From Counterculture To Cyberculture: The Life And Times Of Stewart Brand
Posted by Big Gav on March 12, 2010
This post was prompted by my reading Fred Turner's book "From Counterculture To Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism", which looks at the influence Bucky Fuller had on a range of people, in particular Stewart Brand, who helped create first the hippie counterculture and the back to the land movement of the sixties and seventies, then later the cyberculture that grew up around the San Francisco bay area.
I won't try to review the book here as I wouldn't do it justice - but I highly recommend it if you have any interest in this particular piece of history.
As they came of age, Stewart Brand and others of his generation faced two questions: How could they keep the world from being destroyed by nuclear weapons or by the large-scale, hierarchical governmental and industrial bureaucracies that had built and used them? And how could they assert and preserve their own holistic individuality in the face of such a world?
As he sought to answer those questions, Brand turned first to the study of ecology and a systems-oriented view of the natural world. Later, after graduating from Stanford and serving several years as a draftee in the army, he found his way into a series of art worlds centered in Manhattan and San Francisco. For the artists of those communities, as for Brand's professors at Stanford, cybernetics offered a new way to model the world. Even at the height of the cold war, many of the most important artists of this period, figures such as John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, embraced the systems orientation and even the engineers of the military-industrial research establishment. Together they read Norbert Wiener and, later, Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller; across the late 1950s and well into the 1960s, they made those writings models for their work. At the same time, both the artists he met and the authors they read presented the young Stewart Brand with a series of role models. If the army and the cold war corporate world of Brand's imagination moved according to clear lines of authority and rigid organizational structures, the art worlds of the early 1960s, like the research worlds of the 1940s, lived by networking, entrepreneurship, and collaboration. As he moved among them, Brand came to appreciate cybernetics as an intellectual framework and as a social practice; he associated both with alternative forms of communal organization.
Ecology as Alternative Politics
Brand first encountered systems-oriented ways of thinking at Stanford in a biology class taught by Paul Ehrlich. By the end of the decade, Ehrlich was famous for predicting in his book The Population Bomb (1968) that population growth would soon lead to ecological disaster. In the late 1950s, however, he was concentrating on the fundamentals of butterfly ecology and systems-oriented approaches to evolutionary biology. These preoccupations reflected the extraordinary influence of cybernetics and information theory on American biology following World War II. At the level of microbiology, information theory provided a new language with which to understand heredity. Under its influence, genes and sequences of DNA became information systems, bits of text to be read and decoded. In the 1950s, as Lily Kay has pointed out, microbiology became "a communication science, allied to cybernetics, information theory, and computers." Information theory also exerted a tremendous pull on biological studies of organisms and their interaction. Before World War II, biologists often focused on the study of individual organisms, hierarchical taxonomies of species, and the sexual division of labor. Afterward, many shifted toward the study of populations and the principles of natural selection in terms modeled on cybernetic theories of command and control. ...
For Brand, even as a student at Stanford, the ability to think outside the dominant paradigm of cold war conflict both marked and made possible an advancement in human evolution. The liberation of the individual was simultaneously an American ideal, an evolutionary imperative, and, for Brand and millions of other adolescents, a pressing personal goal.
The question was, How could that liberation be achieved in daily life? Brand's search for individual freedom led to a decade-long migration among a wide variety of bohemian, scientific, and academic communities. In the course of these travels, Brand encountered both communal ways of living and a series of technocentric, systems-oriented theories that served as ideological supports for communalism. Often enough, the theories themselves were not explicitly theories of social organization so much as theories of local social practices, such as how to make art or how to take LSD or how to run a business meeting. As he moved among these communities, however, and later, when his Whole Earth Catalog became a forum in which such communities met, Brand began to see how the systems orientation of Paul Ehrlich's population biology, combined with new, countercultural modes of living, might offer an appealingly individualistic lifestyle—not only for him, but also for anyone else who could abandon the halls of bureaucratic America. ...
The same tension between global humanist ideals and local elite practice would haunt much of the New Communalist movement over the next decade, and the Whole Earth network for years after that. But in the early 1960s, the linking of the global and the local helped account for much of Marshall McLuhan's appeal within the emerging counterculture. McLuhan's simultaneous celebration of new media and tribal social forms allowed people like Stewart Brand to imagine technology itself as a tool with which to resolve the twin cold war dilemmas of humanity's fate and their own trajectory into adulthood. That is, McLuhan offered a vision in which young people who had been raised on rock and roll, television, and the associated pleasures of consumption need not give those pleasures up even if they rejected the adult society that had created them. Even if the social order of technocracy threatened the species with nuclear annihilation and the individual young person with psychic fragmentation, the media technologies produced by that order offered the possibility of individual and collective transformation. McLuhan's dual emphases also allowed young people to imagine the local communities they built around these media not simply as communities built around consumption of industrial products, but as model communities for a new society. In McLuhan's writing, and in the artistic practice of groups like USCO and, later, the psychedelic practices of groups like San Francisco's Merry Pranksters, technologies produced by mass, industrial society offered the keys to transforming and thus to saving the adult world.
No one promoted this doctrine more fervently than the technocratic polymath Buckminster Fuller. Architect, designer, and traveling speechmaker, Fuller became an inspiration to Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth network, and the New Communalist movement as a whole across the 1960s. The geodesic domes Fuller patented soon after World War II came to be favored housing on communes throughout the Southwest. Fragments of his idiosyncratic conceptual vocabulary, such as "tensegrity," "synergy" and "Spaceship Earth," bubbled up steadily in discussions of how and why alternative communities should be built. And Fuller himself—seventy years old in 1965, short, plump, bespectacled, and, when he spoke in public, often clad in a three-piece suit with an honorary Phi Beta Kappa key dangling at the waist— seemed to model a kind of childlike innocence that many New Communalists sought to bring into their own adulthoods. If the politicians and CEOs of mainstream America were distant and emotionally reserved, Fuller was playful and engaged. And like his young audiences, he displayed a highly individualistic turn of mind and a deep concern with the fate of the species. Fuller made his name designing futuristic technologies such as the three wheeled Dymaxion car and, most famously, the geodesic dome, but the roots of his interests reached deep into America's pre-industrial past. ...
Fuller, like Emerson, saw the material world as the reflection of an otherwise intangible system of rules. But unlike Emerson and the Transcendentalists, Fuller linked that system of rules not only to the natural world, but also to the world of industry. During World War I, Fuller had watched his four-year-old daughter Alexandra die of infantile paralysis, contracted in part, he believed, because the family's home was badly built. At the time, he was working as a contractor with the navy. Earlier, as a junior officer, he had seen how, with proper coordination, extraordinary industrial resources could be mustered to solve military problems. In his view, his daughter had died directly from a disease but indirectly from a failure to distribute the world's resources appropriately. This conviction grew during World War II and the early years of the cold war, when once again Fuller saw the full scope of industrial production at work, as well as the inequality with which the world's resources were distributed. What humankind required, he came to believe, was an individual who could recognize the universal patterns inherent in nature, design new technologies in accord with both these patterns and the industrial resources already created by corporations and the military, and see that those new technologies were deployed in everyday life.
In a 1963 volume called Ideas and Integrities, a book that would have a strong impact on USCO and Stewart Brand, Fuller named this individual the "Comprehensive Designer." According to Fuller, the Comprehensive Designer would not be another specialist, but would instead stand outside the halls of industry and science, processing the information they produced, observing the technologies they developed, and translating both into tools for human happiness. Unlike specialists, the Comprehensive Designer would be aware of the system's need for balance and the current deployment of its resources. He would then act as a "harvester of the potentials of the realm," gathering up the products and techniques of industry and redistributing them in accord with the systemic patterns that only he and other comprehensivists could perceive. To do this work, the Designer would need to have access to all of the information generated within America's burgeoning technocracy while at the same time remaining outside it. He would need to become "an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist." Constantly poring over the population surveys, resource analyses, and technical reports produced by states and industries, but never letting himself become a full-time employee of any of these, the Comprehensive Designer would finally see what the bureaucrat could not: the whole picture.
Being able to see the whole picture would allow the Comprehensive Designer to realign both his individual psyche and the deployment of political power with the laws of nature. In contrast to the bureaucrat, who, so many critics of technocracy had suggested, had been psychologically broken down by the demands of his work, the Comprehensive Designer would be intellectually and emotionally whole. Neither engineer nor artist, but always both simultaneously, he would achieve psychological integration even while working with the products of technocracy. Likewise, whereas bureaucrats exerted their power by means of political parties and armies and, in Fuller's view, thus failed to properly distribute the world's resources, the Comprehensive Designer would wield his power systematically. That is, he would analyze the data he had gathered, attempt to visualize the world's needs now and in the future, and then design technologies that would meet those needs. Agonistic politics, Fuller implied, would become irrelevant. What would change the world was "comprehensive anticipatory design science.' ...
At another level, though, the swirling scene at the Trips Festival, and Brand's role in it, represented a coming together of the New Communalist social ideals then emerging and the ideological and technological products of cold war technocracy. The festival itself was a techno-social hybrid. The Longshoreman's Hall surrounded dancers with the lights, images, and music of electronic media. The bodies of many dancers were infused with LSD. To the extent that they felt a sense of communion with one another, the sensation was brought about by their integration into a single techno-biological system within which, as Buckminster Fuller put it, echoing Norbert Wiener, the individual human being was simply another "pattern-complex." Brand himself had organized the event in keeping with the systems principles he had encountered at Stanford and afterward. Far from asserting direct control over events, he had built an environment, a happening, a laboratory. He had set forth the conditions under which a system might evolve and flower, and he had stocked the biological and social worlds of those who entered that system with technologies that allowed them to feel as though the boundaries between the social and the biological, between their minds and their bodies, and between themselves and their friends, were highly permeable. He had helped found a new tribe of technology-loving Indians, artistic engineers of the self. Very soon these new Comprehensive Designers would set out from San Francisco to found their own communities in the wilderness.
When they got there, thought Brand, what they would need most would be tools and information.
Stewart Brand is a writer / entrepreneur who has started a range of ventures over the years, starting with Whole Earth Catalog and moving on to the Well, GBN (the Global Business Network) and most recently the Long Now Foundation. He also has had strong connections to Wired, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and MIT's Media Lab (and, in his early days, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters).
Stewart's particular genius has been in the creation of forums (ranging from magazines to conferences to online discussion groups to consulting organisations) that have enabled people with expertise in different disciplines to come together and exchange ideas about innovative uses of technology.
Wired had an interview with Brand where he puts the case for the formation of huge slums in the developing world as a positive thing (the opposite to the argument made in Mike Davis' "Planet Of Slums").
The 4 "heresies" form the foundation of Brand's latest book "WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto" (along with another one - geoengineering will be required to mitigate global warming), which Brand discusses in this Long Now seminar called "Rethinking Green".
Personally I'd say Brand has 2 of his original 4 "heresies" right - population (which isn't the problem many believed back in the 1970's - and some grim hangers on still think today) and urbanisation (with "cities are the future" being a key Viridian catchphrase).
I remain somewhat dubious about genetically modified crops and think Brand is simply wrong about nuclear power, which is (at best) an expensive diversion of resources from our key task of replacing and extending our existing power generation capacity with truly clean and renewable power sources (in fact, its a remarkable about-face to go from promoting tools for individual use to recommending the ultimate centralised power source, one which can't be used by individuals and always requires massive government subsidies and regulation, and completely at odds with his "Long Now" school of long-term thinking for that matter).
Brand discusses "Whole Earth Discipline" in this talk at EDGE.