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Pioneers of the Virtual Underground
A History of our Culture

by Andrew Edmond
The Resonance Project
Issue 1, Summer 1997


Article does not cover non-Internet sources prior to 1992
Erowid Note: The author's piece does not cover online and networked systems prior to 1992. It should not be considered canonical for pre-1992 information. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of modem-over-POTS bulletin boards as well as several other major non-Internet information networks that included subculture, tech culture, future culture, and included discussions of posthumanist concepts and psychedelics. These are difficult to document and some systems, like PLATO, were very difficult to save local copies of files and images. Hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of individual modem-over-POTS bulletin boards and BBS networks were popular and there were dozens or hundreds through which information about subversive ideas and information about psychedelic drugs were distributed.
Since the very first days of the Internet, artists, psychonauts, stoners, hyperspatial explorers, ethnobotanical gardeners, chemists, mystics, ravers and activists have been exchanging ideas and building projects that they hope will one day change the world. Unlike the Real World(tm), where those who embrace the counterculture often have a hard time finding community, the Internet is a place where tribes can be formed without geographical or cultural limits. Those that were driven into the underground in the real world are now finding that the Internet is an incredible tool for expression, for the exchange of information and knowledge, and most importantly, for finding and befriending fellow freaks from all over the world.

One of the first virtual countercultures formed on the net was a mailing list called FutureCulture, created by Andy Hawks in early 1992. FutureCulture attracted cybercitizens enamored with the idea of using global telecommunication to launch a new counterculture -- one that would mix people and ideas from around the world into a chaotic multicultural soup. In early 1992, there were only about three million people on the Internet, and what Hawks accomplished with FutureCulture was a landmark event. He created a "world community" where people from every corner of the planet could meet daily in cyberspace and make plans to move and shake the world as never before. Before the Internet, creative communities were constrained by physical locality. On the net, they replicated themselves like viruses -- propagating and advancing new world memes at an astounding rate.

Though FutureCulture thrived for nearly two years with a rich and potent dialogue, Hawks eventually left, and as a result, several other counterculture lists began to grow. Fringeware, led by Paco Nathan, the Leri mailing list initiated by Scotto Moore, MindSpace formed by Jack Burris, and the Visionary Plants List moderated by myself, attracted many of the net's newest and most noted counterculture visionaries. Since the world's governments were still quite clueless about the virtual world, amazing events like 'net-trips' (people from around the world chatting while under the influence of psychedelics) went totally unnoticed by the powers that be.

In 1993, these first simple underground mailing lists began to spill over into Internet newsgroups. Virtual bulletin boards became town squares where people could post their poetry and favorite music, ask questions, share personal experiences, and discuss topics that in many countries would be considered illegal. The early mailing lists like FutureCulture were tightly bound communities of, at most, a few hundred people -- but newsgroups like alt.drugs and others quickly grew to groups of thousands of loosely associated freaks within a period of months.

The newsgroup boom in 1993 is often referred to as the "Golden Age" of the Internet. After ingesting a lifetime of programmed media, this sudden "free trade" of information had netizens insatiably curious and driven to break all the rules. Activists such as Lamont Granquist began publishing and archiving controlled substance information, and pushing for intelligent and thoughtful discussions about drugs on the net. Other newsgroup hierarchies such as rec.music united ravers from around the globe into a village of enthusiasts. But the newsgroups also had their limits. As the Internet became more commercial, and more people from large services like America OnLine loaded onboard, the public newsgroups quickly became saturated with more misinformed chatter (noise) than actual useful information (signal).

Luckily, things on the net change rapidly. Just as newsgroups began to overflow, the World Wide Web burst onto the scene. Users were no longer limited to crude ASCII text and primitive chat software. On the Web, artists, activists, and hippies could now produce virtual art galleries and hypertext archives of underground information. With the ability to broadcast multimedia content and create links to every other document on the net, the Web had a vast potential as a tool of expression and community.

The birth of the Web had a tremendous impact on the revival of the virtual counterculture. People created Web sites specifically to promote sanctioned entheogen use, rave culture, harm-reduction, pagan events, hyperspatial techniques, utopian societies, and all kinds of paradigm-shifting ideals. Eventually, these sites grew to become virtual libraries of underground information, and began attracting thousands of hits a day.

One of the first counterculture sites to make a real presence on the Web was Hyperreal, created by Brian Behlendorf in late 1993. Behlendorf had been running a mailing list called SF-RAVES when the Internet gave birth to the Web, and he quickly put together a site on a server he had access to at Stanford University. Soon, Hyperreal was hosting a massive compilation of controlled substance FAQs; rave promotions and discussions; techno, house and ambient music reviews; online magazines; and more. As people flocked to Hyperreal in search of accurate information, a community began to bloom.

The era which follows the creation of the Web (that wink of an eye from 1994 to 1996) is often referred to as the "Internet explosion." It was during this time that many other equally creative and informative sites began to proliferate. Paranoia, run by KevinTX, broke nearly all the rules by publishing digital volumes of information on sex, drugs, and religion that would have been banned just a few decades earlier. KevinTX's "indecent" information was available in every country in the world -- from Israel to New Zealand, and this amazing power to hurdle social barriers motivated others to push the envelope even further. In the span of a few years, sites like Druglibrary made large amounts of accurate information on controlled substances available to the general public. These sites, including my own, the Lycaeum, have grown to become some of the world's largest and most versatile entheogenic libraries in the world.

A particularly interesting evolution in the cohesion of virtual countercultures came in the form of the Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRCNet), created by David Borden and Adam Smith in 1993. DRCNet has taken the enthusiasm of the counterculture and combined it with the functionality of the Web to coordinate activism in the fight against the anti-drug establishment.

While on DRCNet, not only can you find useful information on hemp and medical marijuana, embarrassing statistics on how your tax dollars are being spent in the 'War on Drugs,' and articles which expose corruption within the agencies who profit from enforcing these laws, you can also e-mail form letters on specific prohibition issues to your representatives in congress.

Organizations such as the Island Group, the Council on Spiritual Practices, Wired Magazine, and a myriad of other zippie, hippie, rave, activist, and pagan enterprises evolved on the Web and saw their membership swell in a tide of enthusiasm. You can now find just about every counterculture community, organization, and publication represented on the Web, and many are also running mailing lists and discussion forums to strengthen communities and foster new ideas. And you know what? It's making a difference.

The impact of the Internet on the growth of the counter-culture cannot be understated. In the 1990s, we have seen an increase in psychedelic exploration, artistic expression, transcendent music, pagan rites and rituals, and a host of other spiritually empowering practices. The Internet has been a catalyst for these explosions in culture because it allows you to locate people, information, and resources that would otherwise be unavailable. For the first time in history, millions of people from around the globe have access to endless information and the real-time exchange of new knowledge. Members of the counterculture are using this power to do nothing less than to try to change the world as they know it. And from where I sit, it looks like they might finally be winning.

Stay tuned.

Andrew Edmond is a computer programmer by profession, and a formally educated botanist. He is the Director of the Lycaeum. You can e-mail him at edmond@lycaeum.org

Site Index
FutureCulture: http://www.eerie.fr/~alquier/Cyber/culture.html
FringeWare: http://www.fringeware.com
Hyperreal: http://www.hyperreal.com
Paranoia: http://paranoia.lycaeum.org
Druglibrary: http://www.druglibrary.org
DRCNet: http://www.drcnet.org the
Lycaeum: http://www.lycaeum.org
Council on Spiritual Practices: http://www.csp.org
The Island Group: http://www.island.org
ęCopyright Resonant Media, 2000. All rights reserved.
Revision History #
  • v1.0 - 1997 - Edmond A - Resonance Project Magazine.
  • v1.1 - 2000 Oct 29 - Erowid - First approved publication on erowid.
  • v1.2 - 2016 Mar 23 - Erowid - Removed false statement, added erowid note about lack of pre 1992 history.