Commentary, History, History and Philosophy of Science

Google in paperback form

jacket imageSteve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and of Pixar Animation Studios, gave the commencement address to the 2005 class at Stanford. The text of that address has been published in numerous places, online and offline. Toward the end of his address, Jobs said:

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called the Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and Polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

The Whole Earth Catalog as internet search engine? Interestingly, this differs only a bit from one of the chapter titles in Fred Turner’s book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. The title of Turner’s third chapter is “The Whole Earth Catalog as Information Technology.” The Whole Earth Catalog, says Turner, “became a network forum”:

A comprehensive survey of the Whole Earth Catalog‘s contents and contributors from its founding in 1968 through 1971 reveals that it featured contributions from four somewhat overlapping social groups: the world of university-, government- and industry-based science and technology; the New York and San Francisco art scenes; the Bay area psychedelic community; and the communes that sprang up across America in the late 1960s. When these groups met in its pages, the Catalog became the single most visible publication in which the technological and intellectual output of industry and high science met the Eastern religion, acid mysticism, and communal social theory of the back-to-the-land movement. It also became the home and emblem of a new, geographically distributed community. As they flipped through and wrote in to its several editions, contributors and readers peered across the social and intellectual fences of their home communities. Like the collaborative researchers of World War II, they became interdisciplinarians, cobbling together new understandings of the ways in which information and technology might reshape social life. Together, they came to argue that technologies should be small-scale, should support the development of individual consciousness, and therefore should be both informational and personal. Readers who wrote in also celebrated entrepreneurial work and heterarchical forms of social organization, promoted disembodied community as an achievable ideal, and suggested that techno-social systems could serve as sites of ecstatic communion.

Over time, both these beliefs and the networks of readers and contributors who developed them, along with the Catalog itself, helped create the cultural conditions under which microcomputers and computer networks could be imagined as tools of liberation.

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism explores this transformation of the cultural meaning of computer and network technology—from technologies of dehumanization and centralized bureaucracy to instruments of personal transformation and social revolution. Central to his story are a few influential San Francisco Bay-area entrepreneurs: Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth network.
We have two excerpts from Turner’s book. You can read the introduction and an excerpt from chapter four about the Whole Earth Catalog and the emergence of digital culture.