LECTURE: Fred Turner, “From Counterculture to Cyberculture”

I attended a lecture (video, MS Media Player required) by Fred Turner, Professor of Communications at Stanford University. The lecture, titled “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: How The Whole Earth Catalog Brought Us ‘Virtual Community'”, narrated the history of the Whole Earth/The WELL/Wired transition and provided some interesting insights about how physical communities can influence virtual ones and vice verse.

Turner began his career as a journalist, writing about Vietnam. During that experience, he noticed how computers during Vietnam were symbols of a mechanized society, be it as war tools or just as a male-dominated sub-culture, much like mechanized governments were at the time. After finishing that research, he noticed a very different attitude in the computer culture emerging in California in the late 1990s. There, computers were exactly the opposite symbol–they stood for freedom of expression, rebellion against old ways, and a new attitude of “techno-utopianism“.

Turner chronicled the evolution of the Whole Earth Catalog community as it grew with technology. Founded by Stuart Brand in Menlo Park, the catalog aimed to provide a resource for those interested in a commune-like lifestyle. Items were both gathered by staff writers and submitted by readers. This resulted in a “celebration of new, enabling technologies” (reminded me of “a directory of wonderful things“), listed over 400 pages. It followed a remarkable system of openness, including a full accounting of all expenses the catalog incurred. This was especially important to the catalog’s target readership, those concerned with honesty and community.

As part of this search and the desire to enable this new lifestyle, the group began to stumble upon technologies that made this community-building much easier. This took form most famously in the founding of The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic ‘Link) in 1985 by Stuart Brand and Larry Brilliant. Brand had been exposed to technology through the ill-fated Whole Earth Software Catalog and his work with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as their filmmaking publicist. Brand was adept enough with technology to be the camera operator at “The Mother of all Demos“, with Doug Englebart at SRI in 1962. These were the first instances of counterculture and cyberculture converging.

The key to the WELL’s success, Turner argued, may have been the inclusion of journalists. Everyone online paid a fee to use the service–except for journalists. Just as the counterculture became involved in technology by using it, journalists became involved in technology by talking about it. Writers such as Howard Rheingold and Kevin Kelley participated heavily (and years later, are the “saint” and “citizen” of technology). Everyone contributed, everyone benefited.

Turner’s next point was about how the mindset of these counterculture types formed the public’s mind about technology. Again, the journalists were the key. Rheingold, especially, was prescient in his predictions of technology shaping culture, first in “Virtual Communites” and again in “Smart Mobs“. His books constitute the “Tipping Point” (props to Malcolm Gladwell) when media, commerce, government start to realize the potential that the geeks (sorry, “early adopters”) have known all along.

Turner wrapped up by answering a question about how the future of online communities looked. Interestingly, he pointed to online communities as being less stand-along entities and more as supplements to existing communities (cool article by Steven Johnson). Less new groups, more in-depth old groups. Sounds good to me–anything that keeps technology as a route instead of a destination sounds a bit more natural than the alternative. Despite my recent enjoyment of it, I would rather not just push pixels for the rest of my life.

UPDATE In my excitement over technology’s possibility, I forgot to mention two dystopian visions of an online future, both mentioned by Turner in his talk: a posting by “humdog” on the WELL criticizing its nature and the way it lacked “the weight of reality”; and the philosophy of Netwar (3 books out now) by John Arquilla, a war planner for the Navy. Good to keep in mind . . .