[SIGCIS-Members] My review of Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Wed May 12 12:53:00 PDT 2010


Julie's contribution reminds me that Isis has just recently published my
review of Fred Turner’s book. This is the text I sent (the original was a
bit longer) but I thought I should wait for it to be published before
sharing it with the list. 

While I'm here: the guy who reviewed Lars Heide's book seemed rather grumpy!
Or rather he didn't have any interest in the use and development of punched
card technology except in as much as it might have had a major social
impact. So let me add that it is well worth reading and is by far the
broadest and deepest account so far published of the evolution of punched
card machine applications over a range of countries and industries. In
exploring the shaping of technology by users it is an excellent complement
to JoAnne Yates' work on punched card use in the insurance industry.

If you come across other reviews of interest to readers on the list please
feel free to link or forward to our list.


Review of From Counterculture to Cyberculture
Thomas Haigh, University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee
Preprint text -- Published version March 2010 in Isis.

Turner’s book is one of the best every written on the history of information
technology. It centers on the unlikely career of Stewart Brand, who happily
for this purpose personifies the Bay Area’s paradoxical success as America’s
central hub for counter-cultural politics, new age fads, and high technology
entrepreneurship. Having arrived to study biology at Stanford University
Brand soon immersed himself in the emerging countercultural scene. He took
acid, hung out with the Merry Pranksters, and organized the multimedia Trips
Festivals. In 1968 he started a business to serve the area’s burgeoning
population of rural communes. It published the Whole Earth Catalog, which
Turner calls a “smorgasbord of books, mechanical devices, and outdoor
recreational gear” showcasing items from birch cribs to electronic
calculators. Its title reflected Brand’s 1966 campaign to have NASA release
a picture of the Earth from space, something he presciently believed would
act as a powerful symbol of the world’s fragility and interdependence. The
catalog’s eccentric scope and deliberate juxtapositions made it a powerful
exemplar of the holistic mindset it promoted. Brand’s slogans of “access to
tools” and “whole systems” promised to supply individuals and local
communities with the technologies (literal and intellectual) needed to
defend themselves against the deadening conformity of government and big

Journalistic accounts of the origins of personal computing, most recently
John Markoff’s disjointed What the Doormouse Said, have celebrated
connections between computer enthusiasts and the counterculture without
really getting to grips with their substance or asking what the
counterculture actually was. Turner argues powerfully for the need to
separate the political activism of the New Left from the libertarian
lifestyle tinkering of what he calls the New Communalists. More
provocatively he suggests that the devotion of Brand and his followers to
cybernetics, systems thinking, interdisciplinary collaboration, and ad-hoc
non-hierarchical forms of organization did not, as they believed, set them
aside from the military-industrial-academic complex of the Cold War.
Instead, drawing primarily on characterizations of the MIT Radiation Lab
made by Peter Galison and David Mindell, he insists that these values united
the counter culture with the elites of the Cold War research world. This
argument implies that the book’s title might more accurately be reversed to
read “From Cyberculture to Counterculture.” 

The Whole Earth Catalog ceased publication in 1972, though Brand mined
similar territory with successor publications such as CoEvolution Quarterly
into the 1980s. As the commune movement fizzled Brand developed a growing
interest in computer technology. A failed publication of the 1980s, The
Whole Earth Software Catalog, merged his countercultural networks with the
world of personal computer enthusiasts. This produced the WELL (Whole Earth
‘Lectronic Link), an extremely influential online conferencing system marked
by its sense of community and wide-ranging discussions of politics, culture,
and technology. It was the WELL that inspired Howard Rheingold to devise the
concept of “virtual community.” Brand’s cohort spearheaded what Turner calls
a reversal of the “political valance” of computers from remote, impersonal
things used by agents of government and big business to intimate devices
able to knit communities together and unleash personal potential.

Brand’s personal networks extended ever further into the worlds of business
and computing research. He formed an alliance with Nicholas Negroponte,
founder of MIT’s influential Media Lab. Brand’s popular book Inventing the
Future celebrated the lab’s potential to reconnect individuals and rebuilt
communities via computer systems. Brand founded another business, the Global
Business Network, to bring executives to a series of seminars and retreats.
In 1990 Brand helped charter the Electronic Frontier Foundation to keep
“cyberspace” free of government regulation.  Many of Brand’s associates
became investors in, editors of, or contributors to Wired magazine. It was
both a mascot and an early driver of the high-tech bubble of the 1990s.
Embracing networks and computer technologies as both personally empowering
and socially transformative, Wired promoted Brand’s friends (dubbed the
“digerati”) as visionaries and advanced a libertarian political agenda. 
Like Brand, Wired claimed descent from the counterculture of the 1960s while
supporting Newt Gingrich whose idiosyncratic blueprint for a “Republican
revolution” mixed social conservatism with a rhetoric of decentralization,
entrepreneurship, and technological transformation. 

Turner writes clearly and concisely, organizing his sprawling story into a
well crafted narrative around the twists and turns of Brand’s career. He
nimbly summarizes the many relevant contexts and secondary literatures
needed to address topics from the New Left to cybernetics to the founding of
Wired magazine. He uses archival sources and access to the participants,
including Brand’s personal diaries, to offer a seemingly authoritative
telling of these stories. Some of these incidents are already familiar from
journalistic accounts. Others are less well known. I was particularly
interested in the explanation of exactly how “cyberspace” moved from its
origins in the 1980s as a science fiction phrase to describe a deeply
immersive virtual world to its vogue in the 1990s to describe text-based
computer communication. 

The book’s primary value comes from integrating all these episodes into a
single story. This exposes the surprising consistence of Brand’s philosophy
and method of operation. For example, Turner discovers commonalities between
the organization of the Whole Earth Catalog and the later WELL network. The
Whole Earth Catalog, cast here as “an information technology,” included
heated discussion from readers and projected itself as the focal point of an
intellectually diverse community. Brand retained his quasi-mystical faith in
utopian transformation and the power of technologies and ideas to empower
individuals. He worked by making himself the focal point of a broad network,
using the rhetoric of systems theory as what Turner, following Galison,
calls a “contact language” for symbolic trading between disparate
intellectual communities. We also see parallels between Brand’s own career
and the vision he espoused of a world of skilled free agents growing rich
through networks and the exchange of information.

Turner resists the urge to editorialize but is unafraid to subject Brand to
historical scrutiny, finding historical voices to note that his networks and
communities were made up almost exclusively of young white men and that his
ostensibly apolitical stance ignored the realities of social class. However
it remains unclear whether Turner believes that the language of systems and
cybernetics Brand and his counterparts appropriated represented a
substantive transfer of concepts and methods from the Cold War elite or just
a fashionable vocabulary on which to draw. 

This book makes an important contribution to historicizing the controversies
of the 1960s and 1970s and demonstrating to historians the centrality of
insights from the history of science and technology in studying the cultural
history of these turbulent decades.

From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [mailto:members-bounces at sigcis.org] On
Behalf Of julie hugsted
Sent: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 8:06 AM
To: members at sigcis.org
Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] Fwd: H-Net Review Publication: 'The Evolution of
Punched-Card Systems'


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not seen this announcement, it might have interest


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