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IM930 Futures Past: Sixties Counterculture and the Origins of the Digital Revolution

20/30 CATS - (10/15 ECTS)

Computer networks, devices, and infrastructures structure and facilitate much of our social, political and cultural life.

This module focuses on the turbulent politics of the ‘long 1960s’ with the aim of introducing students to how radicals and rebels during those years saw small-scale distributed network technologies as tools to reforge the public sphere, and to initiate a move away from the perceived authoritarian patterns operating within mass media societies. Students will be introduced to the interdisciplinary debates between sociologists, anthropologists, cybernetic theorists and computational scientists that fuelled post-war investigations into mass communications technologies. With this foundation, they will explore how these ideas translated into the techno-counterculture of Sixties America by examining the radical underground press, public access cable movement and the early computer hobbyist scenes. In this way, students will become familiarized with how interdisciplinary knowledge informed bedrock conceptions of digital culture, and will think historically about how once provisional and speculative knowledge has become part of our commonsense rendering of the present.

Module Convenor

Dr Keir Wotherspoon

Indicative Syllabus

Week 1: Tools for Assessing the Past and Present: Histories and Genealogies
Week 2: Locating the Californian Ideology
Week 3: Prototyping and Prefiguring the Revolution
Week 4: Surface Web, Deep Web
Week 5: Altered States and Subjectivities


Week 7: Mass Media and Mass Movements
Week 8: Making Silicon Valley Work: The Gift Economy and Network Entrepreneurialism
Week 9: Citizen Participation and Genealogies of Radical Media
Week 10: From Watergate to Wikileaks: Genealogies of Hacker Culture and Network Surveillance

Illustrative Bibliography:

Barbrook, Richard and Andy Cameron. “The Californian Ideology.” In The Internet Revolution: From Dot-
com Capitalism to Cybernetic Revolution, edited by Richard Barbrook, 12 - 27. Amsterdam: Institute
of Network Cultures, 2015.

Boyle, Deidre. “Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited.” Art Journal (Fall 1985): 228-232.

Edwards, Paul N. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

Ensmenger, Nathan. “‘Beards, Sandals, and Other Signs of Rugged Individualism’: Masculine Culture within
the Computing Professions.” Osiris 30 no. 1 (2015): 38-65.

Farber, David. “Self-Invention in the Realm of Production: Craft, Beauty, and Community in the American Counterculture 1964–1978.” Pacific Historical Review 85, no. 3 (2016): 408– 442.

Foucault, Michel, “The Order of Discourse.” In Uniting the Text: A Post Structuralist Reader, edited by
Robert Young. London: Routledge, and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Goodman, David. Radio’s Civic Ambition: American Broadcasting and Democracy in the 1930s. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2011.

Heims, Steve. Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America: The Cybernetics Group 1946 – 1953.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Kirk, Andrew G. “Appropriating Technology: The Whole Earth Catalog and Counterculture Environmental
Politics.” Environmental History 6, no. 3 (July 2001): 374-394.

Kittler, Friedrich, Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Stephen Levy. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2010.

Light, Jennifer. From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and the Urban Problem in Cold War
America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. 163-194.

McCarthy, Anna. The Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s America. New York: The New
Press, 2010.

Streeter, Thomas. The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet. New York: New York
University Press, 2011.

Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise
of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Learning Outcomes

The module aims to encourage students to:

  • come to understand the historical forces and figures driving midcentury practice and experiments with new digital method and theory
  • develop critical understanding of historiographical practices and specific debates about the techno-counterculture
  • develop knowledge of post-War communications and cybernetic theory
  • examine vernacular media approaches and prototypical case studies that radicals used to express networked paradigms
  • acquire skills to use digital archives and critically apply genealogies of digital platforms culture to these sources
  • acquire a sophisticated understanding of the translations across old and new media that have informed contemporary platform and network cultures come to see how the counterculture has informed Silicon Valley’s idealism and self-conception

Important Information:

Please be advised that you may be expected to have access to a laptop for some of these courses due to software requirements; the Centre is unable to provide a laptop for external students.

Gaining the permission of a member of CIM teaching staff to take a module does not guarantee a place on that module. Nor does gaining the permission of a member of staff from your home department or filling in the eVision Module Registration (eMR) system with the desired module. You must contact the Centre Administrator ( to request a module place.

Please be advised that some modules may have restricted numbers. Places are not allocated on a first-come first-served basis, but instead all external students requesting a CIM module as optional, who submit their request by the relevant deadline are given equal consideration.

We are normally unable to allow students (registered or auditing) to join the module after the third week of it commencing. If you have any queries please contact the Centre Administrator.