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

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  584 ratings  ·  72 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
jasmine sun
May 08, 2021 rated it it was amazing
brain blowing up rn
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 itinera
...more
Matthew Sun
Jun 21, 2021 rated it it was amazing
totally didn't finish this book way after i was supposed to ❤️🥰😇 overall, a fascinating read, was a bit dry at times (lots of names + events to keep track of), but a super trenchant analysis / history of cyberculture & Californian ideology vibes; last chapter is especially excellent for summary, synthesis, and forceful argument about the shortcomings of new communalism / techno-libertarianism ...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
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. ...more
Craig Werner
May 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, sixties
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
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
Doug
Jan 15, 2021 rated it really liked it
A fascinating look into the history of the internet, centered around the life and times of Stewart Brand. I had not heard of Brand before this book, and feel that the book presents his life in an idealised manner. I found some segments fascinating, whilst others seemed very inconsequential, with many names and connections mentioned that never seemed hugely relevant. Nonetheless, the story, from LSD-fuelled commune trips to burgeoning start of the modern internet, is very interesting, and well wo ...more
Lucas Gelfond
Jun 17, 2021 rated it really liked it
Reboot-core/canon! Really really interesting look at the impact of Stewart Brand's evangelism and the industry's ties to the counterculture ...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
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. ...more
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
Lawrence Grandpre
Mar 29, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This book is like reading a history of the present written in the past. At least 10 years ahead of its time. I think the author undersells how profound his analysis is, as the tech culture which was permitted by the counterculture has permitted every inch of the knowledge economy, the financial sector and the academy in particular. The author has essentially written historical analysis of the intellectual DNA of the Western (Neo)liberal world. The performative flourishes of Twitter make more sen ...more
Eddie Chua
May 31, 2021 rated it liked it
Reading about counterculture era, the terms associated would be anti-government, anti-establishment, anti-programming, anti-war. An era of rebellion. It was also the search and desire of freedom; freedom of choice, lifestyle and expression.

Reading this book there are 2 points which are for me to reflect based on my understanding:

"Society is increasing jobless but not workless". It is the description of the gig economy with the redefinition and requirement for full time staff in an organization.
...more
Jan D
Jan 02, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Going by the number of annotations I made and other works I linked them too, this is one of the best reads I had in the past year or so. It tells what silicon-valley culture became along what Steward Brand did, so to say. Reading other reviews, the language and content seems to split the audience. Among other academic books in the genre of cultural history, the text is really well written. There are few fancy words, the language has a drive forward as the sentences are long but do not require ju ...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
Allan Olley
Mar 22, 2022 rated it really liked it
This is an interesting look at part of the career of futurist Stewart Brand. How he want from being involved with out there psychedelic antics of the late 60s to editor of the Whole Earth Catalog for the back to the land communalists in the 70s and founding electronic and journalistic networks in the 80s that lead to the likes of Wired magazine in the 90s.

It is an academic history and focuses on the connections between Brand cybernetic and media ideas and the nascent elements of hacker culture t
...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
Rebecca
This is a really dense and useful book that is rightly cited frequently to explain the libertarian infrastructure of the internet. Turner follows Stewart Brand and others associated with the Whole Earth Catalog through the beginning of "hacker" culture and concludes with the history of Wired magazine. The argument builds slowly, but the final two chapters could probably be read on their own for anyone seeking to get a quick distillation of the argument about the connections between goals of "new ...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
Matthew
Feb 02, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: innovation
Did you know that Brand was the camera guy for Englebart’s mother of all demos? Or that he was the Rolling Stone reporter who loitered around Xerox PARC documenting the slacker / hacker vibe? Or that he was a central figure in Hacker conference, the WELL social network, the back-to-the-land movement, the Merry Pranksters, the Whole Earth Catalog, the Long Now Foundation, and the MIT Media Lab… Or that his former hippie friends pivoted to start Wired Magazine and embrace neoliberalism, falling in ...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. ...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.

Articles featuring this book

San Francisco is a gold rush town. There aren’t many books about people in their 20s who move to Silicon Valley with dreams of earning a living...
34 likes · 1 comments
“i began to see that i had commodified myself.... i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment.” 1 likes
“Contrary to the perceptions of many in the counterculture in the 1960s and of many scholars since, the two worlds had a great deal in common. They shared a celebration of intellectual work, of technology, and of collaborative work styles. Both reveled in the economic and technological abundance of post-World War II America. The research laboratories of World War II, and the military-industrial-academic bureaucracies that grew out of them, were far more flexible, entrepreneurial, and individualistic places than many remember today. By the same token, certain elements of the counterculture embraced the ideas, the social practices, and the machines that emerged inside the world of military research even as they vocally attacked cold war bureaucracies. Even as they sought to find new ways to live psychologically and socially integrated lives, some members of the counterculture turned toward the heart of the technocracy itself in search of tools and models for their work.” 1 likes
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