Thanks for the (community) memory

“There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop!”

Thus spoke1 Mario Savio, student and hero of the nascent Free Speech Movement, as he stood on the steps of Sproul Hall, at the University of California Berkeley on December 2, 1964. The Sproul Hall Sit-In, which had been instigated in support for a racial equality event across the country in Washington DC, had already lasted for weeks. After a wave of rapturous applause for Mario’s speech, folk singer and activist Joan Baez stood up and sang "All My Trials”, "Blowing in the Wind" and "We Shall Overcome.”

All, it has to be said, much to the disdain of the onlooking authorities. Over seven hundred people were arrested on that seminal day, one of whom was electrical engineering student and fan2 of Heinlein’s post-apocalyptic, empire-busting science fiction, Lee Felsenstein. As it happened, Lee had just been advised to resign from his job working for NASA at Edwards Airforce base in the Mojave desert, the semi-coercion due in large part to the discomfort caused by his previous civil rights activities, such as participating3 in the 1963 Philadelphia march on Washington. “I had to make a choice,” he wrote4 of his participation at the sit-in. “Was I a scared kid who wanted to be safe at all costs? Or was I a person who had principles and was willing to take a risk to follow them? It was like that moment in Huckleberry Finn when Huck says, ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’”

Lee went on to be a computer engineer, but his experiences as a political activist continued to guide his work. He was particularly influenced by the anti-industrial writings of Austrian-born Ivan Illich, who wrote on the nature of machines to hold ordinary people in a state of servitude5: “For a hundred years we have tried to make machines work for men and to school men for life in their service. Now it turns out that machines do not "work" and that people cannot be schooled for a life at the service of machines. The hypothesis on which the experiment was built must now be discarded. The hypothesis was that machines can replace slaves. The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men.”

The alternative, as Lee and his commune-inspired peers saw it, was to design and use computers in ways that met the needs of the collective entity we call humanity. On this basis, in 19736 Lee and a handful of like minds founded the counterculture7 group Loving Grace Cybernetics. The group, named after a poem8 by Richard Brautigan, posited a very different relationship between man and machine, “Where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony.” In practical terms, the group’s vision was that computer terminals should, and could be made publicly available, for example situated in libraries and shops, and thus rendered accessible to all. Having set themselves the task of delivering on this nirvana, Lee and his colleagues set to work. The resulting project may appear mundane by today’s standards, but at the time was nothing short of revolutionary. Known as Community Memory, it involved two ASR-33 teletype (think: typewriter) terminals, situated in a record shop. These were linked to a huge XDS-940 computer installed in a warehouse downtown, which Lee also happened to be managing on behalf of another collective (known as Resource One).

The ability for ordinary people to send messages to each other at a distance was groundbreaking. The spirit of the times are captured in a message from one of the group’s main characters, known only as Benway9. Surely there can be no better place to chew Johimbe bark, than out the back of Jody’s all-night pet shop…


When it became clear that the Community Memory teletypes were not going to be flexible enough for broader use, it was on the same, fundamental principles of post-industrial emancipation that Lee started to design computer terminals he hoped might one day replace them. Named after the then-famous fictional teenage inventor, the Tom Swift terminal was designed and built in a spirit10 of low cost, open-ness and expansibility. “Subordination of man to machine signifies a potentially disastrous tendency of technological development,” Lee wrote directly in the design specification. Not only this but he incorporated one of the first documented uses of the term ‘open’ in modern computing: “This device… is “open ended” with expandability possible in several dimensions… its operation is “in the open", with a minimum of 'black box' components.”

The Community Memory project lasted only a year, but it served as ample demonstration of how people could use computers not just to run computational algorithms, but to facilitate communication and collaboration at a distance. In doing so, within the context of peace and love in which it took place, the project laid the philosophical foundations for many of the tools, and in particular the spirit of idealistic open-ness, that we see across today’s digitally enabled world. As technology historian Patrice Filchy wrote11, the project was “A utopia embodied in fledgling techniques in the mid-1970s on the fringes of the university world. This utopia combined two projects: an individual computer for all — the project for Apple and many others — and a communication network among equals.” And once this spirit had been created, it would — or indeed could — not be taken away.

Lee’s story doesn’t finish there. Based on his experiences with Community Memory, he went on to become an original member of the Homebrew Computer Club. Formed in 1975, the collective of maverick technologists boasted such members as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak12 and John Draper, a.k.a. the notorious telephone hacker, Captain Crunch. The club was founded by peace activist Fred Moore, who had himself staged a fast on the steps of Sproul Hall back in 195913, long before the notion of student protest had become popular. The notion of the techno-collective was a driving force in its creation, as Lee himself said, “In order to survive in a public-access environment, a computer must grow a computer club around itself.” In other words, for innovation to grow and serve the broader community, it needs an impetus that only those outside the establishment can provide.

This relationship between computers and community-driven, socially minded connectivity has run in parallel with the engineering innovations of the computer revolution. From using software distribution mechanisms such as Unix-to-Unix Copy (UUCP14) as a social channel back in 1978, people have often turned innocuous software tools into collaboration mechanisms. In parallel with the creation of messaging systems for military use (the first email sent by the US Defencse Department’s ARPANET was back in 197115), communitarians have explored ways to use technological mechanisms as ‘social channels’: the advent of dial-up bulletin boards, email, news and ‘chat’ protocols have all been used to get the message through. This has been to the continued concern of the authorities, sometimes with reason as they have harboured some of the less salubrious elements of human culture, but other times simply to suppress debate.

Similarly, each generation appears to have needed its counter-corporate collective. The 1980’s saw the creation of the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (The WELL16) bulletin board system – its name derived from an eco-friendly mail order catalog set up in 1968 by one of Lee Felsenstein’s contemporaries, Stewart Brand. It is no coincidence that personal computing, typefied by Intel’s x86 processor range, the Apple II computer and IBM PC, was at the time breaking through a threshold of both processor power and cost, putting computer equipment into the homes of many. Thanks to general advances in electronics, Modems reached a point of affordability at around the same point. Connected computers were nonetheless still a home brew affair, with instruction sheets often little more than a poor photocopy. Indeed, given that much advice was available ‘online’ — for example from bulletin boards — it made for a certain amount of bootstrapping, with people first learning the basics from friends before having enough knowledge to connect to more detailed sources of . While communications were rudimentary, the resulting set-up enabled a much wider pool of people — largely geeks — to communicate with each other. As computers and modems became affordable, so did the Community Memory vision.

By the late 1980’s the social genie was well and truly out of its bottle. The Internet had expanded way beyond its military industrial complex beginnings and out of academia, bringing with it email lists and simple forums. For the authorities however, the consequence was a series of ham-fisted law enforcement incidents, driven by concern but coupled with a lack of understanding of what technology brought to the world. One victim was WELL member John Barlow (also a lyricist for the Grateful Dead), who coined the term ’electronic frontier’ to describe the relationship between old thinking and what he saw as a brave new world. In May 1990 Barlow was interviewed by Agent Baxter of the FBI, about the alleged theft (by someone under the name of NuPrometheus) of some source code from the Apple ROM chip. “Poor Agent Baxter didn't know a ROM chip from a Vise-grip when he arrived, so much of that time was spent trying to educate him on the nature of the thing which had been stolen. Or whether "stolen" was the right term for what had happened to it,” said Barlow. “You know things have rather jumped the groove when potential suspects must explain to law enforcers the nature of their alleged perpetrations.”

The following month Barlow co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF17) with Mitch Kapor, previously president of Lotus Development Corporation, who had contacted him with some concern about his experiences. Kapor literally dropped by on his private jet, explains Barlow: “A man who places great emphasis on face-to-face contact, he wanted to discuss this issue with me in person.” To the pair, the situation was very, very serious indeed: in what amounted to his manifesto, Barlow cited18 the words of Martin Neimoeller about Nazi Germany, “Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

And so the pattern of collectives representing the little guy continued to grow throughout the 1990’s and into the new millennium. In recent memory we have seen the creation of the World Wide Web with its own online forums, then Web 2.0 - the interactive Web with the kinds of social tools we now see as standard — blogs, then wikis, then microblogging and social networking. Some might say that Google, Facebook and Twitter have become mass market tools, themselves the corporate face of interactive technology, social shopping malls funded by brands and occupied by our consumer personas; that the Community Memory vision has been realised, albeit accepting that it is in large part controlled by corporate interests. Numerous recent events suggest that the use of technology cannot be contained by any institution, however. From the use19 of the encrypted Blackberry Messenger tool in the UK riots, to Twitter’s role20 in the Arab Spring, the use of technology to communicate without authoritarian interference is alive and well. To echo a line from New York Times journalist John ‘Scoop’ Markoff21, “A small anarchic community of wireheads and hackers made the mistake of giving fire to the masses. Nobody is going to give it back.”

Of course the potential exists to use any communication technique to ill effect — whereas an individual might once require a face to face meeting to commit fraud (or far, far worse), they can now do so remotely, to far greater effect. Equally however, many believe however that such incidents are used as a precursor for governments looking for control. In 2014 for example, the Ukrainian authorities sent scaremongering SMS texts22 to people near a demonstration in Kiev: "Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass riot,” the message read, much to the consternation of both recipients and telecommunications companies. And even with the revelations coming from whistleblowers such as Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, the debate between the authorities and the people continues to rage on the rights, wrongs and downright complications of allowing governments to have back doors into encrypted communications.

What such attitudes fail to take into account is that it would be as easy to lock away the sea. Online communities continue to thrive — today websites like 4chan and Reddit continue to thrive, the latter no stranger to controversy23 as it looks to strike a balance between free speech and community rules. Meanwhile maverick, ‘hacktivist’ groups such as Anonymous continue to work outside24 existing legal frameworks around use of technology for collaboration, such as they are, acting very much as the inheritors of a mantle created some fifty years ago. Taking matters even further, and perhaps the most underground of all movements is the Dark Web25, an alternative, encrypted Internet occupied by drug pushers, hitmen, file sharers and, indeed, civil rights activists. The Dark Web is only accessible accessed via anonymisation mechanisms such as The Onion Router. Not ironically, the service known as TOR was itself created in the 1990’s for military use, at the United States Naval Research Laboratory. When the code was released for general use in 2004, it was Barlow and Kapor’s EFF that provided continued funding. And of course, the US and other governments continue to explore ways of monitoring26 the population of the TOR-enabled underbelly of the Web.

Just as necessity is the mother of invention, so government interventions appear to drive technology innovations. And equally, just as so often in the past governments will continue, rightly, to look to control criminal activity, but are in danger of suppressing free speech in the process. While this debate will run and run, the dialogue between innovation and community looks like it will continue into the future. Indeed, as we shall discuss, it becomes more than a mainstay of the future: it is the future of technology and our role in it.

We shall return to these topics. But first let us consider another consequence of the digital revolution: mountains, and mountains, and mountains of data.