R.U. Sirius (who before becoming a podcasting pioneer, founded Mondo 2000 magazine) interviews From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism author Fred Turner, and prefaces the interview with some of his own thoughts. Very interesting critiques on both sides. I only wish the interview was longer.
[RU:] I must say honestly that, although I was repulsed by the Gingrich alliance and by much of the corporate rhetoric that emerged, at least in part, out of Brand’s digital elitist clan – I think Brand’s tactics were essentially correct. Turner implies that valuable social change is more likely to happen through political activism than through the invention and distribution of tools and through the whole systems approach that is implicit in that activity. But I think that the internet has – palpably – been much more successful in changing lives than 40 years of left oppositional activism has been. For one example out of thousands, the only reason the means of communication that shapes our cultural and political zeitgeist isn’t COMPLETELY locked down by powerful media corporations is the work that these politically ambiguous freaks have accomplished over the past 40 years. In other words, oppositional activism would be even more occult – more hidden from view – today if not for networks built by hippie types who were not averse to working with DARPA and with big corporations. The world is a complex place.
FT: The idea of back-to-the-country didn’t work. But I think something deeper didn’t work, and it haunts us today, even as it underlies a lot of what we do. The notion that you can build a community around shared style is a deeply bohemian notion. It runs through all sorts of bohemian worlds. The notion that if you just get the right technology you can then build a unified community is a notion that drove a lot of the rural communal efforts. They thought by changing technological regimes; by going to 19th century technologies; by making their own butter; sewing their own clothes – they would be able to build a new kind of community. What they discovered was that if you don’t do politics – explicitly, directly, through parties, through organizations – if you don’t pay attention to and articulate what’s going on with real material power, communities fail.
So I argue that there’s a fantasy that haunts the internet, and it’s haunted it for at least a decade. And it’s the idea that if we just get the tools right and communicate effectively, we will be able to be intimate with one another and build the kinds of communities that don’t exist outside, in the rest of our lives. And I think that’s a deep failure and a fantasy.