From Counterculture To Cyberculture: How The Whole Earth Catalog Brought Us "Virtual Community"

Fred Turner, Stanford Dept. of Communication

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University April 11, 2003

In 1993, just as the Internet was emerging into public consciousness, journalist Howard Rheingold brought a new phrase to public discussions of computer-mediated communication: "virtual community." Within months, the phrase had been taken up by researchers, programmers, and corporate CEO's. For a time, virtual communities seemed poised to become one of the defining social formations - and business plans -- of the Internet age.
Yet, the notion of "virtual communities" substantially predates the public emergence of computer networking. This presentation traces the origins of the concept in the Whole Earth network of publications and people. Drawing on archival research and extensive interviews, the presentation will show how the notion of virtual community first emerged as a day-to-day "contact language" on the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (the WELL). It will then show how both the communities who used the early WELL system and the system itself represented networks and networking habits of mind first developed around the Whole Earth Catalog some twenty years earlier.

By tracing the migration of countercultural ideas and practices into the digital realm, I hope to raise questions about the role culture plays in shaping our perceptions of emerging digital technologies.

There will be lots of time for discussion.

Fred Turner is an Assistant Professor in Stanford's Department of Communication whose teaching and research focus on the cultural contexts of computing. A cultural historian, he is the author of Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory (1996 & 2001). He is currently researching the impact of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth network on contemporary visions of cyberculture and the "new" economy.

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