Summary

  • “By recounting [the history of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Network], this book reveals and helps to explain a complex intertwining of two legacies: that of the military-industrial research culture, which first appeared during World War II and flourished across the cold war era, and that of the American counterculture” (3).
  • From my text to Skye: it’s asking how hippie techno-skepticism in the 60’s turned into techno-evangelism among Silicon Valley capitalists in the 90’s, and argues that the two have always been intertwined and that the “counterculture” was always interested in business from the get-go.

Keywords

  • cybernetic rhetoric: the transformation of the 60’s is an emergence of a cybernetic way of thinking that “imagines institutions as living organisms, social networks as webs of information” thus making the computing revolution a sociocultural/epistemological one as well as material (4).
  • network forums: cybernetic entrepreneurial networks instituted by Brand to bring together multiple communities (5)
  • “the computational metaphor”: the rise of computing as the dominant modality for understanding the almost mystical power accorded to transformations to the New Economy (15).

Notes

Introduction

  • The question of the book: how did computers become symbols of utopian connectedness in the 1990’s, where only a few decades earlier in the 1960’s they were “the tools and emblems of the . . . unfeeling industrial-era social machine” (1)?
  • Typical answer is technological but Turner wants to push past that: “For all the utopian claims surrounding the emergence of the Internet, there is nothing about a computer or a computer network that necessarily requires that it level organizational structures, render the individual more psychologically whole, or drive the establishment of intimate, though geographically distributed, communities” (3).
  • “New Communalists” found cybernetic thinking provocative and powerful (4); a “cybernetic vision of the world” that turns materiality into dematerialized information.
  • Brand’s flexible networked vision eventually calcifies into the principles of neoliberalism—or neoliberalism finds in Brand’s cybernetic vision a useful tool for its aims (7).
  • “This book, then, does not tell the story of a countercultural movement whose ideals and practices were appropriated by the forces of capital, technology, or the state. Rather, it demonstrates that the New Communalist wing of the counterculture embraced those forces early on and that in subsequent years, Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth network continued to provide the intellectual and practical contexts within which members of the two worlds could come together and legitimate one another’s projects” (8).

1. The Shifting Politics of the Computational Metaphor

  • [This is the chapter that Matt assigned in 702, and gives a good overview of the political/rhetorical use of computing through the cybernetic era.]
  • Begins w/ contrast b/t Mario Savio & the Free Speech Movement decrying the information economy as assimilating all ppl into a technocratic regime and John Perry Barlow drafting the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” using similar liberatory rhetoric to promise that technology would achieve similar ends.
  • “The savvy worker would have to become a networker”—compare the Liu’s explication of teamwork in the information economy and Foucault’s emphasis on networking in Biopolitics.
  • Cites Edwards: FSM revolts against “closed world discourse” (17); also Galison on “trading zone” (19).
  • Rad Lab implementing initial vision of “flexible, collaborative work and a distinctly nonhierarchical management style” despite its placement at the heart of the military-industrial complex (19). [I wonder if Turner will attend to questions of gender and race here: who gets trust to be nonhierarchical?]
  • “By imaginatively transfiguring soldiers into mechanisms, Wiener and Bigelow suggested that human beings were at some level machines. Underlying all their messy, fleshy, emotional complexity, human beings could be modeled as mechanical information processors. Moreover, if this was the case, they could be replaced by faster and more reliable mechanical devices” (21).
  • “To the readers of Cybernetics, computers may have threatened automation from above, but they also offered metaphors for the democratic creation of order from below” (24). Compare w/ texts from the Politics of Networks section, esp. Hardt & Negri.
  • Cybernetics as a fundamentally collaborative and magpie enterprise (like digital studies): “Wiener did not create the discipline of cybernetics out of thin air; rather, he pulled its analytical terms together by bridging multiple, if formerly segregated, scientific communities” (24).
  • Post-war affluence, anti-automation critiques, and the expanding university produced a powerful student movement critiquing technological capitalism (30).
  • Hippie counterculture energy most important for turn to “communalization” (32); New Communalists still embraced cybernetic thinking and wanted to incorporate it into rural communal life (33).

  • Microbiology becomes a systems science under the influence of 1950’s information theory; Gleick writes as much as well; DNA as code available for reading and writing (43–44).
  • “Individuals, populations, and the landscapes they inhabited were entwined in constant exchanges—exchanges so pervasive that, as in the case of algae and fungi, individuals were sometimes hard to distinguish from whole populations” (44); bio-cybernetics, compare with Tsing.
  • McLuhan as a neo-capitalist enabler: “For the young people who flocked to their lectures, their peregrinations offered a model of an entrepreneurial, individualistic mode of being that was far from the world of the organization man—and yet a mode in which they still didn’t need to give up the stereos and automobiles and radios that industrial society had created” (52).
  • Note: the Whole Earth Catalog was entirely speculative: “Readers couldn’t actually buy any of these goods through the Catalog—to make purchases they would have to visit the Whole Earth Truck Store in Menlo Park, California, or turn to other retailers” (71).
  • Whole Earth Catalog as a textual network technology: “At another, it served as a textual forum within which back-to-the-landers could meet one another, as well as technologists, academics, and artists, and share information” (79).
  • I’m sure (I hope) Turner will get into this, but what do we make of the main network forum of this community being a catalog no one can use? What do we make the commodity fetishism and vectored consumerism implied by such a form?
  • Note Chapter 6’s turn to analysis of the economic legacy of the Whole Earth Network in the 90’s: from counterculture to consulting firm.
  • “If the atomic era had conjured up a nightmare vision of humankind broken into factions across invisible “iron curtains” and of all of humanity leveled in a single blast, cybernetics, and systems theory more generally, offered a vision of a world united, inextricably connected, and tending, at least in Norbert Wiener’s view, toward the calm of homeostasis” (243).
  • The fundamentally selfish Boomer consumerist “predicament” of the 60’s counterculture: “how could they reject the core institutions of American society and yet retain access to the products of that society and the pleasures they offered?” (244).
  • In its very last pages, the book does muster a political critique of the affective wages of cybernetic individualism. But it feels like too little too late: I suppose in the end I identify more with Mumford’s communism than anything else!
  • Finally a turn to materialism and infrastructure: “The rhetoric of peer-to-peer informationalism, however, much like the rhetoric of consciousness out of which it grew, actively obscures the material and technical infrastructures on which both the Internet and the lives of the digital generation depend” (260).

Archive and Impact

  • Fred Turner teaches communications; his degrees are in communications and English literature. This book is one of cultural history and draws on the wide swathe of things I’ve been reading out of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s on cybernetic and information theory. Unsurprisingly its heaviest critical debts are to anthropology: Galison, Bowker, and Star get heavy citations, and its overall method is anthropological. Part of this focus on communications might explain the curious absence of rigorous racial, gender, or economic analysis.
  • It is bizarre that neoliberalism warrants practically no mention in this text at all—it’s not like it’s too early to engage with those questions.
  • Like Edwards’ book, this is a book whose content I am happy to know and that enriches my understanding of the emergence of digital and information culture. And on the other hand, I find its analysis under-baked and uncritical: this is a work of history that seems more interested in reporting facts and figures (is this what historical writing just is?) than doing any kind of cultural criticism.