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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Thursday, August 30, 2007

California uber alles

Blows Against the Empire?

And now for a review of Fred Turner‘s book “From Counterculture to Cyberculture’ by Jello Biafra

I am Governor Jerry Brown
My aura smiles
And never frowns
Soon I will be president...

Carter Power will soon go away
I will be Fuhrer one day
I will command all of you
Your kids will meditate in school
Your kids will meditate in school!

California Uber Alles
California Uber Alles
Uber Alles California
Uber Alles California

Zen fascists will control you
100% natural
You will jog for the master race
And always wear the happy face

Close your eyes, can't happen here
Big Bro' on white horse is near
The hippies won't come back you say
Mellow out or you will pay
Mellow out or you will pay!

Now it is 1984
Knock-knock at your front door
It's the suede/denim secret police
They have come for your uncool niece

Come quietly to the camp
You'd look nice as a drawstring lamp
Don't you worry, it's only a shower
For your clothes here's a pretty flower.

DIE on organic poison gas
Serpent's egg's already hatched
You will croak, you little clown
When you mess with President Brown
When you mess with President Brown

"California Uber Alles"/ Dead Kennedys/ 1979

For the Dead Kennedys today see http://www.deadkennedys.com/index.htm
Not quite punk as prophecy. The USA never did get President Jerry Brown. But if you read Fred Turner’s most excellent book and read/ hear ‘Stewart Brand’ for ‘ Jerry Brown’, Mr. Biafra almost predicted the future…

How so?

Professor Turner’s book shows, in thorough detail, how a key part of the USA counterculture first emerged in opposition to the USA‘s ‘military/industrial complex’ in the early sixties, tried (but failed) to build alternative communities in the late sixties/ early seventies, helped develop the personal computer in the eighties before merging with aspects of the ‘military/industrial complex’ in the early nineties to create the Wired world/ dot-com boom which went bust in the late nineties… leaving as its legacy the strange spectre /spectacle which still haunts us - that somehow military/industrial capitalism contains within itself the potential to liberate us from its materialist bonds.

That is a crude summary. Counterculture to Cyberculture is a lot more subtle than that. It is a book which you really have to read yourself - and read quite carefully to ‘get it’. For non-USA readers in particular, unless you know something about the USA counterculture background - have read Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, the Making of a Counterculture and the Greening of America or have listened to the 1970 album ‘Blows Against the Empire’ by Jefferson Starship - it will be more obscure.

Cyberculture had a gay father

Although a great book and an essential critique of the failure of the USA counterculture to stiffen its backbone with a political analysis of the military/industrial complex, the USA focus of Counterculture to Cyberculture does miss a trick by not mentioning Alan Turing, the gay dad of modern computing.

The starting point of Professor Fred’s analysis is that, of necessity, WW2 required the non-hierarchical collaboration across subject boundaries of hundreds of scientists and engineers. Out of these ‘military/ industrial networks’ emerged the nuclear bomb, computers, cybernetics and (later) the internet. During the Cold War, an unintended consequence of attempts to research ‘mind control’ [supposedly used by Communist regimes] via the use of LSD and other drugs helped trigger the counterculture. This happened when would be novelist Ken Kesey signed up as an MK Ultra [the CIA’s mind control project] volunteer as part of his research for ’One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ which is set in a mental hospital. Kesey was dosed up with LSD, but found the experience mind liberating rather than mind controlling. Kesey then tried to liberate LSD from its ‘military/industrial networks’ context to create a counterculture via the Merry Pranksters’ Acid Tests and a dayglo painted old school bus. [Tom Wolfe’s 1967 book Electric Kool Aid Acid Test documents this. The UK’s acid house /MDMA Ecstasy /dance music /rave culture has structural similarities ]

What Fred Turner’s book teases out is the way that -via Stewart Brand who was one of Kesey‘s Merry Pranksters and cybernetics/ computers - what began as a movement away from the military/industrial network eventually returned to it and that this process was (with the benefit of hindsight) already there/ implicit from its beginnings.

But hang on- now started reading a supplementary text “What the Dormouse Said: how the sixties counterculture shaped the personal computer industry’ by John Markoff which blurs the picture. And if I go back to George Dyson’s 1997 ‘Darwin Amongst the Machines’…I get lost in an information fog. It may take me sometime to find a way out. Lost in cyberspace…

Maybe the fog will lift by morning. Until it does I will finish up with Alan Turing. In 1936 Alan Turing came up with the mathematical basis for modern computers. In 1940 Turing joined the team at Bletchley Park who were working to decode the German Enigma ciphers. Turing’s theoretical maths were used to design cipher code cracking devices called ‘bombes’. Although not directly involved, Turing helped inspire the development of ‘Colossus’ which was the first functional modern computer. Turing also crossed the Atlantic to share the Bletchley Park developments with scientist/engineers in USA. This aided the post-war development of computing and cybernetics in the USA, developments which the UK failed to progress.

What Andrew Hodge notes in his 1983 biography of Turing - ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’ is that to make sense of the huge volumes of data which flowed from the decryption of German (and Japanese, Italian , but also Soviet) signals traffic, Bletchley Park had to create a model of the German war machine. That the Allied democracies had to virtually recreate the totalitarian system in order to defeat it.

The ultimate defeat involved the Manhattan Project to create a nuclear bomb…. which gave rise to the Cold War and… takes us to the starting point for Turner’s book.

But that’s all for now folks.


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