Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Book Review: From Counterculture to Cyberculture

Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

In this book, Turner traces the evolution of the personal computer and the freewheeling Internet from its unlikely origins in buttoned-down Cold War cybernetics. His focus is on Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, CoEvolution Quarterly, the WELL and a force behind the influential magazine Wired. Prominent here too is the California counterculture which developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s and provided a seminal influence.

Turner suggests that this evolution is not merely technological—it was not simply the case that computers became smaller and thus more accessible. The origins of computing in a military-industrial setting and the development of small desktop computers might just as easily have led to computers as simply part of a repressive bureaucracy. The development of personal computers as instruments for flattening of hierarchies, removal of geographic barriers, creation of online “virtual”communities and the like are the result in part of a utopian Zeitgeist that can be linked to the counterculture of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and more specifically to the role of Stewart Brand as a figure who brought the counterculture to the world of computing. This development is intertwined as well with a collaborative interaction within the confines of military and scientific institutions—a culture exemplified by lab work at MIT and Stanford which also interrelated with Brand’s ideas and the processes he exemplified. It is with this evolution from idealistic counterculture to vibrant cyberculture that this book is concerned.

Turner gives the label “ New Communalism” to the utopian impulses that led both to the portion of the sixties counterculture which found its central text in the Whole Earth Catalog, and to the embrace of technology which found itself eventually at home in the 1990’s with some aspects of insurgent Republicanism. He suggests further that the values of the communal 1960’s utopian movement exemplified by Brand and his Whole Earth Catalog were not co-opted and distorted in later years by the forces of capitalism or the state as some believe, but rather became a part of the cyberculture of both creators and users of computers and new forms of computing.

The book opens with the defining computational metaphor as expressed by contemporary writers such as Esther Dyson, Perry Barlow (a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and now an information technology journalist and pundit) and Kevin Kelly (former executive director of Wired magazine): digital technologies transcend the world of governments and restrictions, and are instead tools by which stultifying bureaucracies can be overthrown and new, flexible ways of living, working, and producing for a strong economy can be achieved. Yet, to the students of the Berkeley Free Speech movement in which these writers began and which provided the origin of the counterculture, cybernetics represented a militarized and menacing force antithetical to the longed-for new society. The students of the Berkely Free Speech movement of the 1960’s and their colleagues across the country sometimes demonstrated and protested using computerized punch cards as the emblem of a repressive society.

In spite of the 1960’s students’ perceptions, Turner suggests that the seemingly closed world of the military-industrial complex was not monolithic. Within that complex, beginning with the great collaborative research enterprises of World War II, could be found a computation subculture bound by, in anthropological terms, a “trading language” and a “legitimacy exchange” which facilitated border-crossing and group work by professionals from various backgrounds. At the same time, Norbert Wiener and his associates, pioneers of cybernetics and associated with the wartime computing effort, expressed an idea of human being as automated mechanical information processors but with an added, more benign idea of a system in which men and machines collaborated. Thus it seems, even in the founding metaphors of computing, there were possibilities for divergence in how computing was regarded, along with spaces in which computing work was boundary-spanning and non-hierarchical.

It was the youth culture of the 1960’s, emerging as it did as a reaction against the systems which included the computing of the time, which added the notion of a liberated egalitarian society and communal ideals. It was during this time that two youth movements emerged. One was political, as represented by the SDS and the civil rights struggle, which became the so-called New Left. The other, more inward-turning, embracing new ways of consciousness and relationships and accompanied by drugs and rock and roll music, became the “counterculture”. It is in this non-political, utopian stream that Turner places the countercultural origins of cyberculture in the New Communalism. It is here that Turner arrives at the central questions he hopes to answer: how did the systems visions of the cold war and the seemingly antithetical communitarian visions of the New Communalists become so entwined that, years later as the Internet evolved out of the Cold War systems, it could appear to many to be the New Communalist ideal reborn? Here, Turner suggests, is the pivotal role of Steward Brand as the node connecting these networks.

Brand’s own intellectual journey into the counterculture began as a Stanford student learning about the then-new system-oriented ecological theories of population biologist Paul Ehrlich. After college and military service, he found his way into the avant-garde arts scene in New York city. These artists were developing a countercultural artistic system which were labeled “happenings”—seemingly spontaneous, egalitarian, and participatory, combining lighting, drama, music, art and systems thinking along with Eastern mysticism and involving multidisciplinary collaboration in a workshop setting. These artists were steeped in the communication theories of Marshall McLuhan which celebrated new media and tribal social forms, and the ideals of futuristic technology of architect Buckminster Fuller. Indeed, Brand credited Fuller as the inspiration for the Whole Earth Catalog.

Migrating back to the West Coast, Brand became involved with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who offered a model of an alternative community involving borderless and interrelated self, technology and community consciousness via drugs. As a result of this collaboration with Kesey, Brand became the entrepreneur of the wildly successful countercultural San Francisco Trips Festival—a multimedia event featuring an amalgam of technology in lighting, images,sound, dance and music. Turner suggests that it was this techno-social amalgamation which formed the beginning ot the fusion of New Communalist social ideals and technological products which had their origin in the Cold War.

Once the Festivals were over, Brand joined the countercultural Portola Institute, newly formed in Menlo Park, which served as a meeting place for counterculturalists, academics and technologists due to its location near both the Free University and the Stasnford Research Institute. It was in this setting that the idea began for a publication that would provide access to tools for those counterculturals who were moving to the country to start their own communities. In 1968 the first Whole Earth Catalog appeared, gathering together in a “single textual space” the countercultural worlds of art with those of technology and academia which by then, Brand could successfully span. Turner suggests that this space became a “network forum” – a place where these communities came together in a process which synthesized new intellectual frameworks and social networks. On the cover of the eclectic catalog, representing artifacts from all sides of Brand’s experiences, was a powerful new image of the whole Earth as seen from space. With its juxtaposition of categories such as “Communication”, Nomadics, “Shelter and Land Use. and artifacts ranging from Fuller’s geodesic domes to hammers to computers and calculators, Brand encouraged his readers to see the world as a single system and linked the New Communalism into a techno-biological system.

In the early 1970’s after the Whole Earth catalog ceased, Brand, by now comfortably well-off, moved back and forth between the counterculture and the new centers of computer research in an environment in which the computer industry, computer hobbyists, and counterculturalists lived next to one another and interacted freely. By this time, smaller computers were being developed and the Portola Institute continued to serve as a space where researchers and counterculturalists could meet. For computer researchers such as Alan Kay, who was working at Xerox Parc on small computers and graphical user interfaces, the Whole Earth Catalog embodied a vision of technology as a source of individual and technological transformation and its format was a kind of hyperlinked peer-to-peer information system which seemed like a model for what the new computers should become.

As the New Communal movement began to die out in the 1970’s Brand became interested in the ideas of Gregory Bateson, whose encounter with cybernetics had led to communication-based social theories. Bateson’s ideas provided much of the intellectual background to the CoEvolution Quarterly, which replaced the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand’s flair for networking and entrepreneurship and his role in inspiring small-computer pioneers continued in the 1980’s as he became enamored of the emerging hacker culture. Through his attendance at the seminal hacker conferences he became interested in software and engaged in the developing computer community. As he began to publish software-related catalogs and to involve himself more in the the countercultural aspects of the growing computer industry, his function as a link between the countercultural ideals and computing became more pronounced. As computing changed, he wanted to be part of it, but on the terms which had formed his life experiences. This led to the leap into formation of the WELL—the Whole Earth Lectronic Link—in 1985. On its surface a teleconferencing system like others at the time, its membership and governance brought together former counterculturalists, hackers and journalists who collaborated in a network forum that had been shaped by countercultural ideals.

As digital technology became networked and as the technology industry in the San Francisco Bay area burgeoned, the WELL became a “virtual community”and an electronic frontier” with roots in the ideals the formed the Whole Earth Catalog. It was to be a free, open-ended, self-governing community in cyberspace, in contrast to the information utilities such as Prodigy which were its competitors. The notion of a community of linked minds and a “gift” economy persisted and found resonance in a setting in which collaboration and community had been a fact of working life in many worlds of computer engineering all along. These formed the basis for the new “virtual community”. Members of this community began to publish their views of the virtual community in mainstream books and journals and these ideas began to flow into the larger culture.

In the 1980’s Brand began to look for new horizons and discovered MIT’s new Media Lab as well as the conferences and networks associated with this new media technology. As he met with the computer entrepreneurs of the developing new economy, he formed the Global Business Network, which continued some of the countercultural ideals but in an overlapping series of business, social , technological and informational networks. This networking led in time to the founding of Wired magazine by GBN members, and the alliance of techno-libertarians of the computer industry, former counterculturalists, and social conservatives of the New Right. Included in this mix were the ideals of a New Economy, the notion that twentieth-century economics and the twentieth-century bureaucracy had been left behind. By the time of the collapse of the dot-com bubble, the notions surrounding the social possibilities of computing and computer networking begun by Stewart Brand and his countercultural colleagues had become so ingrained with the New Communalist notions of tool use and indivual consciousness, that the dot-com collapse could not shake them. New Communalists had succeed in fusing a collaborative tradition found within the hierarchical military-industrial complex with their individualistic search for alternative communities. Coming as it did at the right place and the right time, propelled by a clever and entrepreneurial node in the network in the form of Stewart Brand, the ethos of New Communalism counterculture fused with a subculture of the military/industrial culture to form a vision and a practice of cyberspace that might otherwise have been—and indeed might still otherwise become—quite different.

This intriguing book has been well-reviewed, and rightly so. The author has successfully melded anthropological, historical, cultural, and a degree of spatial/geographical, insight into a convincing study of the impact of a countercultural movement which has been taken for dead or irrelevant in many circles. The notion of a clever, thoughtful, and entrepreneurial individual’s influence as a node in a network fits well into contemporary thinking and seems to be very relevant to Brand and his impact. However, from this book alone it is difficult to see what other streams of thought might have contributed to the development of the utopian ideal of digital culture. The impact of Tim Berners-Lee, the rise of the open access movement in the field of information, the open-source coding movement, the information superhighway ideals of Al Gore, the concerns about the Digital Divide, for instance, find no place in this consideration of digital utopianism. Although Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay form an important node in the digital network, this is not the only place where ideals of digital utopianism might be found. Did these other ideals have no impact on Brand or on the development of digital utopianism in the Bay area? Are New Communalism and scientific collaboration the only wellsprings of digital utopianism? It is to be hoped that this book will inspire other attempts to understand the utopian streams in the digital world; there are more waiting to be examined.

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