I’m reading Fred Turner’s “From Counterculture to Cyberculture” now, and it is the best book I’ve read in a while. With every Barnes & Noble filled with so many pop-science books who try to quickly monetizethe latest meme while it’s still in fashion (you recognize that type of writing by the use of the word “Meme” ;)), this book stand out as deep and insightful.
Two main lessons for me in this book. One which I didn’t expect is being introduced to Systems thinking: this reminds me of learning to program, when you begin to see algorithms wherever you look. Systems is one step further, as they give you tools and metaphors to look at non-deterministic behaviors, which tend to be in higher supply in the real world.
Another is the way the approach which Stewart Brand, the books’ main subject takes to implementing his values. The book traces Brand’s path from starting the Whole Earth Catalog to playing a major part in evangelizing personal computing and the Internet. I’ve recently had a chance to look at an actual copy of the Catalog (which is why I’m updating this post now, a year after it was published) – what strikes me most is the down to earth, practical approach it takes. The Catalog was meant for people who left mainstream society and went “back to the land”, setting up their own communities. Brand offers them tools and information which is far more eclectic than you’d expect: not just organic gardening tutorials and geodesic dome construction tools, but also the latest project management techniques and army fitness guides.
Underneath the items in the Catalog is an approach that says technology can shape history. If you have an idea on how things should be, you try to implement it not just via politics and fashionable “activism”, but by actually building something. It’s a comforting notion, in a time when some of what Brand helped create create (and the Web itself) seems to have been largely overtaken by charlatans.
Here’s a video of a panel with Turner, Brand, Kevin Kelly and Howard Rheingold, discussing the book. (The RealVideo version sounds better on my machine). The actual conversation starts at about 7:30 minutes.