Since the 60s, countercultures have subverted mainstream tech to connect and build community

From the Whole Earth Catalogue to Facebook drag queens: a short history of online counterculture.

The Macintosh computer was considered the 'new LSD'

Although the hippies rejected the military-industrial complex, many embraced an idea of the world in which material reality could be imagined as an information system. (nchlsft/Shutterstock/Michelle Parise)

Originally published on September 17, 2021.

It didn't turn out the way many had hoped.

Coming straight from the counterculture capital of the United States, personal computers were meant to be an extension of the hippie movement, whose epicentre was what's now called Silicon Valley.

Computers were supposed to represent the utopian dream of disembodied information, said Fred Turner, a professor of communications at Stanford University.

"In the '60s, we had the Vietnam War, we had civil rights, we had enormous conflicts, and particularly college students growing up in that period did not want to grow up to fight in the Vietnam War, and did not want to grow up to be the kind of people that would prosecute that kind of a war," Turner told Spark host Nora Young.

"Meantime, though, they didn't want to let go of the beautiful technologies and the kind of utopian dreams that that industrial complex had also brought about."

They were meant to create a kind of disembodiment, where people were interconnected and at peace and didn't get trapped in conflict, he said. "The trouble is, when you disembody your politics, you tuck the real issues under the carpet."

This means that the environmental cost of our technology, for example, is ignored so long as it's invisible, hidden in energy-hungry server farms and supported by impoverished people who sort through garbage searching for rare-earth metals.

Fred Turner's research and writing explore media, tech and American cultural history. (Mareike-Foecking)

In the 1960s, Turner said, communes were set up as places where like-minded people could live in peace with one another, and ignore some of the larger political issues at large. There is a straight line from there to, say, Facebook, which attempts to do the same thing in social media, where users only hear the opinions of those who agree with them.

The communes were also an overwhelmingly white and heteronormative space —not unlike much of social media today.

Turner pointed to The Whole Earth Catalogue, a favourite of Steve Jobs. It listed resources for people living in communes, and was "Google before Google," as Jobs later said. Besides telling people how to get farm equipment for communes, it also became a source for books on cybernetics, to "help you get in touch with this kind of invisible, interconnected world."

So what happened to the techno-utopian dream?

For a start, it wasn't inclusive, he said. The idea of disembodiment "makes it very difficult to talk about the embodied differences we inhabit."

"In the mid '80s, the generation that had tried to create the communes in the '60s and '70s, was looking for work. They were in their mid 30s, late 30s when the communes collapsed, the counterculture had collapsed, the '60s were over," Turner said.

"And we were in the Reagan era and people needed work. And a lot of those folks were here in California, where the computing industry was and they went to work in the computing industry."

Fast forward to today, and you've got Facebook and Twitter and other communities, but they're being run by billionaires — there are more than 70 billionaires living in Silicon Valley today, he pointed out — and regular workers who can't afford housing. "And pretty soon you're down a rabbit hole in which it seems totally reasonable to you that 90 per cent of the profits of the given region should be concentrated in the hands of 1 per cent of the people."

Online gentrification

The idea of counterculture communities – especially in the digital age – is also the focus of social science researcher and activist Jessa Lingel.

She said it's enormously difficult for so-called counterculture groups, like, say the body modification community, to work with the established social media platforms like Facebook.

"If your community is around golf, or being a cancer survivor, you don't tend to run into the rules that Facebook has set up in a bad way. But for a body modification community, for example, if you want to show photos of pierced genitalia or something, or photos of a body part that's just heavily pierced, it can run afoul of their content moderation," she told Young.

Social science researcher and information activist Jessa Lingel. (Annenberg School for Communication)

Similarly, drag queens had to fight to be able to use their stage names, because they ran afoul of Facebook's requirement that everybody had to use their real name — something that could have profound consequences for people who may not want their families to know that they dress in drag.

This stands in direct contrast to the hippie ideal that if your interests were historically marginalized, "the internet could be this powerful way of getting your voice heard and finding other people," she said.

Instead, these counterculture and subculture groups have had to find other ways of creating community, on smaller sites like Tumblr and OnlyFans, both of which have tried to exclude some of those groups only to reverse their decision as people left the platforms in droves.

Lingel referred to the idea of online gentrification, where people of differing interests and cultures seem to mix together in a community.

"But you are often very isolated in terms of going to different churches, shopping at different stores, sending your kids to different schools and going to different restaurants and bars. And so the weird thing about a gentrifying neighborhood is that it can feel diverse until you're actually out and about, and then you realize that you're just seeing the same groups of people, so you're not actually interacting much."

She laments that arguably the most successful group of counterculture activists that have created their own communities is the alt-right, with platforms like Parler.

'I would say, in general, academics have not been as inclusive as we need to be when we think about counterculture, because so many of the countercultures we talk about in this sort of reverent way, like, 'oh, wow, like, we need counterculture'. And we don't do enough thinking about who else qualifies as a counterculture, which is the alt-right," she said.

"They reflect their community values, it just wasn't who I had been thinking about."

Written by Adam Killick. Produced by Nora Young, Michelle Parise and Samraweet Yohannes.