Fred Turner: the rhetoric of cyberutopianism

In working at the intersection of the Internet and international affairs, I meet a lot of people who believe that the connections we’re able to build with one another in this new virtual space will lead towards a more inclusive political future. My friend and colleage Jim Moore articulated an especially strong version of this argument in his essay The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head, but you can find versions of the argument in the work of many people I admire, including John Perry Barlow, Larry Lessig and Yochai Benkler.

This set of ideas is often called “cyberutopianism”, usually by people who are criticizing or attempting to complicate these ideas. My colleage Rebecca MacKinnon offers a critique of the idea that the Internet will neccesarily bring democracy to China, arguing that China may instead transform the Internet in its own image. I’ve argued (in a response to Moore’s essay) that it’s a massive oversimplification to expect the Internet to create social change in developing nations without addressing underlying disparities of access and attention. More recently, I’ve been trying to make the case that the prophets of cyberutopia need to be read prescriptively, not descriptively – they’re describing a possible, not an inevitable, future.

What I hadn’t considered before reading Fred Turner’s excellent From Counterculture to Cyberculture is how strange it is that conversations about computers so quickly turn into conversations about idealized societies. Turner’s book goes a long way to explaining that this connection isn’t an accident, and places a great deal of credit (or blame) for cyberutopianism on the shoulders of Stewart Brand.

Brand is a remarkable figure – he dropped acid with Ken Kesey, edited the hippie bible The Whole Earth Catalog, co-founded online community The WELL, co-founded consulting firm Global Business Network, was a heavy influence on the founding of Wired Magazine, and now is attempting to persuade people to support construction of a clock that will tell the time 10,000 years in the future. Turner’s book isn’t strictly a Brand biography, but it’s clear that Turner sees him as a key figure in the development of the dominant ideology that surrounds technology culture. He had access to Brand’s diaries in the Stanford libraries, and clearly had Brand’s enthusiastic support in writing the book: the first review of the volume on Amazon is by Brand, who gave it four stars, declaring, “The guy in the subtitle CAN’T give a book 5 stars— it’s impertinent. Hence my 4 stars.”

Before exploring Brand’s life and influence, Turner sets an intriguing scene – in 1964, computers are viewed as tools of an autocratic system, and students protesting the University of California wore punchcards around their necks to symbolize the dehumanizing nature of the university and its computer systems. Four years later, Brand was featuring $7,000 programmable HP calculators alongside buckskin jackets and Fuller dome plans in the first Whole Earth Catalog, arguing that these early computers were tools for independent living. Turner points out that Brand’s vision for the off-the-grid communalist future borrows heavily from the language of cybernetics, an important set of concepts that united much of the work done at the Rad Lab at MIT during and after WWII, work that heavily influenced the development of the modern computer and the Internet. Turner sees Brand leaning heavily on Norbert Wiener, who explored concepts of feedback and self-regulation not just in information systems but in societies as a whole. In looking towards ways individuals could drop out from mainstream society and build their self-sufficient, egalitarian societies, Brand recommends – through the Catalog – a heavy dose of the thinking that helped inform contemporary information theory and computer science.

The Whole Earth Catalog helped establish Brand’s modus operandus, Turner argues. He created a virtual community by inviting “new communalists” (and wannabees) from around the US to contribute to future volumes… and maintained tight control over that community through his editorial control. He and colleagues created a language and metaphors to describe this movement, and this language became dominant in describing the phenomena, making Brand a spokesman for the movement, even if he wasn’t a hugely active participant.

In retrospect, Brand is critical of much of the sixties ethos and language he celebrated and popularized. Interviewed in the 40th anniversary issue of Rolling Stone, he notes:

Almost everything we tried either failed hideously or didn’t pan out. Communes failed, drugs went nowhere, free love led pretty directly to AIDS. A lot of people thought Mao Tse-tung was a hero. Domes leaked… But the counterculture approach to computers – which was of great ingenuity and great enthusiasm, and great disinterest in either corporate or government approaches to their problems – absolutely flourished, and to a large extent created the Internet and the online revolution.

The extent to which the hippies were responsible for building the Internet is debatable – the good folks at DARPA have a few things to say about that – but it’s clear that Brand et al had a great deal to do with creating the language used in discussion of the contemporary Internet. Turner spends a good deal of time exploring Brand’s fascination with Native American culture (including his marriage to a Native activist), and accuses him of romanticism, noting, “he saw Native Americans in terms long set by Anglo-American myth.” This myth pervades the language and metaphor Brand uses to explore intentional communities – there’s a surfeit of buckskin in the Catalog, and more than a few references to communalists as cowboys.

It’s hardly a coincidence, Turner argues, that Barlow, a thinker heavily influenced by his time on the Brand-cofounded WELL chose the “frontier” as a metaphor for cyberspace. (One might argue that Barlow’s time on a cattle ranch had as least as much to do with his personal gravitation to the term, but it’s probably a fair point that “frontier” had currency because of Brand’s memetic engineering.) The “Californian Ideology” of Wired magazine and surrounding projects – a “blend of libertarian politics, countercultural aesthetics, and techo-utopian visions” – shows a good deal of inheritance from the language of the Catalog and from Brand’s lifelong projects.

Turner isn’t uncritical of Brand’s arc – specifically, he appears very disturbed by the embrace of politicians like Newt Gingrich by the Wired generation, and troubled that Brand’s Global Business Network existed to serve large corporations. The move from the counterculture to the thorough embrace of mainstream business culture appears to trouble Turner, as well as confirm his suspicions that a simple linkage between the counterculture and computer geeks is a bit too simple. But there’s seeds of another critique in the book as well, one that suggests that cyberutopianism is so appealing because the online spaces link “people like us”, and not outsiders.

Early in the book, Turner calls the new communalists on their racial and economic exclusivity: “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… Throughout the New Communalist movement, it was far more common for young, white, highly mobile hippies to find their interests in conflict with those of the comparatively impoverished and immobile populations of Hispanics and African Americans among whom they often settled.” This theme of exclusivity emerges again in discussions of The WELL (an organization run, in no small part, by veterans of a commune called The Farm). Turner analyses the WELL in terms of “heterarchy”, an economic system in which multiple ways of evaluating worth are at play – reputation, information, gift economy, as well as traditional economics. It’s clear that this system worked so well because there’s a great deal of socioeconomic commonality between users of the system… and he observes that the system proves somewhat brittle when conversations are opened to “outsiders”, including some of the computer hackers that Brand idealized and lionized in many of his media appearances.

Turner isn’t accusing Brand of racism, classism or any other bad -isms, and neither am I. But it’s worth looking closely at the fact that the most celebrated online community, the inspiration for huge volumes of rhetoric about cyberspace being independent of the limitations and prejudices of physical bodies, was mostly populated by white computer professionals from the San Francisco Bay area. And it’s worth taking a close look at the concepts we use to understand the Internet – including the term “cyberspace” – and asking what sorts of language we’d be using to describe these networks if the language to describe this world was developed by folks other than recovering hippies.

(I am very interested to see how the language around intellectual property changes when philosophers from developing nations, where piracy is the norm, not the exception, become sufficiently influential to shape debate around these issues. I’m thinking of the language used by activists like Lawrence Liang who actively embrace grey economies and suggest that “piracy” is frequently a form of creative repackaging of content.)

Turner’s book isn’t an easy read – it frequently breaks from biographical narrative into detailed discussion of sociological terminology. There are more than a few moments where it feels like you’re reading a PhD dissertation instead of a popular press book. But it’s worth the battle to get an incredibly thorough view of the origins of the rhetoric many of us use to talk about the Internet and online communities.

Worth reading: My friend Jon Lebkowsky’s reaction to Turner on Worldchanging. RU Siruis’s interview with Turner.

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7 Responses to Fred Turner: the rhetoric of cyberutopianism

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  2. SY says:

    I quite liked Turner’s book and found the sociological terminology perfectly acceptable for a general audience. Turner gave a great talk about the book at Berkman last fall; I can’t recall if you were there. If not…
    One point of Turner’s that’s worth keeping on the front burner, I think: the Internet and related, networked technologies do not bring social justice without real humans doing the real work of making it so.

  3. Pingback: Niall McNulty | Narrative + Technology » The rhetoric of cyberutopianism

  4. Myriam Redondo says:

    Hi, Ethan.

    I follow your research long time ago and always found it very remarkable, but this post offers specially useful thoughts for me. Do you know this feeling when someone express some ideas that you had in mind?

    The book you talk about seems interesting because it does not reject the confrontation between dreams and reality in the use of new technologies. As you mention, it is very common to see how “conversation about computers” turns easily into a “conversation about idealized societies”. But before taking this parallelism by granted, maybe it would be necessary to explore the intertwinnings of both spheres (virtual worlds and real world) further and even more critically than we have done till now.

    I keep this paragraph in mind: “[the book confirms] that a simple linkage between the counterculture and computer geeks is a bit too simple. But there’s seeds of another critique in the book as well, one that suggests that cyberutopianism is so appealing because the online spaces link “people like us”, and not outsiders”.

    Hopefully not. I wish a future Internet that will not only be a place for “people like us”, but a place to get to know very different human profiles, specially outsiders. But it is my opinion that we have to work hard for it, instead of relying lazily in the great possibilities of the Net.

    I put the book on the list for september.

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  7. Pingback: The Cyber-utopians – Future Tense – ABC Radio National | digital images

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