The countercultures of the future are already being born and are parts of the future’s new markets. It can therefore be an advantage to know what to expect from them. They stand up against greed and religion, burst the boundaries of biology, and expand the idea of anarconomy still further. We bring a translated excerpt from the new book Modkultur – fra undergrund til bundlinje (Counterculture – from underground to bottom line).
Present-day countercultures differ from those of the past in one important way. In the past, if you were part of a counterculture, you were in all the way, and it was unthinkable that you could also be part of another counterculture. In the England of the 1960s, you could be mod or rocker, but not both. The hippie culture from the late 1960s involved a strong identity – one which didn’t immediately combine well with other countercultures like e.g. the equally colourful gay culture. This is not how it is today. The number of countercultures has grown immensely, but it isn’t unusual to be part of several and to form your identity from an unique blend of the countercultures and subcultures you choose to be part of. Many young people are situals – individuals that like social chameleons change surface identity according to the situation they are in. One and the same person can easily be goth, trekkie and vegan, and still also be part of the live-action role-playing circuit.
Many things suggest that future countercultures will be even more complex in a future where the entire world is connected via a ubiquitous network of wireless internet and virtual worlds. The critical mass of individuals needed to make a counterculture viable and vibrant does not have to be limited to any particular physical location, but can be spread all over the world.
In a world with an increasing pace of change, new countercultures and subcultures will constantly be born or mutate out from others, and the young people of the future will want to try many of them on for size to see whether they could become a part of their personal identity, or just to ‘taste’ them, out of mere curiosity or to explore boundaries. To throw off a counterculture that doesn’t live up to expectations or which you have outgrown will not be particularly traumatic, since you will have many other countercultures available on your palette. The connection to any one culture will be looser, but the threshold to enter a new culture will be lower – particularly on the internet where you can be fairly anonymous. We argue that counterculture today is a general state, a basic condition on the global market. However, in doing so, we define counterculture, and just by doing so we give rise to a new countercultural agenda. By its very nature, counterculture is not a static entity, but a counter-reaction to the establishment. Just as many past countercultures have become mainstream in more or less watered-down versions, we must expect the same to happen to many of today’s and tomorrow’s countercultures. Below, we outline some possibilities for new near-future countercultures.
At the time of writing, it is still unclear what the long-term consequences of the financial crisis of 2008–2010 will be. There are some indicators that growth may already have returned, though without much job creation, while other things – particularly the debt-plagued European nations such as Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal – point towards a more dire picture. Many people see greed in the financial industry as the main cause for the crisis, and there’s widespread disappointment over the fact that the financial industry, because of tax-paid public stimulus packages among other things, has apparently weathered the crisis better than ordinary people, many of whom have lost their jobs and homes through no fault of their own. If the downturn continues or even worsens, we must expect that the anger directed at the financial industry will become articulated in protests, vandalism and perhaps even violence towards financial institutions and financiers.
This reaction may be more or less organised, from well-organised protests in the style of Adbusters’ campaigns today to simple, disorganised vandalism of luxurious cars and homes, which are seen as symbols of an unequal society that rewards ‘criminals’ in the financial world at the expense of ordinary people. We will then see a counterculture of greedbusters. Fuelled by social indignation and personal frustration, this will strike back at anti-social greed, which is viewed as harmful to society and the environment. Such a greedbuster movement may very well arise in the United States, which has experienced decades of drastic economic polarisation. Since 1980, four-fifths of all income increases have gone to the richest one per cent of the population, which today accounts for one-quarter of the nation’s overall income and one-third of the total wealth – more than the poorest 90 per cent combined. Until now, the illusion of the American dream – where a newspaper boy can become a billionaire through sheer hard work – has held the population back from rising up in arms, but if the inequality keeps growing, it is only a matter of time before this illusion shatters and the dissatisfaction breaks through.
At the beginning of the 21st century, a handful of books were published that strongly criticised religion as a factor in society that does more harm than good. First came Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), and since then we have seen books such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006), Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006), Victor J. Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007), and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007).
These books and their authors criticise religion as the cause of war, terrorism, oppression and irrationality, and they claim that any good done by religions doesn’t nearly counterbalance the ills. One such sentiment, as expressed by Nobel laureate in physics Steven Weinberg, is “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
This hard line against religion has been called new atheism. So far, new atheism has mostly consisted of a few, high-profile intellectuals who lash out at religion in a way that critics call just as fundamentalist as the religions they criticise. This means we cannot at present call new atheism a counterculture, but that may change. In the last few decades, we have seen a trend in the Western world – particularly in the US – of religious movements becoming involved in politics and trying to give religious beliefs precedence over science. Climate change and Darwin’s evolutionary theory are favourite targets, but Einstein’s theory of relativity (one of the best-tested theories ever) is also unpopular among many religious groups. If religion in this manner exerts increased influence on politics, education and legislation – for example via the American Tea Party movement, which is closely connected to the religious right – it can strengthen the basis for more militant atheism, the members of which won’t sit still and let their rational world views be attacked while the world moves towards a new dark age. The ongoing scandals about Catholic priests’ sexual abuse can also fuel such a counterculture.
Traditionally, atheism has suffered from a general lack of organisation compared to the established religions’ powerful and well-financed, hierarchical structures. As a result, atheism has found it difficult to achieve the same impact as the religions. However, the modern information society is well suited to gather together a loose, widely branching network like that of the atheists, which gives atheists better opportunities to form a united front.
Transhumanism is the idea of improving mankind physically and mentally through technology. In the United States in the 1980s, a movement arose that took this idea seriously and has since advocated the idea of future technological supermen. So far, the technology hasn’t matured enough to make this come true, but this may change in the near future. Even now, cognitive enhancement drugs are becoming popular at universities and workplaces. There is a wide range of drugs and medicines that can be (and are) used to improve concentration and learning or to counteract sleep needs. As with physical doping like steroids and Viagra, it’s about not accepting normal human limitations, and when you have the means to go beyond them you will naturally want to use them. There’s disagreement about whether the use of mental doping should be fought or accepted – or perhaps even promoted.
Professor Julian Savulescu from Oxford University considers it likely that if a safe and effective cognitive enhancer is developed, it will then be added to the drinking water, just as we have added iodine to salt and fluoride to toothpaste. Genetic technology is approaching a stage where it may become an everyday matter in a few years, or a couple of decades at most. Gene therapy is a wide range of methods used to change the genomes of people after birth. In general, gene therapy is used to treat genetically determined disorders, but it is also possible to add genes that human beings don’t normally have. One example of using this technique is the drug Repoxygen, which via gene therapy makes the body able to secrete EPO when blood oxygen levels are low. Repoxygen is used to treat anaemia, but athletes also use it as genetic doping, which is very difficult to trace. In the future, parents may choose to genetically modify their children before birth in order to avoid hereditary disorders, but also with the opportunity to add particularly beneficial genes.
Other ways that transhumanism may crop up in the years to come is through more or less efficient treatments against aging or by surgically connecting electronic chips to the human brain to improve the brain’s capacity or make it possible to remote control computers through the power of thought (something that is currently possible with equipment like the EPOC helmet, a computer accessory developed by Australian company Emotiv). Transhumanism may also be about going beyond purely cosmetic limitations, and members of a future transhumanist counterculture will perhaps signal their affiliation through cosmetic surgery that doesn’t aim to make them look better in any traditional sense, but instead to make them look less human.
In a chapter in the book, we describe the trend known as anarconomy, in which a decentralised free economy based on open source and voluntary work increasingly challenges traditional companies. In the future, this trend may be united with the copyfight movement, which fights restrictive copyright and patent laws, and Maker Culture (a high-tech do-it-yourself culture)in a cohesive counterculture, which almost constitutes a parallel society.This possible counterculture might be called anarconomy +.
The prerequisites for anarconomy + involve a slight projection of the technological development we see today. Central to this development are 3D printers. Today, we have high-end 3D printers that are capable of printing polymer-based electronics. The British company Plastic Logic has used this technology to create the Que e-book reader, which was presented at the CES technology show in January 2010, but which since has been dropped in favour of developing a more advanced model. An e-book reader is basically a pared-down, specialised computer, so it isn’t a big step to print a ‘real’ computer – or at least a tablet computer like the iPad. When such a printer also can print components to make a copy of itself, it will be possible for anybody with a printer and a computer to make printers and computers to their friends, without other expenses than electricity and raw materials to feed into the printer. Since these raw materials are different types of plastic, it is possible that they could be produced from various kinds of plastic waste – bags, bottles, packaging materials, etc. A wiki on the internet could provide updated information about which sorts of plastic are best suited and how to turn them into printer material. Hence it is possible that the cost of making sets of printers and computers, which then can be used to make other sets, etc., will become near zero. Such computers and printers will probably not be as good as their professional, factory-made counterparts, but in return they would be totally free of commercial control and interference through features like built-in DRM.
For the computers and printers to be legally made in this decentralised manner, they must be developed under an open source license similar to the one under which MakerBot and RepRap 3D printers are currently developed. If the software in the computers is also open source, we will then get an open, decentralised and basically free system for developing and distributing software, computers and physical production equipment. We then expect that a global network will arise to make use of this opportunity to become self-sufficient with software, knowledge, entertainment and many types of physical products, ranging from shoes, clothes and kitchen utensils to computers, mobile phones and other advanced electronics – a further development of today’s Maker Culture and open-source movement.
But it’s no fun to be part of a global network if the communication grid is tightly controlled and censored by central authorities. This could easily be the future for the internet and the telephone grid. According to leaked documents, the upcoming international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which is being negotiated behind closed doors and aims to combat digital piracy, will require internet providers to maintain surveillance of their users’ data traffic with the aim to detect and stop piracy. Some aspects of ACTA may well make it difficult to develop and exchange open-source software and open content, by making decentralised file-sharing software like BitTorrent illegal. Furthermore, internet providers in the US and elsewhere lobby to be allowed to offer commercial companies precedence on the internet in return for payment, thus making traffic to non-commercial services slower – something which at the time of writing is becoming permitted in Great Britain. Google, which otherwise has fought for internet neutrality, has made an agreement with the phone company Verizon to get this sort of precedence on internet access via phones. In addition, there’s a growing list of websites that many Western nations ask internet providers to block because of suspicion of child pornography, terrorism, piracy and other unwanted activity, while countries like China and Iran exercise massive political censorship of the internet. All in all, the ideal of a free and open internet may soon turn out to be more ideal than reality – but that doesn’t have to stop adherents of anarconomy +.
An alternative to the internet and telephone grid that we know today lies in the so-called ad-hoc networks. Where traditional communication networks channel data through a number of centralised nodes, normally administered by internet providers and phone companies, ad-hoc networks make use of fully decentralised communication where the communication units involved act to create their own networks. If a computer’s or phone’s built-in wireless sender and receiver is within range of another, which is in range of a third, etc., in an unbroken line to a desired target, a connection is established through this chain of computers and phones. To ensure stability, advanced protocols are used that create several alternative, simultaneous connections, so the connection will not be cut should a link in the chain disappear.
This technology has been developed for use in areas that lack a reliable traditional communication infrastructure, such as large parts of Africa. The XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child organisation, aimed at children in developing countries, is equipped with this sort of ad-hoc technology, so that each village can get its own infranet with no need for a central server – and then everyone on the network can get access to the ‘real’ internet, if just one computer it is linked up. Ad-hoc networks aren’t as streamlined as traditional, commercial networks, among other things because they require a high degree of redundancy, but in return they are impossible to control and censor – and their use is free of cost. They are also less vulnerable to breakdowns than more centralised networks. A techno-anarchic counterculture could easily establish such a network in a local area or even globally – all this requires is that all participants have computers or phones with WiFi and the right software. It would also be a simple matter to establish small, solar-powered relay stations in areas where people live too far apart for their phones and computers to reach each other unaided. Anarconomy + could even be self-sufficient with electricity to power the electronics, so that the counterculture would even become independent of commercial energy companies. Miniature plants with solar cells and wind turbines could supply houses with power, but a newly developed technology points towards a revolutionary sort of energy supply, namely using urine as fuel.
In 2009, researchers from Ohio University announced that they had developed an electrode that can make electricity from urine in a fuel cell by releasing the hydrogen in the urine compound urea. According to the researchers, urine from a single cow could supply 19 households with hot water, and a car would be able to run almost 40 km on a single litre of urine. A generator the size of a refrigerator would be able to generate about a kilowatt of power. When this technology is fully developed in a few years, anybody could become their own providers of energy. How big a counterculture anarconomy + will become, and how many of the above-mentioned elements will be a part of it, depends on the overall economic and political developments in our society. If the large corporations behave and refrain from abusing their near-monopoly positions, and if politicians refrain from going overboard with surveillance, control, censorship and the erosion of human rights, it will probably only be die-hard anarchists and rebel groups in non-democratic nations that will go all out with this counterculture. On the other hand, if the abuse of power by the elite in business and politics becomes more widespread, then anarconomy + could very well become a popular movement.
Business opportunities in future countercultures
Even though at first sight future countercultures may seem anti-commercial, just like today’s, there may be many opportunities for business in them. In particular, there may be good opportunities in facilitating the countercultures’ existence by providing communication platforms and tools. It is a matter of reading the particular needs a counterculture might have and of directing your communication to that particular counterculture, with respect for and understanding of its values. It is best if you can be seen as part of the counterculture itself, rather than as somebody from the outside that just wants to cash in on the counterculture. Some countercultures will, of course, be easier to handle than others. For instance, it will be difficult to sell stuff to greedbusters, who are very explicitly anti-commercial. Here, a clear and credible CSR profile or the image of being a small company that challenges the big ones, like David against Goliath, is a prerequisite.
It is worth remembering that in many countercultures there may be a wide gap between ideals and real action. The hiphop culture’s style of dress, featuring loose, oversize sweatshirts and trousers, may derive from poor African-American boys’ street clothes. These clothes were simply bought oversize so that the boys could grow in them, because the families couldn’t afford to buy new clothes very often. Because the hiphop boys got a cool image, the style was appropriated and turned into expensive fashion by companies such as the large clothes-store chain Gap. The many (mostly white) kids that wanted to pay tribute to the cool, anti-establishment hiphop boys thus often ended up supporting the established system, without giving it a thought, by purchasing designer hiphop clothes instead of just buying large sizes like the ‘real’ hiphop boys did. Similarly, it is likely that even greedbusters would be willing to pay large, established companies money for T-shirts, bags and other equipment with the appropriate logos and slogans.
The world is becoming increasingly complex, and situations and countercultures can rarely be framed into a neat ‘us’ versus ‘them’. For some, the surface and signal value are the most important thing, because it is too hard to fully live up to the values of a counterculture. For others, a particular counterculture may only be part of a larger lifestyle that can include other sets of values that on the surface might seem contradictory. Finally, countercultures may mutate and reproduce, so that what was once central gradually becomes peripheral in relation to new values and patterns of behaviour. This complexity makes it difficult to navigate in the sea of countercultures, but it also makes it possible to find – or create – niches in which you can do good business.
About the article “Countercultures of the future”
The text is a translated excerpt from the book MODKULTUR – Fra undergrund til bundlinje, written by SCENARIO’s science editor Klaus Æ. Mogensen with journalist Katrine K. Pedersen. The book has just been published by Gyldendal Business.
 Note: this was written before the rise of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.