The introduction to

From Counterculture
to Cyberculture

Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

Fred Turner


In the mid-1990s, as first the Internet and then the World Wide Web swung into public view, talk of revolution filled the air. Politics, economics, the nature of the self—all seemed to teeter on the edge of transformation. The Internet was about to "flatten organizations, globalize society, decentralize control, and help harmonize people," as MIT's Nicholas Negroponte put it. The stodgy men in gray flannel suits who had so confidently roamed the corridors of industry would shortly disappear, and so too would the chains of command on which their authority depended. In their place, wrote Negroponte and dozens of others, the Internet would bring about the rise of a new "digital generation"—playful, self-sufficient, psychologically whole—and it would see that generation gather, like the Net itself, into collaborative networks of independent peers. States too would melt away, their citizens lured back from archaic party-based politics to the "natural" agora of the digitized marketplace. Even the individual self, so long trapped in the human body, would finally be free to step outside its fleshy confines, explore its authentic interests, and find others with whom it might achieve communion. Ubiquitous networked computing had arrived, and in its shiny array of interlinked devices, pundits, scholars, and investors alike saw the image of an ideal society: decentralized, egalitarian, harmonious, and free.

But how did this happen? Only thirty years earlier, computers had been the tools and emblems of the same unfeeling industrial-era social machine whose collapse they now seemed ready to bring about. In the winter of 1964, for instance, students marching for free speech at the University of California at Berkeley feared that America's political leaders were treating them as if they were bits of abstract data. One after another, they took up blank computer cards, punched them through with new patterns of holes—"FSM" and "STRIKE"—and hung them around their necks. One student even pinned a sign to his chest that parroted the cards' user instructions: "I am a UC student. Please do not fold, bend, spindle or mutilate me." For the marchers of the Free Speech Movement, as for many other Americans throughout the 1960s, computers loomed as technologies of dehumanization, of centralized bureaucracy and the rationalization of social life, and, ultimately, of the Vietnam War. Yet, in the 1990s, the same machines that had served as the defining devices of cold-war technocracy emerged as the symbols of its transformation. Two decades after the end of the Vietnam War and the fading of the American counterculture, computers somehow seemed poised to bring to life the countercultural dream of empowered individualism, collaborative community, and spiritual communion. How did the cultural meaning of information technology shift so drastically?

As a number of journalists and historians have suggested, part of the answer is technological. By the 1990s, the room-sized, stand-alone calculating machines of the cold-war era had largely disappeared. So too had the armored rooms in which they were housed and the army of technicians that supported them. Now Americans had taken up microcomputers, some the size of notebooks, all of them available to the individual user, regardless of his or her institutional standing. These new machines could perform a range of tasks that far exceeded even the complex calculations for which digital computers had first been built. They became communication devices and were used to prepare novels and spreadsheets, pictures and graphs. Linked over telephone wires and fiber-optic cables, they allowed their users to send messages to one another, to download reams of information from libraries around the world, and to publish their own thoughts on the World Wide Web. In all of these ways, changes in computer technology expanded the range of uses to which computers could be put and the types of social relations they were able to facilitate.

As dramatic as they were, however, these changes alone do not account for the particular utopian visions to which computers became attached. The fact that a computer can be put on a desktop, for instance, and that it can be used by an individual, does not make it a "personal" technology. Nor does the fact that individuals can come together by means of computer networks necessarily require that their gatherings become "virtual communities." On the contrary, as Shoshanna Zuboff has pointed out, in the office, desktop computers and computer networks can become powerful tools for integrating the individual ever more closely into the corporation. At home, those same machines not only allow schoolchildren to download citations from the public library; they also turn the living room into a digital shopping mall. For retailers, the computer in the home becomes an opportunity to harvest all sorts of information about potential customers. For all the utopian claims surrounding the emergence of the Internet, there is nothing about a computer or a computer network that necessarily requires that it level organizational structures, render the individual more psychologically whole, or drive the establishment of intimate, though geographically distributed, communities.

How was it, then, that computers and computer networks became linked to visions of peer-to-peer ad-hocracy, a leveled marketplace, and a more authentic self? Where did these visions come from? And who enlisted computing machines to represent them?

To answer these questions, this book traces the previously untold history of an extraordinarily influential group of San Francisco Bay area journalists and entrepreneurs: Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth network. Between the late 1960s and the late 1990s, Brand assembled a network of people and publications that together brokered a series of encounters between bohemian San Francisco and the emerging technology hub of Silicon Valley to the south. In 1968 Brand brought members of the two worlds together in the pages of one of the defining documents of the era, the Whole Earth Catalog. In 1985 he gathered them again on what would become perhaps the most influential computer conferencing system of the decade, the Whole Earth Lectronic Link, or the WELL. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Brand and other members of the network, including Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold, Esther Dyson, and John Perry Barlow, became some of the most-quoted spokespeople for a countercultural vision of the Internet. In 1993 all would help create the magazine that, more than any other, depicted the emerging digital world in revolutionary terms: Wired.

By recounting their history, this book reveals and helps to explain a complex intertwining of two legacies: that of the military-industrial research culture, which first appeared during World War II and flourished across the cold-war era, and that of the American counterculture. Since the 1960s scholarly and popular accounts alike have described the counterculture in terms first expressed by its members—that is, as a culture antithetical to the technologies and social structures powering the cold-war state and its defense industries. In this view the 1940s and 1950s are often seen as a gray time shaped by rigid social norms, hierarchical institutions, and the constant demands of America's nuclear face-off with the Soviet Union. The 1960s seem to explode onto the scene in a Technicolor swirl of personal exploration and political protest, much of it aimed at bringing down the cold-war military-industrial bureaucracy. Those who accept this version of events tend to account for the persistence of the military-industrial complex today, and for the continuing growth of corporate capitalism and consumer culture as well, by arguing that the authentically revolutionary ideals of the generation of 1968 were somehow co-opted by the forces they opposed.

There is some truth to this story. Yet, as it has hardened into legend, this version of the past has obscured the fact the same military-industrial research world that brought forth nuclear weapons—and computers—also gave rise to a free-wheeling, interdisciplinary, and highly entrepreneurial style of work. In the research laboratories of World War II and later, in the massive military engineering projects of the cold war, scientists, soldiers, technicians, and administrators broke down the invisible walls of bureaucracy and collaborated as never before. As they did, they embraced both computers and a new cybernetic rhetoric of systems and information. They began to imagine institutions as living organisms, social networks as webs of information, and the gathering and interpretation of information as keys to understanding not only the technical but also the natural and social worlds.

By the late 1960s, so too did substantial elements of the counterculture. Between 1967 and 1970, for instance, tens of thousands of young people set out to establish communes, many in the mountains and the woods. It was for them that Brand first published the Whole Earth Catalog. For these back-to-the-landers, and for many others who never actually established new communities, traditional political mechanisms for creating social change had come up bankrupt. Even as their peers organized political parties and marched against the Vietnam War, this group, whom I will call the New Communalists, turned away from political action and toward technology and the transformation of consciousness as the primary sources of social change. If mainstream America had become a culture of conflict, with riots at home and war abroad, the commune world would be one of harmony. If the American state deployed massive weapons systems in order to destroy faraway peoples, the New Communalists would deploy small-scale technologies—ranging from axes and hoes to amplifiers, strobe lights, slide projectors, and LSD—to bring people together and allow them to experience their common humanity. Finally, if the bureaucracies of industry and government demanded that men and women become psychologically fragmented specialists, the technology-induced experience of togetherness would allow them to become both self-sufficient and whole once again.

For this wing of the counterculture, the technological and intellectual output of American research culture held enormous appeal. Although they rejected the military-industrial complex as a whole, as well as the political process that brought it into being, hippies from Manhattan to Haight-Ashbury read Norbert Wiener, Buckminster Fuller, and Marshall McLuhan. Through their writings, young Americans encountered a cybernetic vision of the world, one in which material reality could be imagined as an information system. To a generation that had grown up in a world beset by massive armies and by the threat of nuclear holocaust, the cybernetic notion of the globe as a single, interlinked pattern of information was deeply comforting: in the invisible play of information, many thought they could see the possibility of global harmony.

To Stewart Brand and later to other members of the Whole Earth group, cybernetics also presented a set of social and rhetorical resources for entrepreneurship. In the early 1960s, not long after graduating from Stanford University, Brand found his way into the bohemian art worlds of San Francisco and New York. Like many of the artists around him at the time, and like Norbert Wiener, in whose writings on cybernetics they were immersed, Brand quickly became what sociologist Ronald Burt has called a "network entrepreneur." That is, he began to migrate from one intellectual community to another and, in the process, to knit together formerly separate intellectual and social networks. In the Whole Earth Catalog era, these networks spanned the worlds of scientific research, hippie homesteading, ecology, and mainstream consumer culture. By the 1990s they would include representatives of the Defense Department, the U.S. Congress, global corporations such as Shell Oil, and makers of all sorts of digital software and equipment.

Brand brought these communities together in a series of what I will call network forums. Drawing on the systems rhetoric of cybernetics and on models of entrepreneurship borrowed from both the research and the countercultural worlds, Brand established a series of meetings, publications, and digital networks within which members of multiple communities could meet and collaborate and imagine themselves as members of a single community. These forums in turn generated new social networks, new cultural categories, and new turns of phrase. In 1968 Brand founded the Whole Earth Catalog in order to help those heading back to the land find the tools they would need to build their new communities. These items included the fringed deerskin jackets and geodesic domes favored by the communards, but they also included the cybernetic musings of Norbert Wiener and the latest calculators from Hewlett-Packard. In later editions, alongside discussions of such supplies, Brand published letters from high-technology researchers next to firsthand reports from rural hippies. In the process, he offered commune-based subscribers a chance to see their own ambitions as commensurate with the technological achievements of mainstream America, and he gave technologists the opportunity to imagine their diodes and relays as tools, like those the commune dwellers favored, for the transformation of individual and collective consciousness. Together, the creators and readers of the Whole Earth Catalog helped to synthesize a vision of technology as a countercultural force that would shape public understandings of computing and other machines long after the social movements of the 1960s had faded from view.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as computers became ever smaller and more interconnected, and as corporations began to employ increasingly flexible modes of production, Brand and his colleagues repeated this process at the WELL, in the Global Business Network, through Wired, and in a series of meetings and organizations associated with all three. In each case, a network entrepreneur (often Brand himself) gathered members of multiple communities within a single material or textual space. The members of those networks collaborated on the various projects at hand and developed a shared language for their work. Out of that language emerged shared understandings—of the potential social impact of computing, of information and information technologies as metaphors for social processes, and of the nature of work in a networked economic order. Often enough, the systems on which network members appeared became models in their own right of these new understandings. Even when they did not, members often took the insights they had gleaned back into their social and professional worlds. In this way ideas born within Whole Earth–derived network forums became key frames through which both public and professional technologists sought to comprehend the potential social impact of information and information technologies. Over time, the network's members and forums helped redefine the microcomputer as a "personal" machine, computer communication networks as "virtual communities," and cyberspace itself as the digital equivalent of the western landscape into which so many communards set forth in the late 1960s, the "electronic frontier."

At the same time, and by means of the same social processes, members of the Whole Earth network made themselves visible and credible spokesmen for the socio-technical visions that they had helped create. Traditionally, sociologists have depicted journalists in terms set by the professional norms of newspapers and magazines: as reporters of a consensus achieved among communities from which they were analytically, if not actually, separated. In this view, a reporter's prestige depends on her or his ability to dig up new information, report it in a compelling way, and make it visible to a broad public (which itself is seen as analytically distinct from either the community of sources or the community of journalists). Brand and other writers and editors associated with the Whole Earth publications developed extraordinary reputations as journalists, winning, among other prizes, the National Book Award (for the Whole Earth Catalog) and the National Magazine Award (for Wired). They did so, however, by building the communities on whose activities they were reporting. Within Whole Earth–sponsored network forums, and within the books and articles they spawned, representatives of the technological world met leaders from politics and business, as well as former counterculturalists. Together, their conversations turned digital media into emblems of network members' own, shared ways of living, and evidence of their individual credibility. Again and again, Brand, and later Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold, John Perry Barlow, and others, gave voice to the techno-social visions that emerged in these discussions.

As they did, they were welcomed into the halls of Congress, the boardrooms of major corporations, and the hotels of Davos, Switzerland, home of the World Economic Forum. By the mid-1990s, throughout much of the mainstream press and in business and government as well, the networked entrepreneurship of the Whole Earth group and its self-evident financial and social success had become evidence for the transformative power of what many had begun to call the "New Economy." According to a raft of politicians and pundits, the rapid integration of computing and telecommunications technologies into international economic life, coupled with dramatic rounds of corporate layoffs and restructuring, had given rise to a new economic era. Individuals could now no longer count on the support of their employers; they would instead have to become entrepreneurs, moving flexibly from place to place, sliding in and out of collaborative teams, building their knowledge bases and skill sets in a process of constant self-education. The proper role of government in this new environment, many argued, was to pull back, to deregulate the technology industries that were ostensibly leading the transformation, and, while they were at it, business in general.

Proponents of this view included telecommunications executives, high-tech stock analysts, and right-wing politicians. Kevin Kelly, a former editor of the quarterly Whole Earth Review, which had grown out of the original Catalog, helped to bring them all to the pages of Wired. As the magazine's executive editor, he argued that the world was a series of interlocking information systems, all of which were working to corrode the bureaucracies of the industrial era. To Kelly and the other creators of Wired, the suddenly public Internet appeared to be both the infrastructure and the symbol of the new economic era. And if it was, they suggested, then those who built their lives around the Net and those who sought to deregulate the newly networked marketplace might in fact be harbingers of a cultural revolution. In the pages of Wired, at least, this new elite featured the citizens of the WELL, the members of the Global Business Network, and the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation—all groups well woven into the fabric of the Whole Earth community—as well as Microsoft's Bill Gates, libertarian pundits such as George Gilder, and, on the cover of one issue, conservative Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich.

To those who think of the 1960s primarily as a break with the decades that went before, the coming together of former counterculturalists, corporate executives, and right-wing politicians and pundits may appear impossibly contradictory. But as the history of the Whole Earth network suggests, it isn't. As they turned away from agonistic politics and toward technology, consciousness, and entrepreneurship as the principles of a new society, the communards of the 1960s developed a utopian vision that was in many ways quite congenial to the insurgent Republicans of the 1990s. Although Newt Gingrich and those around him decried the hedonism of the 1960s counterculture, they shared its widespread affection for empowering technologically enabled elites, for building new businesses, and for rejecting traditional forms of governance. And as they rose to power, more than a few right-wing politicians and executives longed to share the hip credibility of people like Stewart Brand.

This book, then, does not tell the story of a countercultural movement whose ideals and practices were appropriated by the forces of capital, technology, or the state. Rather, it demonstrates that the New Communalist wing of the counterculture embraced those forces early on and that in subsequent years, Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth network continued to provide the intellectual and practical contexts within which members of the two worlds could come together and legitimate one another's projects. At the same time, however, this book is not a biography of Stewart Brand. Brand certainly deserves a biography, and one will no doubt be written in the years to come, but this book makes relatively little effort to understand Brand's personal history except insofar as it illuminates his role in reshaping the politics of information. Brand has had a substantial influence in other areas, especially ecology and architectural design, as well as a fascinating personal life, but these will have to wait for other chroniclers. My aim here is to make visible Brand's impact, and that of the networks he helped build, on our understandings of computing and its possible relations to social life. Within this story, Brand is both an influential actor in his own right and an exemplary promoter of a new, networked mode of techno-social life; so too are the journalists, consultants, and entrepreneurs of the Whole Earth network, which is by now far-flung. My challenge in writing this book has been to keep in view simultaneously Brand's unique individual talents, the networking tactics he employed, and the increasing influence of the networks he helped build.

For that reason, I begin with an overview of the broad transformation in popular perceptions of computing that has occurred over the past forty years, and a reminder of the forgotten affinities between cold-war research culture and the counterculture of the New Communalists. I then turn to following Stewart Brand, first into the early 1960s art scene, then to the communes of the Southwest, into the back rooms of Bay area computer science in the 1970s, and on into the corporate world in the 1980s and 1990s. Along the way, I pause to examine in some detail the networks and network forums that Brand has built. As these explorations suggest, Brand's influence on popular understandings of technology has depended not only on his considerable talent for spotting the forward edges of social and technological change, but also on the richness and complexity of the networks he has assembled. I conclude by arguing that Brand's entrepreneurial tactics, and the now-widespread association of computers and computer-mediated communication with the egalitarian social ideals of the counterculture, have become important features of an increasingly networked mode of living, working, and deploying social and cultural power.

Although it is tempting to think of that mode as a product of a revolution in computing technology, I argue that the revolution it represents began long before the public appearance of the Internet or even the widespread distribution of computers. It began in the wake of World War II, as the cybernetic discourse and collaborative work styles of cold-war military research came together with the communitarian social vision of the counterculture.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1-9 of From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2006 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Fred Turner
From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism
©2006, 354 pages, 16 halftones
Cloth $29.00 ISBN: 0-226-81741-5

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