An excerpt from
In a 1995 special issue of Time magazine entitled "Welcome to Cyberspace," Stewart Brand wrote an article arguing that that the personal computer revolution and the Internet had grown directly out of the counterculture. "We Owe It All to the Hippies," claimed the headline. "Forget antiwar protests, Woodstock, even long hair. The real legacy of the sixties generation is the computer revolution." According to Brand, and to popular legend then and since, Bay area computer programmers had imbibed the countercultural ideals of decentralization and personalization, along with a keen sense of information's transformative potential, and had built those into a new kind of machine. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Brand and others noted, computers had largely been mainframes, locked in the basements of universities and corporations, guarded by technicians. By the early 1980s, computers had become desktop tools for individuals, ubiquitous and seemingly empowering. One had only to look at the machines themselves to see that the devices through which the leaders of government and industry had sought to manage the world had been wrested from their hands. The great machines of empire had been miniaturized and turned over to individuals, and so transformed into tools with which individuals could improve their own lives.
Like many myths, this one contains several grains of truth. The 1970s did in fact witness the rise of a new form of computing, and Bay area programmers, many with countercultural leanings, played an important part in that process. And as they were distributed, some of the new computers—particularly the 1984 Apple Macintosh—were explicitly marketed as devices one could use to tear down bureaucracies and achieve individual intellectual freedom. Yet, the notion that the counterculture gave rise to personal computing and computer networking obscures the breadth and complexity of the actual encounter between the two worlds. As Stewart Brand's migrations across the 1960s suggest, New Communalist visions of consciousness and community had become entangled with the cybernetic theories and interdisciplinary practices of high-technology research long before computers were miniaturized or widely interlinked.
In the 1970s, the same rejection of agonistic politics that had fueled the rise of New Communalism undermined the day-to-day governance of all but the most rule-bound communes, and the movement itself melted away. Yet, Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog continued to link information technology and cybernetics to a New Communalist social vision. This linking proceeded in three stages. In the first phase, between 1968 and 1972, two communities began to mingle within blocks of the Whole Earth Catalog offices in Menlo Park. One, centered around the Stanford Research Institute and composed primarily of engineers, was devoted to the ongoing pursuit of increased human-computer integration. The other, clustered around the Catalog and the countercultural communities it served, focused on the pursuit of individual and collective transformation in a New Communalist vein. Stewart Brand positioned himself between these worlds and, in a variety of ways, brokered their encounter. In the second phase, which spanned the middle of the 1970s, Brand turned away from the computer industry per se and toward the cybernetics of Gregory Bateson. Drawing on Bateson's vision of the material world as an information system, Brand and others began to imagine a new kind of home for themselves—space colonies. Fifteen years later, such fantasies of technologically sustained communities would reappear in celebrations of "cyberspace," but in the late 1970s, they marked the dissolution of the back-to-the-land movement's rustic technophilia, and with it the collapse of New Communalism as a social movement. Finally, confronted by this collapse and by the increasing presence of desktop computers, Brand turned back toward the computer industry and its founders in the early 1980s. Computer engineers, he argued, and not the failed back-to-the-landers, were the true heirs of the New Communalist project. By that time the New Communalist movement had vanished from the scene. Yet, thanks in large part to Brand's entrepreneurship, its ideals seemed to live on in the surging computer industry, and Brand himself became a key spokesman for this new and ostensibly countercultural group.
When Brand turned back toward the computer industry, he leaned on a legitimacy that he had established a decade earlier. With the Whole Earth Catalog, Brand offered a generation of computer engineers and programmers an alternative vision of technology as a tool for individual and collective transformation. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he also moved back and forth between the Bay area's burgeoning counterculture and its centers of computer research. Between his networking and his publishing efforts, Brand helped synthesize and legitimate multiple visions of "personal" computing. In the process, he established himself as a voice for an emerging technological community, as he had done with the back-to-the-landers.
As historian Paul Ceruzzi has detailed, the 1960s witnessed a transformation in computing equipment. Between 1959 and 1969, the computer industry managed to shrink the room-sized mainframes of the early 1950s into minicomputers that could fit beneath a desk. In the late 1950s, computers processed information in batches of punched cards; a computer user had to prepare those cards and submit them to the managers of the machine for processing. A decade later, users could find their way to time-sharing machines like Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-10, where they could store files on tape and access their own files without the intervention of other personnel. Perhaps most importantly, they could now feel as if they had the machine to themselves even as other users might be logged on from terminals elsewhere. As Ceruzzi has shown, many of the technical features that we now associate with "personal" computing, including small computers, microprocessors, keyboard-based interfaces, individual usability, and the sensation of interactivity, were all in place by 1972.
These technological developments, however, did not in and of themselves spawn the ethos of personalness to which small computers have since become attached. Before the early 1970s, small computers suitable for individual use were usually called mini-, micro-, or desktop computers. The word personal had been used for some time to describe small-scale consumer technologies such as radios and televisions, and by the early 1970s it was occasionally applied to computers and calculators as well. But when it was, it retained its earlier connotations: a "personal computer" was a calculating device made small enough for use by a single person. The notion that computers might empower individuals and so transform their social worlds did not simply grow up alongside shifts in computing technology; rather, it had to be linked to the machines themselves. Scholars have offered two dominant accounts of how this happened. Many have argued that shifts in the computing interface facilitated shifts in use patterns, which in turn allowed users to imagine and build new forms of interfaces. Thus, Thierry Bardini has suggested that computers have seen the development of a "dynamic of personalization" since the 1940s, in which both computers and computer users have become progressively more individualized. Paul Ceruzzi has claimed that "personal" computing emerged when time-sharing computers made it possible to imagine giving public users direct access to computers. Against these accounts, others have argued that the notion of the computer as a tool for personal and communal transformation first came to life outside the computer industry, among an insurgent group of hobbyists with countercultural loyalties. Members of this group, they point out, built the Homebrew Computer Club and ultimately not only Apple Computer, but a number of other important personal computer companies as well.
A close look at the computing world of the Bay area in the late 1960s and early 1970s reveals that both of these accounts are true but that neither is complete. As journalist John Markoff has shown, industry engineers and hobbyists lived and worked side-by-side in this period, and both were surrounded by countercultural activities and institutions. Two of the most influential of these groups in the region maintained offices within a few square blocks of each other and of the offices of the Whole Earth Catalog in Menlo Park. One of the groups consisted of the researchers associated with Douglas Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and later Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and the other was made up of computer hobbyists affiliated with the People's Computer Company and later the Homebrew Computer Club—Stewart Brand moved back and forth between these communities, and the Whole Earth Catalog served as inspiration to members of both. In the Bay area in this period, the dynamic of personalization that had long been at work within some parts of the computer industry and the ideals of information sharing, individual empowerment, and collective growth that were alive within the counterculture and the hobbyist community did not so much compete with as complement each other.
In Douglas Engelbart's ARC group, computers had long seemed to be natural tools with which to expand the intellectual capacity of individuals and their ability to share knowledge. This vision had grown out of the research cultures of World War II and the early cold war. In 1946, for instance, while stationed in the Philippines as a Navy radar technician, Engelbart had read Vannevar Bush's now-legendary Atlantic Monthly article "As We May Think." In it Bush argued that the same scientists who had just helped win World War II would now have to harness the power of the cheap electronics they had invented to develop a new form of information management. Having built the nuclear weapons that might destroy mankind, scientists should now turn to building technologies with which to "encompass the great record" of human activity and so facilitate a growth "in the wisdom of race experience." By way of example, Bush described a hypothetical desktop machine he called the Memex. Designed for individual use, the Memex featured a keyboard, a translucent screen, microfilm inputs, and the ability to call up reams of stored data by means of a few keystrokes. This machine would turn the ordinary office into a site at which the whole of human history might in theory be called up. The executive equipped with this new knowledge base would not only expand his own intellectual capacities but also enhance his ability to control the world around him.
Bush's article helped interest the young Engelbart in working with computers. During the war, Engelbart noted, following Bush, the American military had developed technologies with which it might destroy the world. In its wake, scientists and technologists had begun to fan out around the globe, seeking to use their knowledge to eradicate disease and increase food production, often in an effort to win the cold-war loyalties of Third World nations. Engelbart had read about these efforts and saw that they often backfired. Rapid food production led to the depletion of the soil; the eradication of insects led to ecological imbalances. In Engelbart's view, humans had begun to face extraordinarily complex problems, and they needed to solve them urgently. They would need to improve the management of information and the control of human organizations in order to do so. During World War II, in the airplane-tracking projects of Norbert Wiener, the integration of man and machine had presented a way to win the war. Now the battlefield had shifted to the workplace. Like Wiener, Engelbart would go on to pursue questions of man-machine integration. And like the weapons researchers of the war era more broadly, he would conceive of his work in world-saving terms. To augment the mind of the individual office worker was not only to improve his or her efficiency, but also to expand his or her ability to serve the human race.
Engelbart joined the Stanford Research Institute in 1957. Over the next decade, he and his staffers at the Augmentation Research Center invented some of the most ubiquitous features of contemporary computers, including the mouse. Between 1966 and 1968, the group developed a collaborative office computing environment known as the On-Line System, or NLS. The NLS system featured many of the elements common to computer systems today, including not only the mouse, but a QWERTY keyboard and a CRT terminal. More importantly, the system offered its users the ability to work on a document simultaneously from multiple sites, to connect bits of text via hyperlinks, to jump from one point to another in a text, and to develop indexes of key words that could be searched. The NLS depended on a time-sharing computer, yet it functioned within the office environment much like a contemporary intranet. At a time when many inside and outside the industry still thought of computers as massive calculating machines, the NLS offered a vision of computers as text processors and tools for collaboration. Unlike their cold-war ancestors, the computers of Engelbart's ARC group were communication devices and, in that sense, direct antecedents of the personal computers to come.
The NLS and Engelbart's understanding of the social potential of computers also owed a great deal to World War II research culture and to cybernetics in particular. Engelbart described the NLS as a system that would augment human intellectual capacities, but the system itself demanded a high degree of integration between the user and the machine. Like the Memex, each terminal served as a tool that would allow the person it served to call up and manage information. Beyond that, it would recursively leverage the knowledge of other workers on the system. In Engelbart's view, each individual's comprehension would be increased by the participation of others through a process of collective feedback facilitated by the computer. Within the ARC group, this process of collective feedback was elevated to a principle of social organization. At the level of technological engineering, Engelbart promulgated a philosophy of "bootstrapping," in which each experimental transformation of the socio-technical system that was the NLS would feed back into the system itself, causing it to evolve (and presumably to improve). At the level of the group's social life, Engelbart worked to create an environment in which individual engineers might see themselves as both elements and emblems of a collaborative system designed to amplify their individual skills. Engelbart saw the individual and the computer, like the group and the computer system, as complementary elements in a larger information system—a system that would use cybernetic processes of communication and control to facilitate not only better office communication, but even the evolution of human beings.
This cybernetic framework aligned the ARC mission with the goals of two seemingly antithetical communities: the defense establishment and the counterculture. Starting in 1963, much of the ARC group's work was funded by the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA was founded in 1958 with the aim of sparking new research into defense-oriented technologies. In 1962 it established the Information Processing Techniques Office, headed by Joseph C. R. Licklider; this was the office that would ultimately drive the development of the Internet. In many ways, ARPA marked an extension of the defense-oriented military-university collaborations that began in World War II. Likewise, Licklider's vision of computing grew out of the cybernetic ideal of human-machine integration. After World War II, Licklider became a professor of psychology at MIT, where he worked on a variety of projects descended from MIT's wartime commitments. He was steeped in the cybernetic theories of his colleague Norbert Wiener, and it showed. In a highly influential 1960 paper entitled "Man-Computer Symbiosis," Licklider imagined a form of human-machine collaboration that surpassed even Vannevar Bush's vision for the Memex: "The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today." Licklider, like Bush and Engelbart, envisioned the computer becoming a communications device; along with the user and as part of a whole information system, it might, properly deployed, be of use to humanity as a whole. "Man-computer symbiosis," he suggested, should produce "intellectually the most creative and exciting [period] in the history of mankind."
At one level, then, Engelbart's vision for the NLS owed a great deal to the work of Bush and Licklider and to the research culture of World War II and its cold-war offshoots. Engelbart's own allegiance to that community was strong: by 1969 SRI had become one of the first four nodes on the ARPANET, which would develop into the Internet, and Engelbart's own ARC group, hoping to spark widespread adoption of the NLS system, had become hosts to the ARPANET's Network Information Center. At another level, Engelbart's humanitarian ideals and his group's emphasis on the augmentation of human intellectual capacities resonated well with the New Communalist emphasis on transforming human consciousness. Engelbart's group bore a strong resemblance to groups like USCO and the Merry Pranksters. Like those groups, the Augmentation Research Center featured a relatively leveled community led by a visionary. Also like those groups, ARC was devoted to changing the prospects for humankind by using small-scale technologies to augment human consciousness. Moreover, individual members of ARC maintained substantial connections to various elements of the counterculture. In the late 1960s, Engelbart and others experimented with LSD and visited several communes; in 1972 they attended sessions of Werner Erhard's Erhard Seminar Training (EST) movement. As Engelbart later recalled, he was "very empathetic to the counterculture's notions of community and how that could help with creativity, rationality and how a group works together."
Brand had met various members of the ARC group through Dick Raymond at the Portola Institute and through parties at the house of Bill English, ARC's chief engineer and builder of the first computer mouse. As members of the ARC group became more intrigued by the burgeoning commune movement, Brand helped bring the two communities together. Steve Durkee, of USCO and the Lama Foundation, began to visit the ARC offices. Doug Engelbart and Bill English later traveled to New Mexico and the Libre commune, where they met with Steve Baer, the Whole Earth Catalog's foremost authority on geodesic domes. In the fall of 1969, Dave Evans, a member of the ARC group, staged a three-day event called Peradam in the woods near Santa Barbara, in which he brought together technologists and members of the New Communalist movement. Participants represented research institutes such as SRI and the Ecology Center and countercultural organizations such as Zomeworks (builders of domes), Portola, and the Hog Farm commune. They also included high school students (from Pacific High) and office designers (from Office Design). Stewart Brand, who also attended the event, featured it in the January 1970 supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog.
Even as Brand was helping introduce the members of ARC to the commune-based readership of the Whole Earth Catalog, his connections to the group introduced him to the future of computing. In 1968 Dave Evans recruited Brand to serve as a videographer for an event that would become known as the "mother of all demos." On December 9 of that year, at the Association for Computing Machinery / Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (ACM/IEEE)–Computer Society's Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, Engelbart and members of the ARC team demonstrated the NLS system to three thousand computer engineers. Engelbart sat on stage with a screen behind him depicting both himself and the text he was working on. His system was linked via telephone lines and microwave channels to a terminal at SRI. In the course of the presentation, Engelbart demonstrated the key features of the personal computer interface to come—including the mouse-keyboard-screen combination we now take for granted—for the first time ever in public. Moreover, he showed that computers could be used for complex group communications over long distances and for the enhancement of individual and collective learning. By all accounts, the audience was electrified. For the first time, they could see a highly individualized, highly interactive computing system built not around the crunching of numbers but around the circulation of information and the building of workplace community.
Plate 10. In 1968 Brand manned a video camera for Douglas Engelbart's team at the Fall Joint Computer Conference held in San Francisco. The team demonstrated for the first time ever in public a computer system with the mouse-keyboard-screen combination interface that we now take for granted. Pictured here are Mary Church (back to camera), Marin Hardy, Dave Evans, Ed Van de Reit, Dan Lynch (?), Stewart Brand (behind the camera), Roger Bates, and Bill English (sitting). Courtesy of Douglas C. Engelbart and The Bootstrap Institute.
Stewart Brand later remembered his role on that day as "just a gig, a one-shot deal." Yet the Whole Earth Catalog, which Brand had started only months before, would ultimately embody many of the ARC group's assumptions about the ideal relationship between information, technology, and community. Like the NLS system, the Catalog would link multiple, geographically distributed groups and allow them to collaborate—albeit not in real time. And like the hyperlinked texts of Engelbart's system, the Whole Earth Catalog presented its readers with a system of connections. In the Catalog, no text stood apart from every other; each was part of an informational or social system, and each offered a doorway through which the reader could enter one of those systems.
In the early 1970s, the Catalog came to model the potential integration of New Communalist ideals and information technology for researchers at Xerox PARC and for the leaders of the region's emerging computer hobbyist culture. Founded in 1970 primarily to serve as a research laboratory for a recently acquired computer subsidiary, Xerox PARC substantially extended the trajectory of human-computer integration outlined by Bush and Licklider and pursued by Engelbart's ARC group. Within ten years, researchers there had designed a computer for individual use (the Alto), an internal network with which to link these computers together (the first Ethernet), a graphical user interface, and the laser printer, among many other innovations. For the most part, these innovations grew out of a technical tradition associated with the ARPA community and with Engelbart's ARC group. One of the very first hires at Xerox PARC was Robert Taylor, who had led ARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office since 1966. Taylor in turn recruited Bill English and a dozen other members of Engelbart's ARC group, hoping that they would bring their understanding of the NLS system with them. Along with members of the ARC team, Taylor recruited a number of talented young programmers and engineers whom he had met in a series of graduate student symposia sponsored by ARPA. One of the most prominent of these was Alan Kay. In 1969 Kay's PhD dissertation at the University of Utah had described an interactive desktop computer; as early as 1967, Kay had proposed a portable variation on that computer that he called the Dynabook. Kay's Dynabook would soon provide a guiding vision for Xerox PARC's pursuit of its own individualized computer, the Alto.
Within the various teams concerned with developing the Alto, two communities emerged. One group, based in PARC's Computer Science Laboratory and including designers Butler Lampson and Charles Thacker, focused on developing the architecture of the Alto and the Ethernet and on pushing the limits of computer design. The other, housed in the Systems Science Laboratory and including Alan Kay, Bill English, and software engineer Larry Tesler, concentrated on questions of how and why a computer might be used. By all accounts, Kay was among the most devoted to making computers into user-friendly tools for communication and creative expression. Much of his drive in that direction came from within the world of computer research. In his first weeks in graduate school, for instance, the professor who recruited him handed him a copy of Ivan Sutherland's 1963 MIT PhD dissertation, "Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communications System." In it Sutherland described how to use a light pen to create engineering drawings directly on the CRT screen of a computer. In 1968 Kay met with Seymour Papert and encountered Papert's LOGO programming language, a language so simple that it could be used by children. In both cases, Kay discovered visions of interactive, creative computing that had developed within the centers of technological research, far away from the Bay area's counterculture.
But Kay had also found the Whole Earth Catalog. He first saw a copy in 1969, in Utah. "I remember thinking, 'Oh yeah, that's the right idea,'" he explained in 2004. "The same way it should be easier to do your own composting, you should have the ability to deal with complicated ideas by making models of them on the computer." For Kay, and for others at Xerox PARC, the Catalog embodied a do-it-yourself attitude, a vision of technology as a source of individual and collective transformation, and a media format—all of which could be applied to the computers on which they were working. As Kay explained, he had already begun to think of the computer as a "language machine where content was the description of things." When he saw the Catalog, it offered him a vision of how an information system might organize that content. He and others at PARC saw the Catalog as an information tool and, hence, as an analogue to the computer; at the same time, they saw it as a hyperlinked information system. In that sense, remembered Kay, "we thought of the Whole Earth Catalog as a print version of what the Internet was going to be." Kay and his colleagues in the Systems Science Laboratory paid particular attention to the Catalog's design. In the Last Whole Earth Catalog of 1971, for example, they came upon Divine Right's Trip, a novel by Gurney Norman that Stewart Brand had decided to print one page at a time on each page of the Catalog. This was "one of the best user interface ideas we had ever seen," Kay recalled. Most users of information systems tend to browse in areas they are already interested in, said Kay. Brand had found a way to lead users through the system and expose them to its full range of offerings.
Plate 7. The cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog. Courtesy of Stewart Brand and Stanford University Special Collections.
The Catalog performed similar ideological work within two other groups that would play an important role in imagining the use of computers in countercultural terms: the People's Computer Company and Resource One. The People's Computer Company got its start at the Portola Foundation, alongside the Whole Earth Catalog. Bob Albrecht, a former engineer for the Control Data Corporation and Honeywell, had been teaching computing in public schools since the early 1960s. In 1968 he set up an office at the Portola Institute, and over the next few years, his office came to house both the computers he used in the schools and a technical-writing business called Dymax (after Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion principle). As a result of his work in the schools, Albrecht had long imagined computers as tools that could be used by individuals to enhance their own learning. In the course of his work at Portola, however, this vision took on a countercultural cast. In 1972 he and his wife Mary Jo, several staffers from Dymax, and Lois Brand, as bookkeeper, founded a more or less bimonthly newspaper, the People's Computer Company and, shortly thereafter, a storefront center called the People's Computer Center that offered public access to computers. Over the next five years, the newspaper became one of the first and most important information sources for hobbyists and others hoping to personalize their experience of computing. With a circulation of eight thousand copies, the People's Computer Company (PCC) printed articles about BASIC programming language and how to use it, discussions of various hardware technologies, reviews of books, and pointers to various user groups. In 1976 it spun off another influential computer publication that continues to this day, Dr. Dobb's Journal of Tiny BASIC Calisthenics and Orthodontia (now known simply as Dr. Dobb's Journal).
One look at the PCC alerted the reader that this was not a mainstream computer-industry publication. Laid out in blocky, letterpress text and illustrated with neo-Victorian borders and funky line drawings, it looked more like an underground newspaper than an organ of the high-technology industry. In large part, this look reflected the PCC's debt to the Whole Earth Catalog. The first issues of the PCC were laid out using the Whole Earth Catalog's equipment. In later editions, the PCC reprinted whole pages of the Catalog. And throughout its existence, the PCC advertised and sold books by Catalog-connected authors. As Bob Albrecht put it some years later, "I was heavily influenced by the Whole Earth Catalog. I wanted to give away ideas." By borrowing the look and the feel and sometimes the contents of the Catalog, the PCC directly linked the hobbyist pursuit of BASIC code to the New Communalist search for tools of personal and collective transformation. In January of 1975, for example, the editors of the PCC decided to put the first widely available hobbyist computer—the Altair—on their cover. But rather than depict the machine alongside other machines, or even with technology-savvy users, the PCC displayed an Altair set out in a desert. Much like the backpacks and handsaws of the Whole Earth Catalog, the PCC's high-tech Altair appeared to be a tool with which to get back to the land.
In this way, the Catalog provided a framework within which engineers and hobbyists could link their own desires for both certain forms of information processing and countercultural legitimacy to the shifting capacities of new computing machines. The Catalog offered new ways to imagine the possibilities of computers and also legitimated the use of computers in nontraditional settings such as classrooms and public storefronts by linking those uses to a New Communalist ethos. This was particularly true for people seeking to use time-sharing computers for peer-to-peer public computing. Lee Felsenstein, for example, was a former computer engineer, a participant in the Free Speech Movement, and an antiwar activist. He had written for the underground newspaper the Berkeley Barb, and he would go on to help found the Homebrew Computer Club. Felsenstein remembers the Whole Earth Catalog as a sort of Bible of countercultural technology. At that time, he explains, technology was a "secular religion" in mainstream America; with the Catalog, in contrast, Stewart Brand "set up an alternate temple of the same religion, of the church of technology, telling people in technological society that people needed to learn to use tools." For those who, like Felsenstein, were both trained engineers and participants in the youth movements of the 1960s, this new religion offered a way forward. In Felsenstein's words, the Whole Earth Catalog reminded its readers that "you don't have to leave industrial society, but you don't have to accept it the way it is."In the summer of 1971, Felsenstein joined Resource One, a gathering of former staffers from a volunteer switchboard and computer programmers who had left the University of California at Berkeley in protest of the invasion of Cambodia; Resource One was also a project partly funded by several thousand dollars Fred Moore had taken home from the Catalog's Demise Party. At Resource One, Felsenstein and others sought to establish public computing terminals at several locations in the Bay area, with an eye toward creating a peer-to-peer information exchange. Ken Colstad, a member of the project, described its aims in a 1975 issue of the People's Computer Company thus: "Such a horizontal system would allow the public to take advantage of the huge and largely untapped reservoir of skills and resources that resides with the people. . . . [It would] counteract the tendencies toward fragmentation and isolation so visible in today's society." On the next page, in an article entitled "A Public Information Network," Efrem Lipkin made a similar point: "People must gain a sense of understanding of and control over the system as a tool. . . . [Computer] intelligence should be directed toward instructing [the user], demystifying and exposing its own nature, and ultimately giving him active control."
The concept of building a peer-to-peer information system and the idea that individuals needed to gain control over information and information systems had been features of both the New Communalist movement and the New Left for some time. Yet, the notion of doing these things with computers was relatively new, at least outside the walls of SRI and Xerox PARC. For those who hoped to turn computing machines toward populist ends, the religion of technology espoused by the Whole Earth Catalog offered an important conceptual framework and source of legitimation. In the early 1970s, for example, Lee Felsenstein began to design the Tom Swift Terminal—a freestanding, easy-to-use terminal that would be as easy to repair as a radio. Although it was never built precisely to Felsenstein's first specifications, the Tom Swift Terminal design ultimately drove the creation of an early personal computer known as the Sol. Felsenstein envisioned the Tom Swift Terminal "as something that could be printed in the Whole Earth Catalog." As he saw it, the Terminal would be "a way to do things in line with the Whole Earth Catalog way to do things." It might be built with technologies developed in the centers of American industry, but it could be used by individuals for their own purposes. With the Catalog and Brand himself as models, the Tom Swift Terminal offered Felsenstein the chance to see himself not simply as a trained engineer, but as a Fulleresque Comprehensive Designer.
In 1975 Felsenstein, along with several members of the People's Computer Company staff, would help create the Homebrew Computer Club. Many of the other early members of the club would be recruited from a list of people who had inquired about the People's Computer Center; Fred Moore compiled the list and passed it on to the club's first host, Gordon French. Within Homebrew, as within the People's Computer Company and Resource One, there was an ethos of information sharing, of peer-to-peer collaboration, and of information technology as something around which to build a community. That ethos would ultimately help drive the creation of Apple Computer and a number of other ventures, yet it was not the exclusive property of the Homebrew hobbyists. It belonged as well to the engineers of the ARPA community and Xerox PARC. Stewart Brand had entrepreneurially linked the two communities, and in the Whole Earth Catalog, he had offered key members of both a reflection of their technological ideals. He had also legitimated those ideals as elements in a larger New Communalist project.
Although the Catalog bridged cybernetics and the back-to-the-land movement, however, Brand himself had done little to address computers per se. That began to change in 1972, when, in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine, he gathered together the descendants of midcentury military research on computing and the members of the emerging countercultural hobbyist community. Not long after the Catalog's Demise Party, the editor of Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner, commissioned Brand to investigate the Bay area computer scene. Brand produced one of the first (and still one of the most widely quoted) pieces of journalism to link corporation- and government-funded computer research to New Communalist ideals: "Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death among the Computer Bums."
As its title suggests, the piece focused on the legendary computer game Spacewar. In October 1972 Brand and Rolling Stone photographer Annie Liebowitz slipped into the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, convened a crew of programmers and researchers, and staged their own "Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics." Long-haired graduate students clustered around a PDP-10 time-sharing computer, entered a few commands, conjured up tiny triangular spaceships on the computer's monitor, and proceeded to blast each other out of the sky. In his story, Brand recorded not only the commands, but also the frantic delight of the players. He then turned their pleasure into evidence of the countercultural force of Spacewar, of computers, and of the freewheeling collaborative culture that surrounded them. "Ready or not, computers are coming to the people," Brand explained in the article's first lines. "That's good news, maybe the best since psychedelics." Stanford's AI lab was "the most bzz-bzz-busy scene I've been around since the Merry Prankster Acid Tests." The Spacewarriors themselves were "out of their bodies" in the game, not unlike high-tech versions of the turned-on dancers of the Trips Festival.
In Brand's rhetoric, the Spacewarriors of the AI Lab became countercultural pioneers. And they were not the only ones. Leaving the stuffy Stanford basement, Brand took his readers to Xerox PARC, where he introduced them to Alan Kay and his Dynabook, and to the ARPANET as well. He then traveled to the offices of Resource One, where he presented the group's founder, Pam Hart. Both PARC and Resource One, he suggested, hoped to take computers out of their military, industrial, and academic contexts and turn them into tools for individuals to use as they saw fit. In that sense, both were making computers into tools for transformation in the Whole Earth tradition. They were also inventing a new, collaborative, play-oriented culture. The programmers and engineers at PARC and Resource One had long distinguished between "hackers" (those who figured things out as they went and invented for pleasure) and "planners" (those who pursued problems according to a set and less flexible strategy). Brand picked up on this distinction and mapped it onto the larger, New Communalist critique of technocracy. Hackers, he wrote, were not mere "technicians," but "a mobile new-found elite, with its own apparat[us], language and character, its own legends and humor. Those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology which has an odd softness to it; outlaw country, where rules are not decree or routine so much as the starker demands of what's possible." For Brand, Stanford's AI Lab and the Defense Department–funded research rooms of Xerox PARC were the equivalent of what he and others, following Buckminster Fuller, had lately called "outlaw zones." The hackers were Comprehensive Designers. Like the builders of geodesic domes, they drew on the funding and technology emanating from the center of the American military-academic-industrial triangle in order to build new, playful, emotionally and intellectually satisfying forms of collaboration. In Brand's report, planners stood for bureaucrats everywhere, and hackers became not mere technicians, but cultural revolutionaries. The computer became a tool for the establishment of a better social world: "The hackers made Spacewar, not the planners. When computers become available to everybody, the hackers take over. We are all Computer Bums, all more empowered as individuals and as co-operators. That might enhance things . . . like the richness and rigor of spontaneous creation and of human interaction . . . of sentient interaction."
In "Spacewar," Brand brought together two visions of personal computing and linked them in terms set by the New Communalist technological vision. The user-friendly, time-sharing vision of Xerox PARC and the politically empowering, information-community vision of Resource One were two sides of the same coin, Brand implied. Both groups, he suggested, were high-tech versions of the Merry Pranksters, and the computer itself was a new LSD. Drawing on the rhetorical tactics of cybernetics, Brand offered up Xerox PARC, Resource One, and the Merry Pranksters as prototypical elites for the techno-social future. He allowed each to claim some of the cultural legitimacy of the others: in his feature, Resource One appeared to be not a fringe group of ex-hippies but a central player in a new computer movement. Xerox PARC, while still a child of the military-industrial complex, took on the cool of the Pranksters. And the Pranksters and Brand himself, six years after the Trips Festival, demonstrated that they had survived the Summer of Love and should still be regarded as harbingers of social change.
This coming together fed back into the organizations involved. At the People's Computer Center, where members of Resource One and the hobbyist community often dropped by, the "Spacewar" article was posted on a bulletin board. At Xerox PARC—if not at Xerox headquarters in Rochester, New York—the article was much loved. Xerox executives resented the depiction of their elite research team as a bunch of long-hairs and restricted press access to them for years afterward. But the young programmers loved it: by appearing in Rolling Stone, they had in effect been compared to rock stars. For both groups, the article served as a mirror in which they could see themselves reflected as technologically savvy and counterculturally cool. They could imagine that to pursue the development of individualized, interactive computing technology was to pursue the New Communalist dream of social change. In the pages of Rolling Stone, the local work of individual programmers and engineers became part of a global struggle for the transformation of the individual and the community. Here, as in the Whole Earth Catalog, small-scale information technologies promised to undermine bureaucracies and to bring about both a more whole individual and a more flexible, playful social world. Even before minicomputers had become widely available, Stewart Brand had helped both their designers and their future users imagine them as "personal" technologies.
Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 103-18 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.)
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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