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In the early 1960s, computers haunted the American popular imagination. Bleak tools of the cold war, they embodied the rigid organization and mechanical conformity that made the military-industrial complex possible. But by the 1990s—and the dawn of the Internet—computers started to represent a very different kind of world: a collaborative and digital utopia modeled on the communal ideals of the hippies who so vehemently rebelled against the cold war establishment in the first place.
From Counterculture to Cyberculture is the first book to explore this extraordinary and ironic transformation. Fred Turner here traces the previously untold story of a highly influential group of San Francisco Bay–area entrepreneurs: Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth network. Between 1968 and 1998, via such familiar venues as the National Book Award–winning Whole Earth Catalog, the computer conferencing system known as WELL, and, ultimately, the launch of the wildly successful Wired magazine, Brand and his colleagues brokered a long-running collaboration between San Francisco flower power and the emerging technological hub of Silicon Valley. Thanks to their vision, counterculturalists and technologists alike joined together to reimagine computers as tools for personal liberation, the building of virtual and decidedly alternative communities, and the exploration of bold new social frontiers.
Shedding new light on how our networked culture came to be, this fascinating book reminds us that the distance between the Grateful Dead and Google, between Ken Kesey and the computer itself, is not as great as we might think.
In a 1995 special issue of Time magazine entitled "Welcome to Cyberspace," Stewart Brand wrote an article arguing that that the personal computer revolution and the Internet had grown directly out of the counterculture. "We Owe It All to the Hippies," claimed the headline. "Forget antiwar protests, Woodstock, even long hair. The real legacy of the sixties generation is the computer revolution." According to Brand, and to popular legend then and since, Bay area computer programmers had imbibed the countercultural ideals of decentralization and personalization, along with a keen sense of information's transformative potential, and had built those into a new kind of machine. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Brand and others noted, computers had largely been mainframes, locked in the basements of universities and corporations, guarded by technicians. By the early 1980s, computers had become desktop tools for individuals, ubiquitous and seemingly empowering. One had only to look at the machines themselves to see that the devices through which the leaders of government and industry had sought to manage the world had been wrested from their hands. The great machines of empire had been miniaturized and turned over toindividuals, and so transformed into tools with which individuals could improve their own lives.
Like many myths, this one contains several grains of truth. The 1970s did in fact witness the rise of a new form of computing, and Bay area programmers, many with countercultural leanings, played an important part in that process. And as they were distributed, some of the new computers-particularly the 1984 Apple Macintosh-were explicitly marketed as devices one could use to tear down bureaucracies and achieve individual intellectual freedom. Yet, the notion that the counterculture gave rise to personal computing and computer networking obscures the breadth and complexity of the actual encounter between the two worlds. As Stewart Brand's migrations across the 1960s suggest, New Communalist visions of consciousness and community had become entangled with the cybernetic theories and interdisciplinary practices of high-technology research long before computers were miniaturized or widely interlinked.
In the 1970s, the same rejection of agonistic politics that had fueled the rise of New Communalism undermined the day-to-day governance of all but the most rule-bound communes, and the movement itself melted away. Yet, Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog continued to link information technology and cybernetics to a New Communalist social vision. This linking proceeded in three stages. In the first phase, between 1968 and 1972, two communities began to mingle within blocks of the Whole Earth Catalog offices in Menlo Park. One, centered around the Stanford Research Institute and composed primarily of engineers, was devoted to the ongoing pursuit of increased human-computer integration. The other, clustered around the Catalog and the countercultural communities it served, focused on the pursuit of individual and collective transformation in a New Communalist vein. Stewart Brand positioned himself between these worlds and, in a variety of ways, brokered their encounter. In the second phase, which spanned the middle of the 1970s, Brand turned away from the computer industry per se and toward the cybernetics of Gregory Bateson. Drawing on Bateson's vision of the material world as an information system, Brand and others began to imagine a new kind of home for themselves-space colonies. Fifteen years later, such fantasies of technologically sustained communities would reappear in celebrations of "cyberspace," but in the late 1970s, they marked the dissolution of the back-to-the-land movement's rustic technophilia, and with it the collapse of New Communalism as a social movement. Finally, confronted by this collapse and by the increasing presence of desktop computers, Brand turned back toward the computer industry and its founders in the early 1980s. Computer engineers, he argued, and not the failed back-to-the-landers, were the true heirs of the New Communalist project. By that time the New Communalist movement had vanished from the scene. Yet, thanks in large part to Brand's entrepreneurship, its ideals seemed to live on in the surging computer industry, and Brand himself became a key spokesman for this new and ostensibly countercultural group.
Making the Computer "Personal"
When Brand turned back toward the computer industry, he leaned on a legitimacy that he had established a decade earlier. With the Whole Earth Catalog, Brand offered a generation of computer engineers and programmers an alternative vision of technology as a tool for individual and collective transformation. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he also moved back and forth between the Bay area's burgeoning counterculture and its centers of computer research. Between his networking and his publishing efforts, Brand helped synthesize and legitimate multiple visions of "personal" computing. In the process, he established himself as a voice for an emerging technological community, as he had done with the back-to-the-landers.
As historian Paul Ceruzzi has detailed, the 1960s witnessed a transformation in computing equipment. Between 1959 and 1969, the computer industry managed to shrink the room-sized mainframes of the early 1950s into minicomputers that could fit beneath a desk. In the late 1950s, computers processed information in batches of punched cards; a computer user had to prepare those cards and submit them to the managers of the machine for processing. A decade later, users could find their way to time-sharing machines like Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-10, where they could store files on tape and access their own files without the intervention of other personnel. Perhaps most importantly, they could now feel as if they had the machine to themselves even as other users might be logged on from terminals elsewhere. As Ceruzzi has shown, many of the technical features that we now associate with "personal" computing, including small computers, microprocessors, keyboard-based interfaces, individual usability, and the sensation of interactivity, were all in place by 1972.
These technological developments, however, did not in and of themselves spawn the ethos of personalness to which small computers have since become attached. Before the early 1970s, small computers suitable for individual use were usually called mini-, micro-, or desktop computers. The word personal had been used for some time to describe small-scale consumer technologies such as radios and televisions, and by the early 1970s it was occasionally applied to computers and calculators as well. But when it was, it retained its earlier connotations: a "personal computer" was a calculating device made small enough for use by a single person. The notion that computers might empower individuals and so transform their social worlds did not simply grow up alongside shifts in computing technology; rather, it had to be linked to the machines themselves. Scholars have offered two dominant accounts of how this happened. Many have argued that shifts in the computing interface facilitated shifts in use patterns, which in turn allowed users to imagine and build new forms of interfaces. Thus, Thierry Bardini has suggested that computers have seen the development of a "dynamic of personalization" since the 1940s, in which both computers and computer users have become progressively more individualized. Paul Ceruzzi has claimed that "personal" computing emerged when time-sharing computers made it possible to imagine giving public users direct access to computers. Against these accounts, others have argued that the notion of the computer as a tool for personal and communal transformation first came to life outside the computer industry, among an insurgent group of hobbyists with countercultural loyalties. Members of this group, they point out, built the Homebrew Computer Club and ultimately not only Apple Computer, but a number of other important personal computer companies as well.
A close look at the computing world of the Bay area in the late 1960s and early 1970s reveals that both of these accounts are true but that neither is complete. As journalist John Markoff has shown, industry engineers and hobbyists lived and worked side-by-side in this period, and both were surrounded by countercultural activities and institutions. Two of the most influential of these groups in the region maintained offices within a few square blocks of each other and of the offices of the Whole Earth Catalog in Menlo Park. One of the groups consisted of the researchers associated with Douglas Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and later Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and the other was made up of computer hobbyists affiliated with the People's Computer Company and later the Homebrew Computer Club-Stewart Brand moved back and forth between these communities, and the Whole Earth Catalog served as inspiration to members of both. In the Bay area in this period, the dynamic of personalization that had long been at work within some parts of the computer industry and the ideals of information sharing, individual empowerment, and collective growth that were alive within the counterculture and the hobbyist community did not so much compete with as complement each other.
In Douglas Engelbart's ARC group, computers had long seemed to be natural tools with which to expand the intellectual capacity of individuals and their ability to share knowledge. This vision had grown out of the research cultures of World War II and the early cold war. In 1946, for instance, while stationed in the Philippines as a Navy radar technician, Engelbart had read Vannevar Bush's now-legendary Atlantic Monthly article "As We May Think." In it Bush argued that the same scientists who had just helped win World War II would now have to harness the power of the cheap electronics they had invented to develop a new form of information management. Having built the nuclear weapons that might destroy mankind, scientists should now turn to building technologies with which to "encompass the great record" of human activity and so facilitate a growth "in the wisdom of race experience." By way of example, Bush described a hypothetical desktop machine he called the Memex. Designed for individual use, the Memex featured a keyboard, a translucent screen, microfilm inputs, and the ability to call up reams of stored data by means of a few keystrokes. This machine would turn the ordinary office into a site at which the whole of human history might in theory be called up. The executive equipped with this new knowledge base would not only expand his own intellectual capacities but also enhance his ability to control the world around him.
Bush's article helped interest the young Engelbart in working with computers. During the war, Engelbart noted, following Bush, the American military had developed technologies with which it might destroy the world. In its wake, scientists and technologists had begun to fan out around the globe, seeking to use their knowledge to eradicate disease and increase food production, often in an effort to win the cold-war loyalties of Third World nations. Engelbart had read about these efforts and saw that they often backfired. Rapid food production led to the depletion of the soil; the eradication of insects led to ecological imbalances. In Engelbart's view, humans had begun to face extraordinarily complex problems, and they needed to solve them urgently. They would need to improve the management of information and the control of human organizations in order to do so. During World War II, in the airplane-tracking projects of Norbert Wiener, the integration of man and machine had presented a way to win the war. Now the battlefield had shifted to the workplace. Like Wiener, Engelbart would go on to pursue questions of man-machine integration. And like the weapons researchers of the war era more broadly, he would conceive of his work in world-saving terms. To augment the mind of the individual office worker was not only to improve his or her efficiency, but also to expand his or her ability to serve the human race.
Engelbart joined the Stanford Research Institute in 1957. Over the next decade, he and his staffers at the Augmentation Research Center invented some of the most ubiquitous features of contemporary computers, including the mouse. Between 1966 and 1968, the group developed a collaborative office computing environment known as the On-Line System, or NLS. The NLS system featured many of the elements common to computer systems today, including not only the mouse, but a QWERTY keyboard and a CRT terminal. More importantly, the system offered its users the ability to work on a document simultaneously from multiple sites, to connect bits of text via hyperlinks, to jump from one point to another in a text, and to develop indexes of key words that could be searched. The NLS depended on a time-sharing computer, yet it functioned within the office environment much like a contemporary intranet. At a time when many inside and outside the industry still thought of computers as massive calculating machines, the NLS offered a vision of computers as text processors and tools for collaboration. Unlike their cold-war ancestors, the computers of Engelbart's ARC group were communication devices and, in that sense, direct antecedents of the personal computers to come.
The NLS and Engelbart's understanding of the social potential of computers also owed a great deal to World War II research culture and to cybernetics in particular. Engelbart described the NLS as a system that would augment human intellectual capacities, but the system itself demanded a high degree of integration between the user and the machine. Like the Memex, each terminal served as a tool that would allow the person it served to call up and manage information. Beyond that, it would recursively leverage the knowledge of other workers on the system. In Engelbart's view, each individual's comprehension would be increased by the participation of others through a process of collective feedback facilitated by the computer. Within the ARC group, this process of collective feedback was elevated to a principle of social organization. At the level of technological engineering, Engelbart promulgated a philosophy of "bootstrapping," in which each experimental transformation of the socio-technical system that was the NLS would feed back into the system itself, causing it to evolve (and presumably to improve). At the level of the group's social life, Engelbart worked to create an environment in which individual engineers might see themselves as both elements and emblems of a collaborative system designed to amplify their individual skills. Engelbart saw the individual and the computer, like the group and the computer system, as complementary elements in a larger information system-a system that would use cybernetic processes of communication and control to facilitate not only better office communication, but even the evolution of human beings.
This cybernetic framework aligned the ARC mission with the goals of two seemingly antithetical communities: the defense establishment and the counterculture. Starting in 1963, much of the ARC group's work was funded by the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA was founded in 1958 with the aim of sparking new research into defense-oriented technologies. In 1962 it established the Information Processing Techniques Office, headed by Joseph C. R. Licklider; this was the office that would ultimately drive the development of the Internet. In many ways, ARPA marked an extension of the defense-oriented military-university collaborations that began in World War II. Likewise, Licklider's vision of computing grew out of the cybernetic ideal of human-machine integration. After World War II, Licklider became a professor of psychology at MIT, where he worked on a variety of projects descended from MIT's wartime commitments. He was steeped in the cybernetic theories of his colleague Norbert Wiener, and it showed. In a highly influential 1960 paper entitled "Man-Computer Symbiosis," Licklider imagined a form of human-machine collaboration that surpassed even Vannevar Bush's vision for the Memex: "The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today." Licklider, like Bush and Engelbart, envisioned the computer becoming a communications device; along with the user and as part of a whole information system, it might, properly deployed, be of use to humanity as a whole. "Man-computer symbiosis," he suggested, should produce "intellectually the most creative and exciting [period] in the history of mankind."
Excerpted from From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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1. The Shifting Politics of the Computational Metaphor
2. Stewart Brand Meets the Cybernetic Counterculture
3. The Whole Earth Catalog as Information Technology
4. Taking the Whole Earth Digital
5. Virtuality and Community on the WELL
6. Networking the New Economy
8. The Triumph of the Network Mode