Multiculturalism vs. the Hacker Ethic

on January 24, 2012

At the end of the previous entry, I promised that this one would carry the story along by discussing the flowering of holism in the early 20th century. I soon realized, however, that I’d missed an important step in the development of the association between horizontalism and creative imagination — so I need to backtrack and deal with that before I move on.

When creative imagination started hanging out with horizontalism in the 1970’s, the relationship initially took shape within the terms of multiculturalism, and its chief exponents were neo-pagans and chaos magicians. But in recent years, the same association has been most apparent in the context of direct democracy, and its leading devotees are now computer hackers and self-professed pirates.

That may seem like a natural progression when viewed from the perspective of creative imagination — especially since there has always been a significant overlap between magicians and hackers — but from the viewpoint of horizontalism, the underlying dynamic is far more complex.

The horizontalism vision was born out of the reconfiguration of democracy during the counterculture of the 1910’s. It coalesced in the 1930’s and simultaneously entered into a close association with holism, which continued uninterrupted through the 1960’s and played a prominent role in the “second counterculture” of 1969-76.

Just as civil rights and civil liberties were key values of the intersection between democracy and chaos, so multiculturalism — which might be defined as the perception of human society as analogous to an ecosystem — is a key value of the intersection between holism and horizontalism. That is why the creative imagination vision looked to multiculturalism for clues when it was seeking to establish its own identity in the early 70’s.

The bond between holism and horizontalism came under strain, however, when the democracy-and-chaos partnership was established in the late 70’s and assumed a dominant role in the culture. By 1980, holism had fallen under its influence and had shied off from horizontalism to seek a more politically advantageous alliance with the established institutions of democracy.

This loss of its original mentor was a traumatic experience for the horizontalism vision. Its long-standing relationship with holism was reduced to being the obsession of marginal idealists like the radical monkey-wrenchers of Earth First! and had ceased to be creatively productive. But it was precisely this trauma that freed up horizontalism to form a new association with creative imagination.

One early sign of that association can be seen in the birth of cyberpunk fiction around 1980, but its first real-world effects became apparent in 1984-85. I discussed certain aspects of thet transition a while back, in two entries — The Land-Pirats and Heretics of the 1980’s — which focused on the pivotal figures of Richard Stallman and Stewart Brand.

Stallman is the great champion of the Hacker Ethic. He nurtured its dream of communal anarchism through the dark years of the late 70’s and early 80’s, when his fellow hackers were selling out to business or government, until at last in 1984 he struck out on his own, developing the GNU operating system and establishing the Free Software Foundation.

Brand was the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, which in the early 70’s was the very epitome of the intersection of holism and horizontalism. In 1984, however, he ditched its direct successor, CoEvolution Quarterly, and around the same time, he convened the first Hacker Conference — which Stallman attended — and started an important early online community, the WELL.

These events were the first visible manifestations of a true intersection between horizontalism and creative imagination, one whose core value was the ideal of a non-hierarchical society that would both support and be supported by the unfettered creativity exemplified by the hacker.

Much the same shift, however, occurs at an identical point in the early development of every vision. Holism became fully engaged with horizontalism in the late 1930’s after chaos had been drawn into the orbit of the science-and-democracy partnership. The intersection between chaos and holism goes back to the late 1870’s, when democracy had fallen under the influence of reason-and-science.

And the intersection of democracy and chaos crystallized during the brief period between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 — with its lofty but vague invocation of “unalienable rights” — and Jefferson’s explicit statement in 1787 that “a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”

What is perhaps most extraordinary about these transitions is not just their suddenness but how profoundly they transform both the visions involved. Not only does the junior vision take on a coherence and definition that it previously lacked, but the senior vision is able to reveal a previously unsuspected side of its nature.

The transition of the 1980’s, for example, resulted in a completely novel understanding of horizontalism. The image of a world ruled by horizontalism had previously been one of an idyllic ecological utopia of small, interdependent communities, but to that was now added a far grittier and more dangerous alternative informed by the Hacker Ethic.

The difference between these two images is in large part a reflection of the difference between science and inner experience. When a social vision like horizontalism is yoked to a scientifically-based vision like holism, it takes on much of the regularity and predictability of the scientific view of nature. But when it is yoked to an inner experience-based vision like creative imagination, it becomes as strange and unpredictable as the creative functions of the human mind.

Moreover, this duality is not limited to socially-based visions like horizontalism. The relationships that any vision forms with those immediately senior and junior to it always differ significantly, and do so in ways that appear to be controlled by a set of formulas which have repeated over and over throughout history.

When a scientifically-based vision becomes the mentor to a socially-based vision, for example, the intersection between them is based on a conception of the ideal society as an earthly reflection of the mechanisms of the cosmos.

The first such scientific-social intersection goes back to the dawn of human history, when the simple family relationships of the early hunter-gatherers were reconfigured into elaborate kinship systems structured around the male-female dualities that had originally been devised to make sense of the natural world.

The second such intersection began with a dream of shaping human society in the image of the regular progressions of the sun, moon, and stars — a dream that climaxed in the birth of civilization. The third underlay the feudal system of the Middle Ages, in which the downward transmission of authority from kings to nobles, then to knights and eventually peasants, was modeled on a view of Creation as emanating by stages from an ultimate First Cause.

In much the same way, the early modern view of the physical universe as controlled by natural law — rather than by divine mandate — led to an ideal of government as a system of invariable laws, impervious to human whim. And today the holistic concept of an ecosystem finds its reflection in the goal of remaking society as a network of autonomous communities.

In contrast to this, the relationship when a socially-based vision becomes the mentor to an inner experience-based vision is far more subtle and indirect. It appears to be founded on an assessment of what characteristics qualify certain individuals to be the leaders of society, combined with a consideration of what social arrangements will best nurture such individuals.

The tribal shamans of prehistory, the priest-kings of the early civilizations, the enlightened princes of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and the freedom-loving democratic citizens of the 19th and 20th centuries all represent ideal types within their respective societies. And currently, horizontalism and creative imagination are engaged together in the process of figuring out what form of society is best suited to nurture and value highly creative individuals.

Last week’s extraordinary protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act — a protest whose widely-cited rationale was the desirability of organizing society around the welfare of its creators and innovators — not only indicates the amount of cultural energy going into that process but also hints at the likely shape of the result.

And there’s yet another factor in the mix.

I attended Harvard College in the middle 1960’s but spent most of my free time in the more congenial environs of the MIT Science Fiction Society, where it was a recurring joke that Harvard undergraduates knew they were being trained to rule the world, but MIT students were plotting how to take over the world.

I took that as a general MIT witticism — but I suspect now it was really a hacker joke. The first generation of computer hackers had graduated from MIT a year or two before I showed up, but based on what I can piece together from Steven Levy’s Hackers and my own memories, I believe that they and MITSFS were both part of what might be called the mad scientist wing of the Institute, with a fair amount of overlap between the two groups.

I’ve also realized over the years that hidden within the shiny shell of geek humor was a hard kernel of class warfare. Harvard truly was run for the children of the elite — which was one reason I felt the need to escape to MIT. At Harvard, bright public school graduates like me and my friends were permanent outsiders, but at MIT it was possible to dream serious dreams of overturning the old elite.

And now that battle has been declared by the hackers of Anonymous against the Harvard-educated politicians and economists and their kind who have brought our world to the brink of disaster, the joke no longer seems like much of a joke at all.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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