Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Fred Turner on “Lessons from the Counterculture?”

Fred Turner is one of the smartest guys I know, and I think his book on Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog circle, and their influence on Silicon Valley and our thinking about computer and network technology is going to be outstanding.

We’re bringing back a debate from the 1960s about “free” vs “locked down” culture, pitting a counterculture against technocracy. Key participants in that debate migrated into the technical world of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, creating something that reflects both countercultural ideas and new economic forms (esp. virtual community). Some of the technologies we talk about now constitute a fulfillment of both a countercultural and technocratic dream.

The anti-technocratic ideal. The critique of technocracy in the 1960s had several qualities: belief in communal living, peer-to-peer adhocracy, DIY technologies, integrated social/economic/spiritual lives (something impossible in the modern, alienated bureaucratic world, but possible in self-sustaining communitarian institutions), and outlaw zones.

The evolution of “virtual community.” Fred traces it from the Whole Earth publications (1968-70); to the WELL (1985), where the term “virtual community” was first used by Howard Rheingold in 1987; then down to Rheingold’s Virtual Community (1993).

The WELL started out with a core group of Whole Earth alums, journalists, and technical folks; then got a big boost from the migration of Deadheads. The WELL’s ethos was technophilic, reversionary, communal, alternative, and empowering. The WELL shared Whole Earth values, but in a very different set of socio-economic conditions (microcomputers repalced aerospace, networks replace hierarchies, contract employment and projects replace stable careers and jobs) and technological conditions (e-mail instead of snail mail, simultaneous roles rather than serial roles, interactive reather than packaged community, distributed rather than concentrated value).

What emerges is a heterarchy: a networked organization with a flattened hierarchy; a high degree of member indterdependence; and multiple regimes of value.

Lessons from the counterculture?

New media have brought to life an old countercultural idea, where social, economic and spirtual life can blend. But in the 1960s, many commune leaders used the rhetoric of P2P equality to mask unequal distributions of power; no matter how far they moved, they failed to achieve real independence; and almost all 1960s communes failed for lack of adequate regulation. This suggests a need to think about regulatory structures within heterarchies, and thinking about how to manage the interfaces between old and new forms of cultural production.

We’ve been focused on resisting institutional attempts to lock down cultural production; but should we pay more attention to regulating production processes within new technologically supported heterarchies?

1 Comment

  1. What a fascinating post. I have never been a student of the 60s or counterculture, but clearly there is much to be learned from it. We are so proud of our new theories of network communications etc., but really they aren’t new…they are just a new reflection of older theories that go against paternalistic/command and control power structures, be they governmental, corporate or social.

    I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Talent Myth Change This Manifesto yesterday, where he posits that the system is more important than the individual star (

    This tracks nicely with what you said above about focusing on structure. And, it links back into McLuhan’s medium as message story. There is something important about system, structure, medium, network that we have to grok in order to understand the social on top of it. (Not to mention the social that created it, that is intertwined with it.)

    Damn. Sometimes I think I belong in a think tank so I can devote more time to these things. I don’t think there are any PR think tanks though.

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