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Previously in Web Citations:

98.01.13
Guiding Light

Outside the Islamic world, the Net can serve as eyes and ears to the faithful.

98.01.06
What Side Are You On?

Order and chaos, right and wrong, good and evil. True believers know what the U.S. v. Microsoft case is really about.

98.12.30
Head for the Hills

Are you prepared for Y2K and impending global chaos? Find help on the Web (while you still can).

98.12.17
Unified Mouse Theory

Welcome to the wonderful world of Disney.

98.12.10
Beta-testing the Bible

Not just another digital-age prophecy.

98.12.03
Break on Through

Portal, n. 1. A door, gate, or entrance; esp: a grand or imposing one.

98.11.25
Digital Sunlight, Digital Shadows

Using the Web to shine light on campaign financing is supposed to make elections more honest. If only.

98.11.18
A Little Help From My ... Friends?

Hey, it worked with Linux. Enlisting the aid of countless strangers is a strategy that's catching on.

98.11.11
Biotech at the Barricades

Some would say the avant-garde is dead.This avant-garde wants to live forever.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
Be-In Digital
January 20, 1999

Just a couple of weeks before, the heads had held their first big "be-in" in Golden Gate Park, at the foot of the hill leading up into Haight-Ashbury, in mock observance of the day LSD became illegal in California. This was a gathering of all the tribes, all the communal groups. All the freaks came and did their thing.
--Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
Drug Peace Will the sixties ever end? The answer depends on where you're sitting. For Baby Boomers, especially those in the media, the sixties are everywhere, haunting everything. Many of the burning issues that fueled the intensity of the era still simmer just beneath the surface of fin-de-siècle American culture -- and sometimes they burst dramatically into the open. The "culture wars" of the eighties and nineties, we're told, were really all about the unresolved conflicts of the sixties. And how many times have we heard the Clinton-Starr impeachment saga explained as the culmination of a cultural clash rooted in the decade of drugs, Vietnam, and free love?

But for those born too late to have experienced the psychedelic decade first-hand (and for those multitudes, the vast straight majority, who did live through the sixties without ever coming near an antiwar rally or a mind-altering drug), the earth-shattering significance of the times may seem a bit remote. Far from revolutionary, the sixties have become the stuff of VH-1 documentaries and Oliver Stone movies (and, later this year, a new TV miniseries appearing on the NBC network, titled The Sixties, advertised as a "Roots for the Baby Boom generation") -- in other words, hopelessly commercial, clichéd, melodramatic ... cheesy. The punk-rock movement of the late seventies and early eighties was supposed to have obliterated all that. Pop culture has reacted to the sixties and moved beyond, right? Today's young neo-hippies may be grooving on the retro sounds, drugs, and vibes of another generation, but the truly hip get a life of their own.

All of which may seem pretty obvious -- until you come across something like the 11th Annual Digital Be-In, held on January 9 in San Francisco. As the press release that announced this year's Digital Be-In informs us: "This unique event, where the first glimmers of 'cyberculture' emerged in the early 1990s, began as a showcase for the programmers and artists behind the digital media revolution to celebrate their updated version of the '60s counterculture."

Fusing high-tech industry money and nineties-style political activism, the event has become a launching pad for socially minded campaigns. In recent years the Digital Be-In has helped kick off the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Blue Ribbon Campaign for free speech online and has promoted a Declaration of Human Rights in Cyberspace. This year saw the launch of the Drug Peace Campaign, "a new Internet-based political action committee whose mission is to seek a peaceful end to the 'War on Drugs' by encouraging more intelligent approaches to drug-related legislation and drug education." Fittingly, the theme of this year's Be-In was an homage to psychedelia. As Howard Rheingold, a prominent member of the "digerati" and one of the Drug Peace Campaign's supporters, has explained:
The high-tech industry ... is full of people who make big bucks, smoke fine weed, and look the other way while thousands continue to be jailed.... America has been mesmerized by a remarkable propaganda campaign that has demonized the use of soft drugs such as marijuana and psychedelics. The war on some drugs is wrong.... It's time for the digerati to break the silence on this issue.
Or, as Julia Carter, the director of Drug Peace, recently told Wired News: "The founders of both Microsoft and Apple have admitted to using LSD. A lot of the great minds who foresaw the digital revolution used psychoactives to develop their creativity and expand their vision."

Behind the Digital Be-In is a company named Verbum, Inc., a multimedia developer whose founders are intent on highlighting the connections between the sixties and the nineties. A perusal of the events and organizations represented on Verbum's site -- from the annual Burning Man festival (in which Verbum's founders have been instrumental) to the Arcosanti model city project to the Hyperreal Rave Culture Archives -- suggests that there's more to those connections than just activist rhetoric and wishful thinking. There are aspects of today's technoculture that are undeniably children of the sixties.

As an event, the Digital Be-In itself may bear more resemblance to a high-tech industry conference than to its historic namesake -- despite the presence this year of such period relics as Ken Kesey, Ken Babbs, and other Merry Pranksters. But you can't help feeling that the two scenes -- separated though they are by gulfs of time and cultural context -- do share a striking, and perhaps inevitable, similarity. Just as the psychedelic wave of the sixties crashed on the rocky shoals of political cynicism and materialistic individualism (not to mention of sheer burn-out), it seems all too likely that the sixties-inspired cyberculture celebrated by Verbum, et. al., is destined to be steamrolled by the Internet's commercial juggernaut. Someday, we'll watch the miniseries The Nineties on the AOL Network and look back nostalgically on cyberculture's golden age -- while the kids of some future decade shrug, or shake their heads at the naïveté, and wonder what all the fuss was about.

--Wen Stephenson


Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Wen Stephenson is the editorial director of Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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