From Counterculture to Cyberculture

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Fred Turner. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 262 pp., $17.00, ISBN 0-226-81741-5

Summary

The work, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, narrates the rise of digital human networking through the medium of the computer and the digital utopianism on which this new form of networking was based. In this work Fred Turner argues that cyberculture, in which humans and organizations are interconnected through links between networks of computers(148), was based on military-industrial-research networks of World War Two and post war conferences, specifically the Radiation Laboratory at MIT and the Macy Foundation Conferences. The author asserts that interdisciplinary fields were conjoined to solve technological problems during this research and resulted in a new paradigm of seeing the material world as an information system, “cybernetics” (15) and systems theory. Paradoxically, the counterculture, whom Turner terms “New Communalists” syncretized this paradigm within their ideology of collaborative social practices as many of this group saw “cybernetics” and systems theory to be complementary to their “visions of consciousness and community” (104).

Important to Turner’s argument, is the notion that the “New Communalists” as an embodiment of the counterculture did not initially envision computers as utopian. Indeed as he states the early Free Speech Movement of 1964 rejected the idea of individuals as cogs in the university/industrial machine and used IBM computer punch cards as a symbol of dehumanization (11). To escape from middleclass mores, the New Communalists “set out for the rural frontier” to form “linked” small egalitarian communities (32). In order to set up and maintain these micro utopias, knowledge had to be disseminated and implements for infrastructure needed to be acquired. Stewart Brand, countercultural dabbler and technological enthusiast, would fulfill both needs in his role as a “Comprehensive Designer”, who is as Turner asserts, an individual who would “ stand outside the halls of industry and science, processing the information they produced, observing the technologies they developed, and translating both into tools for human happiness.”(56) The particular tool that he developed as his medium was The Whole Earth Catalog, which offered the New Communalists knowledge, tools, and more importantly, links between communities. Turner further asserts that these ideas were originated in the writings of Buckminster Fuller and that Brand and others embraced these concepts as an alternate use of technology to “avoid becoming technocratic drones”(51). In the process, the New Communalists unwittingly syncretized “ intellectual frameworks and social ideas formulated at the core of military research culture” (51) with the ideology of collective self- betterment and ‘…a meaning in life that is personally authentic’ (34). In the process, Turner asserts, the seeds were set for these people to form links based on technology.

Turner asserts that Brand envisioned The Whole Earth Catalog as a publication based on systems theory, as it became “a contact language” and “structuring principle”(78). Using systems theory, Turner further asserts that the publication functioned on two levels; the first as a communication network among the New Communalists and secondly, a source of distribution of items needed by these alternate communities to survive. In so doing, Stewart Brand as the “Comprehensive Designer” and The Whole Earth Catalog as his medium, systems theory and cybernetics ended up being disseminated to more than the New Communalists. Turner states that the publication of the Last Whole Earth Catalog in 1971 sold 2.5 million copies and was readily found outside its target audience (81). More importantly to Turner’s argument is that the Whole Earth Catalog provided a structural template for network formation. Indeed, as Turner points out: “In The early 1970s, the Catalog came to model the potential integration of New Communalist ideals and information technology for researchers at Xerox PARC and for the leaders of the regions emerging computer hobbyist culture.” (111) Further, the various reincarnations of The Whole Earth Catalog, such as the Whole Earth Software Catalog, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL), Signal, and finally Wired, served to fuse New Communalist ideals with personal computing and digital utopia, as envisioned by the internet and its potential to create a virtual egalitarian community upon the electronic frontier.


Commentary

Scott Abeel, Spring 2011

Rummaging through old publications I found in a barn, I happened upon a copy of the 1971 Last Whole Earth Catalog. This serendipitous find helped me envision what Turner was discussing when he claimed that the Catalog was the originator of digital networks and more specifically the Internet. It is a strange publication, but interesting.

What this reader found as the most interesting point of the book was the paradoxical syncretism of the military industrial research, the world as an information system with the ideology of the counterculture, or as Turner defines them, “New Communalists”. I would imagine that many of them howled with anguish when they read this. Also helpful in this work was the separating of the counterculture into two distinct groups, the New Left and the New Communalists. By doing this Turner strengthens his thesis and provides a greater depth of understanding of the progenitors of the digital age.

Turner’s narrative of the rise of digital networking and biography of Stewart Brand makes for very good reading to those interested in how the technology of personal computing became fused with the idea linking together individuals gave rise to a digital utopia.

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