Holistic Utopianism

on April 30, 2010

During the course of the mid-20th century, the holism vision moved through a series of developmental stages. It first gained visibility in the 1920’s as a somewhat fuzzy attempt to formulate a philosophical alternative to scientific reductionism. In the 1930’s, it developed a theoretical framework in the form of systems theory, which provided the basis for both ecology and cybernetics. And in the late 40’s and early 50’s, it started taking on political overtones as a critique of modern industrial civilization.

Throughout that period, aspects of holistic thought found their way into the work of artists, writers, and philosophers, from M.C. Escher and J.R.R. Tolkien to Buckminster Fuller and Rachel Carson. And by the 1960’s, these intimations of a universe that was far more integrated and meaningful than the old universe of scientific materialism were starting to exert a formative influence on a new generation of story-tellers and musicians.

But even in the middle 60’s, holism was not yet perceived as a single thing, and though it formed an essential element in the chaos-based counterculture that emerged in 1964-65, it was not the primary element. The leading members of that counterculture were dedicated to the pursuit of chaos, but no one had yet dedicated themself wholeheartedly to holism as a way of life and determined to follow wherever it might lead.

The first true acolyte of holism was a man named Stewart Brand. And it came upon him quite suddenly.

Brand has been a figure of continuing importance to the holism vision for over forty years. Between 1968 and 1972, he published regular editions of the Whole Earth Catalog, which almost single-handedly reoriented the later stages of the counterculture from chaos to holism. He has also had a long and fruitful relationship with the computer subculture and in 1984 coined the classic mantra, “Information wants to be free.” The following year, Brand founded the pioneering bulletin board the WELL, which later spun off the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

But all of that trailblazing activity came about in the wake of one sudden flash of insight sometime in 1965. According to Tom Wolfe’s 1968 account of the psychedelic counterculture, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

“Brand was 27 and an ex-biologist who had run across the Indian peyote cults in Arizona and New Mexico. … And then one day he took some LSD, right after an Explorer satellite went up to photograph the earth, and as the old synapses began rapping around inside his skull at 5,000 thoughts per second, he was struck with one of those questions that inflame men’s brains: Why Haven’t We Seen a Photograph of the Whole Earth Yet? — and he drove across America from Berkeley, California, to 116th Street, New York City, selling buttons with that legend on them.”

Wolfe may have been doing his best to portray Brand as just one more tripped-out proto-hippie, but a more recent description of that pivotal moment makes it clear that even then Brand had something far more subtle in mind. According to John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (2005):

“Brand had come upon the idea of a ‘Whole Earth’ … after hearing a lecture by Buckminster Fuller. One day in North Beach, he had been sitting huddled in a blanket on the roof of his three-story apartment building looking out over the city. Having taken ‘a few mikes of LSD,’ Brand was suddenly struck by the fact that the city’s buildings were not laid out in perfect parallel lines. It seemed to him that, since the surface of the earth was curved, they actually must diverge just slightly. And then it occurred to him that despite the fact that satellites had been circling the earth for almost a decade, he had never seen a photograph showing the entire earth’s surface.”

The Whole Earth concept was in the air that year. Not only was Buckminster Fuller involved in promoting it, but a crude version had even found its way into President Lyndon Johnson’s January 1965 inaugural address. So Brand didn’t exactly pull the idea out of nowhere — but he was the first to turn it into a crusade and then into a life’s work.

Perhaps inevitably, Brand’s quest led him to link up with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, who had returned from their own 1964 trip to the East Coast with a missionary determination to renew the world by spreading the psychedelic gospel. Beginning in November 1965, they began putting on a series of small-scale “acid tests,” at which LSD was freely available and the earliest psychedelic art and music were provided to either enhance the experience for those who partook or simulate it for those who did not.

A young band known first as The Warlocks and then as the Grateful Dead provided the music for these events. But it was Stewart Brand’s inspiration to take the whole thing public, beginning with the Trips Festival of January 1966, which effectively served as the coming-out party for the counterculture.

Most of the Merry Pranksters eventually overdosed on chaos and ran off the rails, but by 1968, Brand had two new passions to pursue. One was the Whole Earth Catalog, the first edition of which appeared in that year. And the other was the very first proto-version of the Internet. As described by Markoff:

On December 9, 1968, the oNLine System was shown publicly to the world for the first time. … On the giant video screen at his back, [computer pioneer Doug] Engelbart demonstrated a system that seemed like science fiction to a data-processing world reared on punched cards and typewriter terminals. In one stunning ninety-minute session, he showed how it was possible to edit text on a display screen to make hypertext links from one electronic document to another, and to mix text and graphics, and even video and graphics. …

For many who witnessed it, it was more than a bolt from the blue: It was a religious experience, inspiring the same kinds of passion that Vannevar Bush’s Memex article had given rise to for Engelbart twenty-three years earlier. …

Operating the camera in Menlo Park for Engelbart’s landmark presentation was Stewart Brand, who by then was a twenty-nine-year-old multimedia producer. … He had been invited as a consultant at the last minute to help polish the presentation and help make it an “event.” The unstated connection, of course, was Brand’s background in helping orchestrate Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests.

Brand’s presence at the birth of the Internet, however, was no more than a significant foretaste of an aspect of holism that would not flower fully until the 1980’s. The real focus of his attention was the Whole Earth Catalog, which served as a kind of ecological Sears Roebuck Catalog for countercultural refugees seeking a return to more natural ways of living.

But even at the start, the Whole Earth Catalog was about more than just ecology. By pulling together a broad range of resources and ideas, it served to integrate the holism vision and bring it to a new level of coherence and self-awareness. Its influence both then and since cannot be overstated.

Steve Jobs of Apple Computer, for example, acknowledged its importance in a commencement address delivered 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,” Jobs explained to the students. “It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.”

In addition to its impact on holism, the Whole Earth Catalog offered a number of epitomal statements of the creative imagination vision. Its motto, “access to tools,” for example, carries the implication that the tools needed for creativity are so important that access to them is as much an unalienable human right as freedom or equality.

It is that absolute value placed on creative access — combined with Brand’s assertion that “information wants to be free” — that lies behind all the present-day battles over copyrights and patents and other forms of so-called “intellectual property.”

But the Whole Earth Catalog went even further in its mind-bending statement of purpose, which began, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

That provocative declaration would inspire Alexei in the spring of 1970 to write a story called “How Can We Sink When We Can Fly?” which offered one of the first depictions of a near-future ecological utopia — and he quoted the entire statement from the catalog within the story:

We are as gods and might as well get good at 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.

Are we really as gods? If we are, the secret must lie in our role as creators of reality, and not in our raw physical power. But the full meaning of those words will only become known a generation from now, when creative imagination — like holism in the 1960’s — becomes not merely a collection of visionary intimations but a call to action.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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