The early future of the Web – Context Book Review

Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture tells the story of how the ideals of the counterculture movement of the 60s informed the development of what we now know as cyberculture today. Turner begins his story describing how society-at-large viewed the computer in the late 1960s, “…tools and emblems of the…unfeeling industrial-era social machine…” (Turner, 2006). Yet in the 1990s, a utopian vision of computers, and the internet, swept through the public consciousness and academics alike as “politics, economics, the nature of the self – all seemed to teeter on the edge of transformation” (2006). In telling the story of this transformation, the author focuses his narrative by providing a biography of Stewart Brand, an artist and entrepreneur responsible for founding the Whole Earth Catalog in the late 1960s, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) in 1985, and the Global Business Network (GBN) in 1987.

Brand and his colleagues, argues Turner, by living in the counterculture movement in the 1960s, were able to envision personal computers enabling individual freedom. This view was shaped by the philosophies of Brand and others, such as the mathematician Norbert Wiener, who viewed humans and machines as interacting elements of an information system. The global connectivity brought on by the internet deepened the flow of information between human and machine, particularly the computer. The idea that individuals “needed to gain control over information and information systems” (2006) was a concept carried by Brand and his cohorts into their work with leveraging computers and internet for the individual, not the military or corporation.

In 1985 Brand and business partner Larry Brilliant created, according to Wired magazine, “one of most influential computer networks in the world” (qtd well.com). The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) was a very early teleconferencing system from the era of early dial-up modems and bulletin boards. The WELL enabled subscribers to share messages with one another, chat in real-time, and its “membership and governance…carried forward a set of ideas, management strategies, and interpersonal networks first formulated in and around the Whole Earth Catalog” (2006). Many of the communal ideals that profoundly influenced Brand and his early catalog was now a part of the WELL information community, a major resource for engineers, programmers, and hackers in the early days of Silicon Valley.

The combination of computer technologists and utopian counterculture dogma effectively shaped the information sharing explosion that started in the 1990s, a combination of collaborative work combined with the scientific research styles that directly countered the “…closed [information] system for purposes of military control and command” (2006) that the internet was initially created for. The new vision of the internet as entrepreneurial and collaborative, because Brand and his colleagues were entrepreneurial and collaborative, spread throughout the technology field and directly influenced the internet we are familiar with today.

For information scientists, navigators, browsers, and professionals, From Counterculture to Cyberculture provides a detailed and timely account of the birth of internet as a closed and cold loop among technologists and the military, and its transformation into an open platform for information sharing that many of us take for granted today. Information professionals will value a knowledge of the history behind the internet, as it informs the historical importance of protecting free speech, free inquiry, and accessibility for everyone.

 

References

Turner, F. (2006). From counterculture to cyberculture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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