- From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism
“Relationships” are a central idea in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, especially the relationships that Stewart Brand built and developed through the Whole Earth Catalog, the WELL online community, and the Global Business Network. Brand was an obscure photographer who established the Whole Earth Catalog, which made him a spokesperson for the American counterculture. Then in the 1980s he started the electronic community called the WELL and wrote a book on the MIT Media Lab, which made him an oft-quoted source for the potential of computing technology. Unlike technology-and-society books that focus on the social implications of a specific technology, this book by Fred Turner is about human connections [End Page 824] and how ideas spread through a society. The forums, books, and articles that were circulated by the Whole Earth organization enabled representatives from the technological world to mix with world leaders in politics and business. Additionally, the linking and arranging of the Whole Earth Catalog reflected Brand’s interpersonal relationships. After the demise of the catalog, “Brand continued to bring together representatives of the technical world and former New Communalists, and to link computers to Whole Earth accounts of tool use” (p. 247).
Turner uses the term New Communalists to describe people who saw a transformation in consciousness as the basis for the reformation of American social structure. Ideas from communes in the 1960s, mixed with concepts in Wired magazine, brought New Communalists from “back to the land” to the technology frontier of the 1990s. Turner traces how this happened and Brand’s role in events both actual and ideological. A key ideological concept behind his book is that computers are personal tools of liberation. Like the tools advertised in the Whole Earth Catalog, computers can help people to imagine their own futures. Like the viral videos of YouTube, ideas such as cybernetics can influence an entire group. In today’s networking, relationship-oriented culture it is important to know how ideas circulate and come together to form worldviews. Unlikely friendships can be built around common ideals and goals.
It is interesting to read how a Merry Prankster from the 1960s can become a media guru of the 1990s. Along the way, Brand influenced writers, businessmen, and politicians. The journey is complex and the book is entertaining. An important part of the story is the WELL and how it brought together a wide range of writers who have contributed to works about the electronic frontier. Turner writes that “its contributors included a substantial number of professionals from other industries that had long depended on networks, including academe, journalism, and consulting. For these users, the WELL offered an electronic forum in which they could meet, exchange information, build reputations, and collaborate” (p. 151). Social capital has become an important topic since we passed the 2000 mark and this book illustrates social capital at work. Human relationships and technology come together through ideological concepts. Simply stated, Brand helped people to collaborate and build social capital with each other on business projects and media ventures.
There are chapters on the politics of the computational metaphor, cybernetic counterculture, the Whole Earth Catalog, taking the Whole Earth digital, the WELL, networking the new economy, and Wired—this last chapter is particularly interesting because it describes the relationships and connections between unlikely personalities. What joins everyone together is technology and the ways in which computers are altering cultural worldviews. Throughout the book, Turner addresses events in the history of personal computing in order to establish a historical framework. [End Page 825]
From Counterculture to Cyberculture clearly demonstrates how interpersonal networks can combine with technology to change culture. The tools promoted in the Whole Earth Catalog can be compared to the computer tools we all use everyday. This tale of the cultural changes and personalities involved with the evolution of computer culture is well worth reading.
Dr. Barnes is...