Remi Sussan on the link between computers, the counter-culture and peer to peer ideals

 Remi Sussan, our French collaborator and author of les Utopies Posthumaines reflects on the underlying links between the counter-culture, computers, and the egalitarian ideals that are now embedded in social software. The occasion is a new DVD on the topic, The Net: The Unabomber, LSD and the Internet

Some documents have tried to uncover the relationship between the so-called “counter culture” and the computer revolution of the 80’s and 90’s. For instance there is the DVD , ” The Net: The Unabomber, LSD and the Internet “, the book, ” What The Dormouse Said: How The Sixties Counterculture Shaped The Personal Computer“, by John Markoff (See R.U Sirius interview with the author there)… The fact is that anybody studying the history of the personal computer development can only notice the numerous ties between this technological breakthrough and the 60’s movements. Among many facts, the role of people like John Perry Barlow, Timothy Leary, R.U Sirius, or Steward Brand in the two movements; the importance of cyberpunk literature in the promotion of the idea of street tech, the exaltation of the hacker as the hero of modern times;What remains to know is if that connection is just anecdotal , the history of various superficial people changing their style of life as if they were just adopting a new fashion. Or worse, perhaps this is just the history of a recuperation, cyberculture being the last step of the “mainstreamization” of counter culture, its last submission to triumphant capitalism.Another, rather obvious, possibility is that the personal computer revolution, by democratizing technology, have been empowering the individuals, and that it is logical that activists fighting against authoritarianism and hierarchy may have embraced it. There is certainly some truth, in this explanation, but it is not sufficient in my opinion. First, Counter-culture is not synonymous with activism. There is a philosophical and metaphysical dimension specific to this current, a dimension one may find both in the hippie era and in the cyberculture. But, above all, it is necessary to understand the computer was indeed at the beginning of the story, and not only at the end. This is not simply the counter-culture that influenced the cyberculture. In fact, the very roots of counter culture of the sixties are coming from the labs, cybernetics and computers being influential a long time before even the invention of the personal computer, at a time those machines were mainframes inaccessible to the public.

The main theme behind the two currents is the idea of the “programmable man”. The root of this concept may be found in the 30-40’s, with the theory of general semantics by Alfred Korzybski and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This idea of human programming was implicit in the writing of some Victorian occultists, such as Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare, but it was cloaked in a morass of pseudo-theosophical jargon.

The idea of the “programmable man” implies that in fact each of us, any individual, may be empowered by recreating one’s own identity, and perception of reality in order to break the borders created by habit lazy thinking or even natural and genetic limits. This act of recreation implies a reorganization of language around new principles. Reprogramming oneself is therefore mainly elaborating new interfaces: interfaces to reality, interfaces to one’s own self.


All this history of this technological counter culture seems therefore to be about metaphors, the way we create and destroy them, and above all, how to choose the right one. The questions that are therefore asked are:

  1. how to distance oneself to our current metaphors, by giving the proper status and understanding their workings
  2. how to “deprogram” oneself from our current metaphors mainly by changing the emotional ties associated to them (psychotherapy, oriental philosophy, psychedelic drugs)
  3. how to create new metaphors (video games, virtual realities).

It’s interesting to notice that these 3 questions are in fact reproducing the history of development of modern counter-culture.


The “preparatory phase” illustrated by the thoughts of Korzybski, Fuller, Bateson and McLuhan, is about the definition of metaphor.

Korzybski suggested that this “programming” may be operated through a renovation of language. He wrote that common language should adopt the rigorous structure of mathematics, and that we should avoid some linguistic habits leading ius to indulge in easy thinking. The “Is” of identity, above all, was a real danger to mental sanity. Buckminster Fuller, on the other side, said that any real change in human behavior should begin by designing artifacts: material culture determines thought and ideology, not the reverse. But he also, like Korzysbki insisted to use the right metaphors, the right language in order to have a better relationship to the world. By using the right linguistic tools (for instance by stopping to use words like “up” and “down” that hide us the reality of the spaceship earth, where there is no “up” and “down”, but only centrifuge and centripetal movements) we may discover new aspects of reality. Marshall McLuhan, him wrote that media were the way to program the nervous system: their main role was not to provide content, but to reconfigure the architecture of our senses in a specific way.

Eventually, Gregory Bateson discovered that cybernetics wasn’t only a way to create machines, but provided a methodology to understand and eventually change, the human behavior. He tried during all his life to give precise meaning to the notions of information, communication, description, attempting to hierarchize the levels of cartography according not only cybernetics, but also according the logical types theory invented by Bertrand Russel and Alfred North Whitehead.

In fact, Bateson, bewildered by the complexity of the living phenomenon, began to doubt of any simple way to intervene directly on its structure, and became a kind of contemplative. But he inspired other researchers who were less scrupulous to apply ideas about “programming”: among them there were Bandler and Grinder, who created the new field of neuro linguisitc programming, a kind a vulgar version of Bateson philosophy, ideologically cheaper but financially more lucrative.

After Gregory Bateson, John Lilly was the one who, with his book “metaprogramming and metaprogramming the human biocomputer” pushed farther the similarity between the organic brain and the computing machine.

Strangely (or not), the man who presented the works of Bateson to the general public (in his book : “two cybernetic frontiers” ) was also the one who published “programming and metaprogramming …”: no less that than the same Stewart brand who participated to Ken Kesey Acid tests, coined the expression “personal computer” and launched “the well” and cofounded the global business network in the eighties.

In the sixties, the philosopher Alan Watts (who played a discrete, but fundamental role in the explosion of counter-culture) had managed, in his book “psychotherapy east and west” to interpret oriental philosophies, and especially Zen, in the light of Bateson cybernetic theories, especially his ideas on logical paradow, such as the famous “double bind”. According to Watts, the root of maya, (illusion) is indeed the semantic network of words which binds us in a prepackaged version of reality and, above all, ourselves.

The examples of Alan Watts and John Lilly shows us how the “psychedelic movement, from the beginnings, was indeed strongly influenced by cybernetics, a long time before Apple II and the personal computer.


The second phase is the hippie movement, with its fascination for altered states of consciousness, its pseudo-indian mysticism, its constant research of the disintegration of the self and the loosening of reality’s boundaries. The main question asked during these times was : how to go beyond maps, beyond language. A question closer to mysticism than to philosophy, so this is no surprise that orientalist imagery became the hallmark of this period.

The LSD was, for the pionneers of the sixties, a “reprogramming substance” (an expression from John Lilly). This drug destroyed the experimenter slowly built prison of words in order to present him to non verbal, non-learned maelstrom of sensation. Then he could slowly “reincarnate” by building a “new reality with other semantic associations. LSD, and other psychedelic substances had therefore for purpose to act on language. They were a shortcut when compared to the semantic discipline of Korzybski, but they followed the same goal.

The great computer revolution of the 90’s is about representation, language, and interfaces: it’s about the creation of the right metaphors.The main technologies in this time are not, indeed, artificial intelligence, or the progress of processors, even if of course, achievements in these fields may have helped. It’s about virtual reality, video games, the web…all are ways to represent information, to represent reality in new ways. It’s the direct continuation of the Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski hypothesis, the idea that by changing language, by changing interface, we may change our attitude toward the world.The “cyberculture” of the 90’s is about the definition of new metaphors: creation of virtual realities, Lanier considerations about non-symbolic language( and MacKenna’s ideas about visible language ( the whole new science about interface creation is directly related to the semantic question of representation and description.

To these three phases I would add the birth of a fourth one, I call the “culture of chaos”, (or the culture of complexity), which is, in my opinion, about choosing the right metaphor, in, other words, how to transform a theory of reality and of the self in a praxis or theory of action. The main characteristic of this fourth step being the acknowledging of the essential complexity of the world, and the necessity, from this acceptation, to promote a new kind of individual, with a lighter background, able to adapt to this complexity by literally juggling with various metaphors, various models.P2P, with the various bottom-up systems appearing today (artificial life, smart mobs, darknets, small worlds theory, etc.) are indeed part of this new “chaotic culture”, because their counter-intuitive aspect push even farther the tension between the map and the territory. They necessitate new interfaces, new languages (such as Mitchel Resnick’s Starlogo), new epistemologies in order to grasp even a little the workings of these complex systems (which indeed are at the core of our everyday life), and deal with them. More than a new project, P2P may be the sign of new paradigm in representation: “bottom-up” systems exist since the beginning of time, but until recently we have been unable to understand them, even less to build some of our own.From this notion of “programmable man”, we may deduce a new definition of the so-called “counter-culture”. By its attempt to re-define constantly language and metaphors, this current may indeed be seen as a solvent not for one culture, but for any one: because what is culture, if not a peculiar set of metaphors, of models, shared by a collectivity. Counter-culture may therefore be seen as a way to escape from culture, and may be called also a “meta-culture” (a interesting neologism, ultraculture, has also been recently coined in some chaos magick circles, seeÂ





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