeling “of that fusion (Williams, 1961, pp. – 71)       chasm “of my title is a line from Coleridge’s poemKubla Khan;       use it not just as an echo of one of the first visions of a world wide       web, Theodor Nelson’sXanaduproject, but also to suggest that an       important component of net libertarianism rests more on a romantic notion       of individualism, based on an expressive, exploring, transfiguring idea of       the individual, than the calculating, pleasure-maximizing utilitarian       individual characteristic of conservative economic theory. There are       positive lessons to be learned from this romantic individualism, both in       its compelling, popular character and in the key role it has played in       technological and social innovation. But, as the word “chasm” suggests,       this romantic individualism is limited: it is ultimately based on a       pathological and illusory vision of isolation and escape from history and       social context, which becomes evident in the expressive styles of net       culture, the particularly obsessive fascination with interaction through       the computer screen, and also in some of the policy directions advocated       by the culture, especially those involving intellectual property.


It’s easy, as many do, to dismiss the computer culture as merely an       adolescent subculture whose values ​​and principles hardly matter beyond the       video game market. But, while certainly not at the center of today’s power       structures, the computer culture can be understood as standing in complex       relations to the hegemonic bloc in the Gramscian sense. Members of the       culture are fond of pointing out how the corporate and government worlds       have been repeatedly wrong about or slow to catch on to developments that       the computer culture pioneered, such as microcomputers, networking, user       friendly interfaces, multimedia, and the internet. So most obviously,       netizens function as sources of innovation, as inventors and pioneers       serving as a useful corrective to corporate myopia. Furthermore, among       policymakers, both the products of the computer culture and to a lesser       degree the culture itself often serve as archetypal examples of the       marketplace in action. The new computer culture has become a political       icon or ideogram: in many a policymaking mind today, the rapid global       dissemination of microcomputers and the internet stand as models of what’s       good about the market. And these days, the computer culture itself has       produced quite a few prominent cheerleaders for marketplace policies.


A full accounting of the impact of the computer culture on industrial and       political decision making is far beyond the scope of this paper. But as an       illustration of its effect, it seems likely that the computer culture has       played an important role in one of the more important communication policy       issues of our time: the headlong rush to privatize the internet. The       explosion of the internet in the early 1990 s left the mainstream corporate       worlds surprised and bewildered; they had spent the previous decade       investing in proprietary commercial on-line services like Prodigy, and yet       suddenly here was a superior system they neither controlled nor       understood. One might have explained the internet’s success in terms of       its nonprofit origins and nonproprietary organizing principles; the       principles of open cooperation that are to some degree built into its       design and that have encouraged its rapid global spread arguably reflect       the ethic of sharing and collective inquiry common to the research       universities that fostered the internet’s development in the 1980 s.       Instead, at roughly the same time that Mosaic (the “killer app” of the       internet) appeared,Wiredmagazine, the libertarian Electronic       Frontier Foundation, and similar organs of the computer counterculture       offered us another interpretation: the internet was a triumph, not of       nonprofit principles or of cooperation between government and the private       sector, but of a kind of romantic marketplace entrepreneurialism – a       “frontier.” As this interpretation seeped into policymaking circles and       eventually became the “common sense” of the day, any policy lessons that       might have been learned from the internet’s nonprofit origins thus have       been roundly ignored. Since the early `90 s, the only question has been how       to completely commercialize the system, not whether or not to do it.


Many of the computer culture’s more prominent proponents came to       political awareness while protesting the Viet Nam war, and much of the       culture’s style and attitude has clear roots in the `60 s. Stewart Brand,       for example, created and edited the countercultural compendium, theWhole         Earth Catalog, and hisCoevolution Quarterlywas guest       edited by the Black Panthers in 1974 (Kleiner, 1986, p. 331). YetCoevolution         Quarterlyeventually evolved into a computer software catalog, and       today Brand is known as a technology booster, a fellow traveler with the       editorial staff ofWired Magazinewhich not long ago featured Newt       Gingrich on its cover. As a group, Brand and his cohort have become       important promoters of contemporary economic conservatism.    


The term cybernetics, coined by Norbert Weiner in the late 1940 s, came       out of a set of interactions among intellectuals that included Gregory       Bateson and Margaret Mead. Bateson, who to my knowledge never cared much       about computers, went on to develop both a set of ideas about systems       theory, ecology, and the human mind and a particularly effective pop       writing style for presenting those ideas. In the “ s, Stewart Brand went       on to elevate Bateson to the status of guru, particularly in the pages of       Coevolution Quarterly. And then in the early 1980 s,Coevolution         Quarterlyevolved into theWhole Earth Software Review,       essays about solar power were replaced by reviews of the latest computer       software, andCoevolution‘s nonprofit egalitarian principles       (e.g., all employees received the same pay) were replaced by a for-profit       inegalitarian salary structure[2]; several       of the key figures in this 1980 s evolution, like Art Kleiner and Kevin       Kelly, went on to become founders and contributors toWiredmagazine.       Throughout this kaleidoscopic four-decade process the term “cybernetics”       remains a constant.


The role in all this of Gregory Bateson (and Stewart Brand’s       interpretation of him) is instructive. Bateson’s books from the late “ s,       the most famous of which wasSteps to an Ecology of Mind(1972),       were written in a highly accessible, engaging way that eschewed academic       jargon and reference; the style was that of a kind of hip, charming       version of the voice of the British gentleman amateur. Highly abstract       ideas about systems theory, for example, are put in the mouth of a six       year old girl chatting with her father. Hence, college students and       literate hippies across the land, and even some precocious high school       students, could curl up in a bean bag with one of Bateson’s books and make       some sense of it without the guidance of professors. Bateson was an       Anti-Derrida.


In theWhole Earth Catalog, Brand added to this accessible but       thoughtful style a non-linear, playful form of presentation that mixed       descriptions of non-flush toilets with political tracts, a novel, and       iconoclastic journalism – it was in theCatalogthat most of the       U.S. finally learned how astronauts went to the bathroom. On the one hand,       the style expressed the “everything is related” holism of Batesonian       systems theory. But it was also the case that theCatalogwas made       for browsing. Certainly, the accessible, cluttered style of theCatalog      shared something with the general style of the consumer culture; reading       theWhole Earth Catalogin the early 1970 s was probably fun in       much the same way the reading the Sears catalog was in the 1890 s. But the       Whole Earth Catalogstood apart from the rest of the consumer       culture in important ways: it was information rich, deliberately lacked       glitz, and was not about consuming products for leisure time activities       but – in its own mind at least – about understanding and building things       for everyday life. To a whole generation of readers, and I think still to       some extent today, this kind of writing is a breath of fresh air; its       frankness and thoughtfulness was an antidote to the breezy, sugar-coated,       condescending, anti-intellectual tone of much of the pop media, whereas       its accessibility contrasted with the jargon-ridden, mystified styles that       permeate our academic, government, and corporate bureaucracies.


Until the mid – 1970 s, one of the icons of those bureaucracies was the       computer: for most of the culture, mainframe computers seemed to exemplify       the mysterious, technological unfriendliness of our modern institutions.       It was in the fusion of computer technical communities with features of       countercultural practice and belief that this view of the computer began       to change. Some of the origins of the shift in the character of the       computer are probably familiar to many because of their mythologizing in       the press: the computer hobbyist community in which Bill Gates and Steven       Jobs both got their start, and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)       which did much to invent or first implement the windows, mice, networks,       and graphic interfaces that now grace our desks. But fewer (outside the       computer culture) are familiar with the work of Theodor Nelson, the man       who coined the term hypertext and claims to have invented the concept of       linked electronic texts that led to the World Wide Web and the explosion       in popularity of the internet.


Nelson clearly played a pioneering role in fostering the intellectual       environment that made possible subsequent industrial developments; his       intellectual influence on both the microcomputer revolution and the       surprising success of the internet is arguably much greater than that of       any of the computer impresarios that are in every technology reporter’s       Rolodex, like Nicholas Negroponte. Nelson’s magnum opus was a book first       published in 1974 called (Computer Lib) . It was essentially a       transposition of the style, format, and countercultural iconoclasm of the       Whole Earth Cataloginto the world of computers.[3]      It’s impossible to establish exactly how widely readComputer Lib      was, but it seems likely that most of those in attendance at the “West       Coast Computer Faire “and similar now-legendary venues had at least some       familiarity with Nelson and his work, and Nelson himself reports glowingly       on a visit to Xerox PARC in the mid – (s) Nelson, (b, p. X).[4]      (I know at least one computer professional who told me, “Computer Lib      changed my life “; Nelson claims to have encountered at least fifty such       individuals [1987, p. 9]) And Nelson did frequently publish essays in       science and computer journals, and served for a time as editor of one of       the first pop computer magazines,Creative Computing(Anderson,       1984, p. 74).


Computer Libis full of concepts and approaches to computer use       that were then unusual but have since become commonplace.[5]      User-friendly interfaces, small personal-sized computers, mice, graphic       interfaces, and non-computational uses of computers like word-processing,       email, multimedia, and hypertext are all elaborately explained and       advocated. He even anticipates contemporary buzz words: eighteen years       before “web surfing” spread throughout the culture, Nelson wrote, “If       computers are the wave of the future, displays are the surfboards ”       Nelson, 1974 b, p. 22).[6]And Nelson       articulates grandiose notions about computers’ liberatory potential that       are now standard fare among netizens, claiming that “Knowledge,       understanding and freedom can all be advanced by the promotion and       deployment of computer display consoles (with the right programs behind       p. 58).


The style ofComputer Libis resonant with both that of Bateson       and theWhole Earth Catalog. (7) The book criticizes and       pokes fun at the mystifying jargon in which computers were then typically       described. “I believe in calling a spade a spade – not a personalized       earth-moving equipment module, “Nelson quipped ( (b, p.) )       language is deliberately playful and non-Latinate: computers are described       as “wind-up crossword puzzles.” And a loose sympathy with countercultural       politics and iconoclasm is also present: Nelson boasts of having been at       Woodstock 1974 b, p. 2), associates his critique of the computer       profession with the feminist critique of the medical profession inOur         Bodies Ourselves(1974 a, p. 2), inserts a solemn paean to no-growth       Economics (1974 a, p. 63), and puts a black-power style raised fist on the       cover. And the book’s hand-drawn graphics, paste-up style, and       self-published origin – Nelson brags about eschewing mainstream       publishers – all bespeak an anti-establishment sentiment (albeit an       undertheorized one).


How did all this countercultural iconoclasm applied to computers       metamorphose into a hotbed of neoliberalism? Almost as an afterthought,       Nelson raised the problem of funding a universally available hypertext       computer system in a brief passage: Can it be done? I dunno. . . . My       assumption is that the way to this isnotthrough big business       (since all these corporations see is other corporations);not      through government (hypertext is not committee-oriented, but       individualistic – and grants can only be gotten through sesquipedalian       and obfuscatory pompizzazz); but through the byways of the private       enterprise system. I think the same spirit that gave us McDonald’s and       kandy kolor hot rod accessories may pull us through here ( (b, p. 45).       In keeping with the pop-Marxism common in the early `70 s counterculture,       Nelson thus sees both corporations and government as similarly suspect.       But the allusion to Tom Wolfe is telling: his solution is not the Marxist,       but the libertarian one of free markets, imagined as if they could exist       without supporting institutional structures like government and       corporations.


Nelson’s faith in the marketplace was by no means unique among the       computer community. In the mid – 1970 s, the young Bill Gates was also trying       to convince his fellow computer hobbyists in venues like early computer       magazines that they should stop sharing software and start paying each       other for it (Cringely, 1996, p. 55). But Gates clearly had a       straightforward business model in mind. However sound his arguments may       have seemed to many, they had no countercultural caché.


Nelson’s vision, in contrast, is rooted in a romantic, not utilitarian,       form of individualism. He was not envisioning himself as simply a       pragmatic, self-interested businessman. He never mentioned markets,       profitability, or business incentives. His writings bespeak a passion for       inquiry and experimentation for their own sake, and a disdain for       traditional business practices and shallow economic self-interest. And, in       any case, by most accounts his major efforts to launch or participate in       business ventures have been disasters (Wolf, 1995, p. 137).


The romantic character of Nelson’s individualism is most evident in his       proposals for a hypertext system called Xanadu, which helped inspire the       World Wide Web and which, appropriately enough, is named after the exotic       “pleasure palace” in Coleridge’s opium-induced poem Kubla Khan. Xanadu was       described inComputer Liband has apparently been Nelson’s life’s       work ever since; as of this writing, after one major failed attempt to       develop the system under a corporate umbrella, a small group in Australia       seems to be carrying the flame for the project (Nelson, 1997 a).


Xanadu, according to Nelson, is supposed to be a computer-based system of       “connected literature” that’s easily accessible worldwide, much like       today’s World Wide Web. But with an important difference: “the system,”       Nelson says, “must guarantee that the owner of any information will be       paid their chosen royalties on any portions of their documents, no matter       how small, whenever they are most used “(Nelson, 1997 b) Nelson thus has       always been opposed to those, like Richard Stallman, who argue that       computer software should be freely distributed (Nelson, 1974 b, p. 158)       His argument is on the surface a recapitulation of the (highly       questionable) common sense of intellectual property law in the US:       “[C] opyright,” he argues, “makes publishing, and the better computer       software, possible “(Nelson, (a, p. 3).


It’s crucial, however, that Nelson’s desire to uphold an intellectual       property system seems to have been, not fostering an industry, but a       certain vision of fairness: “You publish something, anyone can use it, you       always get a royalty aut omatically. Fair. “The vision is of an isolated,       “free” individual who communicates without the mediation of publishers,       libraries, or educational institutions. This economic fairness, moreover,       is of a piece with intellectual fairness: “You can create new published       documents out of old ones indefinitely, making whatever changes seem       appropriate – without damaging the originals. This means a whole new       pluralistic publishing form. If anything which is already published can be       included in anything newly published, any new viewpoint can be fairly       Nelson, 1983, chap. 2, p. 38)) With Xanadu, each individual       contribution to the system is perfectly preserved and perfectly rewarded:       the computer system itself is supposed to prevent the possibility of       unattributed theft of ideas because each “quotation” is preserved by an       unalterable link that not only allows readers to instantly call up       intellectual sources but that also ensures direct payment for each “use.” 9       It’s a vision of a mathematically perfect property system, of Lockean       abstractions made manifest by computer technology.


By standard measures, Nelson’s career has been a checkered one on the       margins of the same commercial and educational computing communities that       have been so deeply influenced by his ideas. With that in mind, there’s       something poignant about his vision: it’s the vision of an outsider, never       entirely secure or well-rewarded by institutions – who’s never been       treated “fairly” – who imagines a utopia in which those “unfair”       institutions are supplanted altogether by communities of free individuals       working at computer consoles. It’s a utopia where there are no arbitrary       powers like IBM’s monopoly or arbitrarily powerful authorities with       careers built on glad-handing or hot air; a utopia where no tenured       journal editors can prevent one’s article from reaching publication, and       no short-sighted corporate executive can arbitrarily deep-six a beloved       project on behalf of cost-cutting. Nor can any of these people claim an       underling’s idea as their own.


By most accounts (though not by Nelson’s), Xanadu itself has been a       failure; it’s the mother of all vaporware. Nelson’s writings for the last       quarter century are full of unfulfilled predictions of the system’s       imminent completion and publication; to this day Nelson insists that a       viable working system is just around the corner (Nelson, 1997 a). Wired       magazine published a lengthy history of Xanadu, titled “A Hacker Tragedy,”       which depicted the effort as a Quixotic and fundamentally impractical       effort driven more by neurosis than by programming ability or vision       Wolf, 1995). While I am not competent to evaluate the specifics of the       software (which in any case remain largely proprietary), I’d hazard a       guess that part of the impossibility of the effort may be of a piece with       Nelson’s vision of property. The logarithmically increasing demands on       computing resource that such a perfect system would demand (each       alteration recorded, each reading generating compensation for each author,       a complete record or all such transactions accessible to all throughout       the system) may have been its technological Waterloo; in conventional       economic language, the system would probably drown in its own “transaction       costs. “


The tragic impossibility of Xanadu may be of a piece with the dream that       motivates it: a dream of community unmediated by the complex burdens of       history and institutions, of individual creativity without the ties of       social context. What’s missing from Nelson’s view of the world, of course,       is a sense of the determining character of history, politics, and social       complexity; his dream, in fact, is precisely to overcome the arbitrary       hierarchies and messy interconnectedness of our imperfect world, not by       struggling with that interconnectedness but by escaping from it into the       computer screen. That’s why, in all the countless computer utopias we’ve       seen depicted over the last fifteen years, no one changes any diapers. In       Nelson’s visions of cyberspace, as in so many others, there’s no       particular sense of people eating, growing food, getting old or sick, or       building roads, houses and factories. There’s generally an absence of,       even a disdain for, bodies: actual human bodies are often cavalierly       dismissed as mere “meat” in net culture, and the real world described as       “meat space” (Dery, 1997).


The entire transaction cost problem in neoclassical economic theory is       itself an effort to account for economic “externalities”; all that messy       political and social stuff that doesn’t fit the conventional economic       models of isolated individuals competing in a marketplace. In Nelson’s       computer utopia, as in most such visions, there’s little sense of any of       the constitutive character of even the most immediate of those       “externalities”: the expensive educational systems and the massive       government funding of science and defense that provided the context for       all the computer-oriented experimentation, speculation, and reflection       like Nelson’s. The fact that computer experts are overwhelmingly       well-educated middle and upper class white males working in cozy research       campuses of universities and corporations is studiously ignored. The       social conditions that formed the background conditions for the computer       culture and its accomplishments of the `70 s and `80 s – patriarchy, class       relations, the wide availability of higher education in the `50 s and `60 s       through government programs like the GI bill – are rendered invisible.       The oft-told story of Bill Gates learning about computers in high school       and then dropping out of Harvard to found Microsoft is treated as an       example of classic entrepreneurial pluck, as if Gates were some modern day       Robinson Crusoe operating in isolation from social support; the profound       difference in social power available to the young man from a wealthy       family who drops out of Harvard compared to, say, one who drops out of an       inner city high school, or to a woman who drops out of college to have a       baby, disappears from the computer libertarian scenarios. The expensive       computer that Gates learned on in high school is treated like a fact of       nature, not the product of the well-funded school system of the type       increasingly available only to the privileged.


The means by which the eventual marriage of the computer counterculture’s       libertarianism with today’s conservative movement were accomplished are       well illustrated by Stewart Brand’s (1987) celebratory book about MIT’s       Media Lab. Brand opens with an epigraph that dedicates the book to the       “drafters and defenders of the First Amendment” and that describes the       Amendment as “Elegant code by witty programmers.” Here in a nutshell are       the characteristic tropes of the computer culture: wry wit, iconoclasm,       and a breathtakingly naive denial of history and social process. For as       any legal historian and most lawyers know, the First Amendment, whatever       its merits, is not at all like computer code. It has never functioned with       the automatic, mechanical certainty of a computer program. Its       contemporary meanings in American law are barely half a century old; in       the nineteenth century, for example, it was frequently interpreted to mean       that censorship was discouraged at the federal level, but completely       legitimate at the local and state levels. A computer program executes       itself in the same way each time, regardless of who is operating the       computer; a legal principle, in contrast, is interpreted differently       depending on its social and historical context. The current strong       interpretation of the First Amendment in the U.S. is a political       accomplishment, a result of complex social and ideological struggles, not       a result of feeding the Bill of Rights into a neutral legal machine       Kairys, 1990; Streeter, 1995).


Yet the fantasy that laws do work that way is a key commonality between       the current rising conservative tide and the otherwise disparate computer       culture. A radical distinction between law and politics is central to the       libertarian faith; law, the theory goes, underpins a system of individual       liberties neutrally and mechanically, whereas government involves the       arbitrary and subjective political interference with those rights. Clever       and elegant legal codes by witty legal programmers allow us to be       self-interested, unattached, free individuals, monads in a marketplace,       whereas government coerces us into repressive collectives. That’s why       conservatives can imagine there’s no contradiction between their frequent       calls for law and order and their criticisms of government intrusion into       our lives. The fantasy that law works like a computer code, in sum,       undergirds the denial of history, social structure, and political struggle       that is central to the libertarian faith in markets, at least in its more       naive forms. The habits of thought that metamorphosed from sixties       countercultural social libertarianism into technology-based economic       libertarianism, and eventually lent credibility to today’s dominant       neoliberalism, thus rely on a metaphorical interfusion of law with       computers, in which each is imagined to function like the other.


Ted Nelson’s faith in the ahistorical formalist understanding of law       becomes clear when he defends his insistence on copyright protection: I’ve       heard. . . arguments, like `Copyright means getting the lawyers       involved. ‘ This has it approximately backwards. The law is ALWAYS       involved; it is CLEAN ARRANGEMENTS of law that keep the lawyers away. . .       . If the rights are clear and exact, they are less likely to get stepped       on, and it takes less to straighten matters out if they are. Believe it or       not, lawyers LIKE clean arrangements. `Hard cases make bad law, ‘goes the       saying (Nelson, 1997 b). Most of those familiar with the historical details       of intellectual property law would probably be more than a little       skeptical of the idea that intellectual property can be rendered into such       “clean arrangements.” Based as it is on such nebulous notions as       “originality” and the distinction between an idea and its expression,       intellectual property is a famously shifting and murky area of ​​the law,       replete with qualifying complications like fair use, copyright       collectives, and compulsory licensing. Intellectual property is a classic       example of a form of property where, as one famous essay on property law       put it, “crystals turn to mud” (Rose, 1988). WithXanadu, of       course, Nelson promises a technological fix to all this murkiness. But       historical experience and a little common sense would suggest that the fit       between technologies and intellectual property has only grown murkier as       technologies have grown more sophisticated. The internet and the World       Wide Web in particular, though they do embody much of Nelson’s utopian       fantasy, blur rather than clarify the boundaries of authorship and       intellectual property that were central to his vision; it’s easier than       ever before to copy someone else’s work without attribution, and       uncertainty in the realm of intellectual property is one of the major       legal and policy issues of the day.


Both the passionate attachment to the formalist vision of law and its       naiveté became abundantly clear when Congress added the porn-prohibiting       Communications Decency Act to the `96 Telecommunications Act, and the       computer culture flew into a libertarian high dudgeon over the CDA.       Computer pundit Brock Meeks, for example, flooded the internet with       outraged diatribes, frequently repeating the query “Which part of NO LAW       don’t you understand? “- as if no one could read the amendment and       interpret it differently. (The fact that for 150 years the best trained       jurists in the landdidread the First Amendment quite differently       seemed to have escaped Meeks’ consciousness.) Similarly, the EFF’s John       Perry Barlow distributed an outraged “Declaration of Independence of       Cyberspace, “as if the CDA were the last straw that would precipitate a       popular rebellion against governments world wide. As the First Amendment       is a favorite topic of reporters, the flap over the CDA became the primary       focus of press coverage of the `96 Act, the only element of the Act that       had any controversy associated with it.


In fact, the CDA takes up less than a page of the nearly 100 – page act,       and was correctly understood by many at the outset as unenforceable and       unconstitutional. The bulk of the Act, by contrast, is a rather typical       piece of corporate welfare, handing out various favors to corporate       interests while creating some behavioral ground rules that provide       industry overall with stability and protection from cutthroat competition       during a period of organizational and technological change. The key       progressive component of the Act, one with important implications for       fostering the open, public debate that is the goal of free speech law, was       arguably the creation of a universal service fund for schools and       libraries. Yet all this was accomplished by elaborate inside-the-beltway       maneuvering, and even the universal service issue escaped any widespread       public debate, even on the internet. In retrospect, it seems probable that       the computer culture’s loud objections to the CDA, rather than promoting       the cause of freedom, in fact served to deflect attention from the much       more important, and in the long term, more freedom-restricting       pro-corporate components of the `96 Act. One of the more enduring legacies       of computer libertarianism may be the way it served to distract attention       from the core of the `96 Act, thus ensuring its easy passage.


There’s much of value in the computer culture and its legacy. It’s       important that people like Ted Nelson were more right about the future of       computers than the bulk of the managers who controlled decision making in       the electronics industry; the computer culture was on to something. And       its success has helped keep alive a respect for iconoclasm. While I think       the dominant impact ofWiredwas conservative and co-optive, it’s       intriguing that, for a few years during the height of its popularity,       business managers across the land were thumbing through a magazine that       would routinely include observations like, “One of the dirty secrets of       capitalism is that the harder you work the less you get paid. “


The most important lesson of the computer counterculture is that the       dramatic success of the internet, of small computers, of       user-friendliness, of open systems, and of hypermedia are evidence of a       widespread desire for connection and cooperation in a context free of the       private and public hierarchies that so often dominate our lives. Unlike       the standard conservative marketplace fables in which we’re told that all       will be well if we dedicate ourselves to the selfish, calculating pursuit       of the profit motive, computer utopians like Ted Nelson and Stewart Brand       celebrate pleasures of unrestrictedcommunication, of connection       with others, pleasures that are both aesthetically and intellectually       creative and social and that cannot be reduced to the calculating       self-interest ofhomo economicus. Nelson’s vision of computers was       always one in which computers are interlinked and used creatively in       liberatory ways, in which they are a tool for social interaction, not       merely tools for controlling people and machines in the name of enhancing       the efficiency of profit-driven enterprises. Ted Nelson may have been an       outlier, but he spoke to real resentments and dissatisfaction with the       hierarchical worlds of managers and bureaucrats that characterize so much       of modern life.


As a political formula, the romantic libertarianism that the computer       culture offers as an alternative is as powerful as it is wrong-headed.       True, in the hands of political hacks like George Gilder, the formula may       be just an after-the-fact rhetorical trick to justify broader conservative       social policies. But what the cases of Theodor Nelson or Stewart Brand       suggest is that, for many, the formula can be deeply compelling. In a       warped way, it articulates genuine dissatisfaction with existing power       structures and genuine desires for forms of social life that are less       hierarchical and more liberating than those offered by the current       corporate-dominated welfare / warfare state.


Any politically progressive use of the insights, styles, and       dissatisfactions that gave birth to the computer culture would have to       bring out its hidden histories and social constituents. One of the       liabilities of the colloquial, accessible writing style of the computer       culture is that it obscures intellectual legacies and context; you have to       read Gregory Bateson very carefully to notice his debts to Freud and       social and anthropological theory. It needs to be made clear that the       pleasant anarchy of the internet is not the just the product of an absence       of control, but that it was built upon a foundation of support from       nonprofit research universities and their costly and fragile culture of       open intellectual exploration. The inanities of corporate managerialism       that are so deftly criticized by both Ted Nelson and Dilbert need to be       put in the historical context of the modern corporate form of organization       and its supports in the legal system such as the fiction of the corporate       individual.


More abstractly, I think a compelling alternative form of individualism       needs to be developed. Nelson’s dream of freedom in computer screens in       practice devolves into a desire fordisconnection, freedomfrom      relations with others through illusions like legal neutrality or the       “technical fix” of the computer itself. This articulates with the       conventional conservative notion of freedom as purely negative, as freedom       from, not freedomto.And like that conventional       conservative idea of ​​freedom, it too easily works to support the corporate       hierarchies it imagines it will overthrow. For a certain kind of person       (mostly white, mostly male, mostly educated and middle- and upper-middle       class), playing with a computer in factfeelslike an escape into       another world, into a kind of freedom. Computer obsession bespeaks, I       think, a fear of the political, of interconnectedness, a distorted wish to       escape the unpredictability and unknowability of relations with others       that comes from being social creatures. That obsession is understandable,       perhaps, given the limitations of contemporary life; but it’s a shallow       and ultimately illusory form of freedom. Over the long term, any       successful left politics will have to address the genuine dissatisfactions       and desires that make the computer seem like a form of freedom, like an       escape, but it must do so in a way that leads beyond them in the direction       of something more situated: a mature version of freedom.




Anderson, J. (1984, November), “Dave Tells Ahl – The History of Creative       Computing, “Creative Computing, Vol . 10, No. 11, pp. 67 – 74.


Barbrook, R. and Cameron, A., (1996) `The Californian Ideology, ‘


Bateson, G. (1972)Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York:       Ballantine Books.


Brand, S. (1987),The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, New       York: Viking Penguin.


Dery, M. (1997 , September 28) “The Cult of the Mind,”New York Times         Magazine, pp . 94 – 96.


Frank, T. (1997 )The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture,         Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Chicago: Univ. of       Chicago Press.


Cringely, RX (1996 AccidentalEmpires: How the Boys of Silicon         Valley Make their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t         Get a Date2nd edition, New York: HarperBusiness.


Horwitz, R. (1989)The Irony of Regulatory Reform: The Deregulation of         American Telecommunications, New York: Oxford University Press.     

Kairys, D. (1990) “Freedom of Speech,” in Kairys, D. (ed.),The         Politics of Law: A Progressive Critique(Revised Edition), New York:       Pantheon, 1990, pp. 237 – 272.


Kleiner, A. 1986), “A History of Coevolution Quarterly,” in Art Kleiner       and Stewart Brand (eds.).News that Stayed News: Ten Years of         Coevolution Quarterly 1974 – 1984, San Francisco: North Point Press.


Nelson, T. (1974 a),Computer Lib. (Flip side of Dream Machines),       self-published


Nelson, T. ( b),Dream Machines. (Flip side of Computer Lib),       self-published.


Nelson, T. (1983)Literary Machines, fifth edition (first edition       1981), self-published.


Nelson, T. (1987)Computer Lib / Dream Machines(revised edition),       Redmond Washington: Tempus Books of Microsoft Press.


Nelson, T. (1997 a), “The Xanadu Australia web page”


Nelson, T. (1997 b),


Rose, C. (1988, February) “Crystals and Mud in Property Law,” Stanford         Law Review, Vol. 40, pp. 577 – 610.


Streeter, T. (1995), “Some Thoughts on Free Speech, Language, and the Rule       of Law, “in Robert Jensen and David S. Allen (eds.),Freeing the First         Amendment: Critical Perspectives on Freedom of Expression, New York       University Press, pp. 31 – 53.


Streeter, T. (1996)Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of         Commercial Broadcasting in the United States, Chicago: Univ. of       Chicago Press.


Williams, R. 1961),The Long Revolution, Westport, Connecticut:       Greenwood Press.


Wolf, G. (June, 1995) “The Curse of Xanadu,”Wired3. 06.[1]      political full-circle of Brand and his cohort can be seen in the fact       that, while in 1969 arch Viet Nam war-supporter Ithiel de Sola Poole and       Brand were on opposite sides of the barricades, by 1987 Brand was       explictly basing his political analysis on de Sola Poole’sTechnologies         of Freedom(Brand, 1987, p. 214).


[2]Stewart Brand set out to create a Whole       EarthSoftware Catalogand aSoftware Reviewin the summer       of 1983. Editors for these projects were offered salaries competitive with       other computer-writing jobs, and the policy of equal-pay-for-all-staffers       that had been in place at CQ since 1976 came to an end. The same year,CQ      raised its subscription prices without, as had been done in the past,       discussing it or mentioning it in the magazine. In the fall of 1984, theWhole         Earth Software ReviewandCoevolution Quarterlywere       combined and the joint publication was namedWhole Earth Review.       See Art Kleiner, “A History of Coevolution Quarterly,” pp. 336 – 337.


[3]Computer Libresists       conventional citation. It has two “halves,” printed back-to-back in the       same volume with each half inverted to the other, so that it essentially       has two front covers, one titledComputer Liband the flip side       titledDream Machines: New Freedoms Through Computer Screens. As       each half has separate page numbers, citations below will refer to page       numbers inComputer LiborDream Machines, as appropriate.       The copy used here is described as the First Edition, “NINTH PRINTING,       September 1983, “and thus, though the copyright listed on both first pages is       1974, a description of events of 1975 like the appearance of the MITS       Altair are described, and in Nelson’s own biography on page 3 ofComputer         Libhe describes activities through 1977. A heavily revised and       re-typeset edition was published in 1987 by Tempus Books of Microsoft       Press; as some of the more interesting historical material was removed in       this revision, citations below are to the First Edition unless otherwise       


[4]Dream Machines, p. “X” (the       second page of a lettered, unnumbered “Special Supplement to the Third       Printing, August 1975 “that starts (Dream Machines) .) The passage       predicts that Xerox PARC’s innovations – those that would lead to the       creation of the Macintosh less than a decade later – will lead Xerox to       dominate the computer field. But are concluded with the following       prescient paranthetical statement: “The above predictions are based, of       course, on the assumption of Xerox management knowing what it’s doing.       Assumptions of this type in the computer field all too often turn out to       be without basis. But we can hope. “


[5]In one of many prescient passages,       Nelson critiques a June 30, 1975Business Weekarticle on “The       Office of the Future, “which predicts computerized offices staffed by       centrally located, specially trained word processing technicians, and that       the only companies that will succeed in this field will be IBM and Xerox.       Nelson goes on: “Well, this is hogwash …. The office of the future, in       the opinion of the author, will have nothing to do with the silly       complexities of automatic typing. It will have screens, and keyboards, and       possibly a printer for outgoing letters. . . All your business       information will be callable to the screen instantly. An all-embracing       data structure will hold every form of information – numerical and       textual – in a cats’-cradle of linkages; and you, the user, whatever your       job title, may quickly rove your screen through the entire       information-space you are entitled to see. You will have to do no       programming. “(Dream Machines, p. “X.”)


[6]Robert Hobbes Zakon’s “Hobbes Internet       Timeline v3.1 ”       ( attributes       the first use of the term “web surfing” to Jean Armor Polly in 1992.


(7) Lest there be any doubt that Nelson was familiar with theCatalog,       onDreamMachines, p. 3, he writes “of course I’m blatantly       imitating, in a way, the wonderfulWhole Earth Catalogof Stewart       Brand. “He also cites theDomebook, a popular instruction manual       on geodesic domes, as inspiration. And on p. 69,Computer Lib      visually quotesThe Whole Earth Catalog‘s cover (and most famous       image) with a full page computer-generated image of earth from space,       captioned “The Hole Earth Catalog.”


(8) These ideas are more explicitly elaborated in Nelson’s       self-publishedLiterary Machines, fifth edition published 1983       (first edition 1981) Chapter 2, pp. 35 – 38 . (Each chapter has separate page       numbers.)


(9) The Xanadu Australia web page       ( describes the project thusly: “We       need a way for people to store information not as individual “files” but       as a connected literature. It must be possible to create, access and       manipulate this literature of richly formatted and connected information       cheaply, reliably and securely from anywhere in the world. Documents must       remain accessible indefinitely, safe from any kind of loss, damage,       modification, censorship or removal except by the owner. It must be       impossible to falsify ownership or track individual readers of any       document. This system of literature (the “Xanadu Docuverse”) must allow       people to create virtual copies (“transclusions”) of any existing       collection of information in the system regardless of ownership. In order       to make this possible, the system must guarantee that the owner of any       information will be paid their chosen royalties on any portions of their       documents, no matter how small, whenever and wherever they are used. “


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