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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

 REVIEW 1: Lonny J Avi Brooks
 REVIEW 2: William Bryant
 REVIEW 3: Merav Katz-Kimchi
 REVIEW 4: Linda Levitt
 REVIEW 5: Alan Razee

When people used to ask about my dissertation, I'd try to make it sound as accessible and inviting as possible. "Well, I'm writing about nature and technology in American culture after World War II. But here's the cool part: at the heart of it is one of the most influential and eclectic cultural figures of our time: Stewart Brand."

The most common response was a single, dry blink, but some people of a certain age would have a dim recollection of the name and the back-to-the-land hippie catalog associated with it. Almost no one I talked to seemed to know that, for the last 40 years, Stewart Brand has played a key role in shaping the way we think about and relate to the personal computers, electronic communications networks, and information-based economy that have defined so much of our experience in the late-20th and early-21st centuries.

This absence of recognition meant, of course, that the time was overdue for scholars and cultural critics to turn their attention to Brand and his varied and influential array of ideas, publications, contacts, and preoccupations. The Whole Earth Catalog, CoEvolution Quarterly, The Whole Earth Review, and Whole Earth Software Review, Wired, space colonies, soft tech, the WELL, the MIT Media Lab, buildings that learn, a giant clock designed to tick for 10,000 years, the Global Business Network, the Santa Fe Institute, Biosphere 2, the All Species Inventory, and much more -- all should be scrutinized in coming years by scholars looking to comprehend and explain how American lives became so thoroughly digitized, how it happened that American society came to view computers as tools of personal empowerment and to accept an Earth-encasing network of electronic interconnection as a presence every bit as vital and natural as terrestrial life itself.

The scholars who devote themselves to these topics will begin their work with a foundational text by Fred Turner: From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, the first, full scholarly account of the meaning and extent of Brand�s influence. What these scholars will find is a thorough and thoughtful history of how the anti-establishment, communitarian dreams of a segment of the sixties counterculture were uploaded into the high-tech ethos of Silicon Valley, and from there into the world at large. Brand, with his peculiar faith in the unfettered, self-starting individual as cultural pioneer, and his astounding social networking instincts, was, as Turner shows, a crucial conduit for this convergence of countercultural values and digital technologies -- a primary reason why, somewhere between 1960 and 1990, computers stopped being perceived as oppressive instruments of social control and became instead small, smart tools enterprising individuals might use to pursue their own passions, design their own communities, and fashion their own worlds.

Perception is key here, for, as Turner is careful to demonstrate, the counterculture-cyberculture nexus ultimately made possible a collective delusion, in which legions of workers, corralled into cubicles and enmeshed in webs of digital grunt-work, serve incomprehensibly vast and inaccessible systems of global commerce and resource manipulation, yet believe themselves to be on the front edge of a new, limitless, human-scale world of personal freedom and creative possibility.

The story Turner tells begins with the rise of cybernetics and the decentralized, collaborative work style adopted within the U.S.'s high-tech defense research environment after WWII. These features of the Cold War establishment, Turner writes, were taken up in the 1960s by the tribes of New Communalists, who migrated into the countryside to experiment in new ways of relating to one another, to technology, and to nature. Brand's role was to provide these new frontiersmen and -women with "access to tools." His Whole Earth Catalog collected a hodge-podge of books, ideas, equipment, and techniques anyone might find useful for staking a claim in the "outlaw area" of hippie commune culture. In a way that presaged the Internet, Brand's Catalog functioned as an information technology itself, linking together a dispersed community of users through shared interests and a particular perspective on the world.

Organizing this access to information was a theory of civilization: self-starting, imaginative individuals, equipped with the right tools, Brand averred, could reshape the world. He believed that the new ideas and modes of being that might save humans from self-inflicted nuclear, environmental, or social destruction would emerge from the trials and errors of informed, adventurous amateurs willing to "think up stuff and try it out."

By the 1980s, the commune experiment had pretty much run its course, without succeeding at revolutionizing civilization. But a new tool, making possible new kinds of cultural experimentation, was just emerging: the networked personal computer. Just as he had helped the New Communalists figure out what they were up to in the sixties, Brand, through his publications, writings, and social networks, helped the hackers of the eighties discover their own cultural function and social identity. They too were pioneers, using the tools of civilization to reinvent relationships with technology, nature, and one another. Thus did computers acquire through Brand and his circles "countercultural legitimacy," as Turner states, a romantic and utopian cast that placed digital technologies at the forefront of a late-20th century cultural transformation. The geeky-hip techno-adventurism cultivated in Wired magazine, for instance, and the free-wheeling, libertarian, try-anything spirit of the dot-com economy of the nineties, owed much to the ideas and perspectives Brand had been purveying since his Catalog days.

Coming to his topic from Communications, Turner emphasizes the parallel social and informational networks that Brand helped usher into being, from the Whole Earth Catalog itself to the WELL and the first hacker conferences of the 1980s. Turner underscores the traffic from the Cold War research establishment to the sixties counterculture, noting how the New Communalists "embraced ... collaborative styles of knowledge work that had emerged at the heart of mainstream American research and industrial culture during World War II" (37). This important claim is the least satisfying part of Turner's account. How did these hippies gain an understanding of the work styles employed within the bastions of American institutional research? Why would they have cared how a bunch of engineers were interacting with one another? And how did these collaborative styles differ from the collaboration implied by communal life of any time period? Rather than an appropriation of work styles, what Turner in fact describes, without fully exploiting its explanatory power, is Brand's and the New Communalists' embrace of a core post-War construct: the cybernetic whole system.

It is hard to overestimate the influence cybernetics exerted on post-War science. Not only did it inspire the development of the cybersciences per se -- computer science, operations research, systems theory, information science, and the like -- but practically every social and life science made a stab at reconfiguring itself in cybernetic terms. The nervous system, the family, the economy, the social unit, the ecosystem, the organism, the personality, and countless other objects of inquiry were reconceived as cybernetic whole systems: complex entities fending off entropy and maintaining themselves in dynamic equilibrium through processes of information feedback. In the post-War decades it appeared to many people that cybernetics had revealed something truly fundamental and universal: that complex wholes, whether organic or artificial, biological, social or technological, were at base the same type of entity, operating according to the universal principles of cybernetic whole systemness.

It was this particular post-War construct -- the cybernetic whole system -- that animated Brand and others of the counterculture. It came to them primarily through popularizing thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller and Norbert Weiner, and by way of ecosystem ecology and the budding environmental movement. To Brand and his Whole Earth circle, the concept of the whole system appeared as the ultimate tool that could be appropriated from the establishment and reapplied by cultural mavericks in potentially transformative ways. In light of the various impending threats brought by modern industrial civilization -- including nuclear destruction, environmental devastation, and social and personal disintegration -- the key to survival lay in conforming to the ways of the cybernetic whole system. This included building heterarchical social organizations, sustainable relations with the natural environment, and adopting the right kinds of machines, both low-impact "soft" technologies and new cybernetic technologies, especially computers.

Within the Whole Earth network, computers were a tool compatible with the fundamental cybernetic principles of the universe and therefore were part of the solution rather than part of the problem. In the eighties and nineties, voices within the Whole Earth network (Kevin Kelly, Michael Rothschild, John Perry Barlow, and others) could thus represent digital technologies and the information-based economy as fundamentally natural, as the functional equivalent of a flourishing global ecosystem, as the latest evolutionary push of complex, whole-system Life itself into new realms and substrates.

Turner doesn't give his reader a clear picture of cybernetics, nor a full accounting of the whole system's central role in Brand's Whole Earth discourse. As a result, "cybernetics" and "system" become catch-alls for the technoscientific side of the counterculture-cyberculture equation. In fact, they were the very conceptual bridge that made that conjunction possible. From Counterculture to Cyberculture also neglects the important role ecology played in shaping Brand's perspective on technology. We learn that Brand was influenced by his teacher, population ecologist Paul Ehrlich. But Turner does not explore the cybernetic model of nature that emerged from post-War ecosystem ecology and gave shape to Brand's vision of the Whole Earth. Nor does he examine the pervasive sense of looming ecological disaster that, in the Whole Earth discourse, justified searching for a radically different relationship among people, technology and planet. Technologies were legitimated within the Whole Earth discourse according to whether they were compatible with natural systems. In fact, associating computers with natural systems and processes via cybernetics was one of the most important ways in which the Whole Earth discourse helped smooth the way for the digital revolution.

Turner's central, most valuable argument is that Brand and his Whole Earth network reversed the "political valence" of computers and thereby exerted considerable influence on the way we perceive and inhabit our information-based culture. Where I find myself disagreeing with him is really a matter of how that reversal gets explained. Turner emphasizes the transfer of a "work style" and "ideals" from one group to another. I suggest that a fuller explanation is found by looking at the concept of the cybernetic whole system in the context of a widespread sense of impending ecological crisis. This difference only serves to suggest how much more promising work there is to be done on Brand and his various endeavors. Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture is the prime starting place for the explorations to come.

William Bryant:
William Bryant develops tests for ACT, Inc. and teaches at the University of Iowa. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa.  <william-bryant@uiowa.edu>

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