In the mid-sixties, computers were magic. The general public had no idea what they were. Mechanical brains.
Computers soon gained a malevolent reputation. They were the epidome of command and control. If we weren’t careful, the computers might get together and take over the world. Dr. Strangelove. Hal 9000. War Games. The East Coast Joint Computer Conference I attended in 1967 was all guys with ties: very corporate. Mainframes were cold things — in refrigerated glass rooms.
Yet when personal computers were born a decade later, they were friendly and benevolent. Computers empowered the people. Everyone at the first personal computer gathering I attended (1976) was playful, exuberant, and sometimes starry-eyed.
Ever wonder what happened? A new book has a reasonable explanation.
On the flight back from London last week, I finished reading From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. The author makes a good case that Stewart Brand shaped the climate that shifted the perception of computers from heartless and domineering to human and empowering.
Author Fred Turner’s tale links the ecology beliefs of Stewart Brand to the Trips Festival and the magic bus, to the ideals and independence of communal life, to bringing together the Home Brew Computing Club and Xerox PARC, through the Whole Earth Truck Store not far from Doug Engelbart’s office at SRI, to the World Earth Catalog with its mix of agricultural tools, scientific calculators & Bucky Fuller, through the WeLL directly to Wired Magazine and the Global Business Network, and most recently the Long Now Foundation.
The book brought home the interlinking of so many of my thoughts, usually with Stewart Brand dead center.
Brand has always been a big thinker. He successfully lobbied NASA to release photos of the earth from space. He hoped to wake people up to what Buckminster Fuller had named “Spaceship Earth.” Brand’s introduction to the original Whole Earth Catalog begins:
We are as gods and might as well get used to it. So far, remotely done power and glory–as via government, big business, formal education, church–has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing–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. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.
Respect for the individual is a cornerstone of my thinking to this day. Talk about empowerment: We are as gods! Brand was infecting his readers with systems theory, ecology, decentralization of power, and distributed knowledge but in my case it sort of oozed in the back door. I’m a systems thinker but it has been a long journey.
In 1989 I got wind of Brand’s latest gig, a networked conferencing system called the Well (for “Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link”). Many of the people who had worked on the Whole Earth Catalogs became influential on the Well. Two guys from the commune The Farm ran operations and marketing. The tribe had moved from the land to cyberspace. The Well was an amazing place to toy with ideas. The community included reporters, writers, journalists, inventors, astronauts, deadheads, scientists, rabble rowsers, radicals, hackers, and more. I remember staying up into the wee hours reading Howard Rheingold, Kevin Kelly (from Biosphere II!), futurist Tom Mandel, John Perry Barlow, Mitch Kapor, Christopher Locke, and many, many others. Flamewars were commonplace. Dialog was continuous. I discovered that intelligence can be distributed. I landed a job running a software start-up through an ad on the Well. Later, the Well gave me an early introduction to the internet: members were given free email addresses and a small number of online pages. Yee-hah.
In 1987, Brand and former futurists from Royal Dutch/Shell founded Global Business Network (GBN). GBN’s origins are in a private conference on the Well. To bring scenarios alive for its clients, GBN would collect information online from its membership of luminaries. In 2000, GBN became part of Monitor Group and recently GBN moved from its funky quarters in Emeryville to downtown San Francisco.
Wired magazine debuted in 1993. The executive editor was Kevin Kelly, who had been editor of Whole Earth Quarterly. Early authors included lots of well beings. Today it looks like hype but at the time, Wired heralded a second coming second only to the invention of the printing press (or of agriculture or fire if you were really into it), and lots of us bought it. Wired could have equally well been named Networks, for that’s what it was all about. Wired fanned the flames of the internet that encouraged some of us from the training world to mix the techno-lust of Wired magazine with learning to create eLearning.
After the dot.bust, Wired was purchased by S.I. Newhouse, its graphics became legible, and sometimes an advert for Vanity Fair or The New Yorker would arrive in the subscription. And of course wireless became hip, sticking wired with its alternative meaning: amped up, as from a rush of adrenaline.
In 01996, Brand, Kelly, Brian Eno, and Denny Hillis founded The Long Now Foundation to remind us of the long-term future. Hillis has designed a clock that will run until the year 12,000. To put that in perspective, humans began making pottery 10,000 years in the past; the pyramids were constructed 5,000 years ago. (More timelines on my Time page.)
Describing the beginnings of GBN, Brand wrote that collaborations emerged alongside a systems-oriented contact language. Brought together from a variety of disciplines and communities, the participants needed to find a common tongue. “One language that we found in common–even amongst our different disciplines–was the idea of distributed learning.”
My philosophy of informal learning rests on assumptions that people are fundamentally good, the future is uncertain, the universe is one large system, business is biological, intangibles trump hard assets, connections are power, and everything is relative.
The mind is a trickster, oversimplifying reality to give us the comfort that we understand it. A holistic view is the best view; always try to look at the bigger picture. I had fooled myself into thinking that I had come up with these thoughts by myself., when all I was doing was rearranging and reinterpreting concepts borrowed from others.
Brand’s cohort Kevin Kelly writes the most influential manifestos of the Whole Earth creed. His brilliant website offers free copies of two influlential books: New Rules for the New Economy and Out of Control.
Celebrating the tenth birthday of the web, Kevin wrote in the August 2005 edition of Wired:
There is only one time in the history of each planet when its inhabitants first wire up its innumerable parts to make one large Machine. Later that Machine may run faster, but there is only one time when it is born.
You and I are alive at this moment.
We should marvel, but people alive at such times usually don’t. Every few centuries, the steady march of change meets a discontinuity, and history hinges on that moment. We look back on those pivotal eras and wonder what it would have been like to be alive then. Confucius, Zoroaster, Buddha, and the latter Jewish patriarchs lived in the same historical era, an inflection point known as the axial age of religion. Few world religions were born after this time. Similarly, the great personalities converging upon the American Revolution and the geniuses who commingled during the invention of modern science in the 17th century mark additional axial phases in the short history of our civilization.
Three thousand years from now, when keen minds review the past, I believe that our ancient time, here at the cusp of the third millennium, will be seen as another such era. In the years roughly coincidental with the Netscape IPO, humans began animating inert objects with tiny slivers of intelligence, connecting them into a global field, and linking their own minds into a single thing. This will be recognized as the largest, most complex, and most surprising event on the planet. Weaving nerves out of glass and radio waves, our species began wiring up all regions, all processes, all facts and notions into a grand network. From this embryonic neural net was born a collaborative interface for our civilization, a sensing, cognitive device with power that exceeded any previous invention. The Machine provided a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall) and a new mind for an old species. It was the Beginning.
In retrospect, the Netscape IPO was a puny rocket to herald such a moment. The product and the company quickly withered into irrelevance, and the excessive exuberance of its IPO was downright tame compared with the dotcoms that followed. First moments are often like that. After the hysteria has died down, after the millions of dollars have been gained and lost, after the strands of mind, once achingly isolated, have started to come together – the only thing we can say is: Our Machine is born. It’s on.
In the air out here
People envy my living in the San Francisco Bay Area. They have good reason to. Some of us live and breathe the concepts Stewart Brand’s network have injected into our culture. Did we choose it or did it choose us? Whatever. We co-create. It is humbling to discover that one’s original thinking is really just a reprise of other people’s thoughts.
I used to work two blocks from the Whole Earth’s office in Sausalito. I’ve been to many of the places mentioned in the book: the original Whole Earth Truck Store and Kepler’s Books and SRI and Xerox PARC and the Well and the offices of Wired.
While I can’t call them friends, I’ve had to opportunity to chat with Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold, John Perry Barlow, Esther Dyson, Lee Felsenstein, Doug Engelbart, Baba Ram Dass, Peter Schwartz, Ted Nelson, Steven Levy, Art Kleiner, Cliff Figallo, John Coate, Gail Williams, Reva Basch, Joel Garreau, Mark Graovetter, Jerry Brown, Arie de Geus, Jaron Lanier, Ted Draper, David Gans, John Hagel, Mitch Kapor, David Liddle, Don Norman, and Richard Saul Wurman. Sometimes it was little more than a comment about the weather; other times it got deeper. There’s something electrifying about meeting a person in the flesh. Their ideas have more resonance.
I don’t have a conclusion to this. It’s simply thoughts flowing by. Nature is like that. We’re all but pebbles in a stream.
On the off chance you haven’t read them, I’ll close with a few excepts from Kevin Kelly’s books:
1) Embrace the Swarm. As power flows away from the center, the competitive advantage belongs to those who learn how to embrace decentralized points of control.
2) Increasing Returns. As the number of connections between people and things add up, the consequences of those connections multiply out even faster, so that initial successes aren’t self-limiting, but self-feeding.
3) Plentitude, Not Scarcity. As manufacturing techniques perfect the art of making copies plentiful, value is carried by abundance, rather than scarcity, inverting traditional business propositions.
4) Follow the Free. As resource scarcity gives way to abundance, generosity begets wealth. Following the free
e rehearses the inevitable fall of prices, and takes advantage of the only true scarcity: human attention.
5) Feed the Web First. As networks entangle all commerce, a firm’s primary focus shifts from maximizing the firm’s value to maximizing the network’s value. Unless the net survives, the firm perishes.
6) Let Go at the Top. As innovation accelerates, abandoning the highly successful in order to escape from its eventual obsolescence becomes the most difficult and yet most essential task.
7) From Places to Spaces. As physical proximity (place) is replaced by multiple interactions with anything, anytime, anywhere (space), the opportunities for intermediaries, middlemen, and mid-size niches expand greatly.
8) No Harmony, All Flux. As turbulence and instability become the norm in business, the most effective survival stance is a constant but highly selective disruption that we call innovation.
9) Relationship Tech. As the soft trumps the hard, the most powerful technologies are those that enhance, amplify, extend, augment, distill, recall, expand, and develop soft relationships of all types.
10) Opportunities Before Efficiencies. As fortunes are made by training machines to be ever more efficient, there is yet far greater wealth to be had by unleashing the inefficient discovery and creation of new opportunities.
- Distribute being
- Control from the bottom up
- Cultivate increasing returns
- Grow by chunking
- Maximize the fringes
- Honor your errors
- Pursue no optima; have multiple goals
- Seek persistent disequilibrium
- Change changes itself.
All complex things taken together form an unbroken continuum between the extremes of stark clockwork gears and ornate natural wilderness. The hallmark of the industrial age has been its exaltation of mechanical design. The hallmark of a neo-biological civilization is that it returns the designs of its creations toward the organic, again. But unlike earlier human societies that relied on found biological solutions — herbal medicines, animal proteins, natural dyes, and the like — neo-biological culture welds engineered technology and unrestrained nature until the two become indistinguishable, as unimaginable as that may first seem.
The intensely biological nature of the coming culture derives from five influences:
- Despite the increasing technization of our world, organic life — both wild and domesticated — will continue to be the prime infrastructure of human experience on the global scale.
- Machines will become more biological in character.
- Technological networks will make human culture even more ecological and evolutionary.
- Engineered biology and biotechnology will eclipse the importance of mechanical technology.
- Biological ways will be revered as ideal ways.
Yesterday Jon Udell announced that he’s leaving InfoWorld to work for Microsoft. His interview with himself shows him to be infected with Stewart Brand’s memes:
Over the years I’ve evangelized a bunch of things to the alpha-geek crowd: Internet groupware, blogging, syndication, tagging, web architecture, lightweight integration, microformats, structured search, screencasting, dynamic languages, geographic mapping, random-access audio, and more. There’s a purpose behind all this, and Doug Engelbart saw it very clearly a long time ago. The augmentation of human capability in these sorts of ways isn’t just some kind of geek chic. It’s nothing less than a survival issue for our species. We face some really serious challenges. The only way we’re going to be able to tackle them is to figure out how to work together in shared information spaces.