Radical Nerds: The '60s Had Free Love; The '90s Have Free Information

New York Times, August 31, 1996

Lee Felsenstein didn't go to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention in 1968. He didn't make it to Chicago this year, either. Both times he had his hands full as a revolutionary.

In 1968, "I remember that I was busy designing a prototype cardboard riot helmet that could be self-manufactured on the spot in places like Chicago," said Felsenstein, who, when he was not designing defensive clothing, was writing for the underground newspaper The Berkeley Barb. "I also had been analyzing proposals for jamming police radio."

This year, Felsenstein, who built some of the first personal computers in the '70s, was busy with what he calls his side project: computer-based community organizing. His regular job is developing new types of information technology at Interval Research Corp. in Palo Alto, Calif., and his passion is refurbishing obsolete computer hardware and using it to help turn on communities that aren't tuned into the information revolution.

As a respected elder of the hackers, the computer-obsessed members of the counter culture, the 51-year-old Felsenstein is heeded when he makes pronouncements. And he believes that the radicalism of the 1960s, which was treated all last week in Chicago as a curious cultural artifact, is actually closer than ever to realizing its goal of decentralizing American political and economic power.

"Revolutions succeed when they replace the originators of information," Felsenstein said. "We're placing the power of information on a grass-roots level by designing tools without any handles, tools for change that the power structures can't get their hands on. That wasn't true with underground print or broadcast technology."

Self-described computer nerds like Felsenstein have carried the counter culture's torch longer than most of the '60s radicals. While political activists like Tom Hayden were drifting into elected office and groups like the Weathermen and the Black Panthers were dying out, hackers were busy converting some of the chieftains of the consciousness crowd, like Timothy Leary and Stewart Brand, from LSD to http.

Brand, who started "The Whole Earth Catalogue" in 1968, added "The Whole Earth Software Catalogue" in 1984. In an E-mail interview, he observed that radicals "failed in such endeavors as communes, new-left politics and drugs." Nonetheless, he believes that the revolution is well under way. This revolution has its roots not in the bloody streets of Chicago in 1968, but in the cluttered California garages of computer zealots, who are still idealistic.

The radicals who survived, Brand noted, learned a tactical lesson from history: studiousness and stealth are likely to outlive street protests. "In 1972 I wrote an article for Rolling Stone titled 'Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,' " he said. "There wasn't another public report about hackers until Steve Levy's book 'Hackers' 10 years later. That's a measure of how overlooked the whole phenomenon was until it was way too late for the world to contain it, or co-opt it, or do anything but join it."

With no serious authority figures minding the medium, the Internet developed its own set of rules, based on libertarian ideals like free speech and the "gift economy," the exchange of information and products free of charge. The counter culture also managed to get its beliefs written into the very code of the Internet.

The Net, for instance, has a distaste for advertising, which reflects its radical roots. And the non-hierarchical group called the Internet Engineering Task Force, which continually constructs features of the Internet, is, Felsenstein said, "anarchism in action."

"Human consciousness -- always a social agreement -- is taking a sharp turn into something new with the Net," Brand said. "The global, social impact of the Net revolution remains to be seen. Signs are that it will be fast, deep and out of control, just the way we liked things in the '60s."

Even if, in the minds of the computer faithful, the Internet has supplanted communes, narcotics and the chaos of street protests, Felsenstein still laments aspects of the revolution he helped start. He is disappointed to see hackers straying from '60s ideals. For instance, Felsenstein frowns on computer heavyweights like Bill Gates of Microsoft for valuing profit over political action.

In fact, computing billionaires draw the ire of Felsenstein more than any politician posing for the cameras. Why? Because they are more powerful and because the roots of their fortunes lie in the radical computer hacking of the 1960s.

"Today we don't have to ask permission of any politician to effect change, we have to ask Bill Gates. The planned obsolesence of their products that creates program bloating is designed for the benefit of management only," Felsenstein said.

"There's no equivalent of the Vietnam War today," he continued. "But Gates certainly could be Lyndon Johnson before the '64 election. Everyone was very hopeful about him and then on election night Johnson began planning the escalation in Vietnam."

Not all young computer wizards are viewed by Felsenstein as sellouts, though. Bart Decrem is a 29-year-old employee of Plugged-In, a project in East Palo Alto that provides residents with access to computers seven days a week. Decrem's current project is instructing young people how to reconfigure junked computers. Once the machines are refurbished, Plugged-In plans to sell them to people in the community for less than $100.

This undertaking is not so different from one Felsenstein began 23 years ago. In 1973, he founded the Community Memory Project to develop a computerized town bulletin board. He made sure that computers would be publicly available throughout Berkeley, and thus provided users with everything from flea markets to personal ads.

"What Lee Felsenstein did with the Community Memory Project was put public access terminals throughout Berkeley," Decrem said. "We're doing the exact same thing -- using obsolete technology to network the community. We're adopting his technology to empower people even if they have old computers. Clinton and Gore talk about the national information structure. This is the neighborhood information structure.

"We give computer classes to people going through drug recovery," he said. "We employ a graphics artist who was arrested in San Jose for his graffiti. We call people like Lee Felsenstein secret agents for the way they help us. Those folks were doing civil disobedience 30 years ago and we're doing the same thing now."

Felsenstein points to Decrem's group as an example of the revolution that arises with affordable computer hardware and software. Both men agree that the ideas of the '60s revolution have settled into a more durable cultural evolution, one that is quiet and computer crazed, just like the original hacker culture.

"I started out in my engineering career asking what qualifies as nonviolent weapons to assist the civil rights struggle," Felsenstein said. "And I'm peddling obsolete computers for grass-roots political functions today. It's the same goal: to allow the world to take itself over."


Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/rad-nerds.html
Last modified: Saturday, 31-Aug-1996 23:15:31 EDT