Hidden Networks and False Promises

By the middle of the 1980s, the banks were rising up and becoming ever more powerful in America. 10 years before in New York, the idea that the financial system could run society began to spread, but unlike older systems, it was mostly invisible. A writer called William Gibson tried to dramatize what was happening in a powerful, imaginative way by writing a series of novels.

Gibson had noticed how the banks and the growing dominance of mega corporations were beginning to link themselves together through computer systems. What they were creating was a series of giant networks of information, which were invisible to ordinary people and most importantly, to the politicians. But those networks gave the corporations extraordinary new powers of control.

Gibson gave this new world a name. He called it Cyberspace. And his novels gave a description of a dangerous and frightening future. Hackers could literally enter into cyberspace and travel through systems that were powerful. So powerful that they could reach out and crush intruders by destroying their very minds.

In cyberspace, there were no laws and no politicians to protect you, just raw, brutal corporate power.
But then, a strange thing happened. A new group of visionaries in America took Gibson’s idea of a hidden, secret world, and transformed it into something completely different. They turned it into a dream of a new utopia.

They were the technological utopians who were rising up on the west coast of America. They turned Gibson’s idea on its head. Instead of cyberspace being a frightening place, dominated by powerful corporations, they reinvented it as the very opposite. A new, safe world, where radical dreams could come true. 10 years before, faced by the complexity of real politics, the radicals had given up on the idea of changing the world. But now, the computer utopians saw in cyberspace an alternative reality, a place where they could retreat. Away from the harsh politics that now dominated Reagan’s America.

Many of those who had taken LSD in the 60s, were convinced it was more than just another drug. That it opened human perception. And allowed people to see new realities, normally hidden from view. It freed them from the narrow, limited view of the world that was imposed onto them by politicians and those in power. The roots of this vision lay back in the counter-culture of the 1960s and above all, with LSD.

20 years later, the new networks of machines seem to offer a way to construct a real, alternate reality. Not just one that was chemically induced, but a space that actually existed in a parallel dimension to the real world.

And, like with acid, Cyberspace could be a place where you would be liberated from the old corrupt hierarchies of politics and power, and explore new ways of being. One of the leading exponents of this idea, was called John Perry Barlow. In the sixties, he had written songs for the grateful dead, and had been a part of the acid counterculture. He then began to organize what he called Cyberthon to try and bring to life the cyberspace movement.

Barlow then wrote a manifesto that he called the declaration of independence of cyberspace. It was addressed to all politicians, telling them to keep out of this new world. It was going to be incredibly influential, because what Barlow did, was give a powerful picture of the world, not as a network controlled by giant corporations, but instead as a kind of magical, free place. An alternative to the old systems of power. It was this vision that would come to dominate the internet over the next 20 years.

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