Steal This Singularity (The Yippies Started The Digital Revolution)

May. 12, 2023.
9 min. read. . 4

"Steal This Singularity" challenges the dominance of Big Capital and authoritarian states over technology. R.U. Sirius explores how we can embrace uniqueness and originality to thrive alongside AI.

About the Writer

ru sirius

5.7716 MPXR

R.U. Sirius is the former copublisher and editor-in-chief of the 1990s cyberpunk magazine MONDO 2000 and author and coauthor of 11 books including Counterculture Through The Ages. Currently involved in a project building an immersive virtual environment in collaboration with around the theme of his song with MONDO Vanilli and Blag Dahlia titled "I'm Against NFTs".

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

Every fourth one of these Mindplex articles will be an annotated and edited excerpt from my multipart piece titled Steal This Singularity, originally written some time in 2008. This will continue until I get to the end of the piece or the Singularity comes. Annotation is in italics and bold.

Part One

Steal This Singularity

1: The notion that the current and future extreme technological society should not be dominated by Big Capital, Authoritarian States or the combination thereof. Also related, a play on the title of a book by 1960s counterculture radical Abbie Hoffman. Abbie may be an obscure figure to today’s young people. Let’s start to fix that here.

2: The notion that in our robotized future, human beings shouldn’t behave robotically. The response to AI isn’t to blow up or hack down AIs. Become so unique and original that no program, however sophisticated, can perform you. Let AI thrive. You have less clichéd paths to follow!  

A few years ago, I proposed Big Dada as a response to Big Data. Big Data is the corporate/state/organization tool for exploitation and control, and/or for making effective policy for human benefit. (Life’s rich in ambiguity.)

With Big Dada, I suggested confusing the data by liking what you hate; hating what you like; by lying; by engaging serious issues with surrealistic gestures and language and by generally fucking with data’s logic circuits. I didn’t suspect at that time that a power-hungry, orange-faced, grifter-trickster reality show host would capture Big Dada in a sort of chaos-fascism. Clearly, there were bigger, richer Big Dadas to contend with. Who knew?   

The well-rounded posthuman — if any — should be able to wail like a banshee, dance like James Brown, party like Dionysus, revolt like Joan of Arc and illuminate the irrational like Salvador Dalí. Sadly, the ones that aren’t mythological are dead, so a smart-ass immortalist might argue that even being able to wag a finger would be an improvement over the passions or mobility of these three losers. 

3: The title for a website in which R.U. Sirius says and does as he pleases. As it turned out, it pleased me to not do much with that website.  

The Singularity is, of course, conceived of as the time at which the artificial intelligences that we create become smarter than us. And then it makes itself even smarter and smarter still and yet smarter again and so forth… at an ever-accelerating pace until it becomes incomprehensibly something other to our wormy little minds.

I have to be honest. I’m not sure how seriously to take this. But ‘Steal This Singularity’ has much more of a ring to it than ‘Steal This Future’ or ‘Steal This Transhumanity’. Good sloganeering is intellectually disreputable… but fun. Plus anything that can fit on a T-shirt can be sold. My friend Timothy Leary used to advocate for getting your philosophy down to a bumper sticker. Tim was disreputable… but fun. And the way I see it, The Singularity has become a buzzword for the rad techno-future brought on by NBIC (Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno) or GNR (Genetics, Nanotech, and Robotics) or — to put it in more populist terms, the coming of the machine overlords.

Look, for example, at Singularity University SU had just been established when I wrote this. Here we have the establishment Singularitarians, all hooked up with NASA and Google and Cisco and Genentech. And how seriously did they take the Singularity label? Well, when Alex Lightman and I interviewed founder Peter Diamandis for h+, he made it clear that they were using the word for the same reason that I was: COOL BUZZWORD! That… and to make Ray Kurzweil happy. Ok. He didn’t blatantly say “cool-ass buzzword, dude!” He said: “to be clear, the university is not about The Singularity. It’s about the exponentially growing technologies and their effect on humanity… You know, we toyed with other terms… like Convergence University and others. But in homage to Ray…” Why do I suspect investment capital was involved?

So, in equivalent homage to SU, I call this project ‘Steal This Singularity’ and admit straight out that it may or may not have jackshit to do with ‘The Singularity’, depending on accidents, random moods and possible funding.The question, then, may be asked, smarter-than-human AIs aside, does ‘Steal This Singularity’ presume the rather technotopian possibilities promised by transhumanism, but believe that it will be necessary to STEAL it from the so-called 1%? Is that what I’m up to here? Well, maybe. How does one steal a Singularity (or something like it) from corporate ownership? I think this is a serious question. It’s almost certain that, barring a revolution, the digital other-life will be privately owned (In case of a revolution, it will probably be controlled by the vanguard state… and then, eventually, also privately owned). If, for example, humans can upload themselves into data-based quasi-immortality, it will be owned and the options will be more locked in than North Korea on a bad day. And one fine day, the powers that be or some nasty 12-year-old hacker will drag you into the garbage icon. (Yes, the garbage icon is eternal.) OK, fun’s fun but let’s get back to the real, old school fun, i.e. the Yippies.

The Yippies Started The Digital Revolution

In 1971, a revolutionary prankster/celebrity named Abbie Hoffman, who had started the radical group the Yippies (Youth International Party) released STEAL THIS BOOK, a manual for living on the fringes of a wealthy society by grabbing up some free shit from corporate powers while committing some Blows Against the Empire (another influence on this project, btw). 

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

See, 1971 was the last year that the vanguard of the counterculture thought that they were going to make a total cultural and political psychedelic/anarchistic/left wing revolution before realizing… fuck it. Let’s campaign for McGovern. But more to my point here and the milieu it attempts … true story… the Yippies started the phreakin’ digital revolution! To wit: The hacker culture started as the phone phreak culture. The phone phreak culture came out of the Steal This Book attitude about getting free stuff from the detritus of corporate culture, in this case, the phone company. I wonder how shoplifting and other forms of gutter-freak theft plays today among some leftists – the ones who seem to have become “inlaws in the eyes of Amerika” (Jefferson Airplane reference)… inclined towards lawful good behavior and even occasional pompous respect for American institutions. This must have emerged in reaction to a lawless lunatic right that has taken a much more visible and colorful role in the zeitgeist. There’s some extreme code-switching when it comes to the romance of insurrection (Yippies, for example, dug the Weather Underground… which, in those days, wasn’t a website for following weather conditions). And QAnon Shaman – with his war paint and animal howls – seems like someone who would only have been at home in a Yippie! prank back in ’71. There’s so much more I could say about code-switching. Maybe some other column. The first legendary phone phreak, John Draper aka Captain Crunch, who built the blue boxes, used to hang out at 9 Bleeker Street, NYC, Yippie headquarters. The first magazine that focused primarily on phone phreaking was YIPL (Youth International Party Line), which was started by Hoffman and “Al Bell.” In 1973, it transmorgified into TAP, which is more broadly remembered as the initiatory phone phreak periodical.

Phone phreaks were computer hackers. Draper famously noted that the phone system “is a computer.” From this milieu, the personal computer arose. Famously, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak funded the birth of Apple by selling Blue Boxes for phone phreaking.

Another Yippie contribution is the use of McLuhanism as a weapon in the countercultural revolution. Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the other original YIPs took an idealistic youthful new left that was sort of basic and organic, and a mirror of the folk music that they loved, and made it “go electric” (a term used for when Bob Dylan started using rock ’n’ roll to communicate his increasingly surrealistic cultural critique.) That the medium is the message was central to their strategy for an anarchic left-wing sex, drugs & rock ’n’ roll youth revolution. Hoffman’s 1969 book ‘Revolution For the Hell of It’ is saturated with McLuhan references and strategies for how a freak left could take over America, end war and racism. and bring about a post-work celebratory psychedelic utopia. ‘Do It!’ yippie prankster/leader Jerry Rubin’s 1969 book was ‘zapped’ (i.e. designed) by Quentin Fiore, the same force behind ‘The Medium is the Massage’, McLuhan’s most successful incursion into the popular mind. The YIPs had faith that, being native to television and rock ’n’ roll radio, they had an intuitive understanding of the era that outmatched the dinosaurs of the establishment. They could bring the already rebellious rock ’n’ roll media babies into their utopian revolution.

As things evolved (or devolved), young people did become increasingly rebellious, and even riotous. The counterculture drifted from the intellectual class in the leading colleges out into the broader youth culture, and the emblem of rebellion shifted from Jane Fonda’s progressive activism to Peter Fonda giving the world the finger in ‘Easy Rider’. I bet some of those tangled up in this inchoate rebellion reemerged in 2020, in the Capitol Building on January 6 as hairy old dudes being disrespectful to Nancy Pelosi’s desk.

McLuhan wrote, “The global village absolutely ensures maximal disagreement on all points.” Wow! Sure seems to have called modern digital culture! This can be traced to the hippie/yippie reframing and idealization of mediated pop cultural hipness, and then on through Stewart Brand, who became obsessed with the idea that a picture of the whole earth would create a shift in human consciousness that would have us identify as citizens of earth (the global village) rather than members of a tribe or nation. Brand, with his Whole Earth Catalogs in tow, went on to become, arguably, the central figure of the emerging digital revolution in the late 1980s, sponsoring the first hackers’ conference, the first intellectual (maybe the last) social media site — a bbs called The Well — and helping create ‘Wired’ magazine, which idealized accelerated change as a world-improving hip cultural and business revolution. This may seem like a long distance from the Yippies’ original intentions — although it may be that where we landed was inevitable, the view of the essay ‘The California Ideology’ by Andy Cameron and Richard Barbook in 1995.

Indeed, the rise of the computer-enthusiastic hacker movement of the 1980s, which was made up pretty much entirely of counterculture enthusiasts, was well-timed to the Reaganite agenda for setting the entrepreneurial impulse free from regulation. It was these two forces in tandem that made the digital revolution happen. But I’m trying to cover too much ground in one column – a rant for another time. 

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