Fred Turner

The Establishment of Counterculture
Fred Turner interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba, Yukiko Bowman and Julianne Gola

In his influential book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture (University of Chicago Press, 2006), Fred Turner argues that figures of the 1960s counterculture influenced what we think of as ‘mainstream’ technologies today. In the following interview, he cites Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, as an example of cultural entrepreneurs migrating
ideals from counterculture to computing.

Jeffrey Inaba: Could you describe the historical arc of your book? What is the relationship you draw between American counterculture and computer technology as we know it today?

Fred Turner: From Counterculture to Cyberculture traces a set of ideas that came alive in counterculture, particularly in the Back to the Land movement, and shows their impact on what we now think is good about computers and networks. Before starting the book, I understood computers in the 60s to be emblematic of everything associated with the Cold War State, namely ‘The Man’ and militarism. The book tries to solve the mystery of how computers came to be regarded instead as tools for countercultural revolution. It covers the social network associated with Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth publications, from the first Catalog in 1968 to Wired Magazine in the mid 90s, which altogether brought us terms like Personal Computer, electronic frontier and virtual community. The book argues that the Whole Earth network carried forward counter-cultural ideals through concepts and technologies developed originally inside the military industrial complex.

JI: This differs from the general received view that those associated with counterculture were ‘dropping out’ of society, not participating in aspects of mainstream society, let alone in military-related technologies.

FT: First of all, there was not one counterculture: there were at least two. One was the New Left: the anti-war side that focused on doing politics to change politics, who formed organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The other, which I call the New Communalists, eschewed party politics, bureaucracy, and big organized social worlds as inherently corrupt. They wanted to build a new community modeled on shared consciousness – their alternative to politics was mind. If people could experience a shared mindset, then politics as such would no longer be necessary, and all could simply 'be one.'

JI: Your book mainly concerns what you call the New Communalists. What connection did they make between shared consciousness and technology?

FT: The idea of building a community centered on the extension of consciousness was very much alive in military research circles during World War II; ironically, consciousness was a word used in the military to describe attempts to monitor incoming bombers. Radar technology was conceived as an expansion of the human sense capability over the limits of the body, where information from multiple sources led to greater shared awareness. This notion of building a sense-extended world in which we can collectively see beyond what we might otherwise be able to see became a political alternative to mainstream society in the 1960s.

Yukiko Bowman: Can you describe the New Communalists’ appropriation of the language of information systems? How was the rhetoric of technology developed in military-industrial circles repurposed by the counterculture you discuss?

FT: The 19th century's personal-technological regime was industrial: the motor was the metaphor for human processes. In Brand’s early work, the computer was the metaphor. Just as the Industrial Age was imagined as a world-system of engines, levers and pistons, during the 1960’s the world was imagined as a system of ‘information’, of ‘consciousness’.

The terms ‘information’ and ‘system’ came to life most prominently in the Whole Earth Catalog, which was itself a kind of information system in that it was a means of sharing and accessing information within a social community connected by commonly-held values. It instantiated Norbert Wiener’s ideas alongside the ideas of L.L. Bean. [Laughs]. One could not purchase items directly from the Catalog – one bought the catalog to gain access to information and resources. Individuals wrote in to recommend products, supplying an address where the products could be acquired. In this way, it was essentially a map of the items of interest to the counterculture, many of which were, in fact, technologies of consciousness. The Catalog’s content was about 60% books, which is amazing when you think about heading back to the land: you needed backhoes, not books! [Laughs]

JI: You write about the post-World War II use of the ‘computational metaphor’, which implies data processing and not just systems thinking. Can you discuss this aspect in reference to the metaphor?  Also, given what you have described so far, it’s not clear that their beliefs and activities can be said to be countercultural.

FT: By and large they were not countercultural. They were a vanguard youth movement that helped usher in a networked, post-industrial economic life. It’s important to remember that the rise of the post-industrial society and knowledge-based forms of production and thinking dates to the late 1960's. In other words, the countercultural ‘revolution’ coincides with the knowledge revolution. Historically, this is really important: the New Communalists were like magpies. They gathered up things that sounded like stories of shared consciousness and appropriated them. They claimed the technologies of information as a source of social organization and power, re-imagining themselves as social nodes processing or acting within a system of information.

But the New Communalists did another thing: they took ideas from the larger world of technology and repurposed them, and in so doing they claimed standing in regard to the dominant ideas of their time. Notice the two parts of what they were saying, 'we’re countercultural insofar as we are repurposing these but we are also of the mainstream culture insofar as these things are properly ours’. The latter move made me ultimately come to the conclusion that it wasn’t a counterculture. They were the cultural wing of the post-industrial economy.

Julianne Gola: Can you discuss further the relationship of economics to technological developments at the time? This generation not only experienced incredible social upheaval, but also great economic affluence. In your opinion, how did this affect their reception of technology?

FT: The children of the 1950's, who became the young adults of the 1960's, grew up in a world where technology had two valences: big and military, or consumer-oriented and simply delightful. Automobiles and record players (and a little later pharmaceuticals) allowed extraordinary pleasure and a whole new experience of self in relation to others. In order to avoid big military technologies, people wanted to find small-scale technologies that would allow them to continue pursuing pleasure.

The New Communalists integrated the revolutionary rhetoric of the 60s to try to transform mainstream consumer products into tools for personal growth and community building. We have been wedded to the idea that 60's counterculture really posed an alternative to all things that went before it, but when you pull back you start to see something much more evolutionary than revolutionary – a movement toward a portable, individualized media culture.

YB: How did the individualization of technology and its perceived ability to enhance ‘personal growth’ as you say, relate to the New Communalists' attitude towards power?

FT: The New Communalists wanted to step away from all kinds of instrumental power – in theory. That’s not to say it happened in practice. Within communes, the politics of consciousness was a way to shift the discussion of power from an explicit verbal sphere into the sphere of cool. They'd say, 'Bobby, you're just not cool enough, be cool Bobby'. In other words, 'agree with me in power'. Power becomes very hard to challenge when it moves away from explicit rules and regulations of bureaucracy into non-explicit behavior, culture or even style. When the New Communalists shifted to a politics of consciousness, they dropped the explicit politics of language and institution, and lost levers for negotiating power. These communes became either very authoritarian [laughs], or very chaotic, and fell apart quite quickly.

I recently co-wrote an essay in defense of bureaucracy. I know this makes me very popular in all corners. [Laughs] But one of the glories of bureaucracy is that it builds explicit rules that allow people to claim and then pursue certain rights. Without bureaucracy, we enter a sphere in which one’s personality and work seem somehow to be the same. In this case, it becomes very hard to make negotiations about rights. One of the myths about the counterculture is that it made politics personal in a liberating way. That’s true in that it liberated us to pursue our personality, gender, or racial identity. But we forget that many of those pursuits were successful because we had legal-based levers to defend them.

JI: Can you contextualize this politics of consciousness in relation to the various psychedelic camps of the 60s?

FT: Among the psychedelic camps there were differences in belief about how to exercise power or action externally. There was the group centered around Esalen, who thought 'we might transform the world, but we are going to transform ourselves first'. The Timothy Leary circle had an almost religious take on LSD, promoting a theology: 'we are going to transform the world by transforming ourselves through this mystical religious experience'. Stewart Brand once referred to himself, Ken Kesey [and the Merry Pranksters] as part of the 'athletic wing of the acid heads'. [Laughs] They were a very macho crowd, focused on achieving through acid, wanting to go higher and 'further'. So Esalen was an encounter session, Timothy Leary was The Church of LSD and Other Things, and the Merry Pranksters were a swinging LSD fraternity.

JI: For the New Communalists, how did the ideas of community and technology evolve? Was there ever a realization that counterculture had failed?

FT: By the early 1980’s, most of the members of the counterculture were afraid that they had made a big mistake and that the counterculture had failed. There was a terribly sad meeting in San Francisco where Kesey, Brand, and others got up and spoke about the legacy of the counterculture and what they were essentially concluding was, 'Wow, not much impact. A lot of parties, not happy people’.

In 1985, computer entrepreneur Larry Brilliant approached Brand with the idea of putting the Whole Earth Catalog online. And Brand said, 'No, what we should do is make it a conversation system.' The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) was founded, and Brand quickly sent out more than a hundred invitations. When they got online, they began to think that the web system of text-on-a-screen could allow them to share consciousness in a way that the communes had really failed to do.

YB: What effect did the rise of computer technology in the 1980s have on the identity of groups who had associated themselves with counterculture?

FT: At the 1984 Hackers' Conference, hippies started to imagine themselves as hackers and vice versa. Counterculturalists found in computers the communities of consciousness that they left in the back-to-the-land movement. And the ‘computationalists’ found cultural legitimacy. Suddenly, they’re not nerds, they’re hippies – they’re the coolest guys they know!

JG: The WELL refers to itself as the 'primordial ooze where the online community movement was born'. By linking up ideas and communication, the WELL set the precedent for social media. But how much knowledge did Steward Brand have of network technologies, and to what extent did his expertise lie elsewhere, such as in understanding the social potentials of technologies and in being able to communicate them?

FT: Stewart Brand is a good example of a figure who stood between social worlds and knit them together – he’s what I call ‘a Barnum’. The American circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum couldn’t ride a trapeze, couldn’t ride a trick horse, but he could recognize really good performers, build circus rings for them and be their promoter. That’s very much what Stewart Brand did – he built the rings in which different circuses could play and became their voice. The building of rings or social networks is an enormously important way of exercising power.

JG: What's the operative technological metaphor today, and how much of that involves the countercultural terms of self and community?

FT: I think that we are still living in the computational metaphor where the rhetoric of connection is becoming increasingly important. In Brand’s era, the rhetoric of shared consciousness and the flow of information might have been most important. Today it seems to be the rhetoric of needing to be constantly connected. [Laughs] And yet we have no way to talk to ourselves about what we are connected to!

At the level of the individual, we live in a world like the one called for by the New Communalists, one ruled by the pursuit of personal growth. As the citizens of Drop City chopped the tops off of cars and built homes, so people now ‘chop the tops off’ the internet and make homes in it – homes in which they can find the intimacy absent in their material surroundings. And that, in  many ways, is the dream of the New Communalists. Ironically, it is a pursuit of self-fulfillment through labor (through collaboration with others on typological systems) within the mainstream large-scale economy.

Hyper-connectivity has amplified some of the tactics that organized power for the New Communalists in ways that really bother me. My fear is that much online activity is an alternative to political life that nonetheless feels political but is not; it's just phatic communication, which is just to say that you are here, like 'ugh, ugh'. [Laughs] By the same token, when hyper-connectivity is depicted as harnessing social movements, it actually links institutions under a rhetoric borrowed from the counterculture. The definition of commune-based power is the basis of many social worlds online.

JI: You mentioned the domes of Drop City – why do you believe architecture was a literal and apt metaphor for the counterculture?

FT: The site for change in the 60s was the individual self inside the building. The hope was that the domes would transform consciousness. I think that the emphasis on the individual was an error. One of the reasons the dome was such an important form of housing was that it literally wasn’t square and thus wasn’t going to produce square selves. It sounds hokey but it’s really true. I would like to see architecture practiced with the political sensibility that the New Communalists specifically outlawed. If not the computational, then what’s a metaphor that would allow architects today to build in a way that would involve social and political change?