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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
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Fred Turner

In Desk Set, a successful 1957 romantic comedy directed by Walter Lang and starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Richard Sumner (Tracy), a straight-laced "efficiency expert," is hired to computerize the research department of a television network, headed by witty Bunny Watson (Hepburn). Watson and her colleagues in the department fear that the new "electronic brain" -- a room-size computer -- will supplant them and this fear is the main source of series of clashes between Sumner and Watson. In the happy end, as always in this type of romantic comedy, their fear turns out to be groundless, and Sumner and Watson fall in love. However, despite the love angle, by documenting a brand new workspace environment and the social conflicts that can arise from it, the film captured widespread anxieties about computers and computerization during the decade when huge computers first made their way into American companies and office spaces.

In stark contrast to this "monster" image of socio-technological change and many dystopian visions of life in the Computer Age, a much more optimistic and not less dominant reaction to computerization (and later to the internet) was also present from the late 1960s on. It could be found in various forms of popular culture such as advertisements, guidebooks, gurus' books, and newspaper and magazine articles. By 1997, Esther Dyson, a computer guru and "zen mother of the net" (2) as one reporter referred to her, argued that the net would give "power to the powerless" (8), foster "the development of communities" (32), "give employees the upper hand in negotiations with employers" (77), and "serve as a vehicle for greater attention to education" (83). She exemplified the vision that computers are a tool for secular redemption paving the way to utopia: a better way of being and living.

In his remarkable book, a well-researched and well-written social and cultural history of computing and cyberculture, Fred Turner, assistant professor of Communication at Stanford University, argues that we cannot understand the dramatic change in American popular conceptions of computers in the last few decades without analyzing the efforts made by members of the Whole Earth Network, founded and led by Stewart Brand, an influential group of San Francisco Bay Area entrepreneurs and journalists, to promote their ideas on the benevolent personal and social potential of computers. Turner masterfully explains how they associated ideology with emerging computerization technologies.

In the long-term, this group of hegemonic intellectuals has shaped our understanding of the social implications of digital technologies and what it means to be a functional member of a network society. Today, we cannot imagine ourselves either personally or professionally without "being digital": being connected to the net and enmeshed in social networks. In the short-term, Brand et al coined several of the key terms and concepts that were crucial to techno-utopianism and the internet bubble of the 1990s, and which are now part and parcel of our cyber-jargon. In many ways, we live by the metaphors of two of the most prominent members of the Whole Earth Network, Howard Rheingold's "virtual community" and John Perry Barlow's "electronic frontier."

Based on various archival sources, interviews, and readings in American social, cultural and technological history, Turner depicts the formation and the various incarnations of the Whole Earth Network, the people who shaped our contemporary influential and optimistic vision of the role of computers and the internet. In this digital utopian vision computers are seen as a countercultural force, a means of personal liberation, egalitarianism, a place for the building of alternative virtual communities and global harmony.

To account for the emergence of "digital utopianism," celebrating computers and information technology as the prime agent of personal liberation and social change, Turner first explains how the two seemingly contradictory legacies of the American Cold War-era military-industrial research culture and the New Communalists, a substantial section of the counterculture, interweaved. From the Second World War on, scientists, engineers, and administrators in multiple research projects collaborated as never before. At the same time, "they embraced both computers and a new cybernetic rhetoric of systems and information. They began to imagine institutions as living organisms, social networks as webs of information, and the gathering and interpretation of information as keys to understanding not only the technical but also the natural and social worlds" (4). Contrary to the common assumptions about the counterculture, the 1960s New Communalists, the biggest wave of communalization in American history, embraced collaborative social practices, technology, and the cybernetic rhetoric of mainstream military-industrial-academic research.

Turner then portrays the actual meeting points of the two legacies. He argues that Stewart Brand, who visited a series of communes during the 1960s and was influenced by the rhetoric of cybernetics, actually fused these two legacies in his entrepreneurial work and series of publications.

In the Whole Earth Catalog, for example, one of the defining documents of the counterculture (started in 1968), Brand linked very different countercultural, academic, and technological communities, bringing together "the technological and intellectual output of industry and high science ... the Eastern religion, acid mysticism, and communal social theory of the back-to-the-land movement" (73). Brand promoted the vision that small-scale technologies could be a tool to transform individual minds, and by extension, the rest of the world. The catalog "helped create the cultural conditions under which microcomputers and computer networks could be [later] imagined as tools of liberation" (73).

In much the same way as in the Whole Earth Catalog, a series of publications that Brand published during the early 1980s, including the Whole Earth Software Catalog, Software Review, and Whole Earth Review, were a meeting point for the growing personal computing community and its core members -- the hackers and residue of the counterculture.

The WELL, Brand's 1985 enterprise, was a text-based, Bay Area forum technically supported by a new conferencing system. Brand attracted mixed communities of techies, counterculturalists, and journalists to be engaged in meaningful exchanges of information and support in times of new technological and economic conditions. As in Brand's previous projects, it embodied the Whole Earth ethos of countercultural critique of hierarchical government, celebrating forms of collaborative organization.

In the 1990s, when the internet became a popular communication medium, the counterculture ideology of a perfect social order was re-born and brought again to the attention of the wider public via Wired magazine. The magazine, founded by Louis Rossetto, drew subjects and writers from the Whole Earth world. Rossetto's libertarianism and anti-statism coincided with the counterculture legacy of the Whole Earth world, so that in the glossy pages of Wired, personal computers and the internet became tools for personal and collective liberation. Wired called for "corporate deregulation, government downsizing, and a turn away from government and toward the flexible factory and the global marketplace as the principal sites of social change" (216).

Turner repeatedly argues that in all these venues and publications, technologies in general and computers and the internet in particular were heralded as tools for personal liberation and social betterment, thus shaping the public's attitude toward computing and information technologies long after the decline of the counterculture movement.

But Turner has not only provided a seminal contribution to such disparate fields as the social and cultural history of technology and computing, the history of communication, and 1960s studies, filling a gap in our knowledge and perceptions of our collective history since the 1950s. He has done more than this by capturing an interesting, thrilling, and often glorious chapter in the history of the American tradition that Howard Segal (1985) aptly termed "technological utopianism." This is a discursive tradition that has flourished since the late nineteenth century and has both European and American roots and some religious origins (Noble, 1997). Common to all its different manifestations is the belief in technology as a means to create utopia -- for the individual and the society as a whole. Turner's account shows that this tradition is dynamic and changing. Although its different manifestations contain a common nucleus, it has been re-shaped time and time again. Its elaborate and rich content is co-determined by contemporary political, cultural, and social contexts.

Esther Dyson, Release 2.0 New York, Broadway Books, 1997.

David Noble, The Religion of Technology. New York, Knopf, 1997.

Howard Segal, Technological Utopianism in American Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Merav Katz-Kimchi:
Merav Katz-Kimchi recently submitted her Ph.D. dissertation, American Popular Discourse on the Internet during the 1990s, to the Graduate Program for Science, Technology and Society, Bar Ilan University, Israel. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Office for History of Science and Technology, University of California, Berkeley.  <mkatzkim@berkeley.edu>

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