Saturday, June 30, 2012


"An ecological or harmonious civilization, a truly sustainable and ecologically sound society, will need to have certain basic characteristics. It will need to stop economic growth after basic human needs are satisfied. It will also need to promote, encourage, and reward the positive human traits of cooperation, sharing, empathy, and reciprocity. And it must operate with respect for, and care of, the environment—locally, regionally, and globally."    

Friday, June 29, 2012


By Alyce Santoro

Prevailing thought is like prevailing wind; it requires less effort to allow oneself to be carried along than to set a course that goes against it. Also like wind, thought is often presumed to be invisible. But one can quite easily learn to observe the effects of both on tangible objects, and thereby gain the ability to harness the power of either.

The first lesson in sailing usually occurs on the shoreline. Students are invited to determine from which direction the wind is blowing by looking for clues: flags, trees, boats at anchor, the feel of the breeze on one’s own skin, and through careful observation of subtle variations in the texture of wavelets on the surface of the water itself.

In order to see thought, one only needs to look around oneself. The urge to connect turns into telephones, televisions, and the internet. The inclination to travel manifests as cars, ships, planes, and trains. The need for social organization is revealed in our political systems. And so forth and so on…

But what is a thought, exactly? An electrochemical impulse? Does it require an embodied agent, or is it possible that ambient electrochemical forces cause matter to coalesce into particular patterns and configurations, resulting in the infinite variety of artifacts we find ourselves among? Needs, longings, and desires arrive with the distinct sensation that they are ours alone – but couldn’t the existence of a tree be the outward expression of a fundamental “need” in the universe for an efficient, multifunctional carbon dioxide processing unit?

Sophisticated new investigative apparatus developed around the 17th century in the form of telescopes and microscopes suggested to their human operators that the world around us could be broken down into parts, and that we ourselves are unique entities that are distinctly separated from the environment in which we find ourselves. Galileo declared “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.”  That which could not be made measureable was granted an air of dubiousness, if not eliminated outright.

The scientific method (i.e.: formulate a hypothesis, design and implement an experiment, analyze the result, repeat), however useful it may be for technical applications, was never really intended as an all-purpose standard to which social and philosophical principles should also be applied. Just because we cannot measure intuition, love, compassion, grief, or inspiration certainly does not mean that these things do not exist, or that they are somehow inferior to that which is tangible. Over the course of the past 400 years as human culture has become increasingly industrialized, we have also become more compartmentalized. As we’ve come to put less value on the immeasurable, we’ve rationalized ourselves into a state of intolerance of the nuanced, the complex, the seemingly paradoxical. Things that could be taken as two sides of the same coin are instead viewed as diametrically opposed: art vs. science, religion vs. reason, classical vs. quantum physics; determinism vs. free will; left (hemisphere of the brain or political party) vs. right.

Ironically, at the same time that scientific rationalism has come to dominate prevailing thought, science itself has taken a turn towards subtlety. With advances in quantum theory, we are moving into a strange new domain where things do not function according to the orderly and predictable rules that we have come to rely upon. Tests with subatomic particles are not only practically unrepeatable; they reveal that the very nature of our experiments makes objective observation impossible.

Fortunately there are many other ways to collect and interpret information about our reality. The ability to hold several seemingly contradictory views simultaneously, the willingness to cultivate, explore, and trust subtle sensory signals, the boldness and endurance required to set a course that defies the dominant paradigm – this is the domain of certain artists, poets, musicians, shamans, ecologists, permaculturists, philosophers, and others adept at seeing and feeling connections to the obscured dimensions and forces of nature that others neglect to notice.

Throughout history visionary practitioners from every field of human knowledge have felt compelled to share their particular mode of data processing. A few notable examples might include musician John Coltrane, conceptual artist/social-environmental activist Joseph Beuys, quantum physicist/philosopher David Bohm, writer/scientist Wolfgang Von Goethe, physician/natural scientist Hans Jenny, spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, inventor/futurist Buckminster Fuller, and poet Allen Ginsberg. Through their work, each of these individuals has given form to the otherwise invisible/inaudible. The products of their inspiration resonate in those who experience them – our senses know them to be true without analytical proof.

Goethe called investigation that involves a kind of connectedness to and empathic understanding of a subject delicate empiricism. Beuys believed that by becoming more attuned to the subtle forces of the ecosystems we inhabit we can rediscover innate aptitudes that will help us to mend ourselves, our communities, and the planet. He believed that it is the job of both shamans and artists to shake people out of ordinary, habitual states of mind and to reawaken latent faculties.

Even slight shifts in individual and collective values and intentions could quickly bring new sets of priorities into the mainstream, radically altering prevailing thought. Like a flock of starlings that moves in an elegant cloud of instinctive, constantly modulating cooperation, changes of mind can have an instantaneous ripple effect across an entire culture. When Beuys said everyone is an artist he implied that each of us is not only capable of accessing the same mysterious, improbable, constantly unfolding, infinitely creative phenomena – we are the phenomena. Each of us is an outcropping, an empathic agent of transformation, wired to receive, process, and transmit.

To hone one’s connection with this font of supreme imagination, Allen Ginsberg prescribed this simple but profound experiment to aspiring creative practitioners: “Notice what you notice.” Like a single pebble out of thousands that catches your glance on the beach, the things you find yourself aware of – and the state of awareness itself – these are the clues. Each of us is a receptor for a different part of the same sublime puzzle. Evidence is everywhere. The investigation never ends.

cross-posted with The Synergetic Omni-Solution.




Real Democracy Australia is going to release a series of mini zines focussing on one historically significant thinker at a time.

First off the rank is Ian Milliss

Feel free to print and distribute as you see fit.


Object and Idea exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, Ian Milliss, 1973
The main points that I wish to make in these notes will not be illustrated by direct reference to any of the works in this exhibition. All the objects and activities, ancient and modern, radical and conservative, which are currently lumped together as "art" are the victims and/or tools of the same repressive social process; by reaching your own understanding of the way in which the works in this exhibition are part of that process you will be helping to break down that process.
The society in which we live has a vested interest in preventing any realisation that all people can act creatively, that almost everyone is an artist "in the way of his work, in an area of his interests, in the manner that he views the world".

The complete institutionalisation of all "culture" has been a particular phenomenon of the twentieth century. The avowed aim of much twentieth century art has been to bring about social-cultural change; this had never really been an aim of previous art, although it was often a slight result. The existing power structures in society have fought back by developing "culture" as something separate from the common world. This has been reinforced by the distortion of history to present the culture of the ruling class in any era as the only culture, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. Because it has economic power over artists, and control of the communication media, the ruling class is able to distort and absorb any attempt at radical cultural change, whilst easily recruiting other "artists" to promulgate existing values or to divert dangerous movements into formalism. Official culture is to real culture what parliamentary democracy is to real democracy.

A mystique, which seems to be increasing, has been erected around "creativity" and around the "artists" whose exclusive domain it is presented as. This mystique serves to isolate "culture" from the great majority of people who, by virtue of their "uneducated tastes" are not deserving of it; to them it appears to be an intimidating, institutionalised mystery. They are made to believe that they have no control over the formulation of the values by which they measure their lives.

"Artists" are not considered artists because they are creative personalities or have creative life styles, but because they produce a commodity called "art". "Art" is any object or activity that can be used to maintain the closed system of the art world, of "culture". It is not the real social-cultural value of an object or activity that defines its value as "art" but rather the ease with which it can be commercially exploited or turned into cultural propaganda.

It is necessary for the system to continually expand the range of things considered "art", partly for economic reasons (planned obsolescence!) but mainly to alienate, and thus render safe, areas of existence which are dangerous to the existing social structure, which expose the contradictions between supposed cultural values and the violence and exploitation they disguise. Once an activity can be accommodated within the scheme of "cultural patronage" it can obviously have no real force as a political gesture.

One interesting side effect of the extreme conservatism of Australian "culture" is that overseas "culture" is treated one of these dangerous areas of experience, to be absorbed. This is why the Australian version of an art movement is always conservative and, even now, years later than overseas counterpart; if it doesn't seem as interesting that's because its function is to miss the point.

Two artists in this exhibition illustrate more than most of the others the workings of "official culture". Alex Danko is an almost classical example of the "radical artist"-capitalist, he exploits "culture" as a developer exploits land.

Tony Coleing, on the other hand, produces work which is very subtly satirical of our "cultural"values, but the form of his work makes it unintentionally just as exploitative and exploitable as Danko's; the road to hell is paved with such good intentions.

Cultural change and political change form an equation which results in each being the cause of the other while impossible without the other. The substitution of "official culture" for everyday life, real culture, in the general consciousness, is the means capitalist society uses to break the connection. Since we are all brought up with this false view of cultural history we are alienated from our real history and are therefore unable to interpret our experience vis-a-vis society properly.

Given the terrorist nature of "culture" as it stands, and given that Australian society has little other cultural life, real social change, the radical reformulation of experience, which would result in the redistribution of power and resources, becomes problematic. The "official" values which must be rejected are often so ingrained as to be mistaken for reality. The concept of "culture heroes", for example, has as its mainstay the belief that people become famous because of some innate personal quality, even if their ideas are "radical" or "anti-establishment"; in fact nobody (while still alive)becomes famous and therefore powerful, in our society unless their fame will in the long run help perpetuate the status quo.

If you are doing anything at all valuable, "official culture" will eventually seek you out, no matter what disguise you wear. The only viable solution seems to be to live as anonymously as possible, spreading your ideas or insights no further than people you actually know. The ideas in these notes, for instance, have been worked out in discussion with various friends, and have only been written down after calculating their value against the fact that once published they are in the same position as that which they criticise.

The instilled values of capitalist-technological society lead us to make value judgements which bring about the division between "culture" and the way we actually live, although it appears almost conspiratorial once it is perceived. In Australia where the cultural roots of the dominant white society are geographically on the other side of the world, "official culture" with its distortions of history is accepted almost universally because the physical evidence which would contradict it is lacking. This distortion is particularly telling amongst political radicals; they either accept "official culture" unquestioningly, as the Labor Party has in its formation of the Council for the Arts, or unthinkingly reject culture in its entirety for pure politics. Either way they render the social change they seek impossible.

Once the monopoly of "artists" over "creativity" and "culture" is broken, it becomes possible for people to create real history and real change from their own personal experience. This is what "art" really is, and for obvious reasons it cannot be found in "art" galleries nor in exhibitions nor in books; only by discarding the concept altogether and then, acting on our own awareness, changing our lives,does the concept gain meaning.

To break through our alienation is to act creatively, and to break through our alienation right now in Australian society means changing our everyday life, altering our relationships with others, with society as a whole, with the city and country; means, in other words, political change. If real culture lies in the total of all our everyday lives then it is possible for any of us to change cultural values by changing the way we live.

When I talk about real culture, real art, real creativity, real artists, I am trying to use concepts which "official culture" has debased or distorted. The only way they can regain the meaning they should have is for us to reject them entirely. We must reform reality to create a society in which, if people cared to use them, they would have meaning, but in which no-one would care to use them; a society in which the ersatz meaningfulness of "culture" is replaced by an unmediated awareness of reality,by the self conscious activity of living, of maintaining and directing our society ourselves.

August 9, 1973, Sydney. !© Ian Milliss


by Alyce Santoro


As our society collectively awakens to the realization that it must devise ways to stem the hemorrhaging caused by years of denial and excess, and as the DIY (do-it-yourself) movement grows in popularity, Joseph Beuys’ words “Everyone Is An Artist” ring all the more true. Beuys, who referred to himself as a “social sculptor”, believed strongly not that everyone should make (so-called) fine art, but that everyone can live a richer and more meaningful life by infusing any vocation or action with his or her own personal creativity. 

From the 1950’s through the mid-1980’s, Beuys expressed the notion that personal creativity could be cultivated and honed by connecting with nature and by developing a more intimate relationship with it. He believed that individuals, as well as our entire society could be healed by returning to a simpler way of life, and by becoming more attuned to the subtle, ineffable forces of the ecosystems we inhabit. 


Some call one who consciously connects to, communicates with, and elaborates on the intangible a shaman. Some called Joseph Beuys that. Most just called him an artist. Shamans, artists, cooks, gardeners, scientists, inventors and all others who bring imaginary things out of the realm of the intangible to help give them form routinely benefit from enhanced access to the mysterious force of inspiration. In this sense, everyone is a shaman as well.  

And as people begin to seek opportunities to “do it themselves” they are exercising a form of personal creativity that has been largely neglected in our culture for far too long. A basic fact of existence that has been all but forgotten is that human happiness and the sense of freedom depends largely on the ability to express personal creativity. Beuys also famously said, “To make people free is the aim of art. Therefore art for me is the science of freedom”.


It is possible that the reshuffling of our collective deck, while discomfiting at times, will ultimately result in an overall increase in happiness as people come to realize that we were misguided in relating the ravenous, mindless accumulation of stuff to personal joy, and as we begin to experience instead the sense of simple, profound satisfaction that comes from planting a seed, sewing on a button, or cooking a meal from scratch.


Consciously creative types (“makers” as they have come to be known) are returning to the sort of DIY approach to the creating and sharing of their work that the fluxus artists of the 1960’s and 70’s pioneered – only now we have the internet. Websites, blogs, and social networks have made the notion of the white box/velvet rope style gallery virtually obsolete - now everyone has the same access to the same art and artists, from the comfort and privacy of their own homes. Sculptors can create installations in a basement, musicians can give concerts in their living rooms, writers can publish in an instant – and everything can be shared with millions of people across the globe.


The internet is a fascinating artifact of the fundamental human longing to connect. The telegraph, telephone, and television are all apparatus devised to facilitate communication. The internet takes it all a step further – now we are able to pool resources, share information, and generate tangible links. In 1998 Howard Rheingold, an early internet researcher and pioneer, published a brilliant article called Thinking About Thinking About Technology in the Institute of Noetic Sciences newsletter. In the piece, Mr. Rheingold posits that for new technology to develop into tools for enhancement of creativity and “mind amplification” as opposed to becoming merely a source of “disinfotainment” we must develop a philosophical framework within which it can evolve. That was 12 years ago. Now we can say for certain that technology, devoid of philosophical framework, will become everything that we are - enriching and distracting, elegant and dangerous, brilliant and ridiculous. 

Technology has arrived at a point in its evolution when it is exceptionally easy for the maker to direct all aspects of his or her own creation, from inception to publication, marketing, and dissemination. From Facebook, Twitter, and Blogger to Ebay, Etsy, and YouTube, it is an exciting time for the DIY innovator.


Technologies for the amplification and enhancement of imagination and conscious intent have existed in every aspect of human culture at least since the first cave painting was created. Modern western civilization’s fanatic rejection of the unquantifiable has, in many ways, done us a great disservice. To trust only that which can be measured negates inspiration, intuition, and imagination – some of humanity’s most precious attributes. 

Perhaps Joseph Beuys was right - reenchantment with the intangible, reverence for nature, and an open-minded acceptance of alternative modes of perception may make it possible for humanity to emerge from this period of economic, environmental, and social upheaval and reevaluation into a more peaceful and contented era. By perceiving ourselves as artists of our own particular medium (be it plumbing, politics, cooking, medicine, teaching, healing, engineering, or painting), we have an opportunity to sculpt our very culture into a masterpiece that’s beyond our wildest collective imagination. We just need to keep in mind that technology is only an electronic, externalized version of some far more sophisticated software that exists inside all of us, preinstalled. There’s no Google search that can tell us how to use it, however. For that we’ll need to move away from the machines, and step outside.

by Alyce Santoro Op-Ed, May 29, 2011


1963 SDS National Council Meeting (C. Clark Kissinger)

The Port Huron Statement was the 1962 manifesto of the activist movement Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The following essay on the SDS movement's visions and the way they could be related to and implemented using emerging technology was written by Michael Hauben, Columbia professor and internet pioneer/scholar credited with coining the term "Netizen", who sadly passed away in 2001 at the age of 29.

The 1960s was a time of people around the world struggling for more of a say in the decisions of their society. The emergence of the personal computer in the late 70s and early 80s and the longer gestation of the new forms of people-controlled communication facilitated by the Internet and Usenet in the late 80s and today are the direct descendents of 1960s.

The era of the 1960s was a special time in America. Masses of people realized their own potential to affect how the world around them worked. People rose up to protest the ways of society which were out of their control, whether to fight against racial segregation, or  to gain more power for students in the university setting. The "Port Huron Statement" created by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was a document which helped set the mood for the decade.   

By the 1970s, some of the people who were directly involved in  student protests continued their efforts to bring power to the people  by developing and spreading computer power in a form accessible and  affordable to individuals. The personal computer movement of the 1970s  created the personal computer. By the mid 1980s they forced the  corporations to produce computers which everyone could afford. The new  communications media of the Internet grew out of the ARPANET research that started in 1969 and Usenet which was born in 1979. These communications advances coupled with the availability of computers transforms the spirit of the 1960s into an achievable goal for our times.

The early members of SDS found a real problem in American Society. They felt that the United States was a democracy that never existed, or rather which was transformed into a representative system after the constitutional convention. The United States society is called a democracy, but had ceased being democratic after the early beginnings of American society. SDS felt it is crucial for people to  have a part in how their society is governed. SDS leaders had an understanding of democratic forms which did not function  democratically in the 1960s nor do they today. This is a real problem  which the leaders and members of SDS intuitively understood and worked  to change.    
An important part of the SDS program included the understanding of the need for a medium to make it possible for a community of active citizens to discuss and debate the issues affecting their lives. While not available in the 1960s, such a medium exists today in the 1990s. The seeds for the revival of the 1960s SDS vision of how to bring about a more democratic society now exists in the personal computer and the Net. These seeds will be an important element in the battle for winning control for people as we approach the new millennium.

The Port Huron Statement was the foundation on which to build a  movement for participatory democracy in the 1960s. In June 1962, an SDS national convention was held in a UAW camp located in the  backwoods of Port Huron, Michigan. The original text of the Port Huron Statement was drafted by Tom Hayden, who was then SDS Field Secretary. The Statement sets out the theory of SDS's criticism of American  society. The Port Huron convention was itself a concrete living  example of the practice of participatory democracy.
The Port Huron Statement was originally thought of as a manifesto, but SDS members moved instead to call it a "statement". It was prefixed by an introductory note describing how it was to be a document that should develop and change with experience:  "This document represents the results of several months of  writing and discussion among the membership, a draft paper,  and revision by the Students for a Democratic Society national convention meeting in Port Huron, Michigan, June  11-15, 1962. It is presented as a document with which SDS  officially identifies, but also as a living document open to change with our times and experiences. It is a beginning: in  our own debate and education, in our dialogue with society." Port Huron Statement in Miller, p. 329)  

This note is important in that it signifies that the SDS document was not defining the definite solution to the problems of society, but was making suggestions that would be open to experiences towards a better understanding. This openness is an important precursor to practicing participatory democracy by asking for the opinions of everyone and treating these various opinions equally.
The first serious problem inherent in American society identified by the Port Huron Statement is the myth of a functioning democracy:

"For Americans concerned with the development of democratic societies, the anti-colonial movements and revolutions in the emerging nations pose serious problems. We need to face the problems with humanity; after 180 years of constitutional government we are still striving for democracy in our own society." (Port Huron Statement in Miller, p. 361)

This lack of democracy in American society contributes to the  political disillusionment of the population. Tom Hayden and SDS were deeply influenced by the writings of C. Wright Mills, a philosopher who was a Professor at Columbia University until his death early in 1962. Mills' thesis was that the "the idea of the community of publics" which make  up a democracy had disappeared as people increasingly got further away  from politics. Mills felt that the disengagement of people from the  State had resulted in control being given to a few who in the 1960s  were no longer valid representatives of the American people. In his book  about SDS, "Democracy is in the Streets", James Miller wrote:

"Politics became a spectator sport. The support of voters was marshaled through advertising campaigns, not direct participation in reasoned debate. A citizen's chief sources  of political information, the mass media, typically  assaulted him with a barrage of distracting commercial come-ons,  feeble entertainments and hand-me-down glosses on complicated  issues." (Miller, p. 85)       

Such fundamental problems with democracy continue today in the  middle of the 1990s. In the Port Huron Statement, SDS was successful in identifying and understanding the problems which still plague us today. This is a necessary first step to working towards a solution. The students involved with SDS understood people were tired of the  problems and wanted to make changes in society. The Port Huron Statement was written to address these concerns:

" they not as well produce a yearning to believe there is an alternative to the present, that something can be done to  change circumstances in the school, the workplaces, the  bureaucracies, the government? It is to this latter yearning, at  once the spark and engine of change, that we direct our present  appeal. The search for a truly democratic alternatives to the  present, and a commitment to social experimentation with them, is  a worthy and fulfilling human enterprise, one which moves us, and  we hope, others today." (SDS, "The Introduction, Agenda for Change", p. 331)   

Describing how the separation of people from power is the means  used to keep people uninterested and apathetic, the Port Huron  Statement explains: "The apathy is, first, subjective -- the felt powerlessness  of ordinary people, the resignation before the enormity of  events. But subjective apathy is encouraged by the objective  American situation -- the actual structural separation of  people from power, from relevant knowledge, from pinnacles  of decision-making. Just as the university influences the  student way of life, so do major social institutions create  the circumstances which the isolated citizen will try  hopelessly to understand the world and himself." ("The Society Beyond" in the Port Huron Statement, in Miller, p. 336)

The Statement analyzes the personal disconnection to society and  its effect:

"The very isolation of the individual -- from power and community  and ability to aspire -- means the rise of democracy without publics. With the great mass of people structurally remote and psychologically hesitant with respect to democratic institutions,  those institutions themselves attenuate and become, in the fashion  of the vicious cycle, progressively less accessible to those few  who aspire to serious participation in social affairs. The vital democratic connection between community and leadership, between  the mass and the several elites, has been so wrenched and  perverted that disastrous policies go unchallenged time and  again." (Port Huron Statement in Miller, p. 336)      

The Statement describes how it is typical for people to get frustrated and quit going along with the electoral system as something which works. The problem has continued, as we now have all  time lows in voter turn-outs for national and local elections. In a section titled Politics Without Publics, the Statement explains:

"The American voter is buffeted from all directions by pseudo-problems, by the the structurally initiated sense that nothing political is subject to human mastery. Worried by his mundane problems which never get solved, but constrained by the common belief that politics is an  agonizingly slow accommodation of views, he quits all pretense of bothering." (Port Huron Statement in Miller, p. 337)  
Students in SDS did not let these real problems discourage their efforts to work for a better future. They wanted to be part of the  forces to defeat the problems. The Port Huron Statement contains an  understanding that people are inherently good and can deal with the  problems that were described. This understanding is conveyed in the  Values section of the Statement:

"Men have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self- direction, self-understanding, and creativity. It is this potential that we regard as crucial and to which we appeal,  not to the human potential for violence, unreason, and  submission to authority. The goal of man and society should  be human independence: a concern not with the image of  popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic; a quality of mind not compulsively driven by a sense of powerlessness, nor one which unthinkingly adopts status values, nor one which represses  all threats to its habits, but one which easily unites the  fragmented parts of personal history, one which openly faces  problems which are troubling and unresolved; one with an  intuitive awareness of possibilities, an active sense  of curiosity, an ability and willingness to learn."  (Port Huron Statement in Miller, p. 332) 

Those participating in the Port Huron convention came away with a  sense of the importance of participatory democracy. This sense was in the air in several ways. The convention itself embodied participatory  democracy through the discussion and debate over the text of the Statement as several people later explained. The Port Huron Statement called for the implementation of participatory democracy as a way to bring people  back into decisions about the country in general, and their individual  lives, in particular. One of Tom Hayden's professors at University of Michigan, Arnold Kaufman, came to speak about his thoughts and use of  phrase 'participatory democracy.' Miller writes that in a 1960 essay, "Participatory Democracy and Human Nature", Kaufman had described a society in which every member had a "direct responsibility for decisions." The "main justifying function" of participatory democracy, quotes Miller, "is and always has been, not the extent to which it protects or stabilizes a community, but the contribution it can make to the development of human powers of thought, feeling and action. In this respect, it differs, and differs quite fundamentally, from a representative system incorporating all sorts of institutional features designed to safeguard human rights and ensure social order." (Miller, p. 94)

"Participation" explained Kaufman, "means both personal initiative --  that men feel obliged to help resolve social problems  -- and social opportunity -- that society feels obliged to maximize  the possibility for personal initiative to find creative outlets."  (Miller, p. 95)       

A participant at the Port Huron Conference, Richard Flacks  remembers Arnold Kaufman speaking at the convention,  "At one point, he declared that our job as citizens was not to role-play the President. Our job was to put forth our own perspective. That was the real meaning of democracy--press for your own perspective as you see it, not trying to be a statesman understanding the big picture." (Miller, p. 111) 

After identifying participatory democracy as the means of how to wrest control back from corporate and government bureaucracies, the next step was to identify the means to having participatory democracy.  In the "Values" section of The Port Huron Statement, the means  proposed is a new media that would make this possible:  "As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; the society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation." (Port Huron Statement in Miller, p. 333)
Others in SDS further detailed their understandings of  participatory democracy to mean people becoming active and committed  to playing more of a public role. Miller documents Al Haber's idea of democracy as "a model, another way of organizing society." The  emphasis was on a charge to action. It was how to be out there doing. Rather than an ideology or a theory." (Miller, pp. 143-144)     
Tom Hayden, Miller writes, understood participatory democracy to mean:  "number one, action; we believed in action. We had behind us the so-called decade of apathy; we were emerging from apathy. What's the opposite of apathy? Active participation. Citizenship. Making history. Secondly, we were very directly influenced by the civil rights movement in its student phase, which believed that by personally committing yourself and taking risks, you could enter history and try to change it after a hundred years of segregation.  And so it was this element of participation in democracy that was important. Voting was not enough. Having a democracy in which you have an apathetic citizenship, spoon-fed information by a monolithic media, periodically voting, was very weak, a declining form of democracy. And we believed, as an end in itself, to make the human being whole by becoming an actor in history instead of just a passive object. Not only as an end in itself, but as a means to change, the idea of participatory democracy was our central focus." (Miller, p. 144)  Another member of SDS, Sharon Jeffrey understood "Participatory" to mean "involved in decisions." She continued, "And I definitely wanted to be involved in decisions that were going to affect me! How could I let anyone make a decision about me that I wasn't involved in?" (Miller, p. 144)    
It is important to see the value of participatory democracy as a common understanding among both the leaders and members of SDS. While the Port Huron Statement contained other criticisms and thoughts, its major contribution was to highlight the need to more actively involve the citizens of the United States in the daily political process to correct some of the wrongs which passivity had allowed to build. Richard Flacks summarizes this in his article "On the Uses of Participatory Democracy":

"The most frequently heard phrase for defining participatory democracy is  that 'men must share in the decisions which affect their lives.' in other words, participatory democrats take seriously a vision of man as citizen:  and by taking seriously such a vision, they seek to extend the conception  of citizenship beyond the conventional political sphere to all institutions. Other ways of stating the core values are to assert the  following: each man has responsibility for the action of the institutions  in which he is embedded ...." (Flacks, pp. 397-398) 
The leaders of SDS strove to create forms of participatory democracy within its structure and organization as a prototype and as leadership for the student protest movement and society in general. Al Haber, the University of Michigan graduate student who was the  first SDS national officer, describes the need for a communication system to provide the foundation for the movement:    
"The challenge ahead is to appraise and evolve radical alternatives  to the inadequate society of today, and to develop an institutionalized  communication system that will give perspective to our immediate actions.  We will then have the groundwork for a radical student movement in America." (Sale, p. 25)    

He understood the general society would be the last place to approach. There was a need to start smaller among the element of society that was becoming more active in the 1960s or the students. Haber outlined his idea of where to start:  "We do not now have such a public [interaction in a functioning community] in America. Perhaps, among the students, we are beginning to approach it on the left. It is now the major task before liberals, radicals, socialists and democrats. It is a task in which the SDS should play a major role." (Miller, p.69) 
The Port Huron Statement defines 'community' to mean: "Human relations should involve fraternity and honesty. Human interdependence is a contemporary fact; .... Personal links between man and man are needed.'" (SDS, p. 332)       

Prior to his full time involvement with SDS, Hayden wrote an article for the Michigan Daily describing how democratic decision making is a necessary first step towards creating community. Hayden's focus was on the University when he wrote,

"If decisions are the sole work of an isolated few rather than of a participating many, alienation from the University complex will emerge, because the University will be just that: a complex, not a community." However, this sentiment persisted in Hayden's and others thoughts about community and democracy for the whole country. (Miller, p. 54)    

This feeling about community is represented in the Port Huron Statement's conclusion. The Statement calls for the communal sharing of problems to see that they are public and not private problems. Only by communicating and and sharing these problems through a community will it be a chance to solve them together. SDS called for the new left to "transform modern complexity into issues that  can be understood and felt close-up by every human being."
The statement continues,

"It must give form to the feelings of helplessness and indifference, so people may see the political, social an economic sources of their private troubles and organize to change society...'" (Port Huron Statement, p. 374 of Miller) 
The theory of participatory democracy was engaging. However, the actual practice of giving everyone a say within the SDS structures made the value of participatory democracy clear. The Port Huron Convention was a real life example of how the principles were refreshing and capable of bringing American citizens back into political process. The community created among SDS members brought this new spirit to light. C. Wright Mills writings spoke about "the scattered little circles of face-to-face citizens discussing their public business." Al Haber's hope for this to happen among students was demonstrated at Port Huron. SDS members saw this as proof of Miller's hope for democracy. This was to be the first example of many among SDS gatherings and meetings. Richard Flacks highlighted what made Port Huron special. He found a "mutual discovery of like minds." Flacks continued, "You felt isolated before, because you had these political interests and values and suddenly you were discovering not only like minds, but the possibility of actually creating something together." It was also exciting because, "it was our thing: we were there at the beginning." (Miller, p. 118)


SDS succeeded in doing several things. First, they clearly identified the crucial problem in American democracy. Next, they came up with an understanding of what theory would make a difference. All that remained was to find the means to make this change manifest. They discovered how to create changes in their own lives and these changes affected the world around them. However, something more was needed to bring change to all of American society.    

Al Haber understood this something more would be an open communication system or media which people could use to communicate. He understood that, "the challenge ahead is to appraise and evolve radical alternatives to the inadequate society of today, and to develop an institutionalized communication system that will give perspective to our immediate actions." (Sale, p. 25) This system would lay the "the groundwork for a radical student movement in America." (Sale, p. 25) Haber and Hayden understood SDS to be this, "a national communications network" (Miller, p. 72)     
While many people made their voices heard and produced a real effect on the world in the 1960s, lasting structural changes were not established. The real problems outlined earlier continued in the 1970s and afterwards. A national, or even international, public communications network needed to be built to keep the public's voice out in the open.    

Members of SDS partially understood this, and put forth the following two points in the Port Huron Statement section on "Towards American Democracy": 

~ "Mechanisms of voluntary association must be created through which political information can be imparted and political participation encouraged."    
~ "The allocation of resources must be based on social needs. A truly 'public sector' must be established, and its nature debated and planned." (PHS, in Miller, p. 362) 

This network and the means to access it began developing towards the end of the 1960s. Two milestones in the genesis were 1969 when the first ARPANET node was installed and in 1979 when Usenet started. Both are pioneering experiments in using computers to facilitate human communication in a fundamentally different way than already existing public communications networks like the telephone or television networks. The ARPANET, which was a prototype for today's Internet, and Usenet, which continues to grow and expand around the world, are parts of the Net, or the worldwide global computer communication networks. Another important step towards the development of an international communication network was the personal computer movement, which took place in the middle to late 1970s. This movement created the personal computer which makes it affordable for an individual to purchase the means to connect to this public network.    
However, the network can not simply be created. SDS understood that:

"democracy and freedom do not magically occur, but have roots in historical experience; they cannot always be demanded for any society at any time, but must be nurtured and facilitated." (SDS, Port Huron Statement, in Miller, p. 361)

Participants on the ARPANET, Internet and Usenet inherently understood this, and built a social and knowledge network from the ground up. As Usenet was created to help students who did not have access to the ARPANET, or a chance to communicate in a similar way, they came to it in full force.
In "Culture and Communication: The Interplay in the New Public Commons", Michael Hauben writes that:

"the on-line user is part of a global culture and considers him or herself to be a global citizen. This global citizen is a net citizen, or a Netizen. The world which has developed is based on communal effort to make a cooperative community. Those who have become Netizens have gained more control of their lives and the world around them. However, access to this world needs to spread in order to have the largest possible effect for the most number of people. In addition, as some efforts to spread the Net become more commercial, some of the values important to the Net are being challenged."     

A recent speech I was invited to present at a conference on "the Netizen Revolution and the Regional Information Infrastructure" in Beppu, Japan helps to bring the world of the Netizen into perspective with the ideas of participatory democracy,

"Netizens are not just anyone who comes on-line, and they are especially not people who come on-line for isolated gain or profit. They are not people who come to the Net thinking it is a service. Rather they are people who understand it takes effort and action on each and everyones part to make the Net a regenerative and vibrant community and resource. Netizens are people who decide to devote time and effort into making the Net, this new part of our world, a better place." (Hauben, Hypernetwork '95 speech)      

The Net is a technological and social development which is in the spirit of the theory clearly defined by the Students for a Democratic Society. This understanding could help in the fight to keep the Net a uncommercialized public commons (Felsenstein). This many to many medium provides the tools necessary to bring the open commons needed to make participatory democracy a reality. It is important now to spread access to this medium to all who understand they could benefit. 

The Net brings power to people's lives because it is a public forum. The airing of real problems and concerns in the open brings help towards the solution and makes those responsible accountable to the general public. The Net is the public distribution of people's muckraking and whistle blowing. It is also just a damn good way for people to come together to communicate about common interests and to come into contact with people with similar and differing ideas.     

The lack of control over the events surrounding an individual's life was a common concern of protesters in the 1960s. The Port Huron Statement gave this as a reason for the reforms SDS was calling for. The section titled "The Society Beyond" included that "Americans are in withdrawal from public life, from any collective efforts at directing their own affairs." (PHS, in Miller, p. 335)     
Hayden echoed C. Wright Mills when he wrote, "What experience we have is our own, not vicarious or inherited." Hayden continued, "We keep believing that people need to control, or try to control, their work and their life. Otherwise, they are without intensity, without the subjective creative consciousness of themselves which is the root of free and secure feeling. It may be too much to believe, we don't know." (Miller, p. 262)    

The desire to bring more control into people's daily life was a common goal of student protest in the 1960s. Mario Savio, active in the Berkeley Free Speech movement, "believed that the students, who paid the university to educate them, should have the the power to influence decisions concerning their university lives." (Haskins and Benson, p. 55) This desire was also a common motivator of the personal computer movement.


The personal computer movement immediately picked up after the protest movements of the 1960s died down. Hobbiest computer enthusiasts wanted to provide access to computing power to the people. People across the United States picked up circuit boards and worked on making a personal mini-computer or mainframe which previously only large corporations and educational institutions could afford. Magazines, such as Creative Computing, Byte and Dr. Dobbs' Journal, and clubs, such as the Homebrew Club, formed cooperative communities of people working towards solving the technical problems of building a personal and inexpensive computer.    

Several pioneers of the personal computer movement contributed to the tenth anniversary issue of Creative Computing Magazine. Some of their impressions follow:

"The people involved were people with vision, people who stubbornly clung to the idea that the computers could offer individuals advantages previously available only to large corporations. ..." (Leyland, p. 111)

"Computer power was meant for the people. In the early 70s computer cults were being formed across the country. Sol Libes on the East Coast and Gordon French in the West were organizing computer enthusiasts into clubs...." (Terrell, p. 100)

"We didn't have many things you take for granted today, but we did have a feeling of excitement and adventure. A feeling that we were the pioneers in a new era in which small computers would free everyone from much of the drudgery of everyday life. A feeling that we were secretly taking control of information and power jealously guarded by the Fortune 500 owners of multi-million dollar IBM mainframes. A feeling that the world would never be the same once "hobby computers" really caught on." (Marsh, p. 110)

"There was a strong feeling [at the Homebrew Club] that we were subversives. We were subverting the way the giant corporations had run things. We were upsetting the establishment, forcing our mores into the industry. I was amazed that we could continue to meet without people arriving with bayonets to arrest the lot of us."   


The development of the Internet and of Usenet is an investment in a strong force towards making direct democracy a reality. These new technologies present the chance to overcome the obstacles preventing the implementation of direct democracy. Online communication forums also make possible the discussion necessary to identify today's fundamental questions. One criticism is that it would be impossible to assemble the body politic in person at a single time. The Net allows for a meeting which takes place on each person's own time, rather than all at one time. Usenet newsgroups are discussion forums where questions are raised, and people can leave comments when convenient, rather than at a particular time and at a particular place. As a computer discussion forum, individuals can connect from their own computers, or from publicly accessible computers across the nation to participate in a particular debate. The discussion takes place in one concrete time and place, while the discussants can be dispersed. Current Usenet newsgroups and mailing lists prove that citizens can both do their daily jobs and participate in discussions that interest them within their daily schedules.       

Another criticism was that people would not be able to communicate peacefully after assembling. Online discussions do not have the same characteristics as in-person meetings. As people connect to the discussion forum when they wish, and when they have time, they can be thoughtful in their responses to the discussion. Whereas in a traditional meeting, participants have to think quickly to respond. In addition, online discussions allow everyone to have a say, whereas finite length meetings only allow a certain number of people to have their say. Online meetings allow everyone to contribute their thoughts in a message, which is then accessible to whomever else is reading and participating in the discussion.
These new communication technologies hold the potential for the implementation of direct democracy in a country as long as the necessary computer and communications infrastructure are installed. Future advancement towards a more responsible government is possible with these new technologies. While the future is discussed and planned for, it will also be possible to use these technologies to assist in the citizen participation in government. Netizens are watching various government institutions on various newsgroups and mailing lists throughout the global computer communications network. People's thoughts about and criticisms of their respective governments are being aired on the currently uncensored networks.   
These networks can revitalize the concept of a democratic "Town Meeting" via online communication and discussion. Discussions involve people interacting with others. Voting involves the isolated thoughts of an individual on an issue, and then his or her acting on those thoughts in a private vote. In society where people live together, it is important for people to communicate with each other about their situations to best understand the world from the broadest possible viewpoint.    

The individuals involved with SDS, the personal computer movement and the pioneers involved with the development of the Net understood they were a part of history. This spirit helped them to push forward in the hard struggle needed to bring the movements to fruition. The invention of the personal computer was one step that made it possible for people to afford the means to connect to the Net. The Internet has just begun to emerge as a tool available to the public. It is important that the combination of the personal computer and the Net be spread and made widely available at low or no costs to people around the world. It is important to understand the tradition which these developments have come from, in order to truly understand their value to society and to make them widely available. With the hope connected to this new public communications medium, I encourage people to take up the struggle which continues in the great American radical tradition.

Felsenstein, Lee. "The Commons of Information." In Dr. Dobbs'Journal. May 1993
Flacks, Richard. "On the Uses of Participatory Democracy". In Dissent.  No 13. November 1966. Pp. 701-708. Reprinted in The American Left.  Edited by Loren Baritz. Pp. 397-405.
Freiberger, Paul and Michael Swaine. Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer. Osborne/McGraw-Hill. Berkeley. 1984.  Haskins, James and Kathleen Benson. The 60s Reader. Viking Kestrel.  New York. 1988.
Hauben, Michael.  Culture and Communication: The interplay in the new public commons - Usenet and Community. 1995.  Hauben, Michael and Ronda Hauben. Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet.  1994
Hauben, Michael.  "Netizens and Community Networks."  Presentation at Hyper network '95, Beppu Bay Conference.  November 24, 1995. Beppu Bay, Oita Prefecture, Japan.
Leyland, Diane Asher. "As We Were." In Creative Computing. Vol 10  no 11. November, 1984. Pp. 111-112.
Marsh, Robert. "1975: Ancient History." In Creative Computing. Vol 10  no 11. November, 1984. Pp. 108-110.
Miller, James. Democracy in the Streets. Simon and Schuster. New York.  1987  Sale, Kirkpatrick. SDS.  Vintage Books. New York, 1974.
SDS. Port Huron Statement. As found in Miller. Pp. 329-374.
Terrell, Paul. "A Guided Tour of Personal Computing". In Creative  Computing. Vol 10 no 11. November, 1984. Pp. 100-104.



this article was published in a 1998 issue of the quarterly Instititute of Noetic Sciences Review

Are we awake to the world we're building, or are we, as an old Sufi saying goes, merely asleep in life's waiting room? That was the question that brought me to the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in 1982, and years later, after a long immersion in the world of digital technology, that was the question that brought me back in 1998.

In the sixteen years between my first and most recent collaborations with IONS, I was associated with Xerox PARC, the Whole Earth Catalog, and the online arm of Wired magazine, wrote a syndicated column about technology, even started up an Internet company. Lately, I've been doing a lot of thinking about technology in terms of three questions: Where are we going? Do we really want to go there? Is there anything we can do about it?

These questions about where we should go with our technological power, on which bases could we use our knowledge wisely, lead back to the fundamental questions about the nature of human nature and the nature of knowing that IONS has always pursued.

People who live within and benefit from modern industrial civilization have forgotten, and have been encouraged to forget, about the origins and provenance of fundamental thinking tools we all benefit from—rationality, progress, democratic self-governance, universal acceptance of the superiority of the scientific method to other ways of knowing. A specific manner of systematically examining the world, extracting knowledge, and applying that knowledge to extend power, a system that was developed only a few centuries ago, has been so extraordinarily successful that it has totally sucked our attention away from other, crucially important ways of knowing the world. Our technologized culture shapes and fascinates us to the extent we don't even see other ways of knowing and interacting with the world and each other. As Langdon Winner claims (see below), people in industrial, megatechnological civilization seem to sleepwalk through the world we've created, oblivious to the worlds that have been destroyed, never really thinking about the worlds technology will engender in years to come.

I joined IONS to help Brendan O'Regan, then vice president for research, organize and facilitate the development of new understandings in the emerging science of human consciousness, and to help Willis Harman write a book about the connection between consciousness and social transformation—Higher Creativity—which we published in 1984.

Harman had been instructing futurists at Stanford Research Institute for years that we could understand today's paradigm shift by looking more closely at the last time an entire civilization changed the way it knew about the world. People didn't know how to think systematically about the material world until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, despite millennia of attempts by philosophers to understand the nature of the energy and matter. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in an unpleasant era of plagues, witch-burnings, inquisitions, devastating religious wars and civil conflicts, a small number of European philosophers proposed that if we could discover a better method of thinking about the world—a systematic means of discovering truth—we could govern ourselves in a more equitable manner, we could relieve the suffering of disease and hunger and improve the living conditions of many, if not all.

These thinkers postulated, not too many centuries ago, that the human condition could be improved by way of a magical mental operation that had yet to be discovered. In their search for this mind-magic, the founders of modern science drew their hints from the alchemic, hermetic, cabalist magical traditions of the past. The search for meaning in the stars or in the manipulation of magical symbols turned to the search for meaning in matter and the manipulation of mathematical symbols. The heretical thought that humans were perfectible, that we had not yet fully learned the full extent of our mental capabilities, was the most important of the ideas that passed from ancient mystics to the first modern scientists.

A Crisis of Knowledge

Science and technology seem to have trumped metaphysics, but it's important to know that metaphysical inquiry is what triggered the quest that led to science and technology. We take it for granted now, but the premise of this quest was a radically new view of human nature when it emerged, four hundred years ago: Humans are perfectible, are capable of discovering the means of our own perfection, and human institutions thereafter can be improved by perfected people. This was the blueprint for the modern idea of progress, in its original form.

One of the reasons technology's shadow side is more or less invisible is because progress has been such a winner. The seekers found their grail, and it proved to be as potent as the alchemic philosopher's stone had promised to be. Introducing rationalism into human affairs and scientific enterprise was a noble vision, with many successes. A great deal of human misery has been relieved because those European thinkers began concocting this notion of perpetual discovery, perpetual change, perpetual improvement—and inventing tools for bringing about this transformation of the human condition.

At the end of the twentieth century, it is easy to see that technological progress based on systematically gathered scientific knowledge, coupled with industrial capitalism (or socialism, for that matter), requires continuous growth, damages the environment that supports life, diminishes both biological and social diversity, elicits alienation and social pathologies, and everywhere seems to move us toward societies in which humans learn how to be components in larger social machines. No matter how convenient it makes life for billions, this process of extracting resources, expanding power, and stimulating perpetual growth in energy consumption seems to be headed for ecological, political, economic catastrophe within the next few decades, at most.

Although our present crisis is so threatening precisely because it plays out on the physical plane, it is a crisis of knowledge. We lack a crucial mental skill. Or perhaps it is a crucial noetic skill—a way of knowing and being that is not necessarily designed by the thinking, analytic frame of mind, but which grows from a different realm of consciousness. I contend that our position today regarding the way we make decisions about technologies is similar to the dilemma that pre-Enlightenment scientists faced in the sixteenth century. We simply don't have a good method for thinking and making decisions about how to apply (and not apply) the powerful tools of rationality, the scientific method, reductionism, the combination of logic and efficiency embodied by technology.
That we don't now know how to think and make decisions about technology doesn't mean we are incapable of discovering a "new method" for thinking about technology. If ever our species needed thinkers of the caliber of Descartes and Newton, it is now. But first we need to think about a new way to think about technology.

Perhaps the answer is not in the realm of "problem -> solution." Perhaps we need to think/feel outside that frame.

Learning New Technology

While Willis and I were writing Higher Creativity, one of the board members bought the institute a personal computer. It came with a Diablo Impact printer that sounded like a machine gun. The institute was leasing a big house overlooking San Francisco Bay. In the basement was a built-in redwood hot tub. We never used the tub, so it was dry. It smelled like redwood. That's where we put the new computer. I put on my Walkman earphones, itself new technology at that time, climbed down the ladder into the hot tub pit, and sat myself in front of the computer screen, feeling futuristic.

Word processing didn't just save me the effort of retyping my revised drafts over and over again—retyping drafts over and over again is an excellent writing exercise, but by 1982, after ten years, I had learned enough from the typing part of it. WordStar, with its clumsy user interface, was my first experience of the computer as a mind-amplifier. It took me another fifteen years to even notice how quickly I had been sucked into spending most of my working day sitting in front of a computer, increasingly engaged with the things computers were making possible.

My trains of thought were no longer limited to the linear requirements of type on paper. Compositional experiments that simply were too much trouble to attempt in typewriter days became possible: Looking at different alternative words or sentences or paragraphs, moving blocks of text around, toggling back and forth between versions of a phrase had not been possible with a typewriter. Word processing doesn't make you any more intelligent or creative than you already are, but it makes it easier to play with words and ideas. If you aren't a decent writer, this tool is only going to augment your typing, and might even muddle your writing by making it easier for you to mess with it without knowing what you're doing. If you do have some grasp of the craft of writing, however, a word processor is like a power saw to a carpenter. You can do things with this new tool you weren't able to do without it.

Around the time I finished working on Higher Creativity I read an article in an old Scientific American on "Microelectronics and the Personal Computer" by Alan Kay. His vision of a "Dynabook" of the future captured my imagination, and so did the place he worked at the time he wrote that article, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, also known as "PARC."
What could possibly be better than a mind amplifier? Answer: an R&D thinktank dedicated to creating mind amplifiers. If they didn't need writers, I was determined to convince them that they did. I started calling around, asking if anybody knew anybody who worked at PARC. I called their publication office.

With my interest (growing into an obsession) in the use of computers to amplify thinking, communicating, and creative work in general, I would have paid to be allowed to wander through Xerox PARC when I discovered it in 1983. I talked them into hiring me to help their scientists write articles for publication. Every week or so, I'd get a call to help someone write. These were very smart people who knew their stuff, and either didn't have time or didn't like to write, or were simply gifted procrastinators. I came in, asked them to explain what they were doing, and turned the transcript into a draft, with the help of whatever written materials they gave me. Then we'd meet again and the scientists would tell me what was wrong with the draft.

The best part of the PARC gig was the privilege of using an Alto computer to research and compose my articles. With its custom-built microprocessors, large bit-mapped screen (about six times larger than the first Macintosh screen), two-button mouse, icons, windows, point-and-click interface, the Alto was exactly what I knew a computer could be—and Xerox researchers had been using them for years! Each Alto was connected with the PARC Ethernet (local-area networks were another PARC invention) and gatewayed to the ARPAnet. At that time, it was also the only place in the world you could print your hardcopy on a laser printer (another PARC invention). I drove forty-five minutes each way from San Francisco, just to be able to work on an Alto.

The tale of teenagers in garages creating an industry was a great story. But there was an equally interesting and in some ways more profound story of the mavericks who swam against the mainstream of mainframe computer science and created personal computing. These people were on a crusade, and the goal was not to make a fortune, but to change the way the world accomplished intellectual work, starting with themselves.

The deepest roots of the PC lay in an institution that no longer existed, Doug Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute. Engelbart had been a colleague of Willis Harman when the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International, opened in the late 1950s. Engelbart was still pursuing his dream of mind-amplifying media. My curiosity led me to interview him, and the interview turned a key and unlocked something that has taken a long time to develop. I'm still tingling from my encounter with the ideals he inspired the day I met him, fifteen years ago. I've never encountered, and doubt whether I will ever find again, a person in pursuit of such a broad vision of the way the world ought to be, and in possession of such incredible tenacity in that pursuit.
In 1950, when there were only a few digital computers in the world, and television was a brand-new medium, Doug Engelbart conceived of a mind-amplifying device that would help the human race navigate the complexities of the future by representing information on TV screens and storing that information in a hypertext network. When I met him in 1983, Engelbart had been pursuing that idea for more than three decades.

While driving through the fruit orchards of the Santa Clara Valley, circa 1950, on his way to work as an electrical engineer at Ames Aviation (now NASA's research center), Engelbart began to think about ways he could use his life to help the human race survive the explosive growth of technology he was helping create.

In 1962, Engelbart published his epochal paper, "Augmenting Human Intellect," about a tool-using tool that would involve more than just hardware and software: New ways of thinking, working, communicating, and new languages to represent these new mind-tools would be required, as well as new training methods and organizational systems to manage their use as part of scientific, educational, industrial enterprises. Like the Enlightenment philosophers, Engelbart was looking at a whole new way of using our minds, our language, our institutions. He saw that new electronic tools with symbol-manipulating capacity furnished great opportunities for intellectual leverage, but above all he understood that these tools would necessarily be part of a profound systemic change.

It became clear to me that the world didn't know that personal computers were invented by stubborn visionaries like Engelbart, and not by the computer industry or computer science orthodoxy. After talking to Engelbart, Alan Kay, and others who had been involved in "interactive computing" since the 1960s, I understood that this tool was the work of people who deliberately sought to extend the powers of intellect and communication. In contrast to the priesthood of the mainframe era, the ARPA programmers were revolutionary. They knew that access to computing resources could empower entire populations to think and communicate in new ways. So I wrote Tools for Thought to tell that story.

Over the past fifteen years, personal computer hardware, software, and ways of doing intellectual work have evolved far beyond the Alto. In 1984, I got my hands on a Macintosh and started playing with MacPaint. In MacPaint is a tool—"Fat Bits"—that enables you to zoom in on a graphic and turn on and off the individual pixels that make up the details of a bit-mapped image.

FatBits was a kind of trance. Hours would go by, and I could keep my consciousness focused at the pixel level. It was a variety of abstraction exercise. My consciousness began to change. The Gutenberg trance began to change into another one. In some ways, the changes were instantaneous; in other ways, the changes took years. Yes, the screen became a kind of reality, an extension of my mind. I started spending most of the day there. And as I learned to use it, I learned to exercise my cognitive faculties in ways that took advantage of the screen-mind trance. Abstraction requires a certain amount of somnambulism: Forget about all the detailed underpinnings, once you've clumped them into an abstraction; continually strive to change your focus to the next level of abstraction, where you can clump abstractions together to create the even higher levels. It's a breathtaking game, but you have to remember you're playing it, or you run the risk of forfeiting part of your humanity.

It took years for me to understand the outlines of the problem, and see that the problems of technology in which I began to suspect I shared complicity were inseparable from the powers granted me by my mastery of personal computers and online media. I still use and appreciate the same tools, but I was definitely more intoxicated back then with the sheer pace of change. A new world was emerging and it was fun, empowering, enriching, and, most of all, cool.

Enter Virtual Reality

When I wasn't hanging out online or writing about hanging out online, I maintained a professional interest in the evolution of computer technology. In 1990, I traveled from MIT and NASA to laboratories in Tokyo, London, and Grenoble in order to research a book about a new computer technology that was threatening to create totally artificial worlds for people to pretend to inhabit: virtual reality. First, the computer came out of nowhere to dominate our lives. It looked like the next step might be for people to live inside the computer. In the process of writing my book Virtual Reality, and in my reading of the book's reviews,

I began to wonder whether the ultimate direction of personal computer development would really be the empowering mind amplification I had hoped for, or whether it might instead devolve into hypnotic "disinfotainment." When someone can make a business out of selling everyone in the world a tool for telling them what else to buy next, do other potential applications for any new medium have a chance to compete?

At the time I was writing about virtual reality, I received an invitation from Kevin Kelly, who is now the executive editor of Wired magazine, but was at that time the editor of Whole Earth Review. I took over the job of editor of Whole Earth when Kelly took off to write his book Out of Control. Finding myself at the vortex of the Whole Earth community certainly accelerated my critical thinking about technology. And I was immersed in an atmosphere that deliberately widened its focus from just the details of digital technology to include the biosphere, and technologies of agriculture, energy, transportation, medicine, urban planning.

Stewart Brand, the founder of the magazine, and the Whole Earth Catalog—the counterculture bestseller that the magazine descended from—was a biologist who shared my fascination with mind amplifiers. Indeed, when Doug Engelbart produced his famous 1968 demonstration of the future of computer technology, his audio-visual coordinator was Stewart Brand. And Brand's early writings about Xerox PARC helped steer me there, although I didn't meet him for years to come. Brand's mentors, Ken Kesey and Gregory Bateson, were iconoclasts, pranksters, and whole-systems thinkers. Putting deep ecologists together with software engineers and questioning the fundamental premises of both camps was just the kind of thing Stewart Brand or Whole Earth would do.

World Wide Web

As soon as I finished editing The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, the latest version of the decades-long succession of WECs, the World Wide Web came along, and I got sucked into a fascination within a fascination that consumed the next several years of my life. In the summer of 1994 I left Whole Earth and joined a young publishing enterprise, Wired Ventures, the publishers of Wired magazine. Kevin Kelly, ever my Mephistopheles, invited me to talk to Wired about starting an online version—HotWired, the first commercial webzine. I quit my job as HotWired's executive editor because I wanted something more collaborative, a community rather than a publication. So I created a business plan, searched for and found $2 million in financing, launched Electric Minds, named by Time magazine as one of the ten best websites of 1996, lost financing when our backers found themselves in trouble, and folded the business in the summer of 1997.

In 1998, I teamed up with a company that turns cable television franchises into high-speed Internet service providers—I'm going to put to the test the notion that many-to-many communication media can help people build healthy local communities of the non-virtual kind.

In retrospect, my career over the last fifteen years has been an unplanned curriculum in self-taught technology criticism, from the Institute of Noetic Sciences to Xerox PARC to Whole Earth to Wired, from Higher Creativity to Tools for Thought to Virtual Reality to The Virtual Community to The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog to HotWired to first-hand participation in the creation, rise, and fall of an Internet startup, to direct work in civic community-building.

Along the way, I continued to examine and re-examine my own notions of progress, and I came to understand that there is an important relationship between the self-limitations Willis Harman and I wrote about in Higher Creativity and the taboos that now seem to surround the idea that we can think about technologies in new ways.

Right now, I think the first struggle is to get more than a tiny minority of people to recognize it is important to try to think together, as a civilization, about where technology came from, where it's going to, and how to have a say in what happens next.

And we need to think together in new ways, beyond what we currently know as "thinking together," just as humans had to reorganize our worldviews, our social relationships and our physical surroundings when agriculture catapulted us into the dizzy acceleration of the last ten thousand years. It comes back to questions of consciousness, questions of where the limits to human capability really lie, and how we can learn to perceive, grasp, and reshape the trance our civilization induces in us. The new consciousness must link self and world, consciousness and technology, the interior life of the spirit and the spirit's exteriorization in human activity in a way that engineers, artists, philosophers, healers, scholars, mystics, gardeners, shamans, activists, poets, scientists can all contribute to, and learn from. Just as nature is not out there, beyond our skin, but the matrix from which consciousness emerges, technology is not out there, outside of what it means to be human. To come to terms with who we are, we must come to terms with our compulsion to create.

Howard Rheingold is the author of The Virtual Community (HarperCollins, 1994), Virtual Reality (Touchstone, 1993), Tools for Thought (Simon & Schuster, 1985), and, with Willis Harman, Higher Creativity (Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, 1984). He was editor of Whole Earth Review, and founding editor of the online magazine HotWired. His website address is


by alyce santoro

As the “advanced” nations of the world sink deeper into financial, ecological, and moral bankruptcy, a growing contingent of the global population refuses to stand idly by while our collective future is carelessly gambled away by a rapacious few. With the aid of the internet we are tangibly connected across borders and oceans, banding together and supporting one another in droves, pooling resources, knowledge, and skills to build a do-it-ourselves grassroots revolution of a kind the world has never known. This is not a war - the Indignados and the Occupiers are not after blood – we are fighting to have our voices heard, to have our concerns and ideas considered, and to have the freedom to participate in building the kind of society we envision. It is becoming clear that many around the world share a common outrage: we are no longer willing to tolerate systems of governance that represent the wealthiest few at the expense of the many.

In Chapter 14 of his book PERMACULTURE: A Designer’s Manual Bill Mollison offers a brilliant, concise outline of “Strategies for an Alternative Nation”.  Mollison, who together with David Holmgren coined the term “permaculture” to describe a holistic approach to cultivating healthy ecosystems and societies, begins the chapter by suggesting that a stable nation is formed when members share a basic set of ethical values, such as willingness to strive together towards “an harmonious world community”.

While this may at first seem like an ambitious objective, there are practical steps that can be taken in an earnest effort to arrive at a common ethos, beginning with reconsidering our rolls as individuals and citizens in an increasingly globalized society.

Practically from birth, we are taught to compartmentalize: we learn that we are separate from our parents, our siblings, our classmates. We learn that we are separate from those with other beliefs, nationalities, or skin pigmentation, and sometimes we acquire hostilities toward those we deem different from ourselves. Rather than learning to focus on our inherent similarities and accepting any apparent differences as superficial, so often we are led to believe just the opposite. As we become alienated from our environment and fellow creatures, we also become divorced from a sense of responsibility to participate in taking care of the world around us. When we stop caring, we relinquish the power to make decisions about our needs to whatever entity thinks it knows best.

Fortunately it is quite easy to discover that we are not, in fact, autonomous agents – our actions have very tangible effects ­– well into the future ­– on everything and everyone with whom we interact. By suspending the tendency to separate and polarize, we can begin to see connections not only between individuals, disciplines, and philosophies; we also begin to see the way our beliefs, thoughts, actions, and decisions shape our world.

Who is to say what beliefs, thoughts, actions, and decisions are the right ones for an entire society? This brings us to the precarious question of freedom, that crucial thing that so many on all sides of the political spectrum claim to understand best, and feel is being impinged. Some define freedom as the ability to act in any way one chooses, so long as that action does not do harm to another. But in order to settle on this definition we must first discuss “harm”, and decide how much harm is acceptable, not only to other people, but from the perspective of permaculture, we must also take into account harm to the planet.

In thinking about our definition of freedom, we may agree that, while we must be free to think in any way we choose, certain actions are more likely to lead to greater harm than others. We may also determine that some of our desires stem less from true inner longings and more from external persuasion, often from a commercial entity that has something to gain by capturing our attention.
By asking ourselves a few questions, we can begin to open a dialog on how to build a free society that also has a common ethical basis. The Iroquois Nation People, for example, have long engaged a rule of thumb: what effect will my present actions have on the “seventh generation” ­– approximately 100 years into the future? How would our behavior change if we were to routinely ask ourselves similar questions, such as who will be affected by my choices and how? Is there a more positive, constructive, efficient course of action? If I have plenty and my neighbor is starving, which will provide me with a greater sense of security and well-being: sharing or hoarding?

There are no singular, hard-and-fast “right” answers to any of these questions – rather, it is the process of honestly addressing them that has the potential to reveal the truly subtle, complex, and powerful ways in which we are connected to our communities and our culture. By allowing ourselves to think in less linear, literal, rigid ways and by instead cultivating forms of thought and dialog that are more encompassing, cyclical, and even accepting of contradiction and paradox, we may discover new ways to relate and cooperate with forces once seen as opposing.

This proposed method of discussion stands in stark contrast to the more common form of debate in which participants attempt to “win” at all costs, often by employing emotional persuasion (rhetoric) rather than reasoned argument. Instead of aiming to overpower an opponent, those engaged in discussion based on dialectical methods agree at the outset that there may be more than one answer to a problem, and that all answers may lead to more questions, allowing for open-ended, continuously-evolving perspectives.

Willing members of a collective democracy agree to participate in creating an harmonious world community, each in his or her own unique way, beginning with the state of his or her own immediate situation. What this means, and where we go from here, is up to us.

Published in, August 14, 2012