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From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism [Hardcover]

Fred Turner

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Book Description

Sept. 15 2006

In the early 1960s, computers haunted the American popular imagination. Bleak tools of the cold war, they embodied the rigid organization and mechanical conformity that made the military-industrial complex possible. But by the 1990s—and the dawn of the Internet—computers started to represent a very different kind of world: a collaborative and digital utopia modeled on the communal ideals of the hippies who so vehemently rebelled against the cold war establishment in the first place. 

From Counterculture to Cyberculture is the first book to explore this extraordinary and ironic transformation. Fred Turner here traces the previously untold story of a highly influential group of San Francisco Bay–area entrepreneurs: Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth network. Between 1968 and 1998, via such familiar venues as the National Book Award–winning Whole Earth Catalog, the computer conferencing system known as WELL, and, ultimately, the launch of the wildly successful Wired magazine, Brand and his colleagues brokered a long-running collaboration between San Francisco flower power and the emerging technological hub of Silicon Valley. Thanks to their vision, counterculturalists and technologists alike joined together to reimagine computers as tools for personal liberation, the building of virtual and decidedly alternative communities, and the exploration of bold new social frontiers. 

Shedding new light on how our networked culture came to be, this fascinating book reminds us that the distance between the Grateful Dead and Google, between Ken Kesey and the computer itself, is not as great as we might think.


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From Publishers Weekly

On first glance, back-to-the-land hippies and dot-com entrepreneurs might not seem much alike, but it turns out that they have a whole lot in common underneath those scraggly beards and goatees. Drawing a direct line from dog-eared copies of the Whole Earth Catalog to the slickly techno-libertarian Wired magazine, Stanford University communications professor Turner follows countercultural figures like Stewart Brand, who shaped the information revolution, according to their aspirations to break down the boundaries of individual experience and embrace a larger collective consciousness. Less a biography of Brand than of the swirl of relationships surrounding him, the book shows how the ride of the Merry Pranksters and LSD experimentation led to the early online discussion board Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (the WELL), and into the digital utopianism surrounding the hyperlinked World Wide Web. Turner offers a compelling genealogy of both the ideals and the disappointments of our digital world, one that is as important for scholars as it is illuminating for general readers. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In this unique, provocative work of cultural history, Turner teases apart the visions, myths, and rhetoric that have swept us into cyberspace. This concentration on the ethos of our digital enthrallment rather than on technology revolves around gifted entrepreneur and networker Stewart Brand. Inspired by Buckminster Fuller, Ken Kesey, and the back-to-the-land commune movement, Brand created the Whole Earth Catalog, an innovative interdisciplinary compendium that won the National Book Award in 1971 and, as Turner convincingly argues, generated the paradigm that led to the World Wide Web. Brand then declared that the computer was "the new LSD" and a "tool for transformation," and, as a hippie turned cybermystic turned nimble businessman, he founded Wired magazine and the megaprofitable and conservative Global Business Network. Turner tells many an eye-opening tale and connects many dots in this avidly researched, keenly analyzed, and stunningly ironic chronicle of how counterculture ideals transmuted into corporate strategies. In conclusion, Turner assesses the myriad ways digital utopianism has changed the texture of our lives and incisively exposes the staggering hubris of the digerati and the complex social and environmental consequences of computerization. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
105 of 110 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid scholarship, cogent argument Sept. 25 2006
By Stewart Brand - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As the guy in the subtitle, I might be expected to have all kinds of eye-rolling cavils with Turner's book, but I don't. I'm impressed by the thoroughness of his research and his astonishingly accurate depiction of the many brief historical contexts in which his story unfolds. That is hard to do even for people who were there.

I'll add here one micro-correction that I gather Turner plans to fix in the paperback edition. In the early 1960s I was not a draftee in the Army, but an officer on two years active duty in the Infantry. If I at times took a leadership role later on, I was just deploying what I'd been trained to do.

The guy in the subtitle CAN'T give a book 5 stars--- it's impertinent. Hence my 4 stars.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent record of an amazing life Nov. 25 2006
By Paul Sas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Stewart Brand is a high-IQ Zelig, who has been a catalyst of so many important developments throughout the last 4 decades of the 20th century. This volume is more scholarly, and more revealing of the social forces at work, than Markoff's What the Dormouse Said. It focuses with great intensity on Brand, due to Turner's unique access to Brand's diaries in the Stanford Library. SB is shown to have been central to far more moments of incipient Renaissance than anyone since Lou Salome, friend of Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud: He joined Ken Kesey as an original Prankster, was the videographer for Engelbart's 'mother of all demos,' then linked up all kinds of communes (including Ant Farm) while founding and editing the Whole Earth Catalog. Besides all the events already mentioned, Turner dives deeply into the WELL, which was the primordial "virtual community", co-founded by Brand. With his vision of power as drawn from network affiliations, Brand then built a consulting company called the Global Business Network, which used scenario planning as a form of "corporate performance art", by fusing countercultural norms with the needs of corporate board rooms. Turner does a fairly good job posing critical questions about how the privileged white male perspective defined the unfolding story. He flags the problem of this privilege, but isn't able to concretely identify how it could have been solved. Read this book to learn how SB helped create the world we live in, and deployed his unique social entrepreneurial skills to stay in the center of the game.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What one person can turn on within these vast systems within which we vibrate Oct. 26 2006
By Shalom Freedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Like one of his teachers and friends Buckminster Fuller, Stesart Brand is an archetypal example of the American individualist- inventor the man who Thoreau said ' hears the sound of his own drummer'. Paradoxically the super- individualist Brand is also perhaps the single person most responsible for making ordinary Americans connect with, show concern with the various systems cyber-systems, eco-systems, communications - systems we are moving within.

In this informed, detailed, and extremely well- written survey of the career of Brand, Fred Turner also provides a insightful and exciting look at America 's cultural, and especially 'alternative culture ' development from the sixties through the nineties. Brand meets up on his travels with 'Edge's' John Brockman, with Ken Kesey with whom he is a Merry Prankster, with Bucky Fuller who tries to help his projects,with Kevin Kelly of the 'Wired' world, with many of those seeking new ways of making the Technology connect with communal frameworks that will enable ( at least this is one of Brand's goals) the individual to truly be an individual .

Brand's most famous contribution 'The Whole Earth Catalogue' which was certainly one of the major cultural influences upon the Environmental Movement, and incidentally the Hippy Culture of the Sixties , told us the way we could get anything we needed to make our way into the rapidly changing future. Brand's work as editor and thinker also contributed to the World Wide Web to come, and the name and concept 'personal computer' is also one of his contributions.

This is an important work to read not only to learn about decisive moments in the life of a remarkable individual, but to better understand the world- in- the -making we are a part of.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insight into America's cultural transformation July 2 2008
By Malvin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"From Counterculture to Cyberculture" by Fred Turner offers a groundbreaking work that definitively traces the rise of digital utopianism to the ideals of the 1960s counterculture. Mr. Turner supports his fascinating narrative with original research and provides many pages of thoughtful analysis. This extraordinary book will no doubt be valued by researchers and interested readers who want to gain deep insight into some of the most interesting aspects of America's cultural transformation during the second half of the twentieth century.

Mr. Turner contends that the U.S. scientific/military/academic complex of the 1940s-1960s fostered radically new, collaborative work structures characterized by collegiality and the free sharing of information. While the New Left was repelled by this system and what it regarded to be its instruments of empire, Mr. Turner demonstrates that Cold War technology held great appeal to many of the New Communards of the 1960s, who had withdrawn from the political in order develop consciousness within music, drugs and alternative living arrangements. To key persons within the New Communard movement, it was felt that technology could play a key role in the task of empowering individuals to transform themselves and their world.

In particular, Mr. Turner focuses on the remarkable career of Stewart Brand to tell his story. Mr. Turner discusses how Brand personified the anxieties and aspirations of his generation but importantly, recognized the value of collaboration as a key life strategy and aimed to repurpose technology for the benefit of society. Mr. Turner follows Brand through the various phases of his life, including stints as a member of the LSD-dropping Merry Pranksters, an enterpreneur who published the Whole Earth Catalog, independent writer, organizer of computer conferences, developer of the WELL bulletin board/email system, and tech industry consultant to demonstrate how the personal and professional networks that Brand had a part in building have profoundly impacted our attitudes and perceptions about computing technology. Specifically, Mr. Turner argues that the notion of personal computing as a tool for achieving liberation and the Internet as a platform for constructing egalitarian communities were rooted in the countercultural values that Brand, and others within his circle, embraced.

Mr. Turner goes on to discuss how the so-called New Economy of the 1990s reveled in the libertarian rhetoric that echoed the apolitical logic of the New Communards, who had returned from the failed communes of the 1970s to seek redemption within corporate America through the construction of an immaterial economy of seemingly endless possibility. Assessing the limitations of ideology to achieve lasting reform both then and now, Mr. Turner suggests that the cyberculturalist task of building a truly egalitarian society will remain problematic as long as its members remain alienated from the material world.

I give this brilliant and thoroughly engrossing work the highest possible rating and recommend it to everyone.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Important book about a major influence of the 60's through the 90's May 22 2007
By Chris A. Cunningham - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As someone who was deeply and profoundly influenced by the WEC, WER, and the WELL, I found this to both reinvigorate the excitement of the different eras it discusses and, also, to tie them together and provide fresh insights. After I finished it I looked around my office and realized how much of my thinking was influenced by Steward Brand and his experiments. Easily 30% of the books in my library were originally recommended in either the Catalog or the Review. I was also an early WELL subscriber and a `Maniacal' Whole Earth Review subscriber so almost everything mentioned here I could relate to.

It may devolve into `professor-speak' at times but it is well worth it. If you want to know about one of the critical components of both the `counter culture' of the 60's and the internet revolution of the 90's this is a must read.
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