geert lovink on Mon, 27 Dec 1999 23:45:31 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> An Early History of 90s Cyberculture

Recent Futures  - TAZ, Wired and the Internet
An Early History of 90s Cyberculture

Geert Lovink

In some funny cultural constellation, during the turn of the decade
nineties, Hakim Bey's concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone was
turned into a meme. And as it goes with carefully designed, poetic
ideas, they can travel far and will not easily extinguish. One of the
channels responsible for the reputation of TAZ was _Mondo 2000_, a
cyberpunk upbeat underground paper from San Francisco. The full color
magazine was filled with technofashion, drug phantasies, a parade of the
latest gadgets, DIY video tips, science fiction, with an occasional
theory essay. In retrospect we can say that _Mondo_ paved the way for
_Wired_ (starting in 1993), which was more successful in packaging and
neutralizing the early, pre-WWW, cybercultures of the US West Coast.
TAZ, though, was not very suitable for _Wired_ business protagonists such
as Louis Rosetto and Kevin Kelly. It smelled too much like outworn,
subcultural strategies of resistance and revolt. The weirdo, luddite,
apocalyptic aspect had to be replaced and turned into a productive,
optimistic cultural machinery with only one goal: to make money as fast
as fast possible. And the Internet and money turned out to be the
dominant image, ten years after TAZ and VR.  As as fellow New York
observer reports: "Making money is now an organizing principle in
society in ways that we've never seen before, not even in the late
twenties or any time in the late 1800s, not even with the famous Dutch
'tulipomania.' The pentagon can't hire good people anymore, business
majors are 'dropping out,' 11-year-old CEOs being turned away from
conventions. A major capital formation, like England in the mid-1800s.
Pure ideology, pure bubble, pure investment, pure shattering of
traditional institutions."

Unlike the British model of the culture industries, the boheme is
virtually absent in the electronic goldrush stories. The underground is
not seen as a productive element. Nor is the intelligentia.
Intellectuals, stuck in their book culture, still obsessed with the
fading power of discourses, have marginalized themselves into irrelevant
pockets of complaints, hobbled by cultural pessimism. This is the age of
the enterpreneur as hero. Silicon Valley itself is anything but cool,
cwand so is New York's Silicon Alley or Tokyo's Bitvalley. There is
little to be seen, neither in the local nightlife nor at the actual
computer screens.  The only remains of a somewhat alternative past are
the fifty-something-year-olds wearing beards and sandals, telling
stories of their amazing inventions and encounters with other mythic
figures back in the seventies.

Cyber culture of the late nineties, dominated by venture capital, lacks
any face at all. It does not even need to have its own look because its
design has been outsourced to advertisement agencies, the news industry
(, video games designers (PlayStation) or television (WebTV).
Over are the days of web design. Innovation has now shifted from the
development of standards and protocols toward business plans and
marketing skills. Forget content, attitude, or identity. Today's motto
is: Catch the youngers, squeze the creativity out of them, turn the team
into project slavery unil you ship, float--and sell out as soon as you
can. The electronic "gold rush" lacks any understanding of aesthetics.
There simply isn't any time, and the mainstream can't handle experimental
interfaces anyway, nor do the (baby) suits, who perhaps like a bit of
cool and bright, but are actually more fascinated by spreadsheets and

Even the spirtual aspects of the early cyberculture, also to be found in
Bey's writing, had to stripped of it's occult freakiness and turned into
something positively light and exciting. This can also be said of the
entire cyberpunk genre, which became incorporated into the contemporary
"the future get fun again" slogan (Wired 8.01). Post-industrial culture,
from Survival Research Laboratories to Burning Man, is getting boiled
down here to creative thinking--innocent, commodified technotainment.
Stripped of all its distrurbing, destructive "dark" elements, the
Californian cyberculture in the late nineties has become virtually
invisible, marginalized as it was in the mid-eighties, courtesy to the
"digitally correct" evangelists.

_Wired_ magazine itself, the once "Pravda of the virtual class" had to be
sacrified to the irrisistible drive toward the Johnsification of cyberspace.
The hybrid Wired empire, with its search engine,, publishing
house, station and trails underway for Wired TV, failed a few times
to get onto the stock market and, by May 1998, got sold to some average media
conglomerate. Perhaps their IPO was too early. We could as well say that the
avant-garde of the digeratti has shown us the way most start-up will end up:
re-integrated into the safe and the protected environment of corporate America.
The revolutions predicted by Toffler, Gilder, and Peters all turned out to be
silly daydreams. Particular elements from the libertarian rethorics have been
adopted, but most of it is allready forgotten after the fall of the Gingrich
gang back in 1997. Though one idea has gotten through: the Internet is the
message. With Bozus of being chosen Time Magazine's Man of the Year
1999, no branch or business can any longer ignore e-commerce and e-business.
Why bother about _Wired_'s kiddy dreams of flying cars, tourist trips to Mars,
immortality, and other forms of organized optimism? America is making billions
on the stock markets, selling out on decade-old ideas, so why not dream away?

Some time soon, all branch and sectors will be hardwired, and all transactions
and communications will be Internet-driven. The closing of the American
Internet, after the handover of all standards and principles to the AOL,
Microsoft, IBMs, MCI/Worldcoms, the CNNs and the Disneys, seems now a God-given
fact. Why bother any longer about the future of the Internet? The Internet
will soon reach the end of its history (and turn into something else). Time to
devote ourselves to other, more urgent, even more exciting topics?

_Wired_'s agenda, back in 1993, was to preach and convince the dull and
ignorant CEO types about the advantages of the Internet Revolution. Prior to
early nineties corporate habit, most computers were used by secretaries and the
IT guys, who were the only ones to run and use computer networks. The desktop
computers in homes and offices were not connected to each other. The conversion
and transmission of data was still a slow and painful process. Early adopters
of the Internet were not just seen as hipsters with some lifestyle: they were
perceived--correctly--as those possessed with the historical mission to turn
new media into a business. This task could not be done without a carefully
planned cleansing of cyberculture. The geeks could continue their weird
lifestyle for the time being; they were not allowed on stage anyway. Neither
were the hackers, of whom most of them had turned into security experts anyway.
For a while, theorists, artists and other freelance cultural enterpreneurs
played a role in mediating and visualizing this odd new world coming into
being. But after a while, this subcultural pool of visionairies was replaced by
more down-to-earth online IT journalists and business types. In order to gain
wide acceptance, only very few ideas of the original computer culture were
allowed to be propagated. Certainly, all notions of the growing social
inequality and critiques of the multinational corporations were carefully
avoided, if not censored. Yes, the old establishment had to criticized--but
only for not being technoshavvy. The lack of understanding of computer
networks within corporations and large sectors such as health care, local
governments, old media etc. has be capitalized upon.

Certain aspects of the late eighties "Californian" mindset had to be cultivated
and taken out of their political and cultural context. And this is what
happened to Hakim Bey's notion of TAZ. For many years to come, newcomers on the
Internet had to ask themselves at least once the question if this parallel
virtual world in the making was a in essence a temporary autonomous zone, where
"information wants to be free." The TAZ phrase was not in fact literally
adopted from Hakim Bey. Although he does mention the concept of 'The Web' and
speaks about the use of computer bulletin board systems, Bey stresses that the
"Web" that he envisions does not depend on any computer technology. "The key is
not the brand or level of tech involved, but the openness and horizontality of
the structure. The TAZ above all desires to avoid mediation, to experience its
existence as immediate." The festival aspect of TAZ, his emphasis on (data)
piracy, the Islands in the Net, the flirt with luddism, all these elements have
never played such an important role, expect for the concept of psychic
nomadism, which was used to describe the feeling of hours long surfing the Web.
The TAZ, as it became operational within the first phase of the hype (1993-96)
became attached to a libertarian agenda, to which the anarchist author of TAZ
only had loose ties. The image of the Internet as a TAZ attracted a certain
type of young and creative content producers who had no secure position within
the regular media industry. This diffuse group of early adopters had a strong
interest in interface design and understood their historical mission of paving
the road, in the hope of cashing in somewhere later on in the process. With no
payment systems in place, little bandwidth, and only a tiny audience, the idea
of "freedom" was one of the main attractions to get involved. Freedom defined
as autonomy switched back and forth between, on the one hand, a post-leftist
agenda of social change, criticizing the notions of revolution and its
reformist version of the Long March through the institutions (in this case old
broadcast media), and, on the other, the hippie outlaw agenda of being left
alone by society, the state and its laws. A curious mix between Toni Negri and
Ayn Rand, with elements of both J.S. Mill and Kropotkin.

At the turn of the millennium, this particular history of the nineties only
seems to provoke feelings of nostalgia for a time when Gibson, Sterling, and
Virtual Reality were still secret passwords. The now-contained Internet is here
to stay, and will transcend into an amorphic form of allmightiness. As far as
autonomy is concerned, the image of www.ghosttowns pups up, abandoned home
pages, boring avatars, broken links, switched-off servers, controlled
communities, overspammed lists, and newsgroups... The freedom is there, but no
one cares, let alone will be able to find the counterinformation through the
corrupted portals and search engines. And the zone? The animated debates during
the nineties over the nature of virtuality and the ways in which it leaves
behind the real have been tempered by the sheer speed and violence of the way
in which computer networks are now pervading all aspects of life, including the
resistance to global capitalism (see WTO/Seattle, December 1999). We could
therefore easily state that TAZ was been boiled down to a late eighties concept
for Internet plus rave parties. The restless souls however can easily jump over
this tragic reading of the history of ideas, and open other chapters full of
yet unkown, unlikely futures.

(edited by t byfield)

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