From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

Part I here: A broad overview, tracing through the changing connotation of the “Computational Metaphor” from one of dehumanization and control to one of anonymity, equality, and radical freedom.

I often get bogged down in the details because there’s so much interesting here. I’ll be trying to wean off of that habit. Didn’t really succeed here, but at least I occasionally took the opportunity to explain my interest some of the details I highlight.

[Edit: This post has some occasional typos. I rushed it out, and will smooth it over soon.]


It’s a shame that the environmentalist movement is mostly solidly anti-nuclear. Even considering the scariness of the “Normal Accident” problem, it should seem to the modern environmentalist that a re-calibration is needed on the issue [due to climate change]. Wind and solar are wonderful, but another resource (almost always of the ‘dirty’ variety) will always need to be on standby for “cloudy or windless days”. Storage and location are still major problems. Our idea of what a nuclear plant looks and feels like is decades old. The public idea of what radiation is and what it does and what levels are acceptable and its carcinogenic potential, are all still mysterious and mostly dated. Nuclear France is kicking solar Germany’s ass on carbon footprint metrics. Barring a jarring global event, knowledge of nuclear energy/weapons are never going away, and nuclear power if anything has reduced the number of nukes in the world through use of old warheads as material. Finally, and this should be obvious, a nuclear bomb is not a world-ending calamity- the more cogent fear is of a massive volley of ICBMs criss-crossing the air between global powers. The nuke [singular] decimating your hometown was a personal fear, a scary and heavily-proliferated image. But nukes [plural] were the real human-existential threat.

It made sense in the ’70’s, especially among the young Left movements, to be anti-nuclear anything. Having grown up in the shadow of The Bomb, developing a deep and growing distrust of the governing institutions and whatnot. Stewart Brand was predictably anti-nuclear growing up (he has since changed position, presumably for similar reasons to the scramble of points I made above, since they were all points in a recent documentary I read that he was behind).

Alongside this fear of the bomb was the fear of the aftermath: a Soviet invasion or an emulation of the Soviets [or the Fascist threat before them] in mechanizing and becoming a war-bound society- in both scenarios the individual would become a number, a pawn. If not annihilation of the bomb, fear of an annihilation of the self was another key driver in this cohort, the way this story has it.

Again, clear in the imagination of the time was the juxtaposition of the Soviet Army with the gray suited Organization Man, “cut off from his emotions, trained to follow a chain a command, the Soviet soldier and the American middle manager alike seemed to many to be little more than worker bees inside ever-growing hives of military-industrial bureaucracy.” The bureaucratic machine birthed the nuke in the 40’s and would birth Vietnam in the 60’s. The key question for Brand’s generation: “How could they keep the world from being destroyed by nuclear weapons or by the large-scale, hierarchical governmental and industrial bureaucracies that had built and used them? And how could they assert and preserve their own holistic individuality in the face of such a world?”



Brand’s answer to this question started with ecology and “a systems-oriented view of the natural world.” After graduating an serving as an army draftee, he drifted into the art world, a world whose shape was outlined in The Democratic Surround. According to Turner, the “art worlds of the 1960’s” began to structurally resemble “the research worlds of the 1940’s”, living “by networking, entrepreneurship, and collaboration.”

Brand’s exposure to ecological thought started with professor Paul Ehrlich, later famous for The Population Bomb. During this time, systems-thought had replaced the single-species taxonomic thought of pre-war science. Lily Kay wrote that in the ’50’s, microbiology became “a communication science, allied to cybernetics, information theory, and computers.” According to Turner, in the textbook Ehrlich co-wrote with Richard Holm, The Process of Evolution, he “offered a vision of life as ‘a complex energy-matter nexus […] For Ehrlich and Holm, the classic dualities of mind and matter, actor and action, masked a series of more essential truths: individuals were elements within systems and were systems in their own right. As such, they both responded to and helped shape the flows of energy that governed all matter. [More on this thought here.] This was also true for humans at a cultural level: according to Ehrlich and Holm, culture had grown out of man’s biological evolution and had become a force through which humans could recursively influence their biological development. For Ehrlich and Holm, and the young Stewart Brand, cultural activities such as politics, art, conversation, and play took on a deep significance for the survival of the species.”

Brand spent a decade or so “migrating” through a “wide variety of bohemian, scientific, and academic communities.” Some of these communities were wide-reaching, ideologically communalist. Other groups were focused on “local social practices”, like making art or taking LSD or running a business meeting.

Soon after graduating from Stanford, Brand was drafted, becoming an infantryman, then deciding to become a Ranger (!) and then quitting halfway through and becoming an army photographer. In the early 60’s he would meet a San Francisco painter (Steve Durkee), who lived in lower-Manhattan. Brand would visit there and see the scenes- the influential John Cage was there, the painter Rauschenberg, the performance artist Allan Kaprow.

Cage’s view of Zen: [Within Zen nature was “an interrelated field or continuum, no part of which can be separated from or valued above the rest.” Turner claims that “In keeping with Zen tradition, Cage argued that the artist should not speak to his or her audience about the natural world, but should instead use art to heighten the audience member’s sensitivity to experiences of all kinds.”

Cage: “The highest purpose [of an artist] is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operation.” The objective consciousness has no place in art.

Rauschenberg: “I don’t want painting to be just an expression of my personality. And I am opposed to the whole idea of conception-execution- of getting an idea for a picture and then carrying it out. I’ve always felt as though, whatever I’ve used and whatever I’ve done, the method was always closer to a collaboration with materials than to any kind of conscious manipulation and control.”

Critic/Professor Leonard B. Meyer argued that these “American artists had begun to work with the premise that ‘Man is no longer… the center of the universe’ and that the universe itself, as revealed by quantum physic, was an indeterminate system.” For Brand, though, it was an affirmation of the Ehrlich school of thought.



After discharge (1962), Brand would travel to “the artistic bohemians of New York City and the emerging hippie scene in Haight-Ashbury [USCO, where Brand surely took drugs, read Wiener and McLuhan and Fuller, experienced ‘Happenings’].”, Indian reservations, Ken Kesey’s circle, psych researchers, and a series of communes. Studies in new ways of living.

Ken Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters” are sort of notorious in some circles- the influential psychedelics-promoting group of writers and artists who lived communally for a while, and took a long road-trip across America. Brand represented, as Tom Wolfe put it, “the restrained, reflective wing of the Merry Pranksters”, and didn’t go on that roadtrip. Brand saw the Pranksters as a West Coast version of “USCO’s techno-tribalism”, feeding off of the California Beatnik scene instead of the New York cold war avante-garde scene.

New Communalist Kesey is invited to New Left rally against the Vietnam war. Kesey gets up and says, “You know, you’re not gonna stop this war with this rally, by marching… That’s what they do.” Then he plays Home on the Range with his harmonica. The New Communalist movement was about “politics of consciousness”, not about engaging in contemporary, social politics as the New Left was.

Also of note, although the Pranksters were less formally hierarchical and rigid than the New Left, they did have a single, de facto leader- Kesey, “The Chief”. He would deny or downplay his power, but it was his money and his voice that powered the Pranksters across America. They would play games to make decisions (spin-the-bottle with the winner having total control for 30 minutes; consulting the I Ching) both were voluntary, individual-empowering, and both served as diversions from Kesey’s true power.”In a pattern that would become familiar around the digital technologies of the 1990’s, [the Pranksters assigned their power], at least temporarily and at least symbolically, to devices.

Brand collaborated with Kesey and others on the “Trips Festival” and other big parties and multimedia events. He tried to create “holistic media environments of the kind favored by USCO and the Merry Pranksters.”


IV. An Aside on Communes

“…Yet, even though it aimed to draw commune dwellers closer to themselves and their fellow citizens, the antinomian celebration of consciousness and its pursuit through the deployment of small-scale technologies and hands-on work did not prevent either social friction or the reassertion of traditional gender roles and racial politics.”

There’s a problem with the idea of structurelessness, and that problem is that no such thing exists. Structureless, with regards to humans, means tribal. Wired magazine recently quoted Jo Freeman from “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” (the above link) in this article on recent retreads of the same fundamental error:

The problem with supposedly non-hierarchical groups, she wrote, is that power structures are invisible–and therefore unaccountable. That inevitably leads to dysfunction and abuse. Charismatic leaders could use their position to advance their own agenda, award desirable tasks and projects to an “in group,” and shift blame for mistakes.

In my post about totalitarianism I also quoted an article that introduced this idea while introducing Turner’s New Left vs New Communalist dichotomy:

Bureaucratic systems are actually really good systems for distributing resources. You have to negotiate. You have to express explicitly what resources exist and how they should be distributed. In a communal system built around shared consciousness, what starts to happen is that people with charisma start to lead and cultural norms kick in. Communes ended up being places that were deeply racially divided, even though none of them would ever cop to being explicitly racist or wouldn’t even want to be. Gender norms were incredibly conservative on communes. I don’t know how many photographs I’ve looked at of young women, pregnant, barefoot, carrying loaves of bread.

And by the way, communes outside of the New Communalist tradition generally had different defaults on social structure (more equitable child-rearing in some communes, often with a different view of the nuclear family, and an opportunity for women to have relationships without reference to their partnerships with men?). But the “neoprimitive tribal ideal” in the New Communalist communes were generally more like settlers than tribesmen.

Other problems abounded in the New Communalist diaspora, socially and financially.



Stewart Brand:

One afternoon, probably in March in 1966, dropping a little bit of LSD, I went up onto the roof and sat shivering in a blanket sort of looking and thinking… And so I’m watching the building, looking out at San Francisco, thinking of Buckminster Fuller’s notion that people think of the earth’s resources as unlimited because they think of the earth as flat. I’m looking at San Francisco from 300 feet and 200 micrograms up and thinking that I can see from here that the earth is curved. I had the idea that the higher you go the more you can see earth as round.

There were no public photographs of the whole earth at that time, despite the fact that we were in the space program for about ten years. I started scheming within the trip. How can I make this photograph happen? Because I have now persuaded myself that it will change everything if we can have this photograph looking at the earth from space.

“The next week, Brand printed up a batch of buttons that read, “Why Haven’t We Seen a Photograph of the Whole Earth yet?” He and his wife would eventually start the Whole Earth Catalog, “featuring a smorgasbord of books, mechanical devices, and outdoor recreational gear.” No narrative, just artifacts. Pick your own purpose. The Catalog didn’t accept orders, but it did accept recommendations and comments. It was not a book or a magazine or a mail-order outlet. It was a single textual space that connected distinct countercultures and identified Stewart Brand as an essential link, a cultural broker.

Turner: “The space in turn became a network forum- a place where members of these communities came together, exchanged ideas and legitimacy, and in the process synthesized new intellectual frameworks and new social networks. By coining the term network forum I aim to bridge two important ideas in science and technology studies: Peter Galison’s notion of the “trading zone” and Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer’s “boundary object”.

More Turner on this term:

A network forum displays the properties of both a trading zone and a boundary object. Like the boundary object, it can be a media formation such as a catalog or an online discussion system aronud or within which individuals can gather and collaborate without relinquishing their attachment to their home networks. But like a trading zone, it is also a place within which new networks can be built, not only for social purpose, but for the purpose of accomplishing work. Within the network forum, as within the trading zone, contributors create new rhetorical tools with which to express and facilitate their new collaborations. Network forums need not be confined to media. Think tanks, conferences, even open-air markets – all can serve as forums in which one or more entrepreneurs gather members of multiple networks, allow them to communicate and collaborate, and so facilitate the formation of both new networks and new contact languages. Media-based network forums such as the “Whole Earth Catalog”, however, are in part built out of these new languages and are in part sites for their display. Ultimately, the forum themselves often become prototypes of the shared understandings around which they are built.

More soon. Check out the Whole Earth Catalog here. A gold mine.


VI. The Demise Party

One last anecdote.

On June 21, 1971, Stewart Brand threw a party to celebrate “what he thought was the final edition of the Whole Earth Catalog publishing project. He invited 500 friends and staffers to the event, and essentially offered for them to vote on how to allocate $20,000 to any cause, and any guest could approach the mic to appeal to a cause. By the next morning, a tired crowd voted on a solution. By then, $5,000 or so dollars had simply disappeared, but the remaining 15k was given “to one Frederick L. Moore, who promised to put the money in a bank and reconvene the last twenty people at the party in a month to decide what to do with it.”

These things happen.

Turner: “What ultimately became of the money remains unclear, but Moore’s fate does not. In the spring of 1975, along with Gordon French, he founded the Homebrew Computer Club.”

From the Whole Earth Catalog, demonstrating the focus on DIY, pragmatic, small-scale tech:

An item is listed in the CATALOG if it is deemed:

  1. Useful as a tool,
  2. Relevant to independent education,
  3. High quality or low cost,
  4. Not already common knowledge
  5. Easily available by mail.


More later.