From Counterculture to Cyberculture

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Summary: The failure of the technoutopians to orginize into a larger movement of collaborative, open, distributed production resulted in a miscarriage of technoutopia.

Book on the history of tech utopianism in the USA. Conclusions:

  1. Need to collaborate. Nowhere is the concept of advanced production on a small scale emphasized, as enabled by true collaboration. This translates to, on the ground - open source hardware development in the form of the Open Source Solar Microfactory fueled by digital design - or similar schemes allowing for a true distribution of wealth. The failure of both Appropriate Technology and the Counterculture (as in From Counterculture to Cyberculture lies in true collaboration. This means ceasing to be consumers of the holy Whole Earth Catalog, but become producers, afforded by distributed fabrication, of which today the FabLabs are a miserable attempt to create. But unless we accept open source and collaborative development of economics, we will never transcend the joke of third world aid, FabLabs, and the joke that evolved from the early 2010's open source hardware as we went into the 2020s. See the History of Open Source Hardware. OSE has shown that open production is possible to the level of microcontrollers, tractors, 3D printers, CNC machines, and others have shown it up to semiconductors and air bearing lathes (Desktop Semiconductor Foundry and Air Bearing Lathe. Albeit only with industrial supply chains. Therefore, to be able to create indigenous technology anywhere, one of the missing steps is open materials production - opening access to current technological feedstocks. Retaining heirloom technology and appropriating modern technology as appropriate,.


  • As they set off for the hills of New Mexico and Tennessee, the communards of the back-to-the-land land movement hoped to build not only communities of consciousness, but real, embodied towns. Most failed-not for lack of good intentions, nor even for lack of tools, but for lack of attention to politics. To the extent that Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth group have succeeded in linking the ideals of those whom Kenneth Keniston called the alienated to digital technologies, nologies, they have allowed computer users everywhere to imagine their machines as tools of personal liberation. Over the past thirty years, this reimagining has helped transform the machines themselves, the institutions in which we use them, and society at large. Yet, as the short life of the New Communalist movement suggests, information and information technologies gies will never allow us to fully escape the demands of our bodies, our institutions, tutions, and the times in which we find ourselves. Much like the commune-bound bound readers of the Whole Earth Catalog, we remain confronted by the need to build egalitarian, ecologically sound communities. Only by helping us meet that fundamentally political challenge can information technology fulfill its countercultural promise.
  • When they tried to live these ideals, however, the communards discovered ered that embracing systems of consciousness and information as sources of social structure actually amplified their exposure to the social and material pressures they had hoped to escape. When the members of communes such as Drop City freed themselves from the formal structures of government, for example, they quickly suffered from an inability to attend to their own material needs and to form common cause with their neighbors. The first of these difficulties grew directly out of the New Communalist rejection of formal politics. In the absence of formal rule structures, many communes saw questions of leadership and power become questions of charisma. As a result, many suffered from the rise of hostile factions, and some from the appearance of nearly dictatorial gurus. The turn away from formal politics also gave norms that the communards had brought with them from mainstream stream society an extraordinary governing force. In the absence of institutions tions that might regulate the relations of men and women, many fell back on old customs. Under the guise of social experimentation, for example, many rural communes in particular witnessed the comparative disenfranchisement chisement of women and children. Like the men of the suburbs whose lives they had rejected, the men of many communes left the cooking and the cleaning and the care of the children to the women.
  • Yet, despite their differences, these scholars have tended to agree that, starting sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, a postindustrial mode of development emerged as a dominant force in society.' Within this mode, as Daniel Bell put it in his early and still-influential 1973 account The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, "theoretical knowledge" would serve as the "axial principle" of production.' Under the industrial regime, gime, he argued, major technological innovations such as telegraphy and aviation had arisen from individual tinkering. By contrast, under the post-industrial industrial system then emerging, new technologies such as chemical synthesis sis had come about as a result of systematic scientific research. In the future, he explained, this trend would accelerate. Scientists and researchers would work collaboratively to apply systematic knowledge to complex problems. They would produce both new goods and new knowledge, and as they did, their status in society would rise. As they acquired increasing social power, suggested Bell, bureaucratic hierarchies would begin to crumble, to be replaced placed by the leveled social structures of the research world. -now this is wishful thinking, as proprietary r&d is the norm.
  • As far as Berry was concerned, O'Neill's project was nothing more than a boondoggle for big business and big government. It was a "moral escape valve," he wrote, and "yet another `new frontier' to be manned by an elite of experts."
  • His daughter, Mary Catherine, penned a long recollection of his death for CQ, in which she celebrated brated his affection for his children and grandchildren and described their visits its to his bedside. After Bateson's life force had left his body, she recalled, she and a number of monks washed and tended his corpse and prepared it for cremation. mation. In every way, her article suggested, this had been the end of a life well lived-perhaps even the life of a saint.
  • Brand's Bateson was an intellectual seeker, an autodidact and polymath possessed of an orphic speaking style and a childlike curiosity.
  • Yet, Bateson's theory of immanent mind also offered those who took it up a way to recover their sense of themselves as world-savers. In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson proposed that although the immediate causes of what appeared to be an impending ecological crisis might be technological and social, the ultimate cause was epistemological. He pointed out in an essay entitled "Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation" that individual consciousness was always engaged in processes of individual learning and cultural change. These processes shaped man's relationship to the natural world and so offered the individual an opportunity to change that world. At the moment, Bateson argued in 1972, what the natural world needed most was preserving. Over the previous century, certain "self-maximizing maximizing entities," such as corporations and governments, had turned the individual human being into "a dehumanized creature."42 By recognizing ing the degree of their integration into the natural and social systems around them, he suggested, individuals could simultaneously restore their individual ual humanity and act more humanely toward the planet as a whole.
  • With Bateson's second-wave cybernetics, they could accept their own increasing need to collaborate with mainstream society as a variation on the truth that no one could live outside "the system." To try-as many so recently had-was simply to court disaster.
  • Yet, whereas the New Communalists ists had pursued the experience of collective transcendence, Bateson rejected transcendence entirely. Bateson taught that mind existed here and now, as the property of local collaboration between individuals and the social cial and natural systems of which they were a part. Mind could no more be separated from the material world than communes built on transcendent consciousness could survive beyond the reach of material forms of governance. nance. In this way, Bateson's theory allowed New Communalists to reject the doctrines of self-sufficiency they had associated with transcendence, which had clearly failed in the field.
  • In a series of essays published in a 1972 best seller entitled Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson outlined a vision of the natural ural world as a set of information systems in interaction with one another. Individuals were both elements of this larger system and systems in their own right: "The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system. This larger Mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by `God,' but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology." Through cybernetics, Bateson explained, humans could finally recognize that the individual was no more than "a servosystem coupled with its environment." The notion that the individual "mind" somehow stood apart from the body or even from the larger world was simply ply a relic from the industrial and even pre-industrial eras of human civilization. lization.
  • Despite the appearance of circular models in Einstein's general theory of relativity, most scientists believed that circular patterns of causality could not be modeled eled or verified mathematically, and so could not be studied. Rosenblueth's version of causality, however, was both genuinely new and open to study with traditional mathematical methods. In 1946, as soon as World War II had ended, the Macy Foundation convened the first of ten meetings to explore plore these and other insights of cybernetics.
  • In a series of essays published in a 1972 best seller entitled Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson outlined a vision of the natural world as a set of information systems in interaction with one another.
  • This generation, which gathered during and immediately after World War II, understood cybernetics bernetics as the study of communication and control systems that could be observed from a position outside the systems themselves. A second wave emerged in 1960 with the publication of Observing Systems, Heinz von Foerster's ster's collection of essays.39 There von Foerster, who later became a charter subscriber to the Whole Earth Catalog and a friend of Stewart Brand, attempted tempted to include observers as elements in the systems they observed. Within von Foerster's vision and later, within the work of a number of other cyberneticians, observer and system were inseparable.
  • Brand ended up critiquing self sufficiency in 1974. "Self-sufficiency" is an idea which has done more harm than good. On close conceptual examination it is flawed at the root. More importantly, it works badly in practice. Anyone who has actually tried to live in total self-sufficiency-there must be now thousands in the recent wave that we (culpa!) helped inspire-knows the mind-numbing labor and loneliness and frustration and real marginless hazard that goes with the attempt. It is a kind of hysteria.... ... self-sufficiency is not to be had on any terms, ever. It is a charming woodsy extension of the fatal American mania for privacy.... It is a damned lie. There is no dissectable self. Ever since there were two organisms life has been a matter of co-evolution, life growing ever more richly on life....
  • "There are coming to be Private Statesmen," Brand wrote in his journal in August 1971. "I seem to want to be one, and visualize an instrumentality to encourage them." Over the next few years, he helped manage Point
  • Members of the New Communalist movement were no more immune to the political winds howling around them. Although some communes-particularly particularly those with a strong religious bent-still flourished, many had lasted only a year or two. In 1970, for example, sociologist Hugh Gardner had visited some thirty rural and urban communes; in 1973, when he returned turned to see how they were faring, he found most on the verge of collapse, if not gone already. This was true of the particular communes Stewart Brand had visited as well. In 1972 two New Mexico communes with strong links to San Francisco, Morning Star East and the Reality Construction Company, were thrown off their borrowed land; in 1973 Drop City was disbanded; banded; the Lama Foundation continued, but by 1973 the Durkees and many of the original founders had left. Most communes collapsed for lack of sufficient political organization. The libertarian tribalism of Drop City was fun for a while, but the New Communalist emphasis on consciousness transformation rendered intentional communities vulnerable to charismatic matic leaders and, in their absence, anarchy. Moreover, few communes succeeded ceeded in generating sufficient income to keep going after gifts from family members and friends ran out. To survive, communities needed structures of governance and structured ways of making a living-the very institutional tional elements of social life that many New Communalists had hoped to avoid.32
  • Xerox PARC, while still a child of the military-industrial complex, plex, took on the cool of the Pranksters. And the Pranksters and Brand himself, self, six years after the Trips Festival, demonstrated that they had survived the Summer of Love and should still be regarded as harbingers of social change.
  • In "Spacewar," Brand brought together two visions of personal computing ing and linked them in terms set by the New Communalist technological vision. The user-friendly, time-sharing vision of Xerox PARC and the politically empowering, information-community vision of Resource One were two sides of the same coin, Brand implied. Both groups, he suggested, were high-tech versions of the Merry Pranksters, and the computer itself was a new LSD.
  • Ken Colstad, a member of the project, described its aims in a 1975 issue of the People's Computer Company thus: "Such a horizontal system would allow the public to take advantage of the huge and largely untapped reservoir of skills and resources that resides with the people.... [It would] counteract the tendencies toward fragmentation tation and isolation so visible in today's society." On the next page, in an article ticle entitled "A Public Information Network," Efrem Lipkin made a similar point: "People must gain a sense of understanding of and control over the system as a tool.... [Computer] intelligence should be directed toward instructing structing [the user], demystifying and exposing its own nature, and ultimately mately giving him active control."
  • In Felsenstein's words, the Whole Earth Catalog reminded its readers that "you don't have to leave industrial society, but you don't have to accept it the way it is."24
  • When Xerox PARC established its own library, the new librarian asked Kay to help stock its shelves. He took her to the Whole Earth Truck Store, and together they bought a copy of every book there. The PARC library thus became something of a three-dimensional Catalog for PARC engineers, a place where they could relax and browse, but also a place whose terms had been set in part by the browsing Stewart Brand had already done.
  • But Kay had also found the Whole Earth Catalog. He first saw a copy in 1969, in Utah. "I remember thinking, `Oh yeah, that's the right idea,"' he explained in 2004. "The same way it should be easier to do your own composting, you should have the ability to deal with complicated ideas by making models of them on the computer."
  • In the late 1960s, Engelbart and others experimented with LSD and visited several communes; in 1972 they attended sessions of Werner Erhard's Erhard Seminar Training (EST) movement. As Engelbart later recalled, called, he was "very empathetic to the counterculture's notions of community nity and how that could help with creativity, rationality and how a group works together."
  • Between 1966 and 1968, the group developed a collaborative office computing environment known as the On-Line System, or NLS. The NLS featured many of the elements common to computer systems today, including cluding not only the mouse, but a QWERTY keyboard and a CRT terminal. More importantly, the system offered its users the ability to work on a document ument simultaneously from multiple sites, to connect bits of text via hyperlinks, links, to jump from one point to another in a text, and to develop indexes of key words that could be searched.
  • Stewart Brand finished the WEC with a Demise Party - and gave $15k there to a follower who started the Homebrew Computer Club. From there emerged Apple and other notable computer companies
  • middle of the 1970s, Brand turned away from the computer industry per se and toward the cybernetics netics of Gregory Bateson. Drawing on Bateson's vision of the material world as an information system, Brand and others began to imagine a new kind of home for themselves-space colonies. Fifteen years later, such fantasies of technologically sustained communities would reappear in celebrations of "cyberspace," berspace," but in the late 1970s, they marked the dissolution of the back-to-the-land land movement's rustic technophilia, and with it the collapse of New Communalism nalism as a social movement. Finally, confronted by this collapse and by the increasing presence of desktop computers, Brand turned back toward the computer industry and its founders in the early 1980s. Computer engineers, he argued, and not the failed back-to-the-landers, were the true heirs of the New Communalist project. By that time the New Communalist movement had vanished from the scene. Yet, thanks in large part to Brand's entrepreneurship, its ideals seemed to live on in the surging computer industry, and Brand himself became a key spokesman for this new and ostensibly countercultural group.
  • The Catalog's technocentric attitude toward social change, its systems orientation, its preoccupation with information, and even the cluster of networks it brought together became central features of the 1990s debates about networked computing and the "New Economy."
  • Brand - "background is pure WASP, wife is American Indian. Work I did a few years ago with Indians convinced me that any guilt-based action toward anyone (personal or institutional) can only make a situation worse. Furthermore the arrogance of Mr. Advantage telling Mr. Disadvantage what to do with his life is sufficient cause for rage. I ain't black, nor poor, nor very native to anyplace, nor eager any longer to pretend that I am-such identification is good education, but not particularly a good position for being useful to others."
  • "Once," wrote Bonner, ner, "while working with him on the catalog, I asked Mr. Brand if he would not carry any of a various number of politically oriented underground newspapers. Upon reply he told me that three of the first restrictions he made for the catalog were no art, no religion, no politics." Bonner then pointed out that Catalog offered all three: the art was fine art or craft; the religion, Eastern; the politics, libertarian. "From all the 128 pages of the Whole Earth Catalog there emerges an unmentioned political viewpoint," wrote Bonner. "The whole feeling of escapism which the catalog conveys is to me unfortunate."
  • the Catalog's readers and even staffers took the Catalog and the communities it served to task. In the July 1969 Supplement, Brand printed a letter critiquing Buckminster Fuller for allowing only two classes in his work: elite designers and mass consumers./
  • Whole Earth Catalog serves as a guide, it would be masculine, entrepreneurial, well-educated, and white. It would celebrate systems theory and the power of technology to foster social change. And it would turn away from questions of gender, race, and class, and toward a rhetoric of individual and small-group empowerment.
  • Alloy gathering in New Mexico - [And in that system, readers could glimpse the possibility of an entirely new world system, one in which American industry supplied tools that could be appropriated for purposes of transformation. The tools would be deployed first by an elite and later by the whole population.]
  • domes, like the Whole Earth Catalog itself, became prototypes of a new way of being. If white-collar man was a "square," domes and their users were well rounded.
  • At the same time, he could experience the ancient and the new, the Eastern and the Western, the literary and the technological, as mutually legitimating elements of his "whole" experience.
  • WEC -"Transcendental planning." This method of management, he explained, involved a recognition of one's individual interests and one's interests in the collective good.
  • juxtaposition is a core element of the cybernetic practice of universal rhetoric and of its ideological component, legitimacy exchange.14 These principles are at work on virtually every page of the Whole Earth Catalog, and in its overarching structure as well. Together they offer a way for the members of the New Communalist movement to claim some of the legitimacy of the American research community. They also work to legitimate mainstream forces of consumption, technological production, and research as hip.
  • "At the same time, he intimates that he and the reader are like gods in at least two senses, one local and one global, and both familiar from Buckminster Fuller's Ideas and Integrities and, before that, Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics. On the local level, the individual reader is like a god in having the power to conduct his life as he wishes, as long as he can find the appropriate tools. For Brand, as for Fuller and Wiener, the system of the universe is complete-it is not something thing we can put together, but something already "together" in its own right. At the local level, our job is to turn its energies and resources to our own purposes. In keeping with the countercultural critique of hierarchy, we must pursue our own, individual transformation and the transformation of the world."
  • "Every time a white hippie comes in and buys a Chicano's land to escape the fuckin' city, he sends that Chicano to the city to go through what he's trying to escape from, can you dig it? What can you do with that bread out here, man? Nothing. Then when that money's gone, see, the Chicano has to stay in the city, cause now he ain't got no land to come back to. He's stuck, and the hippie's free. That's why they don't dig the fuckin' hippies, man."2
  • Race relations echoed patterns found elsewhere in the counterculture. Virtually all of the back-to-the-landers were white, and most were under thirty years of age, well-educated, socially privileged, and financially stable.
  • What order obtained on many communes depended less on systems of explicit social control than on social resources and cultural habits imported from the New Communalists' former lives. More than a few communes were built with inherited money and sustained with welfare checks and food stamps. And many commune residents felt at home in large part because they were surrounded by others like themselves.
  • In the late 1960s and early 1970s, intentional communities tended to be organized along one of two lines: either free-flowing anarchy or rigid, usually ally religious, social order.9 Both types of communities, however, embraced the notion that small-scale technologies could transform the individual consciousness sciousness and, with it, the nature of community.
  • Whole Earth Catalogue - Together, they came to argue that technologies should be small-scale, should support the development of individual consciousness, and therefore should be both informational and personal.
  • For college students of his time, the imagined gray mass of the Soviet Army was a mirror image of the army of gray flannel nel men who marched off to work every morning in the concrete towers of American industry. The soldier in his uniform was simply another form of what sociologist William Whyte called the "Organization Man."5 Cut off from his emotions, trained to follow a chain of command, the Soviet soldier and the American middle manager alike seemed to many to be little more than worker bees inside ever-growing hives of military-industrial bureaucracy.
  • How did a social movement devoted to critiquing the technological bureaucracy of the cold war come to celebrate the socio-technical visions that animated that bureaucracy? And how is it that the communitarian ideals of the counterculture should have become melded to computers and computer networks in such a way that thirty years later, the Internet could appear to so many as an emblem of a youthful revolution reborn?
  • In this way the Macy meetings helped transform cybernetics into one of the dominant intellectual paradigms of the postwar era.
  • For the marchers of the Free Speech movement, disembodiment-that is, the transformation of the self into data on an IBM card-marked the height of dehumanization. For Kelly, Dyson, and Barlow, however, it marked the route to new forms of equality and communion. Somehow, somewhere, disembodiment had come to be seen as a route to a more holistic life.
  • In one of the most widely read business manuals of the 1990s, New Rules for the New Economy, Kelly explained that "the principles governing the world of the soft-the world of intangibles, of media, of software, and of services-will soon command the world of the hard-the world of reality, of atoms, of objects, of steel and oil, and the hard work done by the sweat of brows."
  • If the American state deployed massive weapons systems in order to destroy faraway peoples, the New Communalists would deploy small-scale technologies-ranging nologies-ranging from axes and hoes to amplifiers, strobe lights, slide projectors, jectors, and LSD-to bring people together and allow them to experience their common humanity. Finally, if the bureaucracies of industry and government ernment demanded that men and women become psychologically fragmented mented specialists, the technology-induced experience of togetherness would allow them to become both self-sufficient and whole once again.