Steve Mizrach

by Steven Mizrach

The viability of a contemporary counterculture is defined through the sustainability of its oppositional stance. CyberAnthropologist Steven Mizrach argues that to find a countercultural voice, oppositional figures – hackers, cyberpunks, techno music makers – must liberate their niche, underground positions in the name of information dissemination. An anthropologist teaching at Florida International University, Mizrach focuses his research on the confluence of anthropology and ‘high technology’, or AnthroFuturism.


Not surprisingly, there is both continuity and change between the countercultures of the 1960s and those of today. The computer underground, the rave movement, the modern primitives, and other contemporary cultures can trace a lineage back to the Beatniks and Hippies of the 1950s and 1960s. Several key figures, such as Timothy Leary, John Perry Barlow and Stewart Brand, most obviously bridge this transition. However, rather than examining continuity, this essay will focus on evolving attitudes toward the natural and organic versus the artificial and synthetic. While the hippies were sometimes wary of advanced technology, today’s countercultures readily embrace it as a tool for countertactics.

Today’s countercultures don’t want to go back to nature; they want to upgrade its hardware. The hippies’ idealization of the ‘natural’ in food, clothing, music and lifestyle habits bears little resemblance to the modern day post- and trans-human desire to replace the organic body with a more efficient cyborg. Similarly, the slow, acoustic folk music of the 60’s has been replaced with the rapid techno-powered drumbeats of synthesized industrial music.  And while the hippies often turned to drugs derived from nature for their psychedelic trips, today’s ravers ingest laboratory-born synthetics such as MDMA and ketamine. Modern day psychonauts and cybernauts also engage with mind machines, biofeedback, computer-generated fractals and 3D stereograms to modify their consciousness.

If hippies were skeptical of the impersonal and inaccessible, as represented by mainframe computers, plastics, and other ‘artificial’ products of the 60’s, today’s counterculture embraces synthesis. They want their drugs designed by the molecule and their bodies remade into designer selves controlled by designer brains. Many hippies thought the Moon landings and the space program were a waste of time, but today’s psychonauts advocate affordable and accessible space travel for all, echoing Leary’s idea that the human race may only fully awaken outside of the Earth’s gravity well. The use of various technologies to extend one’s lifespan beyond that allotted by nature is also eagerly embraced through nootropics, cryonics and nanotechnology. Like death, intelligence need not be limited by nature; artificial augmentation seems possible by merging with electronic technology as a secondary nervous system.

While many embrace this cyborgian ideal, the cyberpunks among us are choosing to direct this destiny through personal autonomy. If the body’s hardware and the brain’s wetware are to be upgraded, the cyberpunk wants to be a subject in charge of that process, not an object given to receive. In this way, cyberpunk culture echoes 60’s hacker culture whose ethos to make the personal computer accessible, personal, user-friendly, and appropriate deeply affected the technology’s subsequent development. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built their phone phreaking blue boxes because they believed in a right to communicate beyond Ma Bell’s terms; this attitude drove the early PC revolution and, combined with local area networking and DARPA’s experiments in wide area networking (WAN), gave birth to the Internet.

How could we even begin to understand contemporary counterculture, much less any culture, without the Internet? It is how we communicate, organize and recruit new members and how we take actions to challenge social norms. The hippies self-organized around geographic centers such as Haight-Ashbury but today’s countercultures are trans-local and global, often linked only through electronic networks. Hacktivists act through the Internet, subverting the messages of other websites. ‘Flash mobs’ take street theater and spontaneous social action to new levels, self-assembling through electronic explosions of text messages, tweets, and IMs, dispersing before the authorities can intervene. And the computer underground will use the Internet and other networks to seize and disrupt the very infrastructure of normative society itself.

But are these tactics enough to call today’s countercultures oppositional? Given that today’s counterculture is as enmeshed with technology as ‘mainstream’ society is, how is opposition enacted? In other words, if today’s countercultures are not proffering an alternative to the ubiquitously synthetic world around them, where is the ‘counter’? In many ways it is manifest in conflicting visions of what technology should be used for, and who, if anyone, should own and control it. It’s little disputed that we are moving into what some have called a post-industrial or information economy, but if this is the case, do 19th century ideas of property still apply? The 21st century countercultural struggle may be over who owns the means of information.

The open source movement represents one locus of this battle by questioning whether software should be proprietary. Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation advocates the distribution of software under ‘copyleft’, which encourages widespread duplication, redistribution and user modification of code. On another front, music samplers such as Negativland and Emergency Broadcast Network are asserting a fundamental right to remix and modify the musical works of others. Such operations challenge our notion of creativity and ownership as individual enterprises. In the plastic arts, artists always borrow from others but we call this ‘inspiration’, ‘pastiche’, ‘homage’, ‘collage’. Yet when it comes to music, corporate industry cartels such as the RIAA step forward and squelch the process. But samplers claim that they are not trying to steal; like open source programmers, such musicians strive to upgrade, modify and improve upon the work of others. And in grabbing ‘found’ sound-bytes from various politicians, TV programs, or commercial advertising, samplers are doing as the Situationists did by detourning original intent. For culture jammers, this subversive and essential commentary on the culture stream warrants constitutional protection.

Cypherpunks and cyber-libertarians use technologies of encryption and digital anonymity to evade the Panopticon surveillance state and its centralization of power. Massive databases increasingly compromise our privacy by systematically cataloging our consumer preferences and tracking both our on- and off-line movements and actions. We allow Facebook to share our digital identities with strangers, cyber stalkers, corporate spammers and others who want to mine data. We seem to want to be instantly locatable through roving phone numbers and GPS chips that track us everywhere. Are cypherpunks the only ones who should be asking whether we should always allow ourselves to be found?

Timothy Leary’s belief that people should be free to change their own consciousness as they see fit has fueled the cognitive liberty movement of the first decade of the 21st century. But people should be also be free of attempts by others to control their consciousness. Our mental states should not be controlled by a psycho-pharmaceutical establishment whose increasing arsenal of psychoactive drugs is used to chemically manage perceived aberrations in behavior or displays of social dysfunction. Perhaps the so-called war on drugs needs redirection.

Even basic communication has come under increasing corporate control, long fueling the countertactics of the phone phreaks, pirate radio programmers and the Billboard Liberation Front. File-sharing peer-to-peer networks strive to subvert outdated 19th century ideals of intellectual property guarded by the RIAA and MPAA. Today’s post-millennial countercultures work to universalize the hacker ethic and to liberate information access, creating the ‘Matrix’s’ biggest fear: a world without borders and regimes of control.