Review: From Counterculture to Cyberculture

On: September 15, 2007
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here


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What follows is a summary and review of Fred Turner’s book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

Nerd Politics?
A recent Ask Slashdot piece appeared with the headline, “Why are so many nerds libertarians?” The interrogator suggests this is linked to the incompatiblity of Leftist ideals and high incomes, but a more likely answer can be sensed further down the thread (far below the funny let’s-mock-Ayn-Rand’s-stilted-prose detour):

“[T]his is the core of libertarian thought: if I’m not hurting you, leave me the hell alone. Don’t tell me what to do. Don’t order me to attend your schools. Don’t take my money for your causes. Let me trade freely (for example, let me buy sugar from Cuba). Let me read, or view, or say, what I want. I don’t need you to tell me what to do; I’m quite capable of figuring it out for myself. Let me have sex with any adult I want, male or female (n.b. I’m quite straight, but I see no reason to surpress other adults’ desires; I’m still protective of minors). Let me put into my body what I choose to put in it.


Why are so many nerds libertarian? Because you can’t code by rote. You can’t create or develop a new application following someone else’s rules. It requires individual thought, individual judgement, and individual spirit – exactly the same qualities that caused you to be either bored to tears, or jeered at, or socially ostracized at school. So when you finally come to political awareness, and realize that the GOP and the Dems are two sides of the same coin – both of them take your money, lie to you, and shove crap down your throat, while they live high on the hog on your dime (I’m not going to say which side is worse; to me, they’re both squalid), you’re eager to find a personal philosophy that avoids their traps. Libertarians are basically socially progressive and financially conservative. It seems like a logical philosophy, and we’re basically logical people.”

The author of this comment, Brickwall, suggests the trend is linked to a deep-rooted sense of individualism – thought, judgement and spirit, he says. But where he argues that this mix of ‘socially progressive and financially conservative’ politics is simply ‘logical’, one could take a different route, tracing the history of ‘nerd-politics’ to the odd marriage of Newt Gengrich’s Neo-Conservativism with the pages of Wired circa 1996, and then even further back. In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner does exactly this, arguing convincingly that the libertarian world-view so strongly associated with the Web, as well as the corresponding emphasis on de-regulation and on individual responsibility, is intricately tied to the project begun by a distinctive faction of 1960s counterculture, the group he terms the New Communalists.

Turner understands the ‘back-to-the-landers’ who started communes all around the U.S. (but mostly around San Francisco) largely in terms of how their politics contrasted the insurgency and anti-war protests of the New Left: folk music may have been for everyone, but marching certainly wasn’t. Instead, against the twin fears of Communism and the grey-flannel machinery of the adult life they faced at home, the New Communalists set out to make tangible their drive for autonomy with Geodesic domes and mind-altering drugs, establishing what they felt were new, self-sustaining ways of living. (Turner explains, though, that these ways of living were neither different to those of the society they left – in many cases ‘traditonal’ gender roles persisted, and racial divides were hardly breached – nor especially self-sustaining, as most of the communes broke down when money and/or patience weared thin). Heavily influenced by Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics and later developments in systems-theory, and by the eccentric techno-enthusiasm of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, the New Communalists valued ‘local’ technologies for realization of the self. In their view, a new kind of society was a matter of reconfiguring one’s relation to the world, and psychedelics and new technologies were means to achieving this.

The Whole Earth Catalog as Network Forum

The central object of Turner’s analysis is the periodical that brought the geographically disperse communalists together – the Whole Earth Catalog, started in 1968 by Stewart Brand. The Catalog aimed to be a comprehensive guide to the products and tools necessary to Communalist living. The bizarre (but by no means arbitrary) range of products on offer included shirts made of Buckskin, table-top calculators and Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics: Or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. The juxtaposition of nature, Eastern philosophy, technology and science in a single discursive space was arguably new, but had its roots in Brand’s personal history as well as in the writings of Wiener, McLuhan and others.

By its second issue, the Catalog was publishing what today one would call ‘user-generated content’, or stories, tips, reviews and other submissions provided by readers of the Catalog. Readers saw the products in the catalog not just as tools but as parts of larger processes, something you would interact with, and the instant popularity of the Catalog suggests they felt the same way about it. They had a relationship to technology that can be described as intimate and personal, somewhat surprising for a group supposedly rebelling against the coldness of industry-obsessed America. In the ‘process’ of Catalog production and consumption, Turner sees strong correlations with the New Communalists’ turn to Cybernetics: “Systems theory became a contact language and a structuring principle. It organized the Catalog’s contents and shaped the reader’s role in regard to those contents […] it also provided Stewart Brand with a theory of editorial process and management practice that was particularly well suited to the coordination of multiple communities” (79).

New Communalists were not the only group interested in the Catalog, though. Turner looks at the various communities Brand became implicated in over the years, from the lower-Manhattan art scene to the Stanford Research Institute. Brand’s activities brought him in relative proximity, if not always direct contact, with a number of new media visionaries: Alan Kay, Seymour Papert and Douglas Engelbart, to name a few. In turn, these engineers, and even high ranking officials in the military-industrial complex (e.g. Herman Kahn), displayed an active interest in this wing of the counterculture (often going so far as experimenting with LSD themselves).

Throughout the book, Turner presents the reader with sites, such as the Catalog but also events like the 1966 Trips Festival, where engineers and bohemians came together, and that allowed for the confluence of their ideas about new technologies and the ‘augmentation’ of human intellect. There is an emphasis on the ways this particular chapter of the counterculture side-stepped traditional politics, believing that the answer to society’s problems were not to be found in a ‘broken’ system, but in the prioritization of a holistic view of the technologically-enhanced, autonomous individual. In focusing on technology in this way, the communalists also went some way in shaping it, at the very least offering engineers ways to imagine new technologies and their uses (e.g. through the ‘network forum’ of the Catalog itself).

Networks for the New Economy

In later chapters, Turner follows Stewart Brand into the 1980s – a decade after the counterculture’s official demise – to the establishment of the Catalog‘s more famous descendant, the World Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL). The WELL brought together many writers and (future) pundits, such as Howard Rheingold and Kevin Kelly, who would go on to frame public understandings of the Net and its implications. But as Turner points out, disembodiment doesn’t mean diversity: similar to the New Communalist movement itself, the WELL was populated chiefly by like-minded individuals from the Bay Area. (For the most part, it was the domain of Counterculture veterans and, infamously, hordes of Grateful Dead fans.) From there, Brand co-founded the Global Business Network, an influential consultancy group that drew on the WELL and other network contacts as it took on high-profile corporate and government clients. Kevin Kelly, meanwhile, helped Wired magazine become the voice of a generation and a leader in the charge toward the dot-com bubble.

When describing these events, Turner carefully positions them alongside revisions to the ways various actors’ believe they can bring about social change. The authority of systems-theory never abated, but had to be adjusted. In light of the counterculture’s ‘failure’ and following the work of cybernetician Gregory Bateson, Brand and others concluded that rather than attempt to rework the system from the outside, they had to acknowledge their place within it and attempt to optimize coevolution.

For Turner, the importance of such moves cannot be downplayed, as they provided an ideological foundation for later developments in which the former counterculturalists espoused network-centric, pro-business optimism. Perhaps most significantly, Wired offered a forum where “New Right pundits and politicians, poffering a highly libertarian version of the social impact of digital technologies, could be integrated into the Whole Earth’s story of world-saving countercultural revolution” (222). A year after New Gingrich’s appearance on the magazine’s cover, Wired published an article called ‘The Long Boom’, about the potential for ‘sustained’ growth in the New Economy. And we all know how that turned out…

Tools for Qualifying ‘New’ Media

The value of From Counterculture to Cyberculture goes beyond its contributions regarding the continuities between the two movements. Turner shows how Brand and Co. were a driving force not only in the embrace of libertarian ideals and the social construction of digital technology, but also in the production of other, less obvious features of today’s network society. For instance, the various forums Brand and Kelly helped create, especially Wired, broke down some modernist conceptions of journalistic practice: in the networked world, persons may variously serve as sources, subjects and authors of stories. In the conclusion to this book and elsewhere, Turner (2005; 2007) makes the strong claim that such a breakdown of categories requires adjustments to the way we do Journalism (and by extension Media) Studies. The knowledge that this reorganization of roles is not purely a technological feat, and that technologies must be made to achieve such effects, will surely benefit work in new media studies (e.g. as an adjunct to current understandings of blogs as ‘citizen journalism’).

That said, there are more histories to be written here. The network forums that brought together counterculturalists, engineers and eventually political leaders, were involved in the construction of a different kind of citizen – perhaps connected to what Nikolas Rose (1999) calls the ‘responsibilization’ of the self, and what Andrew Barry (2001) terms ‘active’ citizenship. The ability to navigate the changing social and economic landscape, and to come to terms with the increasing fluidity of the private and public spheres, is hardly a feature of my mobile phone, and can also be ‘historicized’. So I find it telling, for example, that in 1968 the World Earth Catalog was addressing its readers as ‘users’. As Turner says in his conclusion, “It is time to revise our understanding of both the counterculture of the 1960s and its relationship to the rise of postindustrial forms of production and culture” (239-40). And I think this book is an excellent starting point for doing so.

Works Cited

Andrew Barry (2001), Political Machines: Governing a Technological Society, Athlone Press: London.
Nikolas Rose (1999), Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Fred Turner (2006), From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, Chicago: UCP.
Fred Turner (2005), “Actor-Networking the News,” in Social Epistemology, 19(4): 321-4.

Publisher Info

From Counterculture to Cyberculture

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