Fred Turner:


"From Counterculture to Cyberculture" (2006)

(Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
This book follows the adventures of Stewart Brand, a hero of the San Francisco cyberculture since he started the Whole Earth Catalog, which the book takes as a metaphor (in fact, as a milestone) of the intersection between Counterculture and High-tech world. The book argues that Brand "became a key link between very different countercultural, academic and technological communities". Turner credits Brand's "Whole Earth Catalog" as creating "the cultural conditions under which microcomputers and computer networks could be imagined as tools of liberation". Follow Steward Brand's adventure in the San Francisco underground, and his subsequent mainstream celebrity, and it is hard to disagree. Brand made money selling his catalog of tools to hippy communes across the country. In 1971 the catalog printed one million copies.

To play devil's advocate, Turner's book does NOT explain how Silicon Valley became such a world-wide phenomenon. The success of Silicon Valley, in fact, parallels the failure of the counterculture. Most hippy communes had disbanded by the late 1970s. The political result of the counterculture was to get a conservative governor of California, namely Ronald Reagan (1967-75), and a conservative president of the USA, namely Richard Nixon (1969-74), soon to be followed by another highly influential conservative president, Ronald Reagan (1981-88), who will turn "liberal" into a bad word. The Republican Party began its ascendancy during the counterculture era, an ascendancy that would culminate in the 1994 elections when Republicans would win enough votes to control both House and Senate for the first time since 1953. Stewart Brand's career in the counterculture parallels increasingly anti-libertarian laws and an increasingly stricter code of work, the rising power of attorneys (esp of patent attorneys) in an increasingly litigation-oriented (not sharing-oriented) society, the yawning gap in income inequality, the creation of superpowerful corporations with their special-interest lobbies, the grotesque swelling of the military-industrial establishment, not to mention the biggest environmental crisis of all times, climate change. Brand is actually the exception: he made money out of all his ideological failures; but most of the old hippies failed misearably and are now homeless and penniless. In 1997 Burning Man fell into the hands of Marian Goodell, whose background includes doing PR for a multinational corporation, and became a cash-cow for the Nevada authorities, despite the obvious ecological damage (the winds that sweep through the Playa obviously blow trash hundreds of kms away). In 1997 Louis Rossetto was forced to resign from Wired, which then became a much more conventional magazine.

There is a sense in which the failure of the Counterculture can be viewed as almost absolute. Perhaps that is why we have Silicon Valley and not Hippy Valley.

The ultimate failure of the utopian strand of the Bay Area is well represented by what the Internet became: a giant advertising board a giant surveillance tool, i.e. the worst possible combination of the corporate and political worlds.

Furthermore, there's a reason if Silicon Valley is called "silicon" valley. Turner never mentions William Shockley (one of the inventors of the transistors, who opened the lab which most people consider the first Silicon Valley startup) nor Gordon Moore (one of the "traitors" who founded Fairchild and then Intel) nor his buddy Robert Noyce (aka "the mayor of Silicon Valley") nor Federico Faggin & Ted Hoff (the inventors of the microprocessor, which is the product that started the exponential growth of Silicon Valley) nor obscure inventors like Bill Pentz who did more than any of the hippies to discover how to use technology (Pentz was the first one to prove that microprocessors can be used to build computers). The reason that Turner ignores them in this book is simple (i am sure he knows them well): none of these folks was ever even remotely close to the counterculture of San Francisco, and most likely none of them did drugs. In fact, most of them probably never heard of Steward Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog.

Nonetheless, i agree 100% with Turner that the secret of Silicon Valley has to be found in its culture and society, not in pre-existing technology or money. And Brand is certainly one of the people who shaped (and, more importantly, was shaped) by that society. A few years after Turner's book (that i confess i had not read) i co-wrote "A History of Silicon Valley" , in which we tried to explain why it happened in this unlikely place. You cannot explain it without studying the society, and Turner's book certainly pioneered this approach.