the coming counterculture
Last night I listened to 59 songs by Count Basie while Facebook chatting with my friend Max, discussing the next counterculture movement (we are both web developers, though Max makes way cooler stuff than me because I’m too busy freelancing). We’re not exactly sure what it’s going to look like, but we could make some predictions:
Countercultures seem to form in reaction to something that most people accept. They form counter to the mainstream. And right now, the mainstream culture of America is heavily influenced by technology. There seems to be a general acceptance of technology; when some new technology comes along to displace something, that new technology is almost automatically seen as “good.” In other words, we don’t critically evaluate new things, because to most people, new = awesome. The startup world is absolutely obsessed with “disruption,” as if it’s a good thing.
For pretty much all of time, technological progress has been linked to social progress. I think the new counterculture will rebel against this tenet of modernity. It will not be entirely anti-tech — it’s not just going to chronologically regress 60 years — but it will selectively boycott certain technologies that the counterculture perceives as socially unstable or personally immoral.
All of this started when I posted a Facebook status: “How can you tell which technology is good and which technology is bad?” The example I provided was the food industry. When industrial food technology was first on the scene, people saw it as amazing and wonderful — suddenly we could produce more food, sell it for cheaper, and provide for so many starving people! Now, we have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s great that low food prices have fed so many hungry people. On the other hand, the low quality of our food has been a huge detriment to our country’s personal health, our ecology, and small family farms. And it created a cycle of agribusiness that cuts out small businesses and consumers. I could go on and on.
I think the new counterculture will definitely see this kind of technology as bad. Lots of people already do, and have been protesting Big Food for decades. But I think the twentysomething generation of today will see the Internet as another dangerous technology, because of how it has changed our society and our interpersonal relationships.
For example, Facebook has considerably altered how we interact with our friends. In some ways, it has benefited us — for example, I wouldn’t have been able to have the conversation with Max that prompted this discussion if he hadn’t seen my Facebook status and chatted with me after noticing I was online. But it has been detrimental in trying to replace real-world social networks entirely. When Facebook is just a medium of communication, it is a tool. And that’s okay. But when it’s a hyperpersonal community that logs your personal information and targets advertisements to you, that’s a bit scary. When it takes over the Internet with “like” buttons and so pervasively integrates itself into your circle of friends that it’s impossible to keep up socially without an account, that’s what one anti-technologist calls the lack of “freedom of refusal.”
Cars are a similar technology. They have impacted our cities so much that it’s difficult to live without one. Trying to get out of the system is impossible, and would negatively affect your quality of life. You are locked in. But when that “locked in” feeling is dictated by a single company — Facebook — it becomes a bit more frightful.
the new counterculture
So, here’s what I think the philosophy of the new counterculture will believe:
- Technology that locks society into a certain paradigm that negatively affects interpersonal relationships, especially if that technology is, in its entirety, one company, should be avoided.
- Technology that is not a tool, but rather a community, should be avoided. (e.g. social networking, and mindlessly watching television with no intent)
- The parts of the internet that try to integrate with your personal, meatspace life, should be avoided (e.g. anonymous communities like reddit and Tumblr are preferable to hyperpersonal, public communities like Facebook and Google+; also, augmented reality tech will be avoided)
- Niche communities that exist for a specific purpose are okay. (this would be using an online social network more as a tool for organization, not as a replacement for a casual network of friends — Vimeo might be in this category, as it is more social than YouTube and attempts to network artists. LinkedIn is also in this category, but I think the new counterculture will reject it because it’s mostly superfluous)
- Technology that negatively affects our wellbeing or happiness should be rejected. (this means avoiding industrial food and mindless television watching — I think most of this counterculture will not own a television, or at least have a form of intentional television, i.e. not cable, but perhaps Netflix)
- New technology that positively affects our wellbeing or happiness without disrupting too much should be eagerly embraced. (e.g. solar power, watching movies together)
- Most importantly, technology should be critically judged before it is accepted. “New is not always good” is the motto of the counterculture, as they will have learned from history.
I’m not actually sure where I am on the anti-tech line. I make money making websites, and I love the Internet, but I’m also frightened of how it has affected our relationships with other people, with corporations, and with technology. Perhaps the best thing I can do is continue to develop on the Internet, but always make sure I’m working towards a goal that I believe to be morally sound.
The best thing that has ever happened on the Internet is Wikipedia. Let’s do more of that, and less social networking, please. Less business, please. Let’s use technology for good, and not for evil. For the technologists: be responsible for what you bring into this world.
Discussion on Hacker News.