Explorations in the Underground 1964 – 1970

In 1964 the lid blew off at Berkeley, and shortly thereafter, everywhere else. The Civil Rights movement was active in the Bay Area, and UC Berkeley provided many of the bodies for picket lines and other demonstrations, as well as demonstrators against the candidacy of Barry Goldwater at the Republican National Convention in spring of that year. It was said that the local political boss, a Goldwater supporter, brought pressure against the University authorities to clamp down. Students at that time made use of a six-foot-wide strip of ground at the campus south entrance to set up tables to proselytize, collect funds and hand out leaflets.

Then came Freedom Summer when thousands of students went to Mississippi to register black voters in direct confrontation with the segregationist power structure. Some did not come back alive, and all who came back were sobered and enraged by the violent racism they had seen and experienced. As students were returning to campus the administration, under increasing outside pressure, issued a new set of rules denying use of the strip at the south gate for advocacy, fundraising or recruitment activity.

The resulting uproar made history – thousands of students sat down and immobilized a police car with an arrested ex-student inside for 32 hours – Parent’s Day was imminent and the administration negotiated a temporary settlement under such pressure. The full story of the “Free Speech Movement” is available elsewhere, and what is significant here is my experience of it. Suffice it to say that three months of negotiations, hearings, demonstrations, rallies and marches ensued, culminating in the first sit-in and mass arrest at an American university, followed by acceptance by the faculty senate of the position of the FSM, which soon thereafter disbanded.

When the FSM broke out I was on my work-study job at Edwards AFB in the Mojave Desert, and saw only confused accounts in the Los Angeles newspapers describing a “riot” but showing pictures only of students standing and sitting around the police car. I was at that time in the process of shown the door at that job, as my previous civil rights and antiwar activities in Philadelphia had prompted the security establishment to deny my low-level clearance application and advise me to resign giving the reason that I desired to return to school. “Keep your nose clean, son, and you won’t have any trouble getting back in,” said the security chief. I took the night train back to Berkeley and arrived Oct. 16th. Within ten days I had decided that keeping my nose clean was not in the cards.

I was working on campus, as it was still my co-op work period and I got my old job back at Optometry. I tried to see what I could do with the resources at hand, and found myself helping to run the mimeograph turning out thousands of leaflets each night – fortunately I had learned to run a mimeo at age 12. I also tried to see if I could bring any technological assistance to the problem of information handling at the FSM central office. What I found there was a table with two phones and myraid pieces of paper pinned to the wall – this was the data base, consisting of offers of resources and requests for such resources. We would try to match them up, but often the need preceded the offer, and often a certain amount of imagination was necessary to make the connection. This was the prototype for the “switchboard” – an ad hoc information referral point, oriented in the service of some subset of the general community, or a “community of interest”.

Also at that time I experienced “the police radio incident” , in which I discovered that my place in the underground was not awaiting orders but in anticipating them (if you follow the link, scroll to page 261 in the text).

The experience of this revolution (it did overthrow the existing order of “in loco parentis” and it was a mass movement, not just a cabal) had the effect of energizing me and many, many others. It would not be incorrect to date the origin of the hippie subculture and its expression in the Bay Area, the Haight-Ashbury to the FSM, when the barriers to communication between people went down under pressure from the crisis, and people could make new connections based upon their genuine thoughts and feelings, not ones handed down from an institution. FSM was therefore the beginning of large-scale revolt against institutions as dominating society, in favor of empowered and connected individuals in communities of their own choosing.

I began to pursue the question of what kind of information structure and technology would facilitate this process of person-to-person linkage outside of hierarchical structures. I became the editor and publisher of the house newsletter of the student co-op (Oxford Hall) where I lived and tried out a free-speech-just-take-responsibility approach, that got me hanged in effigy and reappointed multiple times by the house council. I joined the nascent “underground press” to see if print could be the new community media – I saw it turn into a centralized structure that sold spectacle, quite opposite to the hopes with which I came to it.

I began to examine communication structure as “broadcast” vs. “non-broadcast” – the latter including face-to-face discussion, telephone and postal communication. I could see that broadcast media fostered vertical, rather than lateral, lines of communication, and so “putting on a show” would never help people’s ability to link up on the basis of shared interests.

Around 1969 I began to explore the switchboards that had developed in the area – it seemed that every sub-community had one or more. I visited them to see if there was any technology they could use to forward their efforts, and found no organization and no systematization.

I attempted to start the “Berkeley Network Bulletin”, a printed notice-board circulated by courier to various “communes” (intentional communities in group households, of which there were many in Berkeley), but I found myself stopped by the depression I was experiencing – it had a circulation of perhaps five houses and lasted for two issues.

While working at Ampex I designed and prototyped a portable public-address amplifier (a “bull horn”, but one that used high-quality audio and thus did not sound loud) having line-level audio inputs as well as outputs so that several could be patched together to form a network – my vision was to enable a crowd to speak back to the authorities.

In this process I encountered the writings of Michael Rossman, who had been a “big name” in the FSM and was then exploring in the world of alternative education. He was writing “On Learning and Social Change”, and circulating manuscript chapters around the intentional communities. Following them back, I contacted him and we began to discuss technological possibilities for empowering counterculture. His book had a number of ideas built around telephone patch devices, which I found intriguing.

Michael became a life-long friend of mine and I invited him into the Community Memory Project as it grew. At his memorial service in 2008 I ran the open mike, where, while speaking I realized that much of what I had done in this area was an attempt to implement portions of “On Learning and Social Change”.

All of this took place while I was undergoing my “graduate studies” in engineering, learning the craft and the skills needed to implement ideas as products, learning how to write a working program (running on “bare iron”, without compilers or operating systems), and seeing the company who issued me a paycheck sliding slowly into oblivion (Ampex is still around, though it has no products and seems to exist more as a landlord than as a tech company).