"That Deep Romantic Chasm": Libertarianism, Neoliberalism, and the Computer Culture


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.]


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 (e.g., 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) in The Conquest of Cool, that the computer culture can be understood as a deeply contradictory but politically very powerful fusion of `60s 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. 48-71). The "deep romantic chasm" of my title is a line from Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan; I use it not just as an echo of one of the first visions of a world wide web, Theodor Nelson's Xanadu project, 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 1990s 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 1980s. Instead, at roughly the same time that Mosaic (the "killer app" of the internet) appeared, Wired magazine, 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 `90s, 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 `60s. Stewart Brand, for example, created and edited the countercultural compendium, the Whole Earth Catalog, and his Coevolution Quarterly was guest edited by the Black Panthers in 1974 (Kleiner, 1986, p. 331). Yet Coevolution Quarterly eventually evolved into a computer software catalog, and today Brand is known as a technology booster, a fellow traveler with the editorial staff of Wired Magazine which not long ago featured Newt Gingrich on its cover. As a group, Brand and his cohort have become important promoters of contemporary economic conservatism.[1]

The term cybernetics, coined by Norbert Weiner in the late 1940s, 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 `70s, Stewart Brand went on to elevate Bateson to the status of guru, particularly in the pages of Coevolution Quarterly. And then in the early 1980s, Coevolution Quarterly evolved into the Whole Earth Software Review, essays about solar power were replaced by reviews of the latest computer software, and Coevolution'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 1980s evolution, like Art Kleiner and Kevin Kelly, went on to become founders and contributors to Wired magazine. 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 `60s, the most famous of which was Steps 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 the Whole 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 the Catalog that 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 the Catalog was made for browsing. Certainly, the accessible, cluttered style of the Catalog shared something with the general style of the consumer culture; reading the Whole Earth Catalog in the early 1970s was probably fun in much the same way the reading the Sears catalog was in the 1890s. But the Whole Earth Catalog stood 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-1970s, 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 Catalog into the world of computers.[3] It's impossible to establish exactly how widely read Computer 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-1970s (Nelson, 1974b, 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 Lib is 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, 1974b, 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 them)" (p. 58).

The style of Computer Lib is resonant with both that of Bateson and the Whole 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 (1974b, p. 58). The 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 (1974b, p. 2), associates his critique of the computer profession with the feminist critique of the medical profession in Our Bodies Ourselves (1974a, p. 2), inserts a solemn paean to no-growth economics (1974a, 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 is not through 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 (1974b, p. 45). In keeping with the pop-Marxism common in the early `70s 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-1970s, 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 in Computer Lib and 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, 1997a).

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, 1997b). Nelson thus has always been opposed to those, like Richard Stallman, who argue that computer software should be freely distributed (Nelson, 1974b, p. 158).8 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, 1974a, 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 automatically. 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 presented" (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, 1997a). 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 `70s and `80s -- patriarchy, class relations, the wide availability of higher education in the `50s and `60s 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, 1997b). 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). With Xanadu, 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 land did read 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 of Wired was 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 unrestricted communication, of connection with others, pleasures that are both aesthetically and intellectually creative and social and that cannot be reduced to the calculating self-interest of homo 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 for disconnection, freedom from 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 freedom to. 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 fact feels like 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.


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

Nelson, T. (1997a), "The Xanadu Australia web page" http://www.xanadu.net/the.project/.

Nelson, T. (1997b), www.hyperstand.com/Sound/Ted_Report2.html.

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," Wired 3.06. [1]The 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's Technologies of Freedom (Brand, 1987, p. 214).

[2]Stewart Brand set out to create a Whole Earth Software Catalog and a Software Review in 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, the Whole Earth Software Review and Coevolution Quarterly were combined and the joint publication was named Whole Earth Review. See Art Kleiner, "A History of Coevolution Quarterly," pp. 336-337.

[3]Computer Lib resists 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 titled Computer Lib and the flip side titled Dream Machines: New Freedoms Through Computer Screens. As each half has separate page numbers, citations below will refer to page numbers in Computer Lib or Dream Machines, as appropriate. The copy used here is described as the First Edition, "NINTH PRINTING, Sept. 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 of Computer Lib he 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 noted.

[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, 1975 Business Week article 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" (http://info.isoc.org/guest/zakon/Internet/History/HIT.html) attributes the first use of the term "web surfing" to Jean Armour Polly in 1992.

7Lest there be any doubt that Nelson was familiar with the Catalog, on Dream Machines, p. 3, he writes "of course I'm blatantly imitating, in a way, the wonderful Whole Earth Catalog of Stewart Brand." He also cites the Domebook, a popular instruction manual on geodesic domes, as inspiration. And on p. 69, Computer Lib visually quotes The 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."

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

9The Xanadu Australia web page (http://www.xanadu.net/the.project/) 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."