Roots of digital utopianism

by Jay Cross on November 1, 2006

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, a new book by Fred Turner, explains how Stewart Brand connected The Whole Earth Catalog, Doug Engelbart, counterculture, PARC, the WeLL, and social activism into a force that remains potent today.

These are the origins of the hacker ethic, geek idealism, online community, distrust of hierarchy, open source zealotry, do-it-yourself, individual empowerment, personal privacy rights, winking at outlaws, and the comraderie of nerds. The echoes from Brand’s days have taken the ties off the suits.

At the time they arose, these things had the aura of magic. Upon graduating from college, something pulled me into computing like a moth to the flame. When I became a mainframe salesman, the man in the street knew less about computers than he currently knows about RSS. (“Did you take physics in college?”) Several years later, The Whole Earth Catalog was a God-send from another country; I devoured its pages while living in Germany and, later, North Carolina. I simply had to move to California.

Years later, the WeLL taught me the power of online community. I’ve since been privileged to talk with Kevin Kelly, Doug Engelbart, Lee Felsenstein, Howard Rheingold, John Perry Barlow, and other members of the crowd; and to have visited the original Whole Earth Truck Store, the WeLL, the Whole Earth catalog’s offices, SRI, and PARC. I can hardly wait to read this book.

From the book’s website:

In the early 1960s, computers haunted the American popular imagination. Bleak tools of the cold war, they embodied the rigid organization and mechanical conformity that made the military-industrial complex possible. But by the 1990s—and the dawn of the Internet—computers started to represent a very different kind of world: a collaborative and digital utopia modeled on the communal ideals of the hippies who so vehemently rebelled against the cold war establishment in the first place.

From Counterculture to Cyberculture is the first book to explore this extraordinary and ironic transformation. Fred Turner here traces the previously untold story of a highly influential group of San Francisco Bay Area entrepreneurs: Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth network. Between 1968 and 1998, via such familiar venues as the National Book Award–winning Whole Earth Catalog, the computer conferencing system known as WELL, and, ultimately, the launch of the wildly successful Wired magazine, Brand and his colleagues brokered a long-running collaboration between San Francisco flower power and the emerging technological hub of Silicon Valley. Thanks to their vision, counterculturalists and technologists alike joined together to reimagine computers as tools for personal liberation, the building of virtual and decidedly alternative communities, and the exploration of bold new social frontiers.

Stewart has shaped our culture in numerous ways. The whole earth of Whole Earth Catalog is a reference to an earlier project, convincing NASA to release photos of the earth from space because he felt it would help people develop environmental awareness.
Chapter 4 of the book is online. For Brand’s truly amazing career, read this long article on The Edge. Here are the flows of some of Stewart’s energies:

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