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Counterculture, Cyberculture, and Worldchanging
Jon Lebkowsky, 6 Dec 06
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Inspired by Fred Turner's new book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, RU Sirius explores "Counterculture and the Tech Revolution" in a piece that savors the stew from which Worldchanging has emerged. Sirius considers the complementarity of Turner's book with John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said, a history of the personal computer industry's origins in sixities counterculture and the impact of LSD experimentation and antiwar activism on the PC's development.

[Dormouse] is a marvelous read that gives names and faces to an interesting dynamic that helped give birth to the PC. The story is mostly localized in Palo Alto in Silicon Valley, and it's largely about how connections were made. In this sense, it's a story that is as much based on proximity in physical space and time, as it is a story about the evolution of the cultural ideas that might be associated with that word: "counterculture.�

[Turner's book] digs more deeply into how the seeds of a certain view of how the world works (cybernetics) was planted into the emerging 60s counterculture largely through the person of Stewart Brand, and how that seed has succeeded – and how it has continued to exfoliate in new and unexpected ways. While Markoff's book blew the cultural lid off of a partly-suppressed truth — that computer culture was deeply rooted in psychedelic counterculture — Turner's book takes a broader sweep and raises difficult questions about the ideological assumptions that undergird our counterculturally-inflected technoculture.

What Turner does... is trace an arc that starts with the very mainstream American interest in cybernetics (particularly within the military) and shows how that implicit interest in self-regulating systems leads directly into the hippie Bible, the "Whole Earth Catalog� and eventually brings forth a digital culture that distributes computing power to (many of) the people, and which takes on a sort-of mystical significance as an informational "global brain.� And then, towards the book's conclusion, he raises some unpleasant memories, as Brand's digital countercultural elite engages in quasi-meaningful socio-political intercourse with Newt Gingrich's Progress and Freedom Foundation and other elements of the mid-90s "Republican Revolution.�

Sirius mentions Turner's concern "that an elite group of white guys have decided how to change the world" – for those who are figuring out how to make the Internet available and beneficial to the developing world, I'm not sure it matters who made it happen, though. No matter what the "elite group" decided, real worldchanging can be – will be – the result of a far more inclusive collaboration.

In an interview conducted by Sirius as part of his NeoFiles podcast, Turner mentions the "fantasy that if we just get the tools right and communicate effectively, we will be able to be intimate with one another and build the kinds of community that don't exist outside, in the rest of our lives." He goes on to say that "technologists and economists both tend to believe that it all revolves around barriers to entry – people have things they want to do, and if you just lower the barriers to doing them by changing the technology, those things become possible." I think that's an interesting conversation to get into, extremely relevant to the worldchanging perspective. R.U. Sirius' response leads him to say "that's fine if a group of thirty white guys get together and do a project that creates value in the world. But when that project says, 'We're re-making the entire world,' other people will stand up and say, 'Hey wait a minute.'" And Turner says "the notion that distributing tools and granting access is sufficient for making social change is a deeply new communalist notion, but it doesn't work. Because there are cultural and social conditions, social capital, that you require to be successful." And he says, at the end of the interview,

I think "Wired� is a magazine in which small-scale technologies — digital technologies in that case — are thought to be changing the world by allowing us to finally communicate with one another, and to build communities of consciousness. And those communities of consciousness are going to change the world. That is an idea that emerges first in the research worlds of World War II, and the cold war, gets picked up and culturally legitimated by Stewart Brand by the "Whole Earth� crew in the 1960s and travels with them into the 1980s, onto The Well, into the Global Business Network, onto the pages of Wired, and ultimately into our public life today.

Worldchanging does have roots in Whole Earth, GBN, Wired, and the WELL. As part of that continuum, would he see us as a more realistic manifestation of a Worldchanging ideal?

I asked Turner about this, and his response notes an important difference in Worldchanging's approach. "I think Worldchanging gives individuals concrete contexts for action that turns them outward," he says, "away from their own lives and from building their micro-worlds exclusively, and toward a larger, more political world. I have some real trouble with the New Communalism notion that the self should be the center of change, and the social and material worlds around the self as its site. Those are starting points I think, but only that. Worldchanging looks to me to offer a set of tactics and ideas that can help people move out of the private sphere and into the public one, thereby acting politically for the common good."

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'moving from the private sphere to the public' thats brilliant, we all need to turn to each other with trust in one another that we can be more open and sharing. it's so simple/hard

Posted by: Tim on 8 Dec 06



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