⚡ New Event: From Counterculture to Cyberculture ft. Fred Turner
The origins and rise of digital utopianism
I’ve long been fascinated by the legend and legacy of Stewart Brand: prolific writer, president of the Long Now Foundation, and one of the earliest people to bridge technologists with writer and artist communities. Reading From Counterculture to Cyberculture told me not just Brand’s story, but that of an entire cultural and intellectual movement whose footprints I still see all over Silicon Valley today — this newsletter’s links section is named microdoses, after all!
📖 from counterculture to cyberculture by fred turner
Our guest for Thursday, June 17 is professor and historian Fred Turner.
Fred Turner is a professor of Communication at Stanford, where his research focuses on media, technology and American cultural history. His book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism shares the fascinating history of how 60s counterculture mixed with the personal computing industry to influence generations of techno-political thought.
Join us next Thursday for a Q&A on the rise of digital utopianism in Silicon Valley and beyond.
🔊 our take: silicon valley’s cybernetic dream
By Kat Huang
When students of the Free Speech Movement feared that the far-reaching corporate world would “reduce their… complex and creative natures to the two-dimensional dullness of an IBM card,” I felt that. Young people continue to grapple with how to retain our full, authentic selves in a society that can feel mechanistic and overbearing. But today, computers are often presented as the cure rather than the cause of this enduring dread. Experts and executives announce that the Internet promises a “decentralized, egalitarian, harmonious, and free” society.
In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner traces this reversal in how people have thought and talked about computers. Amid the anxiety of Cold War America, the New Communalist and New Left movements emerged, both seeking “the end of alienation.” Members of the New Left marched against the Vietnam War and threw themselves into political organizing, while New Communalists turned to the mind as the site of social change. Experimenting with co-operative living and psychedelics, New Communalists worked to expand their consciousness and experience togetherness.
Stewart Brand created The Whole Earth Catalog, a publication featuring tools to aid New Communalists in these efforts. Neither a magazine nor a traditional mail-order catalog, the Catalog printed mechanical tools beside personal computers, outdoor gear beside books for intellectual fodder — then left the rest open to interpretation. It indoctrinated hippies in the philosophy of cybernetics: all things, including ourselves, are part of a system where the results of actions feed into further actions. Cybernetics was antithetical to hierarchy and became a common language between New Communalists and the military-industrial research world. The latter, surprisingly, was home to a “free-wheeling,” cross-disciplinary ethic that would become pervasive, in part via Brand.
This book prompts meditations on the roles of media, aesthetics, and rhetoric in social change. Stewart Brand was a serial creator of what Turner terms network forums: Whole Earth and its descendent publications, the WELL virtual community, the first annual Hacker’s Conference, the Global Business Network, and more. By bridging communities of scientists, hackers, government representatives, and corporate leaders, Brand developed and elevated a vision of computers as countercultural. Following Brand’s career illuminates the context of Silicon Valley lore. Everything is connected, from Apple to the MIT Media Lab to WIRED.
But the networked life isn’t utopia. Venture capitalist Esther Dyson boasted in 1997, “Like the Net, my life is decentralized.” An excerpt from programmer Ellen Ullman’s memoir from the same year, however, notes the impossibility of disembodiment. Having taught herself dozens of programming languages and operating systems throughout her freelance career, Ullman mulls over her eventual obsolescence, “Biological life does not want to keep speeding up like a chip design.”
Sentiments like Ullman’s reinforce my hunch that there are more histories to uncover: ones that don’t happen to center Stewart Brand, influential as he may be. For all of the book’s (and the cyberneticians’) emphasis on getting a whole-picture view, it is but a starting point. From Counterculture to Cyberculture is an eye-opening chronicle of not just what tech talks about, but how tech’s value system and vocabulary arose — plus, how we might learn from the past to build the society the New Communalists dared to imagine but failed to actualize.
🤔 This 1995 article on “The Californian Ideology” defines Stewart Brand and his contemporaries’ unique blend of “cybernetics, free market economics, and counter-culture libertarianism.” Their championing of the “virtual class” and the internet’s opportunities for individual entrepreneurship, creativity, and freedom share eerie parallels with how tech talks about the “passion economy.”
💉 A scientist tries to imagine how microchipped COVID vaccines would work.
🚕 Excited to move to NYC next week so I can take a ride with The Drivers Cooperative, a new worker-owned alternative to Uber and Lyft.
⚖️ Writer, activist, and past Reboot author Cory Doctorow explains the legacy of Aaron Swartz’s activism in light of the recent CFAA ruling, eight years after Swartz’s death.
💝 a closing note
From Counterculture to Cyberculture’s description of the Whole Earth Catalog had me reflecting on the potential impact of media artifacts, so I asked our Twitter followers what essay or blog post changed their lives:
Archana: Os Keyes’s “Counting the Countless” was really powerful and one of the first forceful calls to radical software engineering / data science I read.
Collin: “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be” by Ursula K. Le Guin took my own findings about the problems of the metricized world and placed them properly in a philosophical and spiritual framework.
Maximillian: Not an essay nor blog post, but reading this excerpt from Malcolm X's “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech at age 13 did it for me.
Katie: This essay was the first time I felt my manifestations of anxiety were seen and common.
P.S. If you’re a young person looking for a community thinking critically about tech, humanity, and power, Reboot runs a private Discord — more on that here.
Keep reading and dreaming,
— Jasmine & Reboot team