Newcomers to the Internet are often startled to discover themselves not so much in some soulless colony of technocrats as in a kind of cultural Brigadoon -- a flowering remnant of the '60s, when hippie communalism and libertarian politics formed the roots of the modern cyberrevolution. At the time, it all seemed dangerously anarchic (and still does to many), but the counterculture's scorn for centralized authority provided the philosophical foundations of not only the leaderless Internet but also the entire personal- computer revolution.
We -- the generation of the '60s -- were inspired by the ``bards and hot- gospellers of technology,'' as business historian Peter Drucker described media maven Marshall McLuhan and technophile Buckminster Fuller. And we bought enthusiastically into the exotic technologies of the day, such as Fuller's geodesic domes and psychoactive drugs like LSD. We learned from them, but ultimately they turned out to be blind alleys. Most of our generation scorned computers as the embodiment of centralized control. But a tiny contingent -- later called ``hackers'' -- embraced computers and set about transforming them into tools of liberation. That turned out to be the true royal road to the future. ``Ask not what your country can do for you. Do it yourself,'' we said, happily perverting J.F.K.'s Inaugural exhortation. Our ethic of self-reliance came partly from science fiction. We all read Robert Heinlein's epic Stranger in a Strange Land as well as his libertarian screed-novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Hippies and nerds alike reveled in Heinlein's contempt for centralized authority. To this day, computer scientists and technicians are almost universally science-fiction fans. And ever since the 1950s, for reasons that are unclear to me, science fiction has been almost universally libertarian in outlook.
As Steven Levy chronicled in his 1984 book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, there were three generations of youthful computer programmers who deliberately led the rest of civilization away from centralized mainframe computers and their predominant sponsor, IBM. ``The Hacker Ethic,'' articulated by Levy, offered a distinctly countercultural set of tenets. Among them:
``Access to computers should be unlimited and total.''
``All information should be free.''
``Mistrust authority -- promote decentralization.''
``You can create art and beauty on a computer.''
``Computers can change your life for the better.'' Nobody had written these down in manifestoes before; it was just the way hackers behaved and talked while shaping the leading edge of computer technology.