How the Internet Got Its Groove
From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006, 354 pp.
Marjory S. Blumenthal
Where did the Internet come from? Why has it affected society as it has? These questions have prompted several books over the past few years, books that have celebrated the technologists of the 1960s and 1970s, the observations of trend-spotting social scientists beginning in the 1980s, or the pioneering entrepreneurs of the 1990s. A more global view has been missing, and From Counterculture to Cyberculture aims to provide one.
From Counterculture to Cyberculture is a timely, thoughtful, and eccentric contribution to the growing literature on the Internet and its effects. Weaving together strands of U.S. social history during the second half of the 20th century, Stanford University’s Fred Turner essentially presents an argument about the relevance of the Internet by emphasizing its connection to the generation that made “relevance” the touchstone for cultural value.
Turner puts a spotlight on the curious intersection of a few mid–20thcentury intellectual trends: the emergence of computers and the field of computer science; the strategies of large organizations (the military and corporations, which were the early adopters of computers); and the values of the 1960s counterculture, which turned its back on these established institutions and on computers. He links Norbert Weiner’s systems theory with Jay Forrester’s cybernetics, which extends systems theory to communication and control in a range of contexts, describing how their core ideas were disseminated outside of the scientific community through gatherings and publications. In turn, he relates systems theory and cybernetics to the more accessible ideas of architect Buckminster Fuller and media analyst Marshall McLuhan, who characterized the social role and effects of ways of connecting ideas and people and informed the zeitgeist of the counterculture. Turner argues that networking—the connection and interconnection of the tangible and the intangible —has deep roots and broad reach as a mode of thought. This mode of thought long preceded, yet set the stage for, the rapid growth of computer networking in the 1980s (in private enclaves) and 1990s (in increasingly public Internet-based contexts). In his view of history, scientists, engineers, and public intellectuals formulated ideas that were carried forward by pundits and other popularizers who lacked gravitas but excelled at communicating.
Central to From Counterculture to Cyberculture is the curious path of counterculture icon Stewart Brand. Turner depicts Brand as someone who has embodied as well as thought about networking since the 1960s, describing how he learned and thought about systems theory and related concepts and how his various projects fundamentally involved connecting ideas and people. For Turner, Brand has been a one-man network. Without fanfare or broad recognition, Brand has provided or stimulated the intellectual cross-pollination of an evolving set of groups, from 1960s communes to 1980s corporations and 1990s Internet startups. Unlike the heroes of typical Internet histories, Brand’s role is social rather than technical. He does networking, and he finds in computer networks the latest in a series of socially useful tools.
Brand’s career and the associated history of information technology are presented as illustrating an idea often ascribed to McLuhan: that we shape our tools and then they shape us. Turner evokes that idea in describing the Whole Earth Catalog, Brand’s idiosyncratic encyclopedia of interesting and practical tools of value to those living in communes, along with contemporary counterculture events that made use of multimedia tools as performance elements. The tool concept is carried forward in the discussion of computers, the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link (The WELL, the online meeting place that Brand helped establish in 1985), and even the Global Business Network consultancy co-founded by Brand.
Turner uses a specific kind of tool— text—to show the importance of language and rhetoric in image-making and opinion-shaping, key aspects in the rise first of the counterculture and then of cyberculture. Throughout the book, he makes a scholarly case by invoking and citing texts as sources, beginning by using the language of certain intellectuals to make his case for their influence on both counterculture and cyberculture. Though stimulating, this argument is not always convincing. Although the thinkers and ideas he cites were of seminal importance in some circles, it is not clear how widely they were read or how the extent of their influence could be measured, apart from the occasional explicit reflection on them by Brand or another key figure. Turner draws on popular works, such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, to bring the 1960s and 1970s back to life, as well as on Brand’s private and public writing from the 1960s through the 1990s. Turner also seeks to establish the links that connect these key texts; for example, one of the many historical threads traces from the Whole Earth Catalog of the 1960s to the early years of Wired magazine in the 1990s.
Although Brand’s text ventures sometimes struggled (a notable failure, The Whole Earth Software Catalog, focused on software, which proved too dynamic for a periodical), the success of Wired illustrates the durability of printed text. The story of Brand and his ventures also illustrates the enduring value of face-to-face interactions; neither communications networks nor circulating text were sufficient to sustain the flow of ideas and their transformation into action of different kinds. Turner’s tale makes frequent mention of people getting together at scales large and small and the consequences of those interactions. One reason why get-togethers may have been so important is the variety of people and perspectives linked by Turner to the culture behind the diffusion of information technology in general and the ascendance of the Internet in particular—to cyberculture.
From Counterculture to Cyberculture makes broad statements about cyberculture, but it is selective. It revolves around one man, Brand, who moves around the country through a series of ventures and encounters. Yet, notwithstanding his talents and vast personal networks, Brand has no more been the most central figure in the rise of the so-called new economy than any of the other heroes advanced by other authors of Internet-related chronicles. In addition to assigning too much significance to Brand, From Counterculture to Cyberculture focuses too exclusively on the West. For example, the key face-to-face interactions in the 1980s and 1990s described in the book tend to occur on the West Coast, especially in the Bay Area, and others are elsewhere in the West (such as New Mexico). The Western bent seems consistent with another aspect of Turner’s selectivity: the characterization of the nature and role of government. The key 1990s political figure in From Counterculture to Cyberculture is Newt Gingrich, who led the Republican revolution in Congress in the early to mid-1990s, the period in which the Internet emerged on the public scene. Clearly, Gingrich’s politics fit the libertarian theme Turner uses as one way to connect the 1960s counterculture to the later cyberculture. But the almost complete neglect of the role of Senator–turned–Vice President Al Gore and the early Clinton administration emphasis on information infrastructure, beginning well before Gingrich became House speaker and infotech cheerleader, seems to sacrifice history to an effort to tell a coherent story. For all of its ponderousness, the Clinton administration’s Information Infrastructure Task Force, associated private-sector advisory committee, and electronic commerce initiative composed an evangelizing force instigating discussions (and writing) across the country and even internationally. These discussions were as influential as Wired in the mid-1990s, promoting discussion of the Internet and its uses and impacts and ideas for new telecommunications legislation. Their absence from From Counterculture to Cyberculture is one reason why the book’s treatment of the 1990s seems particularly thin.
One of the East Coast entities that Turner does address is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Media Lab, about which Brand wrote a popular book in the late 1980s. It is an important selection, because the lab focuses on innovations in and creative uses of tools, unlike MIT’s (since renamed) Laboratory for Computer Science, which focuses more on creating fundamental information technology concepts and systems. Turner shares the sizzle that the Media Lab and its charismatic leader Nicholas Negroponte, an early backer of and contributor to Wired, are known for. But perhaps because the book seems to end at the turn of the century, it does not address the difficulties that the Media Lab has had in sustaining a viable operating model. Doing so might have complemented the acknowledgement of challenges faced by Wired and motivated more reflection on the limits of cyberculture, at least the aspects that may be most closely linked to counterculture veterans.
Turner is explicit about one selective element in his history: the focus on well-educated and financially comfortable white American males. Given that characterization, and abetted by the occasional quotations from women or the discussion of one exceptional woman, Esther Dyson, the reader wonders what was happening outside of the fraternity. From Counterculture to Cyberculture invites, implicitly, a history of cyberculture for the rest of us— women, Americans of color, and people in different parts of the country and the world. After all, cyberculture is global in all senses of the word and is increasingly a matter of interest for the whole of Earth’s population. In the end, Turner’s portrait of Stewart Brand, his friends, and his work proves provincial, but it nevertheless is an intriguing and thought-provoking tale.
Marjory S. Blumenthal ([email protected]), an associate provost at Georgetown University, is the former executive director of the National Research Council’s Computer Science and Telecommunications Board.