Edward Rothstein on From Counterculture to Cyberculture

September 25, 2006
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The countercultural movements of the sixties and seventies fostered a generation of utopian dreamers and reformers who shared a longing for a new society liberated from the hierarchical structures that dominated the cold war era. But who would have predicted that the internet, a product of the very military-industrial complex against which they rebelled, would assume a major role in those utopian visions?
Charting the rich intersection between the worlds of counterculture and cyberculture is the topic of Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Edward Rothstein’s “Connections” column in today’s New York Times shows how Turner traces a common desire for nonhierarchical communities from the romantic ideals of long-haired hippies, to modern “peer-to-peer, collaborative societies, interlinked by invisible currents of energy and information.”
“Fred Turner points out in his revealing new book …,” says Rothstein, “there is no way to separate cyberculture from counterculture; indeed, cyberculture grew from its predecessor’s compost. Mr. Turner suggests that Stewart Brand, who created the Whole Earth Catalog, was the major node in a network of countercultural speculators, promoters, inventors and entrepreneurs who helped change the world in ways quite different from those they originally envisioned.”
The ideology underlying the Whole Earth Catalog envisioned a society, says Rothstein, “where the natural and human world would be bound together, creating a single organism from which new possibilities would unfold. By the 1980’s, Mr. Turner argues, similar fantasies were inspired by the computer. It had freed itself from corporate control and ownership; it was also capable of connecting with other computers in communities like the WELL (which John Perry Barlow, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, called ‘the latest thing in frontier villages’). The internet, designed to be inherently nonhierarchical, suggested even more grand possibilities, even a revolution in politics and human consciousness.”
“Cyberculture was to be the fulfillment of counterculture,” Rothstein continues. “Ultimately, of course, such fulfillment was not to be had. But the consequences of the association were profound. One reason for the heady pace of innovation during the 90’s is that the motivation was never purely abstract, but was often accompanied by utopian passions. Software development occurred not just in the private realm, but also among collaborative communities that objected to corporate ownership. Even today’s Wikipedia—the online encyclopedia continuously being written by its users—can be traced to these ideas.”
You may read the introduction to the book and an excerpt from Chapter Four, "Taking the Whole Earth Digital.&quot

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