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Digital mindbender

From Counterculture to Cyberculture Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism Fred Turner University of Chicago Press: 328 pp., $29

December 17, 2006|Giles Slade | Giles Slade is the author of "Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America."

"FROM Counterculture to Cyberculture" by Fred Turner is at times a difficult read. The reporter-turned-academic now eschews journalese with the zeal of a true convert, and his alternative principles of story organization seem purely intuitive. But if, like me, you remember how well Turner's "Echoes of Combat" (1996) explored and clarified the Vietnam War's effect on American culture, you will continue to beat your head against this book with real determination. If you do that, it eventually opens like a pinata with a nearly endless shower of goodies.

Turner is eager to trace the complex legacy of cybernetic theory and ideology from its World War II-era birthplace (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Radiation Laboratory) through the counterculture of the 1960s to the rise of networked computing and the misleading ideology of purity that underlies contemporary views of cyberspace. If it resists casual reading, the book, with its countercurrents and nuances, still recalls works of the highest standard that also address technology's interactions with national culture: David E. Nye's "American Technological Sublime" (1994) comes to mind, as does Norman Mailer's "Of a Fire on the Moon" (1971).

Turner describes how the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and early '70s eventually turned away from the political work of community-building toward the increasingly elitist belief that small technologies would transform consciousness and that together machinery and consciousness would provide the basis of a new social order. He begins with contrasting ideological notions about information technology. In 1964, Mario Savio of the UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement denounced what Turner calls "the power of computers to render the embodied lives of individual students as bits of computer-processed information." But in 1996 John Perry Barlow, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, saw the same computational power as a chance to enter a world of authentic identity and communal collaboration. Clearly, something had changed. The remainder of Turner's book is an account of what changed, why and how.

A central thread in this change is Stewart Brand. "From Counterculture to Cyberculture" is not a biography of the Whole Earth Catalog founder, but it underscores the pressing need for one. Turner emphasizes the effect on young Brand of the theories of mathematician and cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener. It was Brand's complete familiarity with cybernetics that ushered him into the company of New York City's avant-garde. Brand, also a dab hand at technology, manned "strobe lights, light projectors, tape decks, stereo speakers, slide sorters" for performance-art "be-ins" designed by USCO, a '60s art collective north of Manhattan. He soon would take the fundamentally cybernetic idea of using "products of technocratic industry ... as handy tools for transforming their viewers' collective mind-set" to the West Coast and novelist Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters.

In 1966, Brand and Kesey combined emerging communalist social ideals with the "ideological and technological products of cold war technocracy" to put on the three-day Trips Festival in San Francisco. They designed "a world in which [they] and the dancers on the floor were part of a single, leveled social system." The festivals became regular weekend events, the Haight-Ashbury era was born and mainstream America became aware of "the possibility of living a mobile, tribal life ... in which the role-playing and psychological fragmentation common to the institutions of technocracy dissolved in a whirlwind of drugs, music and travel."

Brand's emergence as a "counter-cultural entrepreneur ... in a deeply technocratic mold" gave him enough stature to put together the Whole Earth Catalog. Originally, he designed it specifically for commune-bound readers, who saw themselves as "well-equipped refugees from technocracy," but the catalog and its supplements soon became a tool-and-idea exchange whose culture resembled that of the Rad Lab where cybernetic theory originated.

The catalogs, Turner claims, became prototypes for the evolution of computer-based communications. They were forums that allowed "a geographically dispersed collection of individuals and groups [to] come together, in text ... and recognize each other as members of a single community." The catalog's discourse model was adopted by Brand's neighbor in Menlo Park, Calif., the Stanford Research Institute.

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