World Without Mind

Franklin Foer’s recent book.  Earlier in 2017, Foer had just had a bad experience working for the New Republic magazine, stemming from a difference of approach between he and the magazine’s owner, Chris Hughes.  More on that below.  This experience gave him a turn about the nature of the the new technological juggernaut being unleashed in this decade.

Foer begins his book by profiling Stuart Brand, child of an advertising executive who scuttled around the SF counterculture circuit in the run-up to the Summer of Love.  Brand comes across in Foer’s profile as The Man Who Betrayed the 60s.  “His [Brand’s] gift was to channel the spiritual longings of his generation, and then to explain how they could be fulfilled by technology.”   This was a version, as Foer puts it, of “humanity tied together into a single transcendent network.”  Brand, after a detour through the ranks of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and later profiled in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, represented the “restrained, reflective wing of the Pranksters and according to Foer, “remained a neatnik with a filing cabinet.”  Of course at this juncture (1967) the sentiment among the cognoscenti of the counterculture was that computers and the counterculture’s core values could never mix.   Foer:  “Everything the nascent counterculture would come to despise–the mindless submission of the herd, the tyranny of bureaucracy, could be reduced to a pungent symbol, the computer.”  And yet, this despising was overdetermined, for it masked a deep fascination with its hated shadow who appeared at this very time in the persona of the Trekkie.  Foer: “Baby Boomers grew up in a world steeped in technology–rock ‘n’ roll, automobiles, television.  They enjoyed modernity far too much to mount a full throated counteroffensive.”  R.Crumb summed it up in his comic story of July 1970, “Mr. Natural Goes to a Meeting of the Minds”.   Foont:  “What should we do, Mr. Natural?”  Mr. Natural:  “If you really want to make a revolution, it’s a simple matter of getting rid of all this illusory booshwah junk that clutters the human spirit and encumbers the will in its battle for freedom–(picks up TV to throw it out the window) “I’m sure you don’t need THIS!”  “Somebody stop him!” “Some nerve!” “Hey! That reminds me! it’s almost time for the eleven o’clock news!!”

Brand was the one who got NASA to release the famous picture of the whole earth in space.  His Whole Earth Catalogue, a bold attempt to fuse the ideals of hippiedom with the instruments that could make alternative communities function, was “one of the Bibles of our generation”, according to Steve Jobs.  And so, Brand arrived at his fateful conclusion, one which was to have such wide repercussions down to the present day.  Granted, technology had created the lion’s share of the current ills of the world.  However, technology, but, crucially, a technology that was decoupled from its institutional moorings in General Dynamics and IBM, and returned to the hands of the people, was the only force potent enough to save it.  Foer at this juncture quotes a certain Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture.  The Whole Earth Catalogue “helped create the conditions under which microcomputer and computer networks could be imagined as tools of liberation.”

end part I

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