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

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  486 ratings  ·  49 reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 1st edition, 327 pages
Published September 2006 by University of Chicago Press (first published January 1st 2006)
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Warwick
This is a sad story in many ways: I wonder if the author realises quite how sad it is. The story he seems to want to tell is about how the idealism and independence of the American counterculture fed into the burgeoning digital technology industry, infusing the world of early computing with radical, egalitarian ideas. But what actually comes across more strongly than anything is the notion that, even before it got started, Silicon Valley had been thoroughly coopted by right-wing politics and cor ...more
Michael Grasso
That moment in the story when Newt Gingrich hoves into view, Jabba-like, and you realize the game was rigged from the start.

This book, while a fantastic look at how technocratic Cold War impulses were dusted with a pinch of countercultural fairy dust (mostly of the kind that heavily uses self-reliant "frontier" imagery, which is of course problematic on *so* many levels) to create the modern Internet, is as fascinating as it is sobering. With people like Stewart Brand at the controls, there was
...more
Otis Chandler
Dec 07, 2006 marked it as to-read
James Currier recommends
Michael Burnam-Fink
May 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If there's an iconic figure of the 21st century, it's the technological entrepreneur. You know the type, the saavy, cool, cutting-edge, networked, leveraged, foresighted thought leader. The kind of person who makes a lot of money by not doing better than the competition, but by blazing whole new economic sectors. That figure is a kind of mediated chimera in the mold of the Original, the central subject of this book, one Stewart Brand.



Turner's book is an intellectual career of Brand, from his iti
...more
Sebastian
Jul 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book shed light on how the many threads of contemporary cyberculture interrelate. It's no accident that there is a loose affinity between the EFF, Wired, and Burning Man. Now I know why.
Craig Werner
May 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sixties, science
Extremely interesting to read a book--very good in its own terms--that was written by an informed historian at a time when it made sense to contemplate the possibility that the new digital technologies would lead us to a Utopian world of human connection that subverted capitalist modes of domination. Not quite.

For me, though, the center of the book is the first half or so that explores the counterculture's combination of pastoral utopianism (think communes--especially those like New Buffalo outs
...more
Scott Holstad
This book was a massive disappointment. I had been wanting to read it for so long and had really been looking forward to it. I had heard about the Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Earth Review and their respective influences for years, and I had been on The WELL for over a decade myself (sch@well.com) and thought it was the best BBS ever devised, and of course Wired Magazine was awesome, so I knew this book had to be cool as hell. Boy, was I wrong. I actually almost finished it, almost made it 300 ...more
Sara Watson
Feb 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
Turner presents a clear articulation of the rhetorical and ideological history of Silicon Valley, drawing a direct line of influence from counterculture communalism all the way through to = utopian visions of the early internet’s potential for social empowerment and connection at small and intimate scales. He also accounts for the sometimes paradoxical focus on neoliberal individualism and communal openness expressed by technologists. As such, Turner’s work holds up as useful primer for unpackin ...more
Streator Johnson
Feb 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
A Little to academically dry for my tastes, but an interesting book nonetheless. It basically argues that the counterculture ethos of the the 1960's had a profound affect on the libertarian formation of what has come to be called cyberspace. Told in a historical manner with a careful agenda, it is often makes for a fascinating read. But unfortunately, it also gets so caught up in its own brilliance that one gets so frustrated they want to throw the book across the room. Recommended mostly for mo ...more
Dan
Jan 06, 2008 rated it really liked it
If you ever listen to people with advanced degrees in English, you'll hear things like "narrative context", "semiotics", and "the rhetoric of making a difference." For the most part, it's all crap. This book is written by a guy with an advanced degree in English, yet it is completely readable and shows how things like narrative context can lose the scare quotes and actually be important to the way our world develops.

That said, you should have a strong interest in either the counterculture moveme
...more
Chuck
This well-written, well-researched book was disappointing to me. Stewart Brand clearly forged important links between the counterculturalism of the 1960s and the libertarian, cyber networks of our time, but Turner fails to make a case for his lasting importance or to demonstrate that our contemporary digital culture would have been significantly different if Brand had never existed. Was Brand a cause or an effect of larger social processes? Turner doesn’t say. Instead, he just chronicle’s Brand’ ...more
Jeffrey Hart
Apr 26, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This is an important book about the culture that existed during the early years of the PC revolution and the creation of the Internet. The focus is on Stewart Brand and his circle, but it branches out a bit to consider the ideas of Norbert Wiener and other theorists. I found the prose to be a bit windy, but the overall message is sound and there is nothing else out there that really addresses these issues in a serious way.
Kenny Cranford
Jul 22, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2012-books
I really wanted this book to be better but it just wasn't there. Author writes like a doctoral student and it was a hard book to finish. Very dry which was surprising given the subject. Contained some great anecdotes but overall was very repetitive. A good biography of Stewart Brand would have been much more effective.
Bastian Greshake Tzovaras
Jan 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
Pretty interesting summary of how many of the household names of cyberculture got to fame and power. And most of the critique regarding journalistic ethics and libertarianism is also spot on. The writing tends to be a bit dry & repetitive at times, but if you're interested in the history of net culture it's definitely worth a read. ...more
Eamonn McHugh-Roohr
Aug 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: computer-history
This is the rare computer-history book that takes a truly critical look at its subjects. It is not your average chronicle of successes and it's not telling us about how its subject is going to save the world. Rather, it takes a look at how networking (as in LinkedIn, not as in Internet) expert Stewart Brand managed to ride the technology rocket to the moon, and shape the discourse around technology into something palatable to his once-commune-dwelling world. It really does what What the Dormouse ...more
Andy
Dec 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is quite a tough read in places, because the author drills down to sometimes challenging ideas, but it’s worth sticking with it. What makes it especially interesting is that it was written after the internet changed society, but before the advent of social media changed the internet. I’d be really interested in his views now of the similarities between the commune movements of the 60s and the online communities of 2019; especially post Cambridge Analytica.

I think he misses his target signi
...more
Saffron
Aug 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Enlightening overview of the historical trajectory of cyberculture and its post-WWII origins. It's a particularly interesting history in itself, even if it weren't also a great explanation for the current ethos of Silicon Valley. Brand deftly wove his countercultural/New Communalist vision (springing from the same military-academic-industrial research labs that ironically was part of the genesis of the nuclear-holocaust Cheerful Robot hell they shunned) with computer technologies -- and ultimate ...more
John Ohno
Aug 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: owned
A well-researched profile of Stewart Brand and his cohort, illustrating not only the nuances of the historical connection between communalist strains of the 60s counterculture and internet optimism post-cyberdelia (in a more careful and accurate way than What the Dormouse Said) but the incredible power of Brand's own reputation-building and power-building techniques (which have been more recently replicated by Tim O'Reilley). Made me reconsider a lot of ideas I now realize I had uncritically swa ...more
Yates Buckley
Feb 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essential
While some of the story around “wired” magazine seemed not atypical of any magazine and there are large areas missing that cover more recent perspectives in Cyberculture this text is very well researched and inspiring in its insight as to the special combination of values that shape Cyberculture.

The rebels against centralisation live in close relationship to the centralised system and its tools. These intrinsic contradictions should get us to appreciate and be ready to accept that the world is a
...more
Jim Lemanowicz
Aug 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
I'm docking it one star only perhaps because of my own shortcomings as a reader due to lack of practice - this took me two years to finish. This book describes how WWII project management at the dawn of the atomic era evolved into LSD. commune utopia, computer-connected community, Wired magazine and the tech bubble of the late 90's...with a beautiful surprise ending that brings the patient reader back to reality and back to issues unsolved. So wonderful.
Nicholas Su
Apr 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An excellent academic book. Well researched, structured, and densely packed with useful information. It was a slow read without knowing much of the background, but the content is still accessible for the casually curious.
Aatif Rashid
Nov 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fascinating central argument connecting 60s counterculture to the Internet, well researched, well written, insightful, etc. The one thing I felt was missing was more of a critique of the way the capitalist 90s didn’t always embody the utopian vision of the 60s.
Ray
Jul 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good examination of the past history of cyberculture and how it's affected the present views on information and open source.
Ishani Desai
Dec 23, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
read for class; this was....intense to say the least
Shy Writer
Mar 03, 2017 rated it it was ok
Mention of THE WELL bbs brought back memories but the book is too wordy ~ say in ten words what would be just right in five) ~ and the damned font is too small!

If you feel like pounding your head against a brick wall this book's for you.. Have fun..

Garbage, IMHO..

*sigh* What a waste of time.. And the WHOLE EARTH CATALOGUE and WELL, etc, was during MY time in life... I gave it a 2 instead of a 1 only because of nostalgia..
James Huffman
Jan 06, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A well-woven history of the '60s counterculture, as personified in Stewart Brand, and its evolution into the cyberculture that came to prominence in the 1990s with the Internet boom and, in some small part, informs the digital culture of today.

By no means a hagiography of Brand or anyone else, Turner is quick to point out the shortcomings and failings of the movement, both in its manifestation of hippie back-to-the-land fantasies, and its co-evolution with the digital culture birthed by the rise
...more
Michael
May 11, 2013 rated it liked it
I initially picked this book since it discusses many events that were part of my life as well -- from the Summer of Love in SF to working for the government on classified computer projects. I always loved the Whole Earth Catalogs and didn't know exactly why. It answered many personal questions I had.

What I found most amazing about the book, however, is the naivety of otherwise intelligent and foresighted people of what the Internet was and would become. In the heady days of the Clinton Administr
...more
Eli Weinstein
Dec 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is history at its best. If you've ever been at all curious about the roots of modern Silicon Valley culture - its utopianism, its corporate organization, its ideals - this book will explain all that and more, in remarkably engaging prose for an academic text. Turner provides a convincing narrative for some of the strangest transformations in modern American culture: the influence of the Merry Pranksters on Newt Gingrich, the connections between cybernetics and the hippies. He retains carefu ...more
Philip Palios
Apr 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
An excellent study of the history and relationship between the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s and the emergence of personal computing and the Internet. I don't think the history of either topic can be fully told or understood without also knowing about the other.

"From Counterculture to Cyberculture" helped me relate my own questions as a modern-day software engineer to the roots of my industry. I often ask myself what happened to the revolution depicted in the famous 1984 Apple ad? Did perso
...more
David Mayes
Apr 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
As a life-long student of communication, I somehow missed this one by Fred Turner at Stanford. I personally experienced my own transformation from a countercultural grad student in San Jose to Intel executive in Silicon Valley. This chronicle of how a great countercultural icon like Stewart Brand could morph into the father of digital utopianism, following in the footsteps of Marshall McLuhan is a fascinating trip down memory lane for me. Digital utopianism continues to morph with the rise of th ...more
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Fred Turner is associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He previously taught at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prior to his academic career, he was a journalist for over ten years, writing for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Sunday Globe, and other publications.

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