Editorial

Counterculture?

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Volume #24: Counterculture
Editorial by Jeffrey Inaba

Few people are out protesting in the street or tripping on acid in America these days, yet many of the social principles of its hippie generation are now mainstream. The most celebrated example of the continuing influence of 60s alternative values is in the world of technology. In his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, media historian Fred Turner describes a group of 60s figures who did not revolt against a menacing, out of touch ‘establishment’ as the familiar narrative tells us, but took a seemingly contradictory interest in defense technologies developing within the military­industrial complex. Turner observes that the countercultural ethos of demanding access to knowledge invoked by Stewart Brand and others influenced the development of the personal computer products and network tools that popularized the web and initiated our shift to a society that thrives on information.

At first glance, what appears prescient about the 60s when looking at current American culture is the preoccupation then and now with computer technology, the natural environment and alternative forms of community; but today each is disconnected from the radical political action and oppositional ideologies of the earlier era. For instance, concern for the planet, which was cast as flaky and indulgent, is shared by the majority of people despite the ideological differences between the counterculture and popular American opinion now. Sustainability is so much a part of our collective economic consciousness that its importance is cited in business sectors – like real estate development – which once ardently resisted entertaining pro­environmental stances. Similarly, the communal principles of the counterculture – such as participation, sharing information, erring on the side of social inclusion, networking and identifying areas of agreement with others in order to form collaborations – are the basic axioms for building social capital now.

With the help of countercultural figures, historians and architects, this issue of Volume examines the popularized characteristics of the 60s that have influenced our beliefs about technology, the environment and community. Fred Turner describes the transfer of countercultural ideals to the uses of computer interfaces; Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly and Sim Van der Ryn discuss their countercultural roots in relation to their current projects addressing the environment; and Richard Doyle and John Markoff tell us that the 60s notion of shared consciousness has a lot to do with our current understanding of community. These accounts and others construct an improbable bridge between far out Back­to­the­Land ideologies and the more close­to­home, familiar norms of contemporary life. As the countercultural sensibility was codified and gained greater acceptance, some attitudes and techniques fell by the wayside, yet still persist as alternative forms of cultural participation: hacking technology, the perspective of environmental wholeness and personal consciousness as an agent of collective improvement are all countercultural remnants which are discussed to provide relief to the contemporary mainstream values described in this issue.

Together, the compiled essays and interviews do not judge whether the US counterculture was indeed a counterculture, or whether its protagonists ‘sold out’ by abandoning their alternative ideals for conventional beliefs. Instead, it is a preliminary appraisal of mainstream America considered through the lens of its counterculture. Some contend there is currently no alternative movement because there is no monolithic mainstream culture to counter. In contrast, we suspect that there indeed is a mainstream, and that it is so deeply imbued with countercultural values like sharing, concern for the environment and forming new communities that such a dominant logic of niceness is paradoxically difficult to resist or oppose. Because the prevailing values of nicety are beyond repute, does the current mainstream limit itself to the critical contributions of a future counterculture? In these pages Volume attempts to reckon with the legacy of the 60s as a pervasive ethos of positivity.

The issue is structured in three parts – technology, environment and community – each of which lays out comparisons between widely influential countercultural tendencies and those that remain latent. The first section maps out two interfaces with technology that eventually synthesize with mainstream culture, namely the drive to access information and the formation of knowledge­based networks. In their essay, Christina Cogdell and Simon Sadler draw our attention to our proclivity to ’fully embrace‘ the use of new machines and applications; Felicity Scott writes reflectively about three early examples of knowledge­centered networks; and Cyrus Mody describes the spectrum of varying opacities adopted by research organizations within the post­war scientific community. At the same time, this section refers to direct descendents from the counterculture – such as hacking – that still remain well on the periphery of accept ability by today’s standards. In different ways, the interviews with Scott Burnham, Otto von Busch, Daniel Grushkin, Stewart Brand, as well as the C­Lab feature, foreground the dissonance between popular depictions of hacking as a disruptive, destructive act and its relevance as a productive technique that is still currently evolving.

The environment section acknowledges continuities between the 60s ecological worldview and the largely popular adoption of sustainable strategies today, while also shedding light on the earlier period’s holistic attitude. In comparison with the 60s totalizing definition of ‘ecological’, today’s notion of sustainability is narrower in purpose. For that reason, among others, a commitment to the environment now enjoys endorsements across ideologically varied lines. As such, formulating a finite scope for environmentalism in order to build a broad political constituency merits recognition as a legitimate tactic. But such specification runs counter to the sensibility of holistic, inclusive thought characteristic of the era. Brand and Van der Ryn remind us that the sensitive balancing act between advancing a specific cause and awareness of the whole earth was a constant source of tension within the countercultural debate about the environment. They believed that narrowly focused action and esoteric karmic holism could be resolved through a particular form of participation neither devoid of ideological purpose, nor rendered ineffective by it. In Brand’s view, caring for the wellbeing of the whole earth requires a pragmatic strategy that involves individuals taking specific but comprehensively informed actions. Now that the environmental agenda is set within the terms of sustainability, C­Lab’s feature, Expanding Environment goes on to contend that there isn’t enough academic and public discussion regarding its methods that is sufficiently distanced from its limited scope of political and environmental engagement. In this regard, what counterculture may ultimately have to offer architects are the DIY tactics demonstrated by figures like Brand and Van der Ryn – which could be used to ‘hack’ the terms of the environmental discourse as the circumstances require.

If the countercultural legacy of community is the pursuit of a collective consciousness of consensus, then Francesco Bonami posits, by way of his manifesto, that we are at risk of dismantling collective thought. The Back­to­the­Land sense of community asserts itself in the contemporary ethos of sharing, agreement and cooperation – in what is in essence a ‘Nice Economy’ set of protocols for social networking. In contrast, Jay Stevens tells us that the sense of collectivity centered around 60s psychedelia had a different key tenet to it, namely that the exploration of personal consciousness was necessary for more meaningful interactions with others. In his account, as well as that by Richard Doyle and by C­Lab in Neuropolitics, the place and function of individual thought are considered in light of our increasingly totalizing involvement in a multiplicity of ‘communities’. The implications of the politics of collective and individual agency, for architecture specifically, are taken up in several pieces: Winy Maas discusses an alternative methodology for urban planning via the aggregated collective; Jason Payne meditates on a generational tendency toward an extroverted discourse that is based upon interpreting architecture through individual sensory experience; Scott’s piece treats communities that were built based on a common interest to refuse social conventions of cooperation; and Jorge Otero­Pailos describes the phenomenological movement in architecture and the expansion of the mental space of its users.

Because it is embedded in what we as architects are assumed to do, it is important to look closer into what the counterculture is purported to be. Todd Gitlin stresses that during the 60s there was no such thing as a counterculture. There wasn’t a single term to describe the many alternative experiments taking place in this period of tremendous social upheaval. As he says, people were living ‘lively’, with disregard for what might have been perceived as contradictory beliefs. Stevens and Doyle reiterate this point in suggesting that it was difficult to develop a lexicon descriptive of all the new kinds of experiences and states of consciousness. Yet, we have come to know what is now called the counterculture through coherent terms and tendencies which are the pretext for architecture. Its sensibility is assumed in the basic responsibilities we have as designers: we are supposed to thoroughly process the latest technical knowledge in our field, design buildings that are environmentally conscious and form a sense of community around our projects. So while it is the modus operandi for Volume to go beyond the boundaries of architecture to tap into areas of external knowledge that can be imported to invigorate the thinking about design, here we examine what has already made its way inside. We explore the influence of the ‘nice’ culture on our decisions and goals, be it the encouragement to collaborate on grand policy visions (Brand, Kevin Kelly), plan for a general winding down of US society (McKenzie Wark) or reconsider individual consciousness as a way to advance collective intelligence (Doyle). In other words, given the imperatives presented to us, how in architecture can we question the authority of counterculture?