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Book Review: Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture

By: Katelyn Six, Section Editor for Bloc[k] Beat (six1@uic.edu)

In From Counterulture to Cyberculture, Turner paints Stewart Brand, American writer best known as editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, as such a profoundly influential figure in the convergence of counterculture and computer-culture, one might question if the book has fallen victim to sensationalism or over-emphasis and inflation. However, I attest that Turner had it right and was spot-on with his interpretation of Brand. So, in support of Turner’s broad argument, I will contend with Brand’s forecast of a socially interconnected, technologically-driven culture that would emerge from an insurgence of libertarian rebellion led by misfits on the outskirts of mainstream culture. 

The perspective framing this argument is one that compels me to favor Turner’s deep interpretation of Brand, himself, and his idea that computer-culture came as a result of work done by countercultural pioneers. Based on the sentiments expressed in Brand’s “Spacewar!”article, the spirited influence of the Merry Pranksters (a group of people formed around author Ken Kesey in 1964 and promoted psychedelic drugs), and the attitudes of early computer and Internet pioneer Doug Engelbart and his team at the Stanford Research Institute, the argument unfolding will set out to prove that Brand’s influence was not over-emphasized by Turner, but rather he saw something special that others were perhaps blind to.

First of all, the question raised is whether Turner is over-hyping the impact of Brand’s influence. In short, I don’t think this is the case, though doing so would be consistent with the utopianism aspect embodying both counterculture and cyberculture. Nevertheless, in the Rolling Stone article, “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” Brand immediately starts with the foreboding, “Ready or not, computers are coming to the people.” In other words, whether you like it or not, computers are invading our lives to irreversibly alter the world forever as we know it. This grandiose portrait of an unrestrained, freed new way of approaching life is a lens that I think Turner was trying to reconstruct for the readers of From Counterculture to Cyberculture.

One consistent theme that surfaced and resurfaced in Turner’s examination of Brand is the obsession with his fear of becoming a pod, nothing more than another “tooth on the gear;” however, Turner frames him in a positive light with an entrepreneurial spirit determined to “fight to avoid becoming a number.” To combat this, Brand became infatuated with creating “holistic media environments,” inspired by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who questioned things, rejected conformism and tinkered with technology to create something different. Likewise, Brand saw the heightened accessibility of information made possible by personal computing as key in triggering and empowering social change.

Furthermore, the words extracted from Brand’s diary regarding his fear of Communist overthrow chime in unison with the voices of the “hackers” of the time. When he says, “my life would necessarily become small, a gear with its place on a certain axle of the Communist machine,” he was making a point about the pressing threat of conformity, further emblazoning the impassioned belief in the freeing power of computers, not only in a freeing of identity, but also free will. This is a political statement, no doubt, as Brand lays his opinions bare, echoing the idea of the computer’s power to free the people and usher in political reform; it positions the power of political change at our fingertips.

Moreover, Turner rests his argument a great deal on the naturalness and eagerness of Brand’s influence. In his Rolling Stone piece, Brand takes on a bit of an instigating tone in examining how “the rest of the counterculture is laid low and back these days, showing none of this kind of zeal.” Brand goes on to emphasize the avidity and insatiability that characterized the relationship he witnessed between human and machine. The “computer bum,” as Brand so affectionately dubbed the computer hacker, is described as having a sort of romantic “love-hate” relationship with their computers. This love affair, an intermingling of idealism with a sense of unwavering devotion, is what unrelentingly drove these young programmers and visionaries, people on the outskirts of mainstream culture, to stay awake into the wee hours of the night, totally inseparable from their machines.

There’s a common sensibility in Turner’s argument that is seen among the Merry Pranksters, Brand’s “Spacewar!” piece and Engelbart’s epic demonstration, The Mother of All Demos. Like Brand’s ethereal vision, the Pranksters were a hangs-on bunch of rebel hippies paving their own way through seemingly irrational bus rides and controversial events of self-exploration such as the Acid Tests; this symbolized the exploratory and entrepreneurial spirit necessarily propelling the counterculture and technological revolution. It was not so much the computer part that was the most interesting, but rather it was the personal part that really struck a cord.

The takeaway here can be derived from the way Turner captures the essence of Brand’s relationship with cyberculture and the counterculture. Far more salient to Turner’s argument than the actual advent of the computer itself is what that machine actually represented: a new wave of thought challenging how things can and will get done and the breaking down of boundaries; a mix of individuality and collectivity that would facilitate mass changes in thought. Take, for example, the range of responses elicited from Engelbart’s demonstration of the personal computer in The Mother of All Demos: It shocked, awed, inspired and even infuriated audience members.

With this in mind, I must next draw attention to Steven Levy’s, “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution,” which perpetuated the trail-and-error attitude continuous with the culture of Engelbart’s SRI bunch as well as other personal computing advocates. Levy writes, “Though any improvement a hacker wished to make would be welcome, it was extremely bad form to make some weird change in the game unannounced.” This speaks to the modern subcultures that pioneer social change today manifested in Reddit communities, Wikipedia, and even in the way code itself is written. Good code should be written so that other programmers can easily and quickly read it and understand what is being executed. While it is most always acceptable to build on something in order to optimize it, detrimental or unclear changes are frowned upon…to put it lightly. The idea clawing its way out from within this argument is the decentralization of control, and the notion of self- monitoring gatekeepers, which have birthed present-day innovative ideas like Bitcoin, a virtual currency that is not controlled centrally.

In summation, personal computing came crashing in like a tidal wave, washing away old beliefs and practices, and refreshing a generation of young people who could break the mold and revolutionize the whole world. The argument fostered by Turner posits that this pursuit toward what Engelbart documents in his 1962 report as the “augmented” individual is being led by the hacking trailblazers of the time.

What Turner captures in his description of Brand was a hope to debunk the myth that computers were just a bunch of large number-counting tools, and to plant the seed for a less rigid, more fluid and playful culture of limitless learners. With a hands-on approach, coupled with an intrepid attitude toward making mistakes and bending the rules, the countercultural wanderers found their homestead in personal computing and forever transformed the way we communicate and opened up pandora’s box of cyber-culture.

References:

Brand, Stewart. “Spacewar: Fanatic life and symbolic death among the computer bums.” Rolling Stone7 (1972): 50-58. Available online at http://www.wheels.org/spacewar/stone/rolling_stone.html

Engelbart, Douglas C. “Augmenting human intellect: a conceptual framework (1962).” Available online at http://www.dougengelbart.org/pubs/augment-3906.html

Turner, Fred. From counterculture to cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the rise of digital utopianism. University Of Chicago Press, 2010.

Levy, Steven. Hackers, Anchor/Doubleday 1984.

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