revolutions of the sixties

Last night, I went to see John Markoff talk about his new book, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer.

It was an oddly rambling talk for a New York Times reporter, and he was a bit cowed by the audience, packed with the who’s who of software and personal computing of whom he had written (as groucho marx quipped, “Is this an audience or a lynch mob?”). But he did have an interesting thesis, suggesting that the revolution of software was one of many great revolutions of the sixties, of equal importance and effect to the political upheaval and drug experimentation. The idea was nicely upheld by the following talk, a panel of luminaries discussing their memories of the changes that occurred before the two steves hunkered down in their famous garage.

It reminded me of something I had read by Kurt Vonnegut, I think it was in Cat’s Cradle. He wrote that there were two revolutions in the sixties. The first one tried to change the world politically through demonstrations and activism. The second happened when the first one failed; people gave up on the external word and turned to drugs to change their internal word instead. This one, he reported, also failed.

I couldn’t help thinking about this idea as I listened. These amazing young men in aging bodies talked about the fire, the excitement, the possibilities that were there as they built the first personal computers, networks, virtual societies the world had ever seen. They were all visionaries, working in a limited media but with their eyes firmly fixed twenty years in the future.

Which revolutionary philosophy were they part of, activism or escapism? Much of the computer work was looked to as a way to change the external world, to help support community activism. It was seen as a tool to replace 3×5 cards and pamphlets. But it becomes clear as you listen to them talk that the computers were also a second world, much like the second world that LSD opened doors to. The computers were bridges to a new country that the computers were building. And the men themselves (and they were and are apparently mostly men) straddle escapism with active involvement in the world of here and now.

One could argue that the computer revolution was both the only successful revolution of the sixties as well as the one that has changed world society the most. It’s technology that reveals political agendas these days, with hackers and bloggers leaving nothing sacred, and supports activism through meetups and political commentary; but it is also technology that allows escapist “trips” via movie special effects and gameworlds like Second Life. These trips leave the body unraveged and the mind aching to create a new better world. Technology is only a tool, but it is a tool like LSD or birth control that is capable of changing who we are singularly and collectively.

Computer scientists of the sixties like Captain Crunch were as happy crunching code as they were riding elephants in India. They lived life and they created it. The myth of the pale programmer walled behind a stack of diet coke cans faded for me in the face of this history, and the potential of a human who both invents and changes the world was made clear. I woke this morning joyful to have one foot in cyperspace, and one foot firmly in the mud of earth, and knowing I needn’t pick between them and, in fact, the world is better if none of us ever do.

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