Posts Tagged ‘hacker ethic’

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.

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I’ve got the midwinter doldrums and heavy-duty posts are coming hard. So I’m going to take a break by doing a simple round-up of some of the trends and movements that I see as about to coalesce into a holism-based counterculture.

Trends alone are not sufficient, of course. A counterculture explodes only when there is both a volatile mixture of elements and a spark to ignite that mixture. But these trends are what will fuel the fire — and each of them is already displaying the distinctive pattern of thought that will shape the next decade.

The movements that have been catching my eye are primarily offshoots of the environmental activists and computer hackers that I previously described as heretics of the 1980’s. Their roots go back to the potent blend of holism, multiculturalism, and do-it-yourself-ism nurtured by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog in the late 60’s and early 70’s. But what I’m seeing now suggests a new degree of assertiveness and philosophical self-awareness, along with a dedication to the nitty-gritty of everyday life that is very different from the ecotopian romanticism of the 80’s.

These movements fall into three broad groups, which intermingle at many points. The first is typified by WikiLeaks and Anonymous. It is rooted in the hacker ethic and in the belief that access to tools and information should be considered a fundamental human right.

The second, which I’ve only become aware of recently, involves a new wave of environmentalism that over the last two or three years appears to have moved away from any expectation of government-based solutions and applied itself instead to direct action.

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The story I’ve been telling for the past year is almost up to the present day, and I’m starting to think longingly of getting back to the Paleolithic. But there are still a few points left to cover.

There’s not a lot to be said about the period from 1993 to 2008. I see those years as equivalent to 1950-63, when the science-and-democracy partnership was at its peak of unchallenged dominance and chaos and holism were developing slowly at the margins.

In much the same way, democracy-and-chaos has been in the driver’s seat until just recently. The Clinton years brought us an emphasis on the touchy-feeliness of the domesticated chaos vision. The Bush years featured a late-stage, repressive, we-had-to-destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it obsession with democracy.

But the financial meltdown of 2008-2009 has brought the democracy-and-chaos partnership to a state of collapse. Democracy has become a hollow shell, and chaos is floundering without the steady hand of democracy to channel its hyper-individualism. Only the Tea Partiers, who pride themselves on their contempt for both government and the common good, appear to be fully in touch with the moment.

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There’s much more going on during a romantic break, of course, than simply a new “shadow” vision popping up to reject the dominant partnership. The same spirit of opposition also infuses the emergent visions, provoking them to bring forth dreams of utopian alternatives to the existing order of things.

It seems as though every dominant partnership makes its most significant contributions during its initial phase, when it is focused on basic problem-solving. But as it shifts from innovation to consolidation, a kind of ruthless pragmatism takes over. That shift is what provokes the distinctive mixture of cynicism and frustrated idealism that marks the romantic break.

The science-and-democracy partnership, for example, was at its best during the New Deal years of the middle and late 1930’s — but with the onset of World War II, this period of social reform came to an end. Democratic freedoms became the stuff of wartime propaganda even as they were being suspended for the duration. By the end of the war, the United States and its allies had adopted policies, such as the bombing of civilians, that would have to be considered war crimes by any objective standard.

The equivalent moral breakdown for the democracy-and-chaos partnership occurred between about 1984 and 1987. It was marked by the Reagan administration’s illegal arming of the Contras, the Iran-Contra affair of 1985-86, the savings and loan scandal, and the “greed is good” mentality skewered in the 1987 film Wall Street.

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“Some dishonest Booksellers, called Land-Pirats, who make it their practice to steal Impressions of other mens Copies.”
— J. Hancock, Brooks’ String of Pearls, 1668 (quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary)

“The last man in the world sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”
— Fredric Brown

In 1984, Steven Levy concluded his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution with a melancholy epilogue titled “The Last of the True Hackers.”

“A man who called himself the last true hacker sat in a room on the ninth floor of Tech Square,” it begins. “His name was Richard Stallman, and he spoke in a tense, high-pitched voice that did not attempt to veil the emotion with which he described, in his words, the ‘rape of the artificial intelligence lab.’ He was thirty years old. His pale complexion and scraggly dark hair contrasted vividly with the intense luminescence of his deep green eyes. The eyes moistened as he described the decay of the Hacker Ethic at Tech Square.”

As explained by Levy, Stallman saw the ethic which had emerged among the original computer hackers of the late 50’s and 60’s as a form of communal anarchism based upon “a concern for constructive cooperation.” But in the 70’s, that first generation grew up, entered the corporate world, and accepted its restrictions — most notably the enforcement of software copyrights.

Around the same time, the Pentagon bureaucrats who controlled access to ARPAnet — the earliest form of the Internet — became obsessed with security measures. And though Stallman fought “to delay the fascist advances with every method I could,” he found himself without allies.

“I don’t believe that software should be owned,” he told Levy. “Because [the practice] sabotages humanity as a whole. It prevents people getting the maximum benefit out of the program’s existence.”

That interview in the fall of 1983 marked a moment of great frustration for Stallman. But in his very despair can be seen the signs of a romantic break about to explode.

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