Counterculture and the Tech Revolution

Back in the day, when people were still asking me to explain "Mondo 2000," I used to tell them that we were doing this psychedelic counterculture magazine called "High Frontiers" in the mid-1980s and we were shocked — just shocked — when we were befriended by the Silicon Valley elite. Suddenly, we found ourselves at parties where some of the major software and hardware designers of those early days were hanging out with NASA scientists, quantum physicists, hippies and lefty radicals, artists, libertarians, and your general motley assortment of smart types.

I was being a bit disingenuous when I made these comments. "High Frontiers" already had a tech/science bias, largely because we'd been influenced by the "Leary-Wilson paradigm." So we were technologically progressive tripsters. I'd also followed Stewart Brand's work with interest through the years.

The connection between the creators of the driving engine of the contemporary global economy, and the countercultural attitudes that were popular among young people during the 1960s and 70s was sort of a given within the cultural milieu we ("High Frontiers/Mondo 2000") found ourselves immersed in as the 1980s spilled into the 90s. Everybody was "experienced." Everybody was suspicious of state and corporate authority — even those who owned corporations. People casually recalled hanging out with Leary, or The Grateful Dead, or Ken Kesey, or Abbie Hoffman. You get the picture.

But these upcoming designers of the future were not prone towards lots of public hand waving about their "sex, drugs and question authority" roots. After all, most of them were seeking venture capital and they were selling their toys and tools to ordinary Reagan-Bush era consumers. There was little or no percentage in trying to tell the public, "Oh, by the way. All this stuff? This is how the counterculture now plans to change the world."

And while there has been plenty of implicit — and even some explicit — talk throughout the years about these associations, no one really tried to trace the connections until 2005, when John Markoff published What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer.

Markoff's narrative revolved largely around the figures of Douglas Engelbart and Stewart Brand. His book, according to my May 2005 conversation with him on the NeoFiles podcast, covered "the intersection or convergence of two cultures around the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, California throughout the 1960s. One was a psychedelic counterculture and the other was the anti-war movement; and then you have the beginnings of computer technology intersecting them both." Engelbart, in contrast to the mainstream in computer science back then, started thinking about computers as something that could augment and expand the capacity of the human mind. At the same time, another Palo Alto group was researching LSD as a tool for augmenting and expanding the capacity of the human mind. And then, along came the whole anti-war, anti-establishment movement of the sixties and all these tendencies become increasingly tangled as a "people's" computing culture evolves in and around the San Francisco Bay Area.

What the Dormouse Said is a marvelous read that gives names and faces to an interesting dynamic that helped give birth to the PC. The story is mostly localized in Palo Alto in Silicon Valley, and it's largely about how connections were made. In this sense, it's a story that is as much based on proximity in physical space and time, as it is a story about the evolution of the cultural ideas that might be associated with that word: "counterculture."

Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism digs more deeply into how the seeds of a certain view of how the world works (cybernetics) was planted into the emerging 60s counterculture largely through the person of Stewart Brand, and how that seed has succeeded — and how it has continued to exfoliate in new and unexpected ways. While Markoff's book blew the cultural lid off of a partly-suppressed truth — that computer culture was deeply rooted in psychedelic counterculture — Turner's book takes a broader sweep and raises difficult questions about the ideological assumptions that undergird our counterculturally-inflected technoculture. They're both wonderful reads, but Turner's book is both more difficult and ultimately more rewarding.

What Turner does in From Counterculture to Cyberculture is trace an arc that starts with the very mainstream American interest in cybernetics (particularly within the military) and shows how that implicit interest in self-regulating systems leads directly into the hippie Bible, the "Whole Earth Catalog" and eventually brings forth a digital culture that distributes computing power to (many of) the people, and which takes on a sort-of mystical significance as an informational "global brain." And then, towards the book's conclusion, he raises some unpleasant memories, as Brand's digital countercultural elite engages in quasi-meaningful socio-political intercourse with Newt Gingrich's Progress and Freedom Foundation and other elements of the mid-90s "Republican Revolution."

While I welcome Turner's critical vision, I must say honestly that, although I was repulsed by the Gingrich alliance and by much of the corporate rhetoric that emerged, at least in part, out of Brand's digital elitist clan — I think Brand's tactics were essentially correct. Turner implies that valuable social change is more likely to happen through political activism than through the invention and distribution of tools and through the whole systems approach that is implicit in that activity. But I think that the internet has — palpably — been much more successful in changing lives than 40 years of left oppositional activism has been. For one example out of thousands, the only reason the means of communication that shapes our cultural and political zeitgeist isn't COMPLETELY locked down by powerful media corporations is the work that these politically ambiguous freaks have accomplished over the past 40 years. In other words, oppositional activism would be even more occult — more hidden from view — today if not for networks built by hippie types who were not averse to working with DARPA and with big corporations. The world is a complex place.

In some ways, Turner's critique of cyber-counterculture is similar to Thomas Frank's criticism of urban hipster counterculture in his influential book, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. It, in essence, portrays hipsterism as a phenomenon easily transformed into a titillating, attractive, libertine whore for big business. Frank argues that American businesses felt stultified by the conformism of the American 50s and needed a more expansive, experimental, individualistic consumer base that would be motivated by the frequent changes in what's hip and who would desire a wider variety of products. So the hippie culture, despite its implied critique of consumerism that they inherited from the beats, actually energized consumer capitalism and, through advertising and mainstream media, the business world amplified the rebellious message of sixties youth counterculture, encouraging consumers to "join the Dodge rebellion" and "live for today."

These books by Frank and Turner raise interesting questions and challenge most folks' usual assumptions about the counterculture. But one of the interesting questions that might be raised in response to these critiques is, "So what?" In my own book, Counterculture Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid House (with Dan Joy), on counterculture as a sort of perennial historical phenomenon, I identify counterculturalism with the continual emergence of individuals and groups who transgress some of the taboos of a particular tribe or religion or era in a way that pushes back boundaries around thoughts and behaviors in ways that lead to greater creativity, greater enjoyment of life, freedom of thought, spiritual heterodoxy, sexual liberties, and so forth. In this context, one might ask if counterculture should necessarily be judged by whether it effectively opposes capitalism or capitalism's excesses. Perhaps, but complex arguments can be made either way, or more to the point, NEITHER way, since any countercultural resistance is unlikely to follow a straight line — it is unlikely to reliably line up on one side or another.

These reflections may not be directly related to one of Turner's concerns: that an elite group of white guys have decided how to change the world. On the other hand, one might also ask how much direct influence the last decade's digerati still has. The "ruling class" in the digital era is an ever-shifting target; all those kids using Google, YouTube, the social networks, etc., don't know John Brockman from John Barlow, but a good handful of them certainly know Ze Frank from Amanda Congdon. Meanwhile, the corporate digital powers seem to be pleased to have an ally in the new Democratic Speaker of the House. And that may be the coolest thing about the world that Stewart Brand and his cohorts have helped to inspire. In the 21st Century, the more things change, the more things change.

I interviewed Fred Turner recently on NeoFiles...
To listen to the full interview in MP3, click here.

RU SIRIUS: Would you comment on the differences between your book and John Markoff's 2005 book, What the Dormouse Said?

FRED TURNER: The books have different ambitions. John's book focuses heavily on the late 60s and early 70s and lays out a series of relatively anecdotal connections between the social world of computers around Doug Engelbart's lab and around Menlo Park and the social worlds that Stewart Brand was a part of. It's a neat, fun story.

I think my book is substantially more ambitious in its size and its scope. It starts in the 1940s and extends all the way until the 1990s, and it makes a different argument. For John, counterculture and LSD are essentially the same thing.

That's not the case, in my view. I'm proudest of the way this book shows how a particular wing of the counterculture that Brand spoke to grew very directly out of cold war and World War II research culture. It was not entirely a counterculture. I think that's been a historical mistake that I hope the book clears up.

Also, I think John would argue that the experience of taking LSD shaped the design of the personal computer. I think that's demonstrably false. On the contrary, the design of computing machinery and other kinds of information machinery in the 40s and 50s shaped what we thought minds were good for, and when LSD came on the scene it was read by some in terms that had already been set by 40s and 50s techno-culture, the same techno-culture that ultimately brought us computing machinery. And this counterculture, in my book, doesn't end in the '60s. It fades away and gets reborn in a way that is closely attached to the libertarian movements of the 1990s; movements that are arguably not countercultural at all. I think the book makes an effort to explain how and why that happened.

RU: LSD in some sense was a tool for understanding the same things that cybernetic theorists were understanding, because both things are, in some sense, about pattern recognition. Thankfully you go into the influence of Norbert Werner's actual work on cybernetics on Stewart Brand, since "cyber" is a much abused prefix.

FT: Pattern recognition, in the 1940s and '50s, was very literally about saving the world. We tend to forget that, in the '40s and '50s; the arrival of the atom bomb and the experience of World War II made it absolutely imperative that we enhance our consciousness and literally extend our abilities to monitor the world so as to prevent nuclear war.

If we could spot patterns of invasion, we could literally prevent ourselves from being destroyed. If you look at Brand's diaries in the late 50s, he's terribly afraid that the Soviet Union is going to invade and literally overrun Palo Alto. That fear was very powerful. And I think what he has wanted to do for 30-odd years now is save the world through making patterns very visible. That's a mission that grows very directly out of the cold war.

Brand found cybernetics in a funny way. He was in the New York art world in the 1960s and he started hanging out with a group of artists called UsCo — the Us Company. This was the avant-garde in New York in the 60s — people around John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg — and all those guys were reading cybernetics. They were reading Norbert Wiener. So Brand picked him up as well. And, as far as I can tell, Brand was the person who brought cybernetics back to much of the Bay Area counterculture and very specifically to the pranksters.

RU: Brand works his way through Wiener to Buckminster Fuller, another systems thinker.

FT: Brand has had a series of very powerful intellectual inspirations. Fuller would be one, Kesey would be another. For Brand, Fuller was a model in two senses. He was a model of systems thinking, and he was also a model of an intellectual entrepreneur. Fuller moved from university to university, from setting to setting, knitting communities together. That's what Brand learned to do. He learned to do it partly by watching Fuller.

RU: Fuller was, in a sense, one of the first cyber-Ronin, the wandering techno-entrepreneur type that is much touted later in the 1990s by people like John Brockman and "Wired" magazine.

FT: Absolutely. I think of Fuller and Kesey and Brand as P.T. Barnums. They are people who can't ride a trick horse, can't ride an elephant, can't ride a trapeze. And yet they build the rings of the circus; they bring the performers in; and they learn the languages and the styles of the circus. And they speak the circus' meanings to the audience. Brand has very much been the voice of a series of very important circuses.

RU: So, into the hippie era, Brand is part of the Merry Pranksters for a while; he does the "Whole Earth Catalog," but he's never really a hippie. And most hippies are not, generally, systems thinkers. "Hey man, spare change, I'm going to Woodstock" isn't systems thinking. Brand is very much off on his own distinctive trip. And yet there is this through-line that takes Brand from the avant-garde through the Trips festivals to Whole Earth and on to the Global Business Network and then on through the creation of "Wired." Can you describe what those memes or through-lines are?

FT: There's a misapprehension that has plagued a lot of Americans, including a lot of historians, about the 60s counterculture. We tend to think of the counterculture as a set of anti-war protests; as drug use and partying. But we don't tend to differentiate between two groups that were very importantly differentiated in that time: the New Left, and the group that I've called the New Communalists. Brand speaks to the New Communalists. Though it's mostly forgotten now, between 1966 and 1973 there was the largest wave of communal activity in all of American history.

Between 1966 and 1973, conservative estimates suggest that 10 million Americans were involved in communes. Brand speaks to that group by promoting the notion that small-scale technologies like LSD, stereos, books, Volkswagens; are tools for building new alternative communities.

The New Left wanted to change the world by doing politics in order to change politics. They formed SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). They protested. Brand and his group turned his backs on all that. Brand said, what we need to do is go out and build these communities, and my job is to build a catalog of tools through which people can gain access to the technologies that they can build communities around. So the core idea that migrates from the 60s to the 90s is the idea that we can build small-scale technologies and communities of consciousness around those technologies. So we no longer need to do politics per se. That idea kicks in again in the 80s around the rise of the personal computer, the ultimate in small-scale technology. It gives us the idea of virtual community, a distributed community gathered around small-scale technologies. And it ultimately plays very directly into the beliefs of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.

RU: OK. You're jumping ahead to the collision of certain cyber-libertarians and the mid-90s Republican right. At the same time, you're sketching a line that leads to open source. Going back to Whole Earth, the idea was access to tools and tools for access. And in some sense Brand nailed the whole platform back then at the end of the sixties for everything that computer culture comes to stand for.

FT: I think there's a confusion that is plaguing our understanding of the internet right now. We tend to think the internet's arrival changes everything. My own sense is that the internet arrived in a cultural context that had already begun to change things. And the cultural context substantially shapes how we use the internet, and what we use it for. That said; open source has roots both in the New Communalist wing — and to some extent, through Richard Stallman — very much in New Left activism. Wanting to change the regulation of copyright, for example, is a very New Left kind of thing.

RU: I also think there's a punk influence in this whole thing that gets ignored. Stylistically, Brand couldn't be more different than the punk culture. But there's a direct and important link between Whole Earth and punk culture and that's DIY — Do It Yourself; start your own institutions, anybody can grab a tool and use it.

FT: Very definitely. And Brand briefly embraced punk in his late-70s magazine, "Co-Evolution Quarterly." And got a lot of hate mail from his audience.

RU: The new communalist movement failed pretty much entirely. The idea of leaving behind the urban and suburban settings and going off and starting your own world failed. Even in terms of ecological or environmental ideas, the hip idea now is urban density. The attitude about tools survived, but the idea of back-to-the-country was pretty much useless.

FT: The idea of back-to-the-country didn't work. But I think something deeper didn't work, and it haunts us today, even as it underlies a lot of what we do. The notion that you can build a community around shared style is a deeply bohemian notion. It runs through all sorts of bohemian worlds. The notion that if you just get the right technology you can then build a unified community is a notion that drove a lot of the rural communal efforts. They thought by changing technological regimes; by going to 19th century technologies; by making their own butter; sewing their own clothes — they would be able to build a new kind of community. What they discovered was that if you don't do politics — explicitly, directly, through parties, through organizations — if you don't pay attention to and articulate what's going on with real material power, communities fail.

So I argue that there's a fantasy that haunts the internet, and it's haunted it for at least a decade. And it's the idea that if we just get the tools right and communicate effectively, we will be able to be intimate with one another and build the kinds of communities that don't exist outside, in the rest of our lives. And I think that's a deep failure and a fantasy.

RU: I agree with that to some extent, because I don't think it takes into account the effort of human beings like Stewart Brand and like the punks in creating a fecund culture before the internet came around. So that there were generations of people who grew up with the idea, "Yeah, I CAN do it myself. I don't have to wait for Eric Clapton or Timothy Leary to tell me what to do. I'm not just a consumer. I can do my own stuff." I have advocated the idea to a few people that this so-called Long Tail really wouldn't have happened nearly as quickly without the punk counterculture coming before it, creating the attitude that you didn't have to be a professional to have something to say. I generally get dismissed by tech people.

FT: I think technologists and economists both tend to believe that it all revolves around barriers to entry — people have things they want to do, and if you just lower the barriers to doing them by changing the technology, those things become possible.

RU: I think eventually that will happen. It happens a lot faster if you create a cultural environment for it.

FT: You can see that just in the geographical distribution of the kinds of things we're talking about. There's a reason Silicon Valley is in California and not in Montana. Part of it's density, but part of it's also culture.

RU: It's peculiar that ideas from something called "New Communalism", and that's all about group mind and shared tools, winds up being absorbed not only into the libertarian trip but also by elements of the Republican right.

FT: And Newt Gingrich always rejected the drug culture. Just loathed it.

RU: He once wrote that either drug use should be legalized or drug users should get the death penalty.

FT: (sarcastic) Charming man. I didn't know that. He did loathe drug culture, but he embraced many of the ideals that were circulating in those worlds. Part of what we forget about the communalism of that period is that it wasn't entirely idealistic and selfless. People wanted to build communities around themselves. The art world that Brand was most invested in during the early 60s — the Us Company — had a sign above there door that said "Just Us." It's the idea of a collaborative collective elite. That works very well for people who want to be in charge of their own lives and in charge of sections of the world. One idea that travels through the thirty or forty years covered in the book, from the counterculture to the libertarianism of the 90s, is this idea that we can form collective elites together.

RU: And that's fine if a group of thirty white guys get together and do a project that creates value in the world. But when that project says, "We're re-making the entire world," other people will stand up and say, "Hey wait a minute."

FT: Right. And when it provides a kind of guiding logic for people on Wall Street or Republicans in Washington, that's when it really gets scary. When Kevin Kelly, who was a "Whole Earth Review" editor, writes "New Rules for the New Economy," that becomes the bible for the internet bubble, and for people who behave in an extraordinarily rapacious manner, in Washington and New York alike.

RU: There are attractive aspects to this sort of anarcho-capitalism — "Throw out the rulebooks! Go with the flow!"

FT: But there's another thing that haunts the anarcho-capitalist world, despite the parts that you and I might like. There's the notion that getting the right friends together is sufficient for politics.

RU: And you also simply don't think about those who are excluded. But there's been a lot of movement in the direction towards distributing the tools and being concerned with those who have been excluded.

FT: I think that the notion that distributing tools and granting access is sufficient for making social change is a deeply new communalist notion, but it doesn't work. Because there are cultural and social conditions, social capital, that you require to be successful.

RU: We're into different types of politics that emerge from the sixties. And one type is oppositional and another is collaborationist. Stewart Brand is one counterculture person who mixes it up with corporations and the military right from the start. He shares info with the Pentagon and brings all kinds of people into these sort of think tank situations — people ranging from hippies and environmentalists to establishment types. And that distinction between his branch of counterculture and a broader, more militant counterculture is still reflected today in the differences between anti-corporate counterculturalists and the more compromised cyber-counterculture.

I think that Brand is more sophisticated than the pure oppositionalists. But there is also much that is questionable about his approach. For instance, if you question the military policies of the US, then you maybe should question how much you want to help them.

FT: One of the things that bubbled up in the new communalist movement and haunts a lot of techno-cultural work today is a shift in rhetoric from the language of politics to the language of science. So now we have the language of learning, the language of emergence, the language of self-organization. Brand and his cohorts — groups like the Global Business Network and the Santa Fe Institute — are creating a politically neutral language for gathering together potentially controversial kinds of networks. So suddenly, if I'm a player and I have anti-military leanings, and there's a general in the mix, I think to myself, "Well, he's part of our learning organization. We'll learn together." That substantially neutralizes any opportunity I might have to disagree with him.

RU: One expression of this is the idea of Bionomics — economics modeled by biology. I have less objection to that idea than I have to its conclusions. I think the "and therefore" is premature. But the idea that our behaviors are deeply rooted in biology...

FT: Biological models in the social sciences have a horrible history. We tend to forget social Darwinists called for, among other things, the eugenic erasure of people who weren't evolving properly. Bionomics' problem is a different one. I don't necessarily mind the migration of metaphors from biology to other fields, as long as they're recognized as metaphors. What I mind, specifically, in the case of Bionomics is the fusion of two metaphors, one scientific and one market-based.

RU: But it isn't entirely a metaphor. We can't ignore biology.

FT: Sure. There are things that work one way or another at the species level that can be shown through science and biology, and that's terrific. But with Bionomics — there's a habit of translating species-level learning, species-level principles, to much smaller social worlds and arguing that those are the principles that drive those worlds. And I think that's a nasty habit.

RU: It's the habit of abstraction, which political radicals on the left do as well. In Brand's interactions with the corporate elite, how would you say he taught them to look at things?

FT: That's the wrong way of putting it. Brand has a theory of power that comes out of cybernetics. It says, I can't instruct you to do anything. I can't do that hierarchically. What I can do is build a forum in which you're likely to bump into some kinds of folks, and then I can watch and see what bubbles out of that forum. And I can speak it. Brand gathers people around certain questions and selects the site for activity and he sees what happens.

RU: He established a connection with Kevin Kelly at "Co-Evolution Quarterly." And that sort of becomes a partnership that runs through their participation in "Wired" and on through the Long Now Foundation.

FT: Very much so. Kevin Kelly has his own sensibility, it's very much a kind of Whole Earth communalist sensibility, but filtered through a born-again mind. It's very important to remember that Kevin Kelly is an evangelically religious man, and there's a kind of Messianism in his work.

RU: Wired publisher Louis Rossetto seems like the more messianic one.

FT: I'm speculating here, but I think that's more a matter of temperament.

RU: Let's close out with some thoughts on how this river runs from cybernetics through to Wired magazine.

FT: I think "Wired" is a magazine in which small-scale technologies — digital technologies in that case — are thought to be changing the world by allowing us to finally communicate with one another, and to build communities of consciousness. And those communities of consciousness are going to change the world. That is an idea that emerges first in the research worlds of World War II, and the cold war, gets picked up and culturally legitimated by Stewart Brand by the "Whole Earth" crew in the 1960s and travels with them into the 1980s, onto The Well, into the Global Business Network, onto the pages of Wired, and ultimately into our public life today.

See Also:
Steve Wozniak v. Stephen Colbert — and Other Pranks
Google Heard Me, Now What?
iPhone Debate: I'm a Mac vs. Bill Gates
How the iPod Changes Culture

4 thoughts to “Counterculture and the Tech Revolution”

  1. i like the idea that today’s most robust economic sector — tech — was made possible by some of the most progressive, dare i say LIBERAL, ideas, thinkers and creators of the last few decades.

    without “San Francisco Values” there would be no internet!

  2. Everything is about pattern recognition. We are pattern-seeking animals, or so it has been said. The intelligence of the creators has been released into the newtwork.

    Something I didn’t see addressed is the increasing intelligence of the network itself. O’Reilly calls it the network-as-platform when discussing its evolution. When it becomes sefl-sustaining, things will get interesting.

  3. The book that preceded both of these is Technomanifestos: Visions of the Information Revolutionaries by Adam Brate. The book explores the origins of the Information Revolution through the countercultural activism of its makers –the engineers, computer scientists, matheaticians, etc who created the original technologies.

  4. A critical dimension ignored in debates of internet cultural impact is how the ease of research enables us to modify our view of the “indoctrinated” world. That is, the world as it is presented to us by traditional media. I believe this is the real beginning of any cultural transformation. The second step is for people to come together with this enlarged understanding of the world, themselves, and others. But to focus on cultural or counter-cultural movements (god I hate that word, how reactive) as the primary focus is just a continuation of man’s obsession with man, albeit with a fun new toy added to the mix so that we can mutually masterbate rather than in a solo fashion.

    Let’s not pollute those who are being raised with the internet with the sollipsism of the me generation.

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