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
As Fred Turner asserts in his introduction, From Counterculture to Cyberculture is not a biography of Stewart Brand, yet tracking Brand's movements through the world enables Turner to trace the social movements that brought Sixties thinking to new millennium computing. If, as Turner argues, cyberculture evolved through the intermingling of the psychedelic culture of Haight-Ashbury, communalist ideals situated in communes throughout the southwest, performance artists in New York City, and computer geeks in Palo Alto, then we can chart the path from counterculture to cyberculture by following along on Brand's adventures. This cultural movement is also a mapping of the events, innovations, and alliances that Brand forged.
Turner depicts the use of computer technology in the military-industrial complex as a threat to those coming of age in the postwar era, and uses Brand as an example for a generation who initially saw computers as weapons of war and oppression. Beyond the pervasive threat of nuclear holocaust, many felt that joining an oppressive workforce would be nothing short of selling their souls. Yet there were those who saw the potential for technology to be transformative rather than malevolent. Turner terms this particular wing of the counterculture New Communalists, who "would deploy small-scale technologies -- ranging from axes and hoes to amplifiers, strobe lights, slide projectors, and LSD -- to bring people together and allow them to experience their common humanity" (4). Among those who provided inspiring examples and theoretical ideas for the New Communalists were Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics; architect and Renaissance man Buckminster Fuller; and media theorist Marshall McLuhan, later tagged as the patron saint of Wired magazine. In describing the influence of these thinkers, Turner deftly explains complex concepts in lay terms that are not only accessible but also establish the groundwork for the diverse body of ideas that contributed to the development of the counterculture and were carried forward into cyberculture. One of Fuller's key ideas is that of the Comprehensive Designer, who Turner describes as not "another specialist," but someone who would "instead stand outside the halls of industry and science, processing the information they produced, observing the technologies they developed, translating both into tools for human happiness" (56).
Not only did Fuller inspire Stewart Brand, but Turner shows Brand coming into his own as a Comprehensive Designer, first as organizer of the Trips Festival in San Francisco in 1966. Here, Ken Kesey's acid-dropping Merry Pranksters came together with technologically-engaged artists in a social, intellectual, and multimedia extravaganza that is widely considered a founding moment for the counterculture. Embracing a New Communalist attitude, the Trips Festival aspired to use technology as a means of transforming consciousness. From the tape decks and light shows of the 1960s to the web surfing of the 2000s, Turner argues, the New Communalist spirit remains influential in adapting technology for humanistic needs. As Turner describes it, "the Trips Festival, and Brand's role in it, represented a coming together of the New Communalist social ideas then emerging and the ideological and technological products of cold war technocracy. The festival itself was a techno-social hybrid" (67). Brand's role as Comprehensive Designer appears repeatedly in Turner’s narrative: in the creation of the Whole Earth Catalog, in the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL), in his articles in Wired magazine, and in the Global Business Network.
Turner devotes a chapter to each of the aforementioned endeavors and details Brand's engagement with each of them. The Whole Earth Catalog, founded by Brand in 1968, advocated a mélange of products intended to be used as tools for personal, independent transformation. As Turner describes it, "home weaving kits and potters' wheels banged up against reports on the science of plastics. Bamboo flutes shared space with books on computer-generated music" on the Catalog's pages (71). Turner undertakes a comprehensive survey of the Whole Earth Catalog, pointing to its democratic, participatory publication style that refutes the authoritarian voice of the publisher and editorial staff. Brand invited readers to submit their reviews of products, to comment on previous issues of the Catalog, or to share ideas and experiences, further extending the diversity of the publication and its audience. Thus people situated in different communities -- intellectually and socially as well as physically -- came together in one material place, making the Whole Earth Catalog akin to a virtual town square (89).
Turner, who adroitly coins a new term when the current vocabulary is lacking, describes the Whole Earth Catalog as a "network forum," "a place where members of these [various] communities came together, exchanged ideas and legitimacy, and in the process synthesized new intellectual frameworks and new social networks" (72). Looking back, it is clear to see how the Catalog is a forerunner of the interactive and participatory communication that occurs routinely on line, as people from far-flung locales come together to participate in conversations focused on common interests. Their means of shared communication depends, as Turner points out, on successfully pinpointing a contact language, a vocabulary that bridges diverse interests and perspectives. Here again, Stewart Brand served as Comprehensive Designer, creating not only the forum for scientists, academics, artists, and commune dwellers to share ideas but also finding the means for that communication.
Turner describes how after the successful and influential Whole Earth Catalog ceased publication, Brand continued to bring together people from disparate communities to focus their energies on projects with shared, humanistic values. By 1985, the commingling of ideas and individuals seen in the Catalog migrated to cyberspace in the form of the WELL, the first online community. Turner notes that "if the Catalog had represented a community in print, the WELL's digital technology allowed it to become an interactive collectivity in real time" (151). Comparisons and analogies like this appear throughout the book, as Turner not only provides rhetorical analysis of textual, virtual, and actual communities but imparts his own rhetorical strokes as well. For instance, in his discussion of the "Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age," penned in 1994 by Esther Dyson, George Gilder, Alvin Toffler, and George Keyworth, Turner successfully mines the text for evidence of its connection to countercultural ideas, seamlessly linking past to present. Although he was not involved with the "Magna Carta," the manifesto is marked by a Stewart Brand-style contact language and sees computing as a network forum in which, Turner points out, "former hippies, young computer technologists, and government regulators could claim a common rhetorical ground on which to pursue their individual interests" (229).
In recounting this history of cyberculture, Turner employs analogies that are so well crafted that it is difficult not to find them readily convincing. Here, he effectively ties together New Communalists, the Whole Earth Catalog, and hackers:
Like the Catalog, the hacker ethic suggested that access to tools could change the world, first by changing the individual's "life for the better" and, second, by creating art and beauty. [...] Like the mystical energy that was supposed to circulate through the communes of the back-to-the-land movement, binding its members to one another, information was to circulate openly through the community of hackers, simultaneously freeing them to act as individuals and binding them in a community of like minds. (135)Turner consistently builds his argument in this manner, repeatedly finding common themes across time and across communities. From Counterculture to Cyberculture is a social history of cyberculture, and thus much is left out. This should not be understood as a shortcoming of Turner's book, but rather as an impetus for the reader to seek out other texts that offer different perspectives. A book situated in the technological aspects of cyberculture, or one focused on the rich history of ARPANET, would provide an engaging supplement to Turner's work. A consummate historian, Turner has a gift for drawing ideas together for the reader in ways that emulate Brand's gift for bringing people and groups together. In this regard, From Counterculture to Cyberculture is itself a kind of network forum.
Linda Levitt is a doctoral candidate in communication at the University of South Florida. Her dissertation project is a critical analysis of Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, focusing on mediated culture, celebrity fandom, and cultural memory. <email@example.com>
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