Foes of 'New Economy' Gaining Voice

The baby boomers running and profiting from the "new economy" grew up in, and were shaped by, the countercultural movements of the 1960s and '70s. Indeed, the personal computer itself was once viewed as a "liberation" from the boring, gray and tightly controlled kind of computing imposed by large corporations and their mainframes.

Several notable pioneers of the PC era started out as hippies, commune residents, meditation instructors and even campus radicals. But few if any of these now middle-aged men understand that there's a new culture emerging that's counter to what they've built.

The "dot-com" economy, as it rapidly matures, is setting itself up as a big fat target for rebellion, dissent and possibly even sabotage. The conditions are beginning to resemble what led to the blow-up of the '60s, and if this happens again, it will be, to put it mildly, supremely ironic.

After shamelessly absorbing the rhetorical terms "revolutionary," "cool," "transformational" and all the rest, the new establishment of the new economy may be in for a dose of the real thing.

There are tremors faintly tangible across the country these days.

Over the last few weeks, for example, the South of Market area in San Francisco has been plastered with signs, put up by an anonymous guerrilla propaganda group, that ridicule and satirize the neighborhood's Internet-based companies.

The "KilltheDot" campaign has created slogans that are mostly obscene and therefore can't be repeated here, but which skewer the pretensions and silliness of "dot-com" services. The signs have proliferated around the country through the Internet and are beginning to show up in other urban technology centers.

Last year, we had the images of the "Battle in Seattle," the protests over the World Trade Organization. Those events may be repeated in a few weeks in Washington, D.C., in demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. On April 14, there will be national teach-ins on globalization in Washington, with scheduled protests by many of the same groups that were in Seattle.

In recent weeks, 1,500 people marched in protest in Boston against biotechnology and genetically altered foods. And 3,000 trade unionists marched in downtown Los Angeles for higher wages and better working conditions. Students at UCLA and other colleges are building organizations to fight sweatshops in L.A. and overseas.

"There's more and more sense from our donor constituency that money isn't everything, that this has gotten out of hand," says Catherine Suitor, director of development for the Liberty Hill Foundation in Santa Monica.

Liberty Hill has sponsored donor events that address such issues as "Raising Socially Responsible Children," and the turnout has been huge, Suitor says.

Most of the activism in working-class neighborhoods and on college campuses is about inequality. "It's more than just the new technology," Suitor says. "It's more about the divide created by the new economy." She attributed the new restlessness to "anger at corporate power."

Jon Katz, a media critic and author of the new book "Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho" (Villard Books, 2000), agrees. "What you're seeing shape up is the first big political battle of the 21st century, between individualism and corporatism," Katz says.

Katz follows the growing numbers of young computer mavens who are loosely allied as proponents of open source software, free expression, an open Internet and radical individualism.

These are the young people who are increasingly challenging corporations that are trying to lock down the Internet and secure it for commerce. The mounting wars over intellectual property and network security are just the beginning, Katz says.

"Corporatism is a new phenomenon, and not the same as capitalism or corporations," he says. "It means bigness, controlling markets, mass marketing. Companies are now bigger than ever before. They've acquired most of our mainstream culture, and now they're moving on to the Internet.

"There's a general sense of helplessness and anger," he added. "It used to be you could be an individual and coexist with large corporations, but now you can't. It's the Wal-Marting of America."

Because of the homogenization of mass culture, Katz says, "the place individuals are turning to is the Internet." That's where the battle is being waged by young, smart, computer-savvy free-thinkers.

"These kids are the freest people on Earth. And they're mad." They don't want to see "their" Internet absorbed into mass market culture, and they don't want to see a corporate logo on every Web page. They're contemptuous of how conventional political parties are dependent on high-tech money.

The critical factor is that a lot of these young people can outwit the technologists of the government and private sector and build systems that are always one step ahead of powerful interests.

"These kids are ready to go, ready to rally around a leader," Katz says. "They're not going to go as easily as journalists did, when their media were bought up."

He predicted that soon, perhaps within a couple of years, there will be a political candidate who will emerge from this constituency. "That person will be surprised at how much anger there is out there about corporate power."

"When the war in Vietnam ended, the boomers gave up on revolution and went back to work," Katz says. In fact, they just adopted the terms of that era for advertising. "But these kids are real revolutionaries. They cannot be stopped. They're our last hope," he concluded.

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Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu.

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