In Conversation With . . . Fred Turner

Fred Turner is the author of the recent book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (see Voice review this issue).

He is currently teaching at Stanford University. The following are notes from a conversation between Turner and Wanda Waterman St. Louis.

How did the idea for From Counterculture to Cyberculture begin to germinate?

I had just written a book on the Vietnam War (published in 1996) when I moved to California and saw that former hippies like Stewart Brand were promoting computers as countercultural.

This surprised me, since I remembered computers as anti-countercultural during Vietnam. I wanted to see how the change had come about.

Do you have a personal connection with any of the events or developments outlined in your book?

Nope. I was born in 1961?a little too late to participate in any of it. One summer, though, I did work briefly as a Pinkerton security guard at Apple Computer.

Is it possible that networking vehicles like Google, Facebook, and MySpace might not exist today if Stewart Brand hadn’t been born?

No, I don’t think so. They would still have been made. Brand helped explain what emerging technologies meant and how they could be used, but the technologies themselves have been developed within engineering worlds that very much have their own independent momentum.

In your opinion is there any danger of the Internet becoming the kind of repressive monoculture Brand attributed to bureaucracy and the former Soviet Union?

No. It’s too big and too diverse. There are ways though that power concentrated in some offline places also tends to concentrate power online. Many bloggers, for instance, simply echo or comment on work done by big industrial-era media organizations.

At the end of the book you suggest that the failures of both the counterculture and cyberculture stemmed in part from an avoidance of direct political involvement. Do you think that online forums like ChangeCamp offer any hope of correcting that?

Yes I do.

Are there any books, music albums, or films that have influenced or inspired you?

Many, many, many. On books, I’ve loved Frances Fitzgerald’s Cities on a Hill, the histories of Jackson Lears, and most everything Michael Schudson has written.

On music, well, Janis Joplin, the Young Marble Giants, and Super Mazembe all come to mind.

What’s your next project?

A prequel to the last one?a book on the politics of participatory multimedia in the 1940s and 1950s.

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