From Reality to Religion: Turner’s Revisionist Perspective on Brand, the WELL and Internet Innovation

Tonight I’ll be presenting my review of the Fred Turner book listed below at Nico MacDonald’s Innovation Reading Circle.  Below is the full text of my review, enjoy and debate me! 🙂

Turner, F. (2006) From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture is designed to be an exploration of the role that countercultural philosophies and identities played in the development of the technologies and communication principles embedded in the current web-enabled, global communication society. Using Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and the WELL as a focus, Turner is attempting to argue that the military-industrial beginnings of the internet were diverted and subverted by the neo-luddite naturalist and pacifist ideals of the 1960s. He contends that the flattening of hierarchical government, that the increased power to the masses was made possible by the communications technologies and principles inspired by forward thinking idealists such as Stewart Brand and his band of hippy geeks.

However, this is ultimately a flawed hypothesis. Unless you incorrectly narrow the definition of ‘counter-culture’ and ‘counter-revolution’ to being vaguely controversial, unfashionable or merely hippy-geekery, then there is nothing even remotely counter-revolutionary about the development of the internet and cyberspace either prior to, during, or after the development of the Whole Earth Catalog and the WELL. Turner’s ‘unbiography’ of Stewart Brand and the WELL (the biography you get, when the author tells us he’s not doing a biography) fails at the first hurdle: he assumes his hypothesis of cyberspace being brought about through countercultural thought and practice, without proving it to be true. He then goes on to present a history of the technology sector generally and Brand specifically, as a means of supporting this flimsy theory.

In his defence, Turner does get some of the history right. It’s just that his glorification and exaggeration of the impact of Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog community in what he describes as a realisation of countercultural dreams of the 1960s is more of an enjoyable but partisan revisionist history – or work of fiction – than an accurate representation of the evolution of the internet and the development of collaborative technologies. Some of the WELL community were involved in investment and contribution of journalism covering the emergence of cyberspace, but to imply that the WELL was a vehicle through which a grand countercultural vision was achieved is disingenuous at best and pure fabrication at worst. Indeed there is so much wrong with the very notion of modern cyberspace being the product of countercultural thought that the very premise for the book is compromised.

Turner commits the ultimate sin of a biographer and historian: he falls deeply in love with his subject area, blinding himself to its weaknesses. While there is no doubt that the innovation arising from the establishment of many-to-many communications technologies has greatly enhanced the opportunities of individuals to access self-improvement, for collaborative problem solving and collective action, this has occurred not as a direct result of countercultural thinking, but rather as a result of mere convenience and opportunism. Further, the individuals and history which form the focus of Turner’s work could not truly be regarded as counter-revolutionaries of any order. Business people, commercial technology researchers and developers and journalists, all were inevitably profiting from government and commercially funded technology development and from reporting and commentary of these innovations. They may have been inspirational leaders and canny businessmen and women, but they were by no means subverting the dominant culture.

In the defence of those profiled in Turner’s work, very few of them would consider themselves the grand political leaders of a countercultural revolution. Most would see themselves for what they were: interested geeks and business people who were excited by the opportunities arising from emergent technologies and who enjoyed the fact that they could connect with like minds in a manner never before possible.

Turner begins his work with the history of the the beginnings of the Whole Earth catalog and sets this against the US government funding of intercontinental ballistic missile research and human augmentation theory. While these were discernibly different cultures, he notes that some of the writers of the Whole Earth Catalog and the thinkers that would eventually form part of the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (or the WELL) were either creating or reporting on the technologies coming out of military and industrial research – supposedly from a countercultural perspective. He then goes on to paint the history of various individuals – from Brand to journalist, Howard Rheingold to Grateful Dead lyricist, John Perry Barlow, to former defender of the market economy, George Gilder, and in rather broad brush strokes, Turner glazes over the actual histories and motivations of these individuals and instead describes them all as counterculturals.

He gets them all utterly wrong.

Brand was a former soldier and biology graduate who certainly had an interest in the ideals of naturalists and counter-revolutionaries (as well as allowing himself to be a subject of an LSD medical experiment) but he always kept one foot in the dominant culture, working with Buckminster Fuller and Engelbart on their computing research programmes and setting up his commercial publishing business with the Whole Earth Catalog. Rheingold was a hippy teacher and writer who earned his income through writing about immersive technology experiences and focused on teledildonics (cybersex) as a main focus of his first book. John Perry Barlow was a cattle rancher and Republic activist (ie: not a Democrat), who joined the WELL because there were large numbers of fans of the Grateful Dead in the WELL community. He was seeking a means of sustaining his fan base (and thus income) for his work with the Grateful Dead. George Gilder was another Republic activist, critic of feminism and defender of supply side economics. Importantly, none of them changed their ideals when user-led mass communication technologies emerged. They may all have adopted a libertarian technology perspective, but this was to ensure that the opportunities – commercial, as well as industrial – were sustained.

Turner attributes countercultural perspectives to the establishment of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Actually the EFF was established as a kind of union of technology service providers and programmers to defend against instances of legal action which would compromise the legitimate business practices of small businessmen in the technology sector. It then went on to attempt to articulate a range of civil rights of users of technologies, but it did so in order to sustain dominant cultural philosophy – not to subvert it. Civil rights in the mainstream were indeed used as a basis for correcting misconceptions and misappropriations of emergent technologies. The EFF was never, and still is not an organisation based on protecting hackers at all.

There are numerous other examples of historical events and technological innovations canvassed in Turner’s work which are essentially correct in detail, but incorrect in framing. And this is where collectively, the work loses credibility. For a much more rational history of the PC industry, I recommend Robert X Cringely’s ‘Accidental Empires’ (1992), and for a history of the internet, see Stephen Segaller’s ‘Nerds 2.0.1’ (1998), or a more academic analysis in Katie Haffner’s ‘Where Wizards Stay Up Late’ (1196). It may even be worth considering re-reading Neil Postman’s 1985 classic, ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ (focusing on television) and Clifford Stoll’s ‘Silicon Snake Oil’ (1995) to see just how much we are being blinded by rhetoric. Perhaps because these books were all published closer to the action of the time there was less of a sense of political revolution and more of a sense of technology as embedded in dominant, hierarchical culture.

On a personal note, I am often amused by the revisionist perspectives of my fellow commentators when assessing the role of political ideals in shaping the internet. We often hear that the internet was anarchical, and that there are no prejudices and no hierarchies online, and yet even the geek elite still position themselves as separate from, and superior to, mass culture online. I’m often reminded of Nicholas Negroponte, describing the cartoon in the New York Times which describes two dogs talking to each other in front of a terminal and one dog says to the other, ‘they don’t know you’re a dog online’ – and Negroponte hailing the cartoon as a profound comment on the enabling aspects of the internet. But even back in 1995, when Negroponte was making these grand claims, the digital divide was deepening. And in spite of the fact that the internet connected global community now numbers nearly 1.7 billion, this is still less than a third of the global population. And even among the connected, there are vast differences of literacy and technological supremacy.

As a young radical academic, I was full of ideals for a fairer, less hierarchical society. But I never lost track of the fact that I was funded by government to work with technologies to deliver educational product and to archive history and heritage for mass consumption. I was one of the dominant culture, not a countercultural at all. Of course, as young hackers we enjoyed the challenge of overcoming barriers and working with my geek elite to bypass protocols set by the university or other government or commercial institutions, but we did so as an exercise of our power over others, not as a means of subverting power. Once the barriers were gone, the challenge (and appeal) died with it. Instead, the next technology and the next improvement to user interface design became the focus of our attention. And we used technology mediated communications to share what we knew, both as a means of growing our reputation in our elite geek communities, and as a means of working faster, beating the opposition to a new outcome.

Rather than being countercultural, it was probably the purest form of capitalism.

I don’t blame my colleagues for their rose-tinted memories. I just wonder at how they have managed to blind themselves to the fact that their technological aspirations and their iPod and iPhone fashion accessories have instead transformed them into a shiny white, plasticised version of the military-industrial drones they have always claimed to despise.

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