By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 May 1999

What do you think of when you hear the word “cyberculture?” The most popular answers I received in my informal poll this week were:

1) the nerds of Silicon Valley
2) conspiracy theorists
3) old men pursuing children for sex or married people conducting sex chats
4) suicidal Web cults

But none of these stereotyped groups truly represent a culture. They are simply the kinds of people we imagine to be spending a lot of time online.

We don’t limit our views on the members other cultural revolutions to such tightly defined profiles. Rock and roll culture, literary culture, and Hollywood culture (if you use the word “culture” loosely), represent much more than long-hair guitar players, lonely authors, and beautiful starlets. Rock music created the modern teenager. Literature gave rise to the humanities. Movies generated what we now call popular culture.

Cyberculture, too, has given rise to a social and artistic community whose members may have never touched a keyboard, yet finds its very foundations in the computer. It is called Electronica.

Culturally speaking, it was the California “bohemian” communities that first embraced the computer as a tool of artistic and spiritual expression. As early as the mid-1970’s, psychedelic renegade Timothy Leary was appearing in documentaries predicting that someday in the future, all of us would be exchanging messages electronically through our “word processors.” The visionary Whole Earth Review editor Stewart Brand announced to his hippy, environmentalist following that computers should be seen as aids to positive social and spiritual transformation. West Coast rock musicians like the Grateful Dead and Todd Rundgren were the first to popularize colorful, swirling computer graphics on concert tickets and video projections during shows.

Maybe this is why the first major impact of computers and the Internet on our culture has been in the music and club communities of young people. Cheap micro-processing technology put high-quality sound synthesizers and mixing studios in the hands of musicians who never had access to professional recording equipment before. These young musicians, generally members of the countercultural communities who had already embraced computer technology, were profoundly changed by their ability to manifest in sound almost anything they could imagine.

By the late 1980’s, a global community of young people had formed around this music and the gatherings at which it was played. Some say it started in England or the island Ibeza, others credit the “techno” clubs of Detroit. Wherever it began, “rave” had become a cultural phenomenon as big as rock and roll. Literally thousands of kids would drive to remote locations, usually outdoors, ingest mild psychedelics and dance until morning to electronic music made by young people a lot like them.

Although rock and roll enthusiasts considered this early rave music dull and repetitive, the kids who danced to it appreciated it deeply. As democratic as the Internet itself, rave music could be produced by almost anybody. Moreover, it was composed of digitally recorded samples of music and sounds from around the world: the South American shaman’s drum beat could ride under the sound of industrial machinery. The bleeps of a videogame could accent the vocals of a Pakistani chant. This was a global community at least as diverse as any Usenet newsgroup.

Ten years later, rave music and the other genres it spun off are finally hitting the headlines as a “new” category of dance music called “Electonica,” and the world’s major record labels are desperate to join in. Why is it suddenly finding such popularity? Partly, because the music is, quite frankly, better. Ten years has seen at least three waves of musicians develop new and more intricate styles of composition and instrumentation. The other reason Electronica is becoming so popular is that the rest of our culture is finally catching up with the electronic vanguard. Our appetite for electronic music was whetted by our participation in an electronic society.

As with the Internet, however, Electronica has a lot of people, mostly businessmen, scared. Unlike rock concerts, raves don’t focus on the stars. There are no rock heroes to worship, only records and CD’s by relatively anonymous artists. Just as the Internet tends to destroy the illusion of authority, electronic music removes the cult of personality from the music scene, and this makes it a marketer’s nightmare.

But whenever businessmen are afraid, chances are something positive is happening. Electronic music embodies and amplifies the core values of the original Internet community: there is no boss, anyone can participate, and the more contributions from around the world, the better. The object of a rave dance is to join a large group together, at least temporarily, into a single, joyful, coordinated being. How much closer to the utopian dreams of the Internet can a cultural movement get?

Most surprisingly, this first real cultural outgrowth of the computer revolution did not turn out to be the solitary, non-physical experience that many had feared. If anything, it is a reclamation and assertion of the body in the face of our seemingly mechanized computer lifestyles.

There is most definitely a thriving cyberculture gaining influence around the world. You just have to get off the computer and out of the house to experience it.