BE HERE NOW
The aesthetics of the counterculture veer in two seemingly disparate directions. On one side you have a kind of hippie culture, obsessed with primitivism and the idea of returning to a seemingly simpler time when we were more connected to the earth, while on the other, you have the techno-centric culture looking forward to a world where we are one with machines, where our destinies are controlled through endless connectivity, and where our future looks towards outer space and colonizing the universe. In his new piece, Adam De Gree thinks about these kind of distinctions between countercultural movements and asks, “Why are counterculture folks just as likely to return to the past as they are to dream of the future?” Read In The Shadow Of The Hippies.
It's hard not to see culture as a continuum, every aspect of it a reflection, a reaction, or a continuation of everything that came before it, surrounds it, or that will eventually come next. Though these actions and reactions sometimes happen accidentally, as people in the world do tend to cross paths, often there are important catalysts, those who not only lead communities, but who also act as connectors between them. So whenever we delve into the past, present, and future of the American counterculture, we always find it leads us back to one name in particular; Stewart Brand.
As a prominent figure in the west coast cultural continuum, one might say he is the Fab 5 Freddy of the Bay Area. In other words, he was responsible for the cross pollination between opposing worlds, exposing Stanford University scientific researchers to communal and fantastical concepts, pulling off the infamous “mother of all demos,” while eventually showcasing those same scientific labs to the tragically hip through the pages of Rolling Stone magazine. And in 9,000 words no less!
It always was puzzling seeing these supposedly awkward and introverted tech nerds stage their demonstrations in front of cheering crowds, as if P.T. Barnum himself had produced them. You know, think Steve Jobs and his turtle necked staged revelations, or Mark Zuckerberg, with his blandness, dead eyes and blank stare, proclaiming he is very busy making the world a better place. But when you trace the origins of these kinds of events, you wont find tech bros at all. You find Stewart Brand. Again.
He was brought in just as a one time thing, to pull off that "mother of all demos" using his profound communication skills, and cobbled together existing tech of 1968 (video cameras and phone lines) to help Douglas Engelbart present his Human Augmentation Project to that years’s Association of Computing Conference, 30 miles away from the Stanford Research Institute, where the first iterations of the mouse, keyboard, and personal screen were quietly waiting to be unveiled.
That event was an important moment for both tech and hippie culture alike, as Brand double exposed himself onto these guys, demonstrating more than just some shiny new tech products. What he did was introduce the importance of putting on a show, of communicating not just the tech, but the idea of tech as a culture.
Then a few years after, in 1972, he returned the favor by focusing on those same guys for a lengthy profile in Rolling Stone (and staging the first e-sports event in history) featuring the first video game, Spacewar, straight from Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, turning it into a competition and again, putting on a show. “The article served as a mirror in which they could see themselves reflected as technologically savvy and counterculturally cool” and we can’t help but think of how influential this happening turned out to be every time there is yet another “demo day” announced.
So, as Adam De Gree asks in his piece, “What could explain the paradoxical coupling of Primitivism and Futurism that thrives in alternative communities?” Looking at that eruption of the American cultural revolution that was taking place all of the Bay Area, it came from the curiosity and creativity of those building bridges across subcultures.
“An important distinction existed between two major subsets of the generational phenomenon called the Counterculture,” Brand told us this week. “There was one set mainly political, often called the New Left. I had friends there (Paul Krassner and Abbie Hoffman). The other set was mainly drug-oriented, called the Hippies. That was most of the people I hung out with, including Ken Kesey and Dick Alpert.” Kesey was the infamous leader of the Merry Pranksters, among other things, and Alpert a leading Harvard professor and LSD researcher, later known as Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now.
So why does he think the counterculture was so ready to simultaneously embrace both the "primitive" flavors of tribal society and the futuristic promises of personal computers and the Internet? It’s important to remember just how fast the idea of what a computer was changed. It went from being an enormous mega machine that took many people to run, controlled centrally by military arms of the government, to a decentralized and more human mouse, keyboard and screen that allowed anyone to ‘log on” from anywhere, anytime. It was a new open and free communication system, one with no overlords in sight.
“The New Left started out strongly opposed to computers as agents of top-down power, then converted gradually as personal computers and the Net aided bottom-up power.” But for the primitivists, sex and drugs and rock and roll persuaded them towards the materialistic. “The Hippies were romantically anti-tech, but they liked high-tech hi-fi systems, high-tech drugs like LSD, and eventually personal computers.”
The answers are hopeful, as this continual examination of the past often leads to incredible dreams of the future. But what about the here and now? That’s right, you know, the world we are all actually living in? In response, Stewart Brand posed his own question to us: “What if having both going on is indication of a broader scale of societal embrace? There’s no away to go to."
50 years ago, when TV’s were black and white and you had to actually go inside a bank, wait on line and speak with another human being face to face (the horror!) in order to get cash, it seems unlikely that anyone would’ve been able to predict the techno focused world that we’re living in today. Except, someone did. Stewart Brand, being the man, the myth, and the legend that he is, is responsible for envisioning the extremely early days of it, both physically and culturally.
From 1968 and through the 1970’s, Brand published the Whole Earth Catalog. Hard to describe, as it wasn’t neccesarily a magazine, but more like a new age guide to life; a kind of bible, for those who marched to a different drummer at least. It was essentially a paper-based internet before anyone new what the internet was going to be. It had everything you needed to know about anything. From what kind of dirt bike to ride for a specific terrain to the best soap to use for your skin type, the Whole Earth Catalog had it all.
Brand was flying back to California from his father’s funeral in Nebraska when his vision for the Whole Earth Catalog came to him. He was reading a copy of Barbara Ward’s Spaceship Earth, and trying to answer two questions: How can I help all my friends who are currently moving back to the land? And, more important, how can I help save the planet? The Whole Earth Catalog reminded its readers that "you don't have to leave industrial society, but you don't have to accept it the way it is either.”
The catalog had tons of tips and tricks, suggestions and tools for how to optimize your best life. Which, obviously, sounds a lot like the original point of internet search engines. Before we were just data purchased by mega-corporate overlords, the internet was meant to help us optimize our lives in the here and now. And the Whole Earth Catalog did just that. It’s influence left its mark on generations of Bay Area creatives that followed, most notably, those of the legendary Home-Brew Computer Club, whose members went onto build the cornerstones of the tech we hold in our hands right now.
Steve Jobs called the magazine “one of the bibles of my generation. It was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.” It helped make individual life easier by providing information on all matters and materials. In its opening essay, the catalog states why personalization is important: “a realm of intimate, personal power is developing the power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.”
Clearly, Brand new the personal was something to focus on. And considering everything is personalized now - from our Spotify playlists to our Instagram feeds - its pretty astounding that he was able to see so far into the future. And although we’ve strayed from the internet’s original use, it’s important to remember the Whole Earth Catalog’s purpose; to better our lives here in our societies. Like the last issue of the catalog said, “Stay hungry. Stay Foolish.”