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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

While computer technology has clearly changed many technical aspects of our contemporary lives, it seems equally evident that computer technology has changed our social lives as well. What is less clear is how it has changed our society. Many have argued the sometimes counterintuitive conclusion that the so-called personal computing revolution makes more human interaction possible, or that personal computing, especially through the internet, can develop stronger democratic institutions. The question of where this optimistic view of computer technology comes from is discussed in Fred Turner's book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

Turner opens the book by asking his motivating question: What accounts for this utopian vision of computing technology? In seeking the source of a utopian ideology, Turner also reinterprets the source of personal computing itself, arguing that the source of the utopian vision and of computing itself is found in the rise of a powerful symbol: the cybernetic metaphor.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the revolution in personal computing in the late 20th Century resulted from the development of smaller and more powerful computer technology. Turner, on the other hand, argues that the revolution was also the result of the cybernetic metaphor promoted by networking leader Stewart Brand. Consequently, the personal computing revolution was a rhetorical revolution as much as it was a technical revolution. By replacing the 20th Century trope of individualism with a new, rhizomatic trope of cybernetics, Brand helped usher in a way of using computers to communicate as much as calculate.

According to Turner, Brand is largely responsible for the acceptance of the cybernetic trope because of his discursive promotion of the trope as well as his ability to embody the metaphor in his own social and professional networks. While Brand's name is prominent in the book's title, it is not a biography. From Counterculture to Cyberculture is a social and rhetorical history of the cybernetic trope in which Brand and his Whole Earth networks played a prominent role. Throughout the book, Turner explains how Brand blended two intellectual impulses -- a countercultural critique of hierarchy and cybernetic theory -- and how Brand served as an entrepreneurial link between different communities. Brand's role as liaison turned the cybernetic trope into a set of social and rhetorical resources for countercultural and cybercultural entrepreneurship. This, in turn, led to the trope's widespread acceptance as the basis for an entirely new worldview.

Furthermore, while From Counterculture to Cyberculture is an explanation for the success of the personal computing revolution, it also shows the links of causation between the counterculture and the cyberculture. According to Turner, Brand borrowed the cybernetic trope and infused it into the counterculture of the 1960s. When the counterculture failed to sustain itself in the 1970s, Brand was instrumental in redirecting the cybernetic metaphor and its connotations -- decentralization, personal independence, entrepreneurial initiative, and the transformative power of individual action -- and fusing it to the then-emerging personal computing culture in the 1980s. In this way, cyberculture became a direct descendent of the counterculture through its common thread of the cybernetic trope. About the only thing different between the counterculture and the cyberculture was the setting: the counterculture practiced their ideology in the material setting of communes on the land; the cyberculture practiced their ideology in the online setting of communities in cyberspace.

Turner's narrative and history are laid out in a number of chapters. The first chapter discusses the origins and history of the 1960s counterculture and of the cybernetic trope, and it reviews the counterculture's post-World War II critique of the corporate, industrial, and military bases of society. Additionally, the chapter reviews the collaborative nature of post-World War II academic research and Norbert Wiener's ideas about cybernetics -- a significant source of the cybernetic trope.

The second chapter focuses on Steward Brand's indoctrination into the cybernetic trope of networking and systems thinking. Turner outlines how Brand observed networked systems in ecology, the work of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, as well as in Native American cultures and countercultural art groups and communes.

The third chapter focuses on Brand's development of the Whole Earth Catalog as a kind of proto-internet. By describing the small-scale technologies people could use to live off the land, and by summarizing the books and periodicals people could use to educate themselves, the Catalog provided tools for independent living. The transformative nature of these tools, in turn, further embodied the cybernetic trope.

Turner's fourth chapter turns to the development of the personal computing culture. He describes how the cybernetic trope was incorporated into the countercultural values of decentralization and personalization, as well as the development of Co-Evolution Quarterly (a descendent publication of the Whole Earth Catalog), and the development of computer hacker culture. Turner asserts that conventional explanations are only partially correct when they claim that the development of personal computing was made possible through the development of more powerful and compact technology. Instead, he argues, personal computing was actually the result of the acceptance of the word "personal" as a trope consistent with the cybernetic metaphor. As a result of the "personal" trope, people started using computers as a cybernetic system: people and machines working and learning together. The adoption of the "personal" trope shifted the use of computers from being calculating machines into networking and community-building tools.

The fifth chapter narrates Brand's entry into the world of computer forums such as the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL) as a further evolution of the Whole Earth ideology. A simultaneous shift in corporate structures from hierarchical to decentralized structures mirrored and also influenced the rise of personal computing. Turner's sixth chapter continues the narrative of the fifth chapter by describing the integration of the cybernetic trope into the corporate world of business -- especially through Brand's Global Business Network (GBN) consulting firm. The GBN continued the development of the Whole Earth ideology, which was also echoed in Kevin Kelly's book Out of Control.

The seventh chapter considers Wired magazine as an ideological consequence of the Whole Earth ideology. Again Turner argues that, contrary to conventional accounts that explain how Wired magazine developed out of a libertarian political philosophy, it actually had one foot in the Whole Earth ideology as well. The magazine, Turner argues, was as much a lifestyle magazine promoting social and cultural networks as much as a computer magazine promoting technical networks.

Finally, the eighth chapter is a true summary of the book that reviews key points introduced in each chapter. This is followed by a critique of the Whole Earth ideology. The cybernetic trope, Turner argues, not only reveals the utopian possibilities of networked human beings but it also hides the material basis of this utopian ideal. The same kind of collapse of the countercultural communes could also occur to computer networks. Turner concludes that despite its fabulous potential, the cybernetic trope is a disembodied trope that handily ignores the material reality upon which the ideal depends for its existence and functioning.

In arguing that the cybernetic trope links the counterculture to the cyberculture, Turner presents evidence that implicitly explains the success of the cybernetic trope. The cybernetic trope, Turner intimates, was compelling because it was a rhetoric and an ideology embodied in practice. Brand and the Whole Earth network not only advocated a cybernetic point of view but practiced it. Cybernetics, in short, was a form of praxis. It was displayed in natural, mechanical, and social systems, and its display was reinforced by the practice of a multitude of cybernetic systems. Natural systems were analogies of mechanical systems, mechanical systems were analogies of social systems, and ultimately every network system was an analogy of every other network system. The cybernetic trope gained power and acceptance because it described both a set of physical relations and symbolic relations.

Under Brand's guidance, conferences mirrored computer forums which, in turn, were mirrors of his Whole Earth publications. Objects explained in the Whole Earth publications were intended to assist people in creating networking groups and so those objects mirrored those networks. Professional and personal networks blended and symbolized each other. The Whole Earth networks advocated a cybernetic point of view and simultaneously collaborated together in networked groups and brought disparate people together to collaborate with each other in an embodiment of the cybernetic trope.

Altogether, the cybernetic trope was compelling because it created an entire universe of thought, action, and material objects that were rhetorically consistent with each other -- what Ernest Bormann (1972) might call a fantasy theme. Brand, according to Turner, was an actor able to make computer technologies widely used in society by "establishing not only their material utility but also their semiotic fit with existing systems of discourse" (251). Perhaps, too, Brand worked this equation the other way around by changing the status quo to fit within the emerging computer technology.

From Counterculture to Cyberculture presents a balanced portrayal of Brand, the Whole Earth network, and the countercultural and computer cultures. Turner, for example, does not shy away from apparent contradictions between the countercultural critique of technology and the countercultural adoption of technology. From the first chapter to the last Turner explains the differences between the industrial-scale technology critiqued by the counterculture and the small-scale technology they adopted. Hence, the larger apparent contradiction of the technophobic counterculture morphing to the technophilic cyberculture is not contradictory after all, since the personal computing revolution was an embracing of only small-scale technology.

Elsewhere Turner writes with a tone of admiration but does not fawn over these individuals or their work. As a result, his depiction is realistic and believable. Turner, for instance, discusses how the Whole Earth philosophy advocated and strove for a decentralized society but at the same time was centrally-controlled; he points out how that centralized control was often downplayed in order to diminish the inconsistency between their ideals and their practice. Turner describes the ideals they sought and the tone and content of the book praises that potential, but it also reveals the inconsistencies and the counterculture's naivete.

Turner's goal is to assert a hereditary link between the counterculture and the cyberculture. Illustrating similarities between any two movements is relatively easy; it is more difficult demonstrating that one movement directly influenced the other. Turner uses at least two rhetorical strategies to accomplish this demanding task. First, while he presents some direct evidence of influence between the countercultural and cybercultural projects -- for instance, Brand's direct involvement in both movements -- for the most part Turner relies upon consistencies and similarities between the two projects. Similarity is not enough to establish cause and influence, but Turner accommodates this need by providing a preponderance of examples and illustrations to support his causal claims. Turner's level of detail is impressive and supports his overall argument.

Turner's second rhetorical strategy is the use of counterexample. Not only does From Counterculture to Cyberculture assert that certain elements of the cyberculture are descendent from Brand's involvement in the counterculture, but Turner sometimes provides counterexamples from other movements that heighten the contrast between the cyberculture and other societal elements and demonstrate the uniqueness of that influence.

If the cybernetic trope was compelling to the Whole Earth networks, then From Counterculture to Cyberculture is no less compelling as historical narrative. It is impressive in its depth, clearly delineates the complex strands of people and influence, noticeably organized, and sometimes inspirational. Turner has presented an interpretation of Brand and the Whole Earth network that convincingly ties two disparate cultural movements into one comprehensive worldview.

Ernest G. Bormann. (1972). Fantasy and rhetorical vision: The rhetorical criticism of social reality. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 58, 396-407.

Alan Razee:
Alan Razee is an instructor in Communication Arts at Fresno City College. Alan's interests are in argumentation and controversy -- especially environmental controversies and the rhetorical construction of geography as well as the geographical construction of rhetoric. Alan reviewed Eloquent Images: Word and Image in the Age of New Media for RCCS.  <alanrazee@yahoo.com>

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