Whither Counterculture on the Net?

I recently attended a talk by Peter Dahlgren, a visiting professor hosted by the Annenberg Scholars Program in Culture and Communication. He presented some research on how teens of different political orientations in Sweden used the internet to explore politics and identity, raising the issue of what should be considered “political” behavior for citizens too young to directly participate in policy-making decisions. In the Q&A that followed, one professor suggested (if I remember correctly) that the internet is for the youth of today what sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll were for youth in the ’60s, and wondered why the youth of today aren’t as politically resistant as that counterculture. Someone similarly wondered where the sense of “we” was in all this—the sense of belonging, not just in personal interest as exemplified by Swedish kids opposing anti-file-sharing legislation.

It was interesting to hear people muse about these things, but after having a short while to mull over such things myself and chat with some classmates about them, I wish I could have spoken up earlier. Here is my attempt to redress that. (Please stick with me—it is eventually very much about geek culture.)

To be honest, my first inclination was to bristle at the suggestion that youth on the internet today are somehow less resistant, more socially atomized, and more self-interested than the youth of the ’60s. It’s hard not to see a sense of “we” when people look at you funny for avoiding Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster; a certain basic level of participation is expected, especially for people born since the mid-’80s. Arguably, sharing loads of personal information through Facebook is the new promiscuous sex, and plenty of netizens are wantonly breaking the law every day through software (especially music) piracy. (And, now that I think about it, Fred Turner and Thomas Streeter put forth decent arguments that the way we view and use the internet today is quite directly and intentionally influenced by the ideals of ’60s counterculture.) Sure, it’s easy to argue that these activities are more born from personal interest than a shared sense of purpose, but it’s hard to imagine that there was no personal interest at stake among the largely middle-class ’60s counterculture who wanted to avoid the draft, have sex, and get high.

I am willing to reconsider this issue, however—that is, the idea that common net usage entails political idealism. I met up with some other Annenberg students at a bar after the talk for our weekly Quizzo night, and first-year students Peter and Heidi offered some good food for thought. Perhaps the most relevant comment to the argument here was that breaking the law isn’t really “resistant” when it’s still blindly following the larger dominant ideology of consumer capitalism. At least one thing the ’60s counterculture had going for it was its pretty clear break with the conservatism of the ’50s. The resistance here was arguably on a deeper philosophical level than the resistance I describe above.

This leads me to ask, however, what portion of ’60s youth were active participants in “the counterculture,” and whether that portion was any larger than the politically active part of “geek culture” online today. The major difference here may be that geek culture is much more decentralized, though no less resistant and perhaps even no less widespread.

Take, for example, the XKCD event I just blogged about over the weekend. In case you missed that post, fans of the math/science/sci-fi comic strip XKCD saw some coordinates specifying a time and place in one strip, and they used a variety of online venues (including but not limited to the XKCD forums) to coordinate a gathering at that place and time. The result was basically “Nerdstock”: A more-or-less impromptu gathering of techies, fans, and fun-loving adults from the greater Boston area and even wider, including visitors from as far away as Russia and Australia who came just for the event. A small park in Cambridge got turned into a festival ground, with people playing guitar together around a tent, picnicking, reenacting jokes from comics, playing games, drawing on a giant comic strip and chalking on the ground.

Yes, I would argue that it was resistant. You’re asserting something about the appropriate uses of public space and proper adult behavior when you alter park signage, even temporarily, to assert that the playground is “for children ages 5 to ∞.” And yes, this was an event on a small scale, but it represents values shared by many more broadly in geek culture. This was the same ethic that inspired the Come Out and Play Festival in New York last year and Amsterdam this year (which I blogged about recently). I showed up to the Festival expecting to say some interesting things about reclaiming public space for noncommercial use and reclaiming play for the adult psyche, and it turns out that the people behind street games were already saying those kinds of things. The event was largely attended by self-identified gamers and geeks, I found out when I arrived, and saw heavy involvement by academics and well-educated professionals who sincerely believed that play could transform cultural ideologies.

This form of resistance may seem to have more to do with “meatspace” than the virtual world, and maybe it is. By the same token, however, organizing such events would be nigh-impossible without the internet’s power to sustain niche audiences for things like XKCD, or to quickly and widely transmit information about such quirky events. Several of the games at COaP also rely on various information technologies to coordinate participants, such as through text messaging. And, of course, these events live on past their initial happening through the computer-savvy net culture that blogs about them posts photos online. See, for example, the giant photo pool by people who went to the XKCD event and use Flickr.

Admittedly, this is just one strand of political ideology associated with geek culture. There’s also the “recursive public” of self-identified geeks who fight for internet policy reform so that their form of culture can even continue to exist at all. (I occasionally contribute to another blog more directly related to that, too.) I imagine you’d find a good number of self-identified geeks at the MIT media lab (and elsewhere) whose interest in projects like the “One Laptop Per Child” are fueled by a certain digital utopianism, though not as countercultural as other ideals. A few minutes scanning Boing Boing might yield further nerd-oriented ideological movements.

I can’t imagine that any one of these can claim as many actively participating or self-identified members as ’60s “counterculture” in the broadest sense of the term. I can imagine, however, that these movements have a lot of overlap between members and sympathizers. I also suspect that you’d see a pretty widespread movement if you could get all these geeks in one place.

The tricky thing about internet culture, however, is that it has left many with the notion that we can do whatever it is we want to do from behind our computers, in our proverbial underwear. I do question the efficacy of contemporary politically progressive protests, but I think there’s a lot to be said for actually showing up and claiming a space with your own person, as the XKCD event and Come Out and Play Festival might demonstrate. It shows a level of commitment and investment that can’t be relegated to multitasking while you chat on AIM, and it brings it out of the secluded view of the most interested niche audience for anyone to see. I’m willing to argue that today’s countercultural movements start on the internet, but I don’t know how much they’ll amount to if they don’t move off the internet as well.

8 thoughts on “Whither Counterculture on the Net?

  1. A larger and larger portion of our lives are lived online now, and movements that never leave that arena are increasingly important. Witness the ‘digg rebellion’ this spring (09 f9…) Entirely confined to the net, and yet it had an impact on the way others behave. Nixon Peabody reversed its initial attempts to have its embarassing theme song removed from the internet, doubtless because it was becoming apparent that a similar pushback was developing (I should probably note that I took part in both.)

    (Side thought: is there a ‘Striesand Effect’ outside of the internet?)

    OT, but of general interest, see this blog entry over at Time:

  2. First off, thank you thank you for the link to the Time blog, which I didn’t even know existed.

    Second, I had totally forgotten about the Digg rebellion (which I even wrote about). You could probably argue that it wasn’t totally confined to the net—I saw some t-shirts, for example—but yeah, it was blogs and YouTube videos and such that really made the difference. Again, one could argue that this isn’t properly “resistant” because it was about supporting the underlying consumer mentality that the content industries do want to encourage. Phrasing it in terms of the “Streisand effect”, while still referring to consumption of entertainment, at least speaks to trying to replace an ideology of top-down control of content with one of bottom-up control. Looked at another way, we might see this as trying to replace a sort of “Orwellian Lite” view of information management (in which the people in power can redefine history through censorship) with a “free information” view (in which people deserve access to information even if potentially damaging to those in power).

    I think you could argue that this was starting before the internet, and maybe shares some common ground with fan fiction. But I also think that the internet makes it possible for this ideology to be more widespread as never before.

    And finally, I’d argue that Second Life protests do count, as do protesters intentionally getting shot in America’s Army. Ironically, I went into this post thinking so specifically of the internet as the web that it kind of eluded me that it does involve some “embodied” spaces of its own. That said, I think that geeky activism has a better potential to reach non-geeky audiences when it takes its messages offline, at least for now. Maybe that will change in the future when, metaphorically speaking, everybody exists in the Matrix, not just as passing tourists, and everyone knows nerds are the elite who can jump across buildings.

  3. Hey, thanks for bringing this up. This is easily the best conversation fodder I’ve had in a while.

    The best analogy I could come up with is that the ‘cyber resistence’ of today is less like the anti-war protests of the ’60’s and more like practices such as squatting. It’s implementing your ideals regardless of what the current legal framework is. The fact that it usually happens in the nooks and cranies of the net both engenders and obscures this fact.

    Side discussion that led to some quite eye-opening conversations with academic friends; WTF is up with having to pay $12 to Anthro Source to find out what ‘recursive public’ means? Trying to google around the damage led to this illuminating link: http://savageminds.org/2005/05/24/recursive-public-irony/

  4. 1) On “cyber resistance”: That may be a useful analogy. I was thinking today that what the web and file sharing networks might be best at, resistance-wise, is simply creating a massive forum to openly flaunt opposition to the control of information resources. The RIAA and MPAA can sue file sharers, but the very practice of torrent downloading (not to mention vocal, organized forces like The Pirate Bay) stands as proof that they can’t catch everybody. The DVD key extravaganza worked similarly, flooding the web with “restricted” information just to flaunt that it could never all be forcibly removed.

    This kind of activity stands kind of in contrast to active resistance in avatar-based online environments, though, which are supposed to mimic the way we might act in the real world. Compared to a semi-organized movement on the web, you might not get a massive number of protesters/activists in a single place in Second Life (which I believe has processor limits to how many avatars can occupy a single space at a single time), but you will get people mimicking the embodied protest methods of the “real” world. Avatar-based venues also enable somewhat shocking forms of protest that you can inflict upon others in ways you couldn’t do in the physical world, like attacking a person with flying genitalia or getting intentionally killed in a war game.

    Again, though, these sorts of activities are most effective when they “leave” the internet, like being reported on in other media. I doubt there’s much effectiveness in guilt-tripping kids playing America’s Army while they’re in the middle of playing the game, though as protest-oriented performance art goes, it’s an interesting example to ponder.

    2) That linked post by Kelty is priceless—thanks. This is why I have been trying to submit to journals that publish online or otherwise allow for easy access (still waiting on results). I hear that online publication is less attractive for your job/tenure prospects, but would I really want to work for a school that wants to hire a “new media” person but doesn’t put any stock in the legitimacy of said media?

  5. but you will get people mimicking the embodied protest methods of the “real” world.

    I’m glad you used ‘scare quotes’ (not the best term here, but the one I know.)

    The distinction between the ‘real’ and ‘online’ worlds is becoming increasingly meaningless. I find all my music online. I buy and/or download all my music online. If something is happening with regards to music, and it’s not online, it’s not ‘real.’ (At least, to me.)

  6. Interesting post and conversation. For some context on the discussion you may be interested in picking up the book Counter Culture Through The Ages, by Ken Goffman, better known as RU Sirius, the founder and former editor of Mondo 2000.

    In the book he starts out with Socrates and Taoism and traces the counter culture strain up until the late 80s/early 90s, touching on a handful of the bigger movements. It definitely provides an interesting context to think about the concept of counter culture movements and what the term really means.

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