Outtake from "The Next Wave: Liberation Technology," from The Chronicle of Higher Education's Chronicle Review, January 30, 2004.
The internet developed out of Paul Baran's RAND Corporation study "On Distributed Communications,"[i] commissioned by the Air Force, which was looking for a communications network that could survive a nuclear attack. Baran is the father of packet-switching, the core innovation that enabled what we now call the internet. Not only communication, but also control was of interest to the military and to intelligence agencies, and RAND also did considerable research into mind-altering substances and mind-control. To take just one example, at about the same time that Baran was doing his work on distributed communications, a RAND colleague, William McGlothlin, published a study called "Long-lasting Effects of LSD on Certain Attitudes in Normals."[ii] It was in the latter line of research that the CIA and the military first introduced LSD to America, in the 1950s, in experiments in which the drug was administered to (often unwitting) subjects. Ken Kesey had his first LSD as a volunteer for such a study, at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, in 1960. Through some of the same channels, the military and intelligence agencies also funded much of early (American) research into cybernetics (the science of "control and communication in the animal and the machine," as Norbert Weiner defined it in his seminal 1948 book on the subject). In the early 1950s, Weiner and others formed the Cybernetics Group, out of which came some of the fundamental building blocks of modern computing and networking--John von Neumann's stored computer program, Claude Shannon's information theory and, in general, much important work on self-regulating systems.[iii]
Fast-forward to the 1980s. The internet is still a pretty quiet place: it doesn't break 1,000 hosts until 1984. Even at this early stage in its development, though, it is clearly being used much more for informal communication than for its ostensible purpose of time-sharing remote and expensive research computing resources.[iv] An early outpost of informal electronic community was the WELL (the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, still extant, at http://www.well.com/), founded in Sausalito in 1985 by Stewart Brand, who had been one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, back in the 1960s. Brand probably coined and certainly first published the aphorism "information wants to be free,"[v] in 1987. In 1966, he organized the three-day (acid) Trips Festival in January, 1966, featuring Kesey, the Pranksters, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Open Theater. In 1968, he became founding editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, in which he popularized the idea of "whole systems"--a term he used interchangeably with "cybernetics." Then along came the internet, and the WELL. Out of the WELL came John Perry Barlow (lyricist for the Grateful Dead, later author of "The Economy of Ideas"[vi]) and Mitch Kapor (of whom more below): together, they founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org) in 1990, in response to police tactics in the arrest and prosecution of alleged hackers, and more generally, to defend civil liberties in cyberspace. Board members of the EFF included Stewart Brand, for some years, and later, Pamela Samuelson and Lawrence Lessig, among other digerati.
[ii] RAND Report P-2575, later published in the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, vol. 3, 20-31.
[iii] For more on the very interesting early history of cybernetics, see Heims, Steve J. The Cybernetics Group. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991, and also Andrew Pickering, "Cybernetics and the Mangle: Ashby, Beer and Pask" (a paper written for a colloquium held at the Centre Koyrˆ© in Paris in May 2000, which will appear in French translation in A. Dahan and D. Pestre (eds), La reconfiguration des sciences pour l’Äôaction dans les annˆ©es 1950 (Paris: Presses de l’ÄôEHESS. Available online, in English, at http://www.soc.uiuc.edu/CVPubs/pickerin/cybernetics.pdf
[iv] L. Kleinrock and W. Naylor. "On measured behavior of the ARPA network." In AFIS Proceedings, 1974 National Computer Conference, volume 43, pages 767--780. John Wiley Sons, 1974.
[v] Brand, Stewart. The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. New York: Viking, 1987. 202.
[vi] originally published in Wired 2.3 in March, 1994. Available on the Web at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.03/economy.ideas.html