Recent Futures: TAZ, Wired and the Internet

An Early History of 90s Cyberculture

In some funny cultural constellation, during the turn of the decade nineties, Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone was turned into a meme. And as it goes with carefully designed, poetic ideas, they can travel far and will not easily extinguish. One of the channels responsible for the reputation of TAZ was _Mondo 2000_, a cyberpunk upbeat underground paper from San Francisco. The full color magazine was filled with technofashion, drug phantasies, a parade of the latest gadgets, DIY video tips, science fiction, with an occasional theory essay. In retrospect we can say that _Mondo_ paved the way for _Wired_ (starting in 1993), which was more successful in packaging and neutralizing the early, pre-WWW, cybercultures of the US West Coast. TAZ, though, was not very suitable for _Wired_ business protagonists such as Louis Rosetto and Kevin Kelly. It smelled too much like outworn, subcultural strategies of resistance and revolt. The weirdo, luddite, apocalyptic aspect had to be replaced and turned into a productive, optimistic cultural machinery with only one goal: to make money as fast as fast possible. And the Internet and money turned out to be the dominant image, ten years after TAZ and VR. As as fellow New York observer reports: “Making money is now an organizing principle in society in ways that we’ve never seen before, not even in the late twenties or any time in the late 1800s, not even with the famous Dutch ‘tulipomania.’ The pentagon can’t hire good people anymore, business majors are ‘dropping out,’ 11-year-old CEOs being turned away from conventions. A major capital formation, like England in the mid-1800s. Pure ideology, pure bubble, pure investment, pure shattering of traditional institutions.”

Unlike the British model of the culture industries, the boheme is virtually absent in the electronic goldrush stories. The underground is not seen as a productive element. Nor is the intelligentia. Intellectuals, stuck in their book culture, still obsessed with the fading power of discourses, have marginalized themselves into irrelevant pockets of complaints, hobbled by cultural pessimism. This is the age of the enterpreneur as hero. Silicon Valley itself is anything but cool, cwand so is New York’s Silicon Alley or Tokyo’s Bitvalley. There is little to be seen, neither in the local nightlife nor at the actual computer screens. The only remains of a somewhat alternative past are the fifty-something-year-olds wearing beards and sandals, telling stories of their amazing inventions and encounters with other mythic figures back in the seventies. Cyber culture of the late nineties, dominated by venture capital, lacks any face at all. It does not even need to have its own look because its design has been outsourced to advertisement agencies, the news industry (, video games designers (PlayStation) or television (WebTV). Over are the days of web design. Innovation has now shifted from the development of standards and protocols toward business plans and marketing skills. Forget content, attitude, or identity. Today’s motto is: Catch the youngers, squeze the creativity out of them, turn the team into project slavery unil you ship, float–and sell out as soon as you can. The electronic “gold rush” lacks any understanding of aesthetics. There simply isn’t any time, and the mainstream can’t handle experimental interfaces anyway, nor do the (baby) suits, who perhaps like a bit of cool and bright, but are actually more fascinated by spreadsheets and power-pointism.

Even the spirtual aspects of the early cyberculture, also to be found in Bey’s writing, had to stripped of it’s occult freakiness and turned into something positively light and exciting. This can also be said of the entire cyberpunk genre, which became incorporated into the contemporary “the future get fun again” slogan (Wired 8.01). Post-industrial culture, from Survival Research Laboratories to Burning Man, is getting boiled down here to creative thinking–innocent, commodified technotainment. Stripped of all its distrurbing, destructive “dark” elements, the Californian cyberculture in the late nineties has become virtually invisible, marginalized as it was in the mid-eighties, courtesy to the “digitally correct” evangelists. _Wired_ magazine itself, the once “Pravda of the virtual class” had to be sacrified to the irrisistible drive toward the Johnsification of cyberspace. The hybrid Wired empire, with its search engine,, publishing house, station and trails underway for Wired TV, failed a few times to get onto the stock market and, by May 1998, got sold to some average media conglomerate. Perhaps their IPO was too early. We could as well say that the avant-garde of the digeratti has shown us the way most start-up will end up: re-integrated into the safe and the protected environment of corporate America. The revolutions predicted by Toffler, Gilder, and Peters all turned out to be silly daydreams. Particular elements from the libertarian rethorics have been adopted, but most of it is allready forgotten after the fall of the Gingrich gang back in 1997. Though one idea has gotten through: the Internet is the message. With Bozus of being chosen Time Magazine’s Man of the Year 1999, no branch or business can any longer ignore e-commerce and e-business. Why bother about _Wired_’s kiddy dreams of flying cars, tourist trips to Mars, immortality, and other forms of organized optimism? America is making billions on the stock markets, selling out on decade-old ideas, so why not dream away?

Some time soon, all branch and sectors will be hardwired, and all transactions and communications will be Internet-driven. The closing of the American Internet, after the handover of all standards and principles to the AOL, Microsoft, IBMs, MCI/Worldcoms, the CNNs and the Disneys, seems now a God-given fact. Why bother any longer about the future of the Internet? The Internet will soon reach the end of its history (and turn into something else). Time to devote ourselves to other, more urgent, even more exciting topics? _Wired_’s agenda, back in 1993, was to preach and convince the dull and ignorant CEO types about the advantages of the Internet Revolution. Prior to early nineties corporate habit, most computers were used by secretaries and the IT guys, who were the only ones to run and use computer networks. The desktop computers in homes and offices were not connected to each other. The conversion and transmission of data was still a slow and painful process. Early adopters of the Internet were not just seen as hipsters with some lifestyle: they were perceived–correctly–as those possessed with the historical mission to turn new media into a business. This task could not be done without a carefully planned cleansing of cyberculture. The geeks could continue their weird lifestyle for the time being; they were not allowed on stage anyway. Neither were the hackers, of whom most of them had turned into security experts anyway. For a while, theorists, artists and other freelance cultural enterpreneurs played a role in mediating and visualizing this odd new world coming into being. But after a while, this subcultural pool of visionairies was replaced by more down-to-earth online IT journalists and business types. In order to gain wide acceptance, only very few ideas of the original computer culture were allowed to be propagated. Certainly, all notions of the growing social inequality and critiques of the multinational corporations were carefully avoided, if not censored. Yes, the old establishment had to criticized–but only for not being technoshavvy. The lack of understanding of computer networks within corporations and large sectors such as health care, local governments, old media etc. has be capitalized upon. Certain aspects of the late eighties “Californian” mindset had to be cultivated and taken out of their political and cultural context. And this is what happened to Hakim Bey’s notion of TAZ. For many years to come, newcomers on the Internet had to ask themselves at least once the question if this parallel virtual world in the making was a in essence a temporary autonomous zone, where “information wants to be free.” The TAZ phrase was not in fact literally adopted from Hakim Bey. Although he does mention the concept of ‘The Web’ and speaks about the use of computer bulletin board systems, Bey stresses that the “Web” that he envisions does not depend on any computer technology. “The key is not the brand or level of tech involved, but the openness and horizontality of the structure. The TAZ above all desires to avoid mediation, to experience its existence as immediate.”

The festival aspect of TAZ, his emphasis on (data) piracy, the Islands in the Net, the flirt with luddism, all these elements have never played such an important role, expect for the concept of psychic nomadism, which was used to describe the feeling of hours long surfing the Web. The TAZ, as it became operational within the first phase of the hype (1993-96) became attached to a libertarian agenda, to which the anarchist author of TAZ only had loose ties. The image of the Internet as a TAZ attracted a certain type of young and creative content producers who had no secure position within the regular media industry. This diffuse group of early adopters had a strong interest in interface design and understood their historical mission of paving the road, in the hope of cashing in somewhere later on in the process. With no payment systems in place, little bandwidth, and only a tiny audience, the idea of “freedom” was one of the main attractions to get involved. Freedom defined as autonomy switched back and forth between, on the one hand, a post-leftist agenda of social change, criticizing the notions of revolution and its reformist version of the Long March through the institutions (in this case old broadcast media), and, on the other, the hippie outlaw agenda of being left alone by society, the state and its laws. A curious mix between Toni Negri and Ayn Rand, with elements of both J.S. Mill and Kropotkin.

At the turn of the millennium, this particular history of the nineties only seems to provoke feelings of nostalgia for a time when Gibson, Sterling, and Virtual Reality were still secret passwords. The now-contained Internet is here to stay, and will transcend into an amorphic form of allmightiness. As far as autonomy is concerned, the image of www.ghosttowns pups up, abandoned home pages, boring avatars, broken links, switched-off servers, controlled communities, overspammed lists, and newsgroups… The freedom is there, but no one cares, let alone will be able to find the counterinformation through the corrupted portals and search engines. And the zone? The animated debates during the nineties over the nature of virtuality and the ways in which it leaves behind the real have been tempered by the sheer speed and violence of the way in which computer networks are now pervading all aspects of life, including the resistance to global capitalism (see WTO/Seattle, December 1999). We could therefore easily state that TAZ was been boiled down to a late eighties concept for Internet plus rave parties. The restless souls however can easily jump over this tragic reading of the history of ideas, and open other chapters full of yet unkown, unlikely futures.

(edited by t byfield)