From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism
Author: Fred Turner
Publisher: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006
Review Published: February 2008
In his remarkable and well-researched manuscript, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Catalog, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, Fred Turner historicizes his main real world character Stewart Brand as a penultimate performer and networker. Turner documents Brand's ability to exert a rhetorical tour de force in aligning the anticorporate and antistatist countercultural movement of the 1960s to the free- wheeling entrepreneurial philosophy driving the dot.com boom of the cybercultural 1990s, a legacy of both hope and segregationist repercussions. Brand accomplishes this feat through his early, award-winning Whole Earth Catalog that, in its now tattered pages, offered up as countercultural tools the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller applied to communal living, buckskin outfits, and calculating machines. Reasons behind this curious alignment of the counterculture and a technocratic culture that the student-led Free Speech Movement initially despised resides in the development of scientific military research cultures during World War II and what Turner refers to as the New Communalist wing of the countercultural movement. Turner asserts that these communities were much more aligned than we ever imagined.
Turner delves into the countercultural shaping of budding cyberculture of the 1990s and unearths where a large part of the counterculture inherited its intellectual framework: U.S. military and scientific research community practices. In a detailed investigation of the myths and legacies of the counterculture, Turner unveils two distinctive countercultural wings: the New Left and the New Communalist movements. The New Left accented confrontational protest: an agonistic politics. The New Left, a student political movement originating in the 1960s, favored confrontational tactics, often breaking with older leftist ideologies, by expanding its protests beyond labor union issues to take up antiwar (especially anti-Vietnam War), antinuclear, feminist, and ecological issues. By contrast, the New Communalist movement sought to avoid politics by directing its energy to personal self-transformation through the use of small scale and information technologies. New Communalist sentiment and its adherents spanned a diverse gamut from the hippies who set up rural communes to computer hacking enthusiasts who envisioned computing as a transcendental pathway to self-discovery -- LSD on electronic crack.
The irony of the New Communalist legacy is that its leaders, and its inherited cultural practices, have deep military and industrial research origins repurposed to work outside of the military-industrial complex set up in World War II and continuing during the Cold War. Contrary to mythic perceptions of the counterculture as a totalistic rejection of technocratic values, Turner reveals a tighter collaboration and networking of people across military, scientific, and countercultural communities from the 1950s to the present. Turner directs our attention to a rhetorical shift in viewing computing as an emblem of war and suffocating control during the 1960s to computing as a celebration of individual and community liberation by the 1990s. He describes how the �machine� that Free Speech protestors feared would subsume them as cogs in the corporate engine later became revered as a path to liberating self-expression and community building during the recent dot.com era.
In explaining how this shift developed, Turner extends notions of Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer's boundary object (1989) and Peter Galison's (1997) idea of trading zones among scientific subcultures. This transformation occurs through what Turner calls network forums, various sites where textual, digital, and interpersonal face-to-face experiences occur. Network forums, he explains, juxtapose distinct and sometimes contradictory communities of practice and ideas to create contrasting dialogues. Out of this whirlpool of intellectual brainstorming, new frames emerged to unite computation with nomadic communalism.
Imagine, as Turner does, the image of the Long Hunter as emblematic of a 1990s synthesis of countercultural and cybercultural domains: a liberated information and entrepreneurial being able to tap into self-created and decentralized networks (the new electronic tribes), ad hoc, mobile, and ready to transform the world through self-fulfilling projects. Yet as Turner observes, the New Communalist movement in its turn from a politics of protest also retreated from reflecting on questions of gender, race, and class. The transformative path from war research to self-discovery not surprisingly reveals a continuation of self-sustaining networks of white, largely male privilege, less open to the ethnic enclaves surrounding their ironic nomadic quests for oneness.
Turner sees this emerging cybercultural framework as an outgrowth of computational and informational theories developed to create weapons and computing technologies in World War II and the Cold War. The field of cybernetics initiated by Norbert Wiener at the Rad Lab at MIT during WWII to create a better anti-aircraft mechanism in turn became a window for Wiener and other Rad Lab scientists to think about societies as elaborate information systems with feedback loops. As non-hierarchical and self-regulating, information systems became for Wiener a source for moral good. The research cultures of scientists and military personnel became a model of collaborative social network building. They viewed themselves within the holistic framework of a new society in the making. Cybernetics became a portal (especially for Stanford students like Stewart Brand) in the 1950s to see the world as systemic too, as an interlocking whole bigger than its parts, and striving for a transformative unity. The engineers, scientists, and cultural watchers during the 1950s reframed the informational theories of cybernetics to expand their own consciousness through developing technologies like LSD, along with early forms of computing, and communal living.
These theories circulated as metaphors and as part of a common cultural language (also referred to as a contact language) used to bridge various types of scientists, managers, and the military. Brand's Whole Earth Catalog extended this tradition by tapping into and circulating among a number of well educated, New Communalist networks with ties spanning the Stanford Research Institute, RAND, and rural communes like Drop City. Various types of network forums -- from Brand's Whole Earth Catalog to the digital community the Well and Wired magazine -- became conduits for a cyber-oriented contact language. During the 1990s, this language transformed the collaborative research culture of war into a libertarian, decentralized cyberculture binding a broad array of politicians, academics, and entrepreneurs. A patron saint of Brand's and the New Communalists, Buckminster Fuller's dream of a Comprehensive Designer resonates well with the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) community of today. The DIY libertarian philosophy prevails among elite groups of self-styled renaissance men and women who view themselves as resourceful, networked, and free: as the dream of the digital Long Hunter fulfilled.
Another fascinating and recurring theme in Turner's historical narrative is the countercultural accent on performance and its role in linking wartime research collaborative practices and the New Communalist focus on personal transformation. Turner writes of Brand's 1960s membership in Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and art groups such as USCO that sought to create a sense of oneness with the "invisible forces" of the universe through technological enhancements of LSD and sound and light technologies. The countercultural move towards a Buddhist orientation of personal transcendence echoed the cybernetic discoveries of World War II that placed an importance on feedback and recursive loops and the need to understand our roles as part of greater informational holistic systems. The network forums Turner writes about carry this sense of elaborate and ritualistic performance informed by the Pranksters tradition. The tools and props of the Whole Earth Catalog, experiential river quests, role playing on the Well, and the celebrity accented personalities of the digital elite heralded in Wired, all point to the power of a recurring performative story of how we will live in the near-term emerging digital utopia poised to fulfill earlier countercultural dreams.
In describing network forums as "multi-ringed circuses," Turner emphasizes the power of storytelling in cementing cybernetic ties to countercultural aesthetic ideals of transcendence. While Turner makes a few errors of fact -- calling Paul Saffo, for example, the president of the Institute for the Future rather than Robert Johansen who led IFTF during the 1990s -- his captivating prose and accumulation of evidence about the countercultural role in cybercultural development is a breakthrough in understanding the historical underpinnings and rhetorical directions of digital culture. His work provides an invaluable basis for further stories and research to highlight the threads of a complex narrative patchwork of an emerging ubiquitous computing future and how elite networks have imagined and continue to forecast our roles on its digital stage.
Galison, Peter. (1997). Image and Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Star, Susan Leigh and James Griesemer. (1989). "Institutional Ecology, 'Translations,' and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-1939," Social Studies of Science, 19: 387-420.
Lonny J Avi Brooks:
Lonny J Avi Brooks is assistant professor in the Communication Department at California State University, East Bay. His current manuscript in progress is Performing in the Future Tense at the Institute For The Future (IFTF): Acting Out Cold War, Countercultural, and Bio-Digital Visions. He continues his research of IFTF as part of a larger study of futurist think tanks worldwide to investigate the metaphors employed in future scenarios of computing as they interact with historical, sociocultural memories, and present-day realities. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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