From Counterculture to Cyberculture I

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism intends to present a history of thought from the 1960’s into the new institutions and ideologies of the networks that rose to prominence in the 90’s. The “prequel” book traced American countercultural thought from the ’60’s back into the 1930’s [the Digital Surround, notes here and here].

[In the mid 1990’s] 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.

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.

Thirty years before, computerization was seen by the same class of folk as a dehumanizing, centralizing, bureaucratic force. “How did the cultural meaning of information technology shift so drastically?”

Partly, it must be technological. By the ’90’s, computers could afford new interactions- they were cheaper, smaller, and more personalizable, in contrast to the expensive, protected behemoths that only select few could use in the 60’s. There were more obvious uses for them than directly controlling the masses- they can produce personal spreadsheets or act as communication devices.

Turner does not think that physical technological innovation accounts for the complete change of heart, the attachment of utopian visions to the computer. “Personal” technologies are not just technologies that any individual can have- there is more social/ideological baggage there.

“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”.

Turner intends, as I’ve noted, to trace these ideas to Stewart Brand and the culture around the Whole Earth network in the San Francisco Bay area: important milestones in this line include the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog, the establishment in 1985 of the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), and the establishment of Wired in 1993. I would also add that his involvement with the Merry Pranksters would also spin off a movement called New Games in the ’70’s that I might talk about some time. It may also go without saying that he is also the founder of the Long Now Foundation (est. “02003”), which played a role in the breaking of my mind some years ago.

“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.” The common myth is of a failed social revolution, in staunch opposition to the military-industry complex, corporate capitalism and consumer culture. “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. The workers in this system tinkered with these technologies and ideas, beginning to “imagine institutions as 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.” Swaths of the counterculture did, too, and the Whole Earth Catalog was for them. For these particular counterculturalists, (Turner will call them “New Communalists”) the political system was bankrupt and so they resolved to turn their backs on politics “and toward technology and the transformation of consciousness as the primary sources of social change.” The hippies rejected the military-industrial complex but still consumed academic literatures: Norbert Wiener, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan. Cybernetic thought yielded a kind of broad ecological ideology- the whole earth is a single information system. Human material reality was an information system.

The rhetoric and framework of cybernetics were one set of tools in Stewart Brand’s toolbox- after graduating from Stanford he traveled “into the bohemian art worlds of San Francisco and New York”, networking and rhetorically knitting disparate social networks together. “In the Whole Earth Catalog era, these networks spanned the worlds of scientific research, hippie homesteading, ecology, and mainstream consumer culture. By the 1990’s they would include representatives of the Defense Department, the US Congress, global corporations such as Shell Oil, and makers of all sorts of digital software and equipment.”

Brand’s various publications would blend rhetorics and concepts from different groups and refactor them, they would create communities around them and disseminate the ideas into the broader culture. “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.”

In short, the 1960’s were not a bizarre break from history. Political agnosticism was dropped, and technology, consciousness, and entrepreneurship were treated as the “principles of a new society.”

The Shifting Politics of the Computational Metaphor

Clark Kerr, 1963: The University is a “mechanism- a series of processes producing a series of results- a mechanism held together by administrative rules and power by money”, a mechanism serving two purposes:

  1. Generating new knowledge and workers for an emerging “information society” (citing Fritz Machlup)
  2. Cold War pressure to weaponize intellect: “Intellect has… become an instrument of national purpose, a component part of the ‘military-industrial complex’ … In the war of ideological worlds, a great deal depends on the use of this instrument.”

In this era, the university was often cast by student protesters as a microcosm of the military-industrial complex itself. “At the time, no machine more commonly represented this stratified, depersonalized social order than the computer.”

Hal Draper (librarian at Berkeley, 1964): [For a student,] “the mass university of today is an overpowering, over-towering, impersonal, alien machine in which he is nothing but a cog going through pre-programmed motions- the IBM syndrome.”

The machine metaphor was used to describe and compare a variety of authoritarian social systems: the corporate world, the military, the university. In all of these, there are assigned organizational roles, forcing participants to be limited in their expression. And so, by sitting in and laying themselves at the entrance of the University/KnowledgeMachine, they meant to stop the machine.

Mario Savio, 1964 [Free Speech Movement, Berkeley]: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

Contrast with:

John Perry Barlow, 1996 [“Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace”, in response to recent  Communications Decency Act]: “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice according to race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. […] [The industrial world’s Governments’] legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here. […] Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge.”

Barlow is not isolated. Esther Dyson’s popular 1997 Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age also predicted that the Internet would melt bureaucracy, distributing information to allow any two entities (humans and corporations) to negotiate as equals.

Kevin Kelly, New Rules for the New Economy: “The principles governing the world of the soft- the world of intangibles, of media, of software, and of services- will soon command the world of the hard- the world of reality, of atoms, of objects, of steel and oil, and of the hard work done by the sweat of brows. […] Those who obey the logic of the net, and who understand that we are entering into a realm with new rules will have a keen advantage in the new economy.” Kelly argued that a new understanding of information systems was developing- “the computational metaphor”, in which people began to realize that “the universe is a computer”. By then [1998], many computational metaphors were common enough: thinking as computation, DNA as software, evolution as algorithmic process. “[This metaphor] has more juice in it than previous metaphors: Freud’s dream state, Darwin’s variety, Marx’s progress, or the Age of Aquarius. And it has more power than anything else in science at the moment. In fact the computational metaphor may eclipse mathematics as a form of universal notation.”

Returning to the wartime science culture within the nascent “Military-Industrial Complex: “Scientists, engineers, and administrators in the wartime laboratories worked not so much as members of a single culture, but rather as members of different professional subcultures bound together by common purpose and a set of linguistic tools they had invented to achieve it.” The interdisciplinary Rad Lab at MIT was described as a “trading zone”, a metaphor taken after the place where distinct tribes would gather to trade, forced to communicate in “contact languages” and shared tools, “creoles” that both communicating parties could understand.

Nobert Wiener: “We [Wiener and Vannevar Bush] dreamed for years of an institution of independent scientists, working together in one of these backwoods of science, not as subordinates of some great executive officer, but joined by the desire, indeed by the spiritual necessity, to understand the region as a whole, and to lend one another the strength of that understanding. […] We had agreed on these matters long before we had chosen the field of our joint investigations and our respective parts in them. The deciding factor in this new step was war.”

Wiener and Julian Bigelow began to work on war projects where they would occasionally need to model humans as mechanisms inside of a technical system or other.

Wiener [1956 memoir I am a Mathematician]: “In order to obtain as complete a mathematical treatment as possible of the over-all control problem, it is necessary to assimilate the different parts of the system to a single basis, either human or mechanical. Since our understanding of the mechanical elements of gun pointing appeared to us to be far ahead of our psychological understanding, we chose to find a mechanical analogue of the gun pointer and the airplane pilot.”

Within a year, Wiener began to imagine duplicating the human brain with electrical circuits. By 1948 he had transformed the computational metaphor into the basis of a new discipline. In his book Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, he defined cybernetics as a field focused on the “study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society,” with machinery seeming to include, by analogy at least biological orgnaisms.

Later, Wiener would produce the more sweeping, accessible volume The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, where he argued that society (and its constituent organizational parts) functioned much like an organism or a machine.

These books, in this era, spoke to two concerns: the “sudden importance of science and its ambiguous social potential.”

Embedded in Wiener’s theory of society as an information system was a deep longing for and even a model of an egalitarian, democratic social order. To the readers of Cybernetics, computers may have threatened automation from above, but they also offered metaphors for the democratic creation of order from below.


The power of cybernetics and systems theory to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration emerged in large part thanks to the entrepreneurship of Norbert Wiener and the research climate of World War II. Wiener did not create the discipline of cybernetics out of thin air; rather, he pulled its analytical terms together by bridging multiple, if formerly segregated, scientific communities. Wiener borrowed the word homeostasis from the field of physiology and applied it to social systems; he picked up the word feedback from control engineering; and from the study of human behavior, he drew the concepts of learning, memory, flexibility, and purpose. Wiener could assemble pieces from such diverse sources because he was in steady collaborative contact with representatives from each of these domains at the Rad Lab, in his famous hallway wanderings at MIT, and in his sojourns to the Harvard Medical School.

“Legitimacy Exchange”: Wherein “experts in one area draw on the authority of experts in another area to justify their activities.”

Even though it grew out of and facilitated interdisciplinary forms of cooperation, the computational metaphor did not yet carry with it the visions of a disembodied, egalitarian polis and the postinstitutional, peer-to-peer marketplace with which it would be associated in the mid-1990’s. On the contrary, those social ideals emerged as key features of a nationwide youth movement that rose up in the 1960’s in large part against the institutions within which cybernetics served as a lingua franca.


Under the shadow of nuclear war, the often freewheeling, collaborative practices of cold war research and development almost disappeared from public view. What remained was a vision of expertise and hierarchy and, for critics on the left, of a society dominated by pyramidal organizations run by buttoned-down, psychologically fragmented men. “As the means of information and of power are centralized,” wrote sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1956, “some men come to occupy positions in American society from which they can look upon […] and by their decisions mightily affect, the everyday worlds of ordinary men and women.


Mills’s critique [of “Cheerful Robots”, of people with “rationality but no reason”] could be heard echoing throughout the 1960s in works as varied as Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society (1964), John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State (1967), Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964), Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine (1967), Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counterculture (1969), and Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (1970). Like Mills, these authors suggested that society was undergoing a rapid process of centralization and rationalization, a process both supported by new technologies and designed to help build them.

[In response to the broken models of adult life] and to the threat of technological bureaucracy more broadly, the youth of the 1960’s developed two somewhat overlapping but ultimately distinct social movements: the fighting New Left and the countercultural New Communalists. The two are often merged in our flattened, sanitized conception of the era, but they are very distinct and lend different elements to common contemporary thought.

More soon.

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