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Dreams of a Digital Utopia

by Carter Phipps

In retrospect, I guess it should have been obvious that there was some important connection between spiritual liberation, the communal impulse, and computers. After all, those three influences have almost single-handedly defined my own life. I can remember when, at age twelve, I was given my first computer, the now legendary Apple II. I can still recall the intoxicating sense of personal power and creative excitement that came with that colorful Apple logo on those ancient double disk drives and the now hopelessly antiquated green screen monitor that seemed so hi-tech and far ahead of its time. More than anything, I remember being thrilled by the promise of the modem and how it allowed me to extend my consciousness seemingly ad infinitum, to connect virtually with someone down the street, in another city, or even another country.

Digital Utopia

But after an initial year or so of late-night gaming, endless perusing of computer magazines, and experiments with new programming languages, I left behind the nascent personal computer revolution and spent the rest of my adolescent days and nights exploring more traditional teenage pursuits. In fact, by the time my collegiate years rolled around, I had almost forgotten about computers entirely, and my mind’s attention was beginning to turn toward more lofty philosophical and spiritual matters. Within a few years, I had joined an experimental spiritual community and was happily pursuing life in Northern California as a young spiritual idealist, committed to exploring new forms of personal freedom and interpersonal consciousness. Thoughts of computers were in the past—or so I thought. It wasn’t long before the swirl of the internet revolution, then in full swing in the Bay Area, again captured my attention and reawakened my boyhood fascination, although this time the seduction was not only about computers; it was about cash. A few years later, I still lived life in a spiritual community dedicated to exploring new forms of collective intelligence, but now with a well-paid daytime job as a computer engineer. I was surfing the byways of our increasingly networked global village, connecting up the world of matter by day, connecting up the world of consciousness by night.

My career as a computer jockey was not long or distinguished, but it was enough to teach me that, for many people, the ongoing march of technology and, in particular, the advent of the internet represent something much more profound and more potent than simply greater personal and social productivity. Fred Turner, author of the new book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, suggests that for the last several decades there has been a “countercultural dream of empowered individualism, collaborative community, and spiritual communion” that hovers around the idea of the internet and computing like a mythological halo. It is, Turner explains, the “image of an ideal society,” a utopian ideal, this one digital and networked, which has become part and parcel of the conversation around the explosion of ubiquitous global computing and the tremendous social upheaval and transformation it is causing worldwide. In the same way that Eastern philosophy, LSD, and countercultural ideas once provided the means of radically reframing the context of individuals’ lives in the 1960s, Turner’s book chronicles the development of the idea that the microchip and the mass adoption of increasingly sophisticated computer technology are having a similar effect today—reframing the context of life in our global society by destroying rigid hierarchies and bureaucracies the world over; transforming the slow and inhuman institutions of government and business; rendering dictatorship politically unfeasible; making business uber-responsive, efficient, and consumer driven; and remaking loose social networks into newly empowered collaborative virtual communities.

Indeed, from Wired magazine to Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat to Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines to the “do no evil” ethos of Google, the last decades have seen the rise of a breathless optimism in the power of technology to fulfill our dreams of a better world; to create an increasingly egalitarian, decentralized, and collaborative global community; and even, some tell us, to serve the teleological goals of cultural and biological evolution. Let’s just say that if Thomas More had been born in Silicon Valley, he would have found himself among friends.

It wasn’t until I came across Turner’s book that I realized there was more than a geographical proximity that connected the utopian impulse of the sixties generation and their search for new forms of community with the utopian dreams of the nineties digerati and their ongoing efforts to rewire the world with packets of light to achieve much the same end. In fact, it had always struck me as strange that the first job I held as a computer technician was with a company owned by a middle-aged couple who had previously spent over a decade tuning in and dropping out on the Farm in Tennessee, one of the largest communal experiments to arise out of the sixties. Eventually they abandoned the Farm and took their countercultural ethos to the Bay Area, trading in their farming tools for hard drives and software. In 1995, their story had seemed like such an oddity. In retrospect, they were simply part of a larger philosophical and cultural transformation that, as Turner’s book makes clear, took many of that generation on a long, strange trip from the commune to the computer.

From Counterculture to Cyberculture is a fascinating chronicle of how former hippie and merry prankster Stewart Brand helped shepherd that three-decade transformation, starting with the original bible of the countercultural communal movement, the Whole Earth Catalog, which eventually evolved into the Co-Evolutionary Quarterly magazine, which in turn nurtured the network of individuals who formed the first “virtual community,” the WELL, which then became the fount and forum for many of the ideas that inspired the founding of Wired magazine. While Brand and his colleagues didn’t invent the technological revolution—far from it—Turner points out that they helped to “turn the terms of their generational search into the key frames by which the American public understood the social possibilities of computers and computer networking.” In other words, they transferred the personal, communal, and even spiritual ideals of the counterculture onto the promise of new technology, and in so doing, literally influenced the entire world—including a boy with an Apple II in a small town in Oklahoma.

Now I don’t know if I, or anyone, could honestly say that there is any intrinsic link between the bits and bytes of technology and the higher truths of spirituality, but for better or worse, they may very well be linked in terms of one of life’s most important domains—the evolution of human culture. Whatever the historical successes and excesses of our computer culture, there is little doubt that we have embarked on a great new phase in the evolution of our global village. In that respect, Brand and the digital utopians he inspired have been unquestionably prescient. We are wiring up the world in a historical blink of an eye, turning swords into cell phones at an astounding rate (seven million new cell phones per month in India, to name but one example), and in the process, we are performing a massive sociological experiment in the nature of human community.

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This article is from
Searching For Utopia Issue


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Computer Technology

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