This is just a sneak peek from Katrine’s feature in SCENARIO 1:2014. If you are not a current subscriber to SCENARIO or a member of The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, then subscribe or get in touch with us here.
In order to understand the innermost core, ambience and culture of social media – and to understand the modern consumer – we need to journey back to American counterculture’s wild LSD parties. We zoom in on Stewart Brand – the guy who got th digital revolution started and during an acid trip got the idea for the world’s first social medium: the Whole Earth Catalog.
It was one of the usual 1960s LSD afternoons in Silicon Valley. Stewart Brand had pumped his body with 200 mg LSD and had a lecture by Buckminster Fuller in fresh memory. The particular thing about this afternoon wasn’t the trip itself or the systems theoretist, who was one of American counterculture’s favourite philosophers, but rather Stewary Brand’s LSD-induced vision: The idea of a social medium with the potential power of the community as its purpose; a medium that through socialism and collectivism would undermine capitalism and market forces by offering DIY models and independent communication channels.
Stewart Brand’s idea about democratising the market turned out to be the recipe for the world’s first social medium. The goal was to use the community as a free path to important information, advice and creativity. He wanted to create a forum for interpersonal communication that dispensed with social hierarchies and bureaucratic dictates. He called it ‘Acces Mobile’. It was on the background of this vision that he created the Whole Earth Catalog. It started as a printed magazine, and in 1985 the counterculural movement around the Whole Earth Catalog got an online forum: WELL.
The Whole Earth Catalog was published steadily through 1968 to 1972 and intermittently after that. The content was a sort of marketplace where you could sell things related to countercultural, independent and sustainable living (clothes, books, tools, machines and that sort of things), combined with articles.
J. Baldwin – a young designer that Stewart Brand contacted – later told about the vision behind the Catalog:
“Stewart Brand came to me because he heard that I read catalogs. He said, ‘I want to make this thing called a “whole Earth” catalog, so that anyone on Earth can pick up a telephone and find out the complete information on anything … That’s my goal’.”
The cover of the first issue of the publication showed the Earth seen from space – a now famous cover – and the subtitle was: “Access to tools”. The underlying philosophy was that technology (led by the dawning computer industry) was mankind’s assistant and that the individual could create his or her own life.
Brand’s intention with the Whole Earth Catalog was, on the basis of the social revolution, to provide access to tools to aid the “power of the individual to find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested” (Whole Earth Catalog. Fall 1969). This isn’t entirely unlike the practice that today’s people have on social media.
The consumer mindset
The Whole Earth Catalog was the San Francisco-based counterculture’s manifesto and the frame of reference for the hacker culture, and according to Stewart Brand himself, it was the introduction of the optimistic approach of the sharing logic and the gift economy that had the greatest influence on both the personal computer and the way we today use software and the internet. It has had enormous influence on its posterity. As Apple’s Steve Jobs expressed it at Stanford University in 2005:
“When I was young, there was an amazing publication called the Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation.”
In the controversial German documentary Das Netz, which looks at the core of counterculture and its influence on digitisation, Stewart Brand says:
“I was particularly preoccupied by the collective as a movement that seeks to reinvent civilisation – and what I developed was the tools.”
Stewart Brand’s philosophy of the community wasn’t original. Human beings are social creatures and have at all times organised themselves and used communcation to create relationships, collect or forward information, support and give good advice, or form alliances. On the other hand, his imagination, idealistic vision and creative energy struck squarely into a time when technology was individualised and commercialised.
Attempts to understand the consumer after the digital revolution have often been based on traditional market analyses. This carries a risk of ignoring and neglecting the crucial thing, namely the idealism and new interpretation of socialism that still permeates the digital community and cosumer behaviour. Several books have been written about how the 60s counterculture has taken part in shaping the computer industry – e.g. Markoff’s What the Dormouse said and Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture – but they don’t spend a lot of time looking at the consumer perspective.
It is nothing new that the individual as a consumer is in charge of the control tower of the digital universe. However, Stewart Brand was a front runner, and his visions make us better understand consumer behaviour and social media in the 2010s. So let us rewind time back to the 1960s wild LSD parties.
LSD and the social revolution
As a young lieutenant in New Jersey, Brand was attracted to the art environments in San Franscisco and New York. Among others, he hung out with Ken Kesey, the man behind the performance and theatre group ‘Merry Pranksters’, a travelling laboratory where everything from LSD to mind-expanding Mexican mushrooms were tested. …
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