From Counterculture to Cyberculture

Fred Turner

From Counterculture to Cyberculture

Fred Turner

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In his nonfiction book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006), American professor Fred Turner chronicles how the counterculture tenets of communal living, collaboration, and utopianism play a major role in the evolution of digital technology, particularly in the 1990s with the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web. According to Turner, one of the driving forces behind this evolution is Stewart Brand, a leader in the communal living movement who went on to found a number of influential organizations and publications.

Turner identifies a significant amount of irony pertaining to his argument. The Internet was originally instigated by the Department of Defense as a Cold War era method to create a computer network resilient to a nuclear attack. In its earliest formulation, the Internet and computers, in general, represented the mechanized tools of conformity and the military-industrial complex that luminaries of the counterculture railed against in the 1960s. Thanks to the influence of men like Stewart Brand, the Internet took on qualities of openness, collaboration, and utopianism generally associated with the counterculture.

Born in 1938, Brand grew up in Rockford, Illinois and went on to study biology at Stanford University in the San Francisco Bay Area. After a stint in the army, he studied design at the San Francisco Art Institute. Around this time, he participated in a scientific study of LSD, a hallucinogenic drug that would become a favorite of the burgeoning counterculture set of intellectuals. In 1963, Brand took an interest in communal living, traveling to communes across California with his wife. After befriending the counterculture icon Ken Kesey in the mid-1960s, Brand began to organize events centered on hippies and the counterculture, including the Trips Festival where the Grateful Dead played one of their first-ever concerts.

At the same time, Brand was very intrigued by emergent digital technologies. As early as 1968, he extoled the potential of computers to remake the world toward a more sustainable, environmentally friendly future. That same year, he served as one of electrical engineer Douglas Engelbart's assistants at what is known today as "The Mother of All Demos," a high-profile presentation of hypertext, email, and other then-revolutionary digital technologies.

In 1968, Brand also created the first issue of The Whole Earth Catalog featuring products and advice catering to the 10 million Americans living in agricultural communes at that moment in time. Products included maps, tents, masonry tools, and forestry gear, along with emergent technologies such as synthesizers and computers. Brand invited various experts to write reviews and do-it-yourself columns. The final issue, published in 1972, received a National Book Award for Contemporary Affairs.

In 1974, with the communal living craze on the decline, Brand published the first issue of CoEvolution Quarterly, a magazine that sought to educate laypersons on technology and natural sciences. Authors published in the magazine included the legendary science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin and the future founding executive editor of Wired Magazine, Kevin Kelly. CoEvolution Quarterly ran for 11 years until 1985 when Brand turned his attention to establishing "The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link," or the WELL. The WELL became one of the earliest online communities, serving as a forerunner for online message boards and the social networks of today. Commenting on the founding of The WELL, Brand says, "As it turned out, psychedelic drugs, communes, and Buckminster Fuller domes were a dead end, but computers were an avenue to realms beyond our dreams."

Turner argues that by the 1980s, the Internet allowed digital technology to free itself from corporate and government shackles. Individuals like Brand hoped that the Internet, with its nonhierarchical nature, would pave the way for the type of revolution the counterculture sought but failed to achieve. Alas, these dreams also were unfulfilled. For a long time, the digital utopianism of Brand and his cohort caused them to ignore or overlook the serious threats hackers posed to online data privacy. They also dismissed the issues of copyright that inevitably arose as the Internet grew. Before long, computer technology and the Internet fell into the hands of private profit-seeking corporations like Microsoft whose intentions and methods were often suspect. Still, the legacy of Brand and the counterculture continued to persist in certain corners of the Internet. That legacy is particularly evident in Wikipedia, the free, user-maintained online encyclopedia hosted by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation.

As time went on, the Internet became not so much an escape from the hierarchies of modern living but an expansion of this world. No longer a "frontier village" as one individual in the book called it, the Internet is now a place for shopping, banking, propaganda, and business transactions that contains only echoes of the utopianism possessed by its earliest adopters.

In its review of From Counterculture to Cyberculture, The New York Times writes, "Mr. Turner, who teaches in the communication department at Stanford University, is rigorous in his argument, thorough to the point of exhaustion, and impressive in his range."
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