Cold War Meets Counterculture

How hippie hero Stewart Brand created our wired world


In 1964, young protesters at Berkeley used computer punch cards as a symbol of everything dehumanizing in postwar American culture. By 1984, an iconic ad presented the Macintosh as a muscular woman destroying a futuristic dictatorship. How did the computer evolve from enemy of individuality to tool of personal empowerment?

The Stanford historian Fred Turner answers that question in From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago), a thoughtful and brilliantly reported book. As the subtitle indicates, Turner argues that one man—the journalist, publisher, and cultural entrepreneur Stewart Brand—lies at the heart of the social transformation. He makes a strong case, painting Brand as a well-connected node in the network that forged the digital age.

The 68-year-old Brand makes his living today as a writer and a business consultant. But he is most famous for founding the Whole Earth Catalog, the extremely popular counterculture handbook of the late '60s and early '70s. Offering "access to tools," the catalog's central idea was that technology could be liberating rather than oppressive. As Brand put it in the catalog's statement of purpose, "We are as gods and might as well get good at it."

His Whole Earth background might make it easy to pigeonhole Brand as a back-to-the-land hippie. But his worldview didn't arise merely from hanging out with the Merry Pranksters and other bohemian arts gangs of the '60s. He was also influenced by a set of postwar intellectuals who viewed society and technology as an interconnected "whole system" that can be modeled, guided, and improved.

One was Norbert Wiener, the "cyberneticist" who helped develop new anti-aircraft weapons, and whose work described the interconnections and similarities between the ways both technologies and human beings function. Another was Buckminster Fuller, the polymath who invented the geodesic dome and whose ideas about researchers crossing disciplinary and institutional lines were, Turner argues, intimately connected with Cold War military research.

Cybernetic thinking was replete with talk of hypnotism, conditioned reflexes, and other tools of social control. To quote the ominous title of one of Wiener's bestsellers, it explored The Human Use of Human Beings. Fuller, meanwhile, called for "comprehensive designers" with power over individual decisions.

Fortunately, Brand's attraction to Wiener and Fuller did not extend to the authoritarian side of their visions. By bringing geodesic domes and buckskin vests under one cover, Brand's catalog fused the most interesting ideas and products of the military-industrial-academic complex with the individualism and spiritual communion of the counterculture, which theoretically arose in opposition to that supposedly cold and bureaucratic world. (By Turner's telling, the Cold Warriors' milieu was in fact far more flexible and nonhierarchical than the popular stereotype of Organization Men in Grey Flannel Suits.)

As the hippie subculture faded in the early '70s, Brand began to shift the standard countercultural view of computers. He started in 1972, with a prescient Rolling Stone story about hip young programmers working both for big corporations like Xerox and in smaller affinity groups. The story introduced the idea of the hacker to popular culture, and with it the notion that those sinister engines of social control might also be tools for personal empowerment and communal world-building.

As the computer became more and more a symbol of liberation, Brand was never far from the scene. He was a spiritual godfather both to the Homebrew Computer Club of the '70s that gave rise to the Apple personal computer and to Wired's libertarian techno-optimism of the '90s; in-between, he helped launch an early and extremely influential computer bulletin board, The WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link).

The ideas inherent in those projects remain powerful today: Despite the dot-com bust, markets and technologies remain as much—indeed, much more—of an arena for creativity and liberation as any '60s be-in or "happening." From email to eBay to Google, the tools that emerged from that vision improve our lives daily.

That lesson is vital as we move forward through controversies over new technologies ranging from biotech to commercial space travel (another area where Brand was a pioneering thinker). Information, as Brand famously assured us, "wants to be free." So do people and technology—and wonderful things happen when they are.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is the author of Radicals for Capitalism, out in February from PublicAffairs.