From Counterculture to Cyberculture

“From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism” is my favourite book by Fred Turner. He is a professor of communication at Stanford University. The book explores the origins of the digital utopianism that emerged in the 1990s, tracing it back to the countercultural movement of the 1960s and 1970s. You can consider this book the continuation of his other book, “The Democratic Surround.”

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

Internet was an innovation started and funded by DARPA and the US department of defence. Its practical applications primarily focused on building an ad-hock messaging and information exchange network. The idea of the Internet as a global utopian community to connect people who wanted to exchange ideas was inspired by a combination of hippy artists who used a lot of psychedelic drugs and hosted psychedelic parties and libertarian right investors who believed the Internet would become space where governments would have little influence over and wouldn’t be able to regulate. Stewart Brand was one of the artists and a key influencer to lead the counterculture movement.

Stewart Brand was a member of the art collective USCO, who created experimental light and sound environments and film projections in museums, dance clubs, theatres, and universities. At the time, he was distributing buttons with a profound question “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet?” That self-funded campaign led to NASA releasing the public’s first photograph of Earth. This was during the cold-war and Brand hoped that humanity would see the Earth as a whole and interconnected system and, as a result, give peace a chance.

Later, Brand founded the Whole Earth Catalog with a picture of the planet earth on the cover. At the time, many people had decided to move back to nature and restart humanity by living in communes, growing their food, building their habitats, and, you know, the whole hippie movement. WEC contained information for sourcing anything from farming, medicine, and creating habitats, to technology and cybernetics equipment. This was not a shopping catalogue but rather for knowing where to find what in this network of communes nationwide; it was a hard copy Internet, Google, or Wikipedia. We often attribute the quote “Stay hungry, stay foolish” to Steve Jobs, but this quote was from the WEC, and this catalogue was one of the resources that inspired Steve Jobs to start Apple computers.

WEC was later recreated as an online community called Whole Earth Lectronic Link or WELL, where users could communicate. Naturally, the WELL users called themselves WELLBeings! So as the hippy communes collapsed, they migrated to cyberspace. Today I learned that is still online!

This book also covers the start of the WIRE magazine and silicon valley once the World Wide Web became available to the public.

Stewart Brand and his friends laid the groundwork for the concept of the world wide web as a global community; however, they also note that this vision of the Internet as a utopian space of freedom and society has been challenged by the commercialization of the web and the rise of surveillance capitalism.