In late 1981, I got an assignment from Rolling Stone to write about the then-obscure subculture of computer hackers. I knew little about them and, in fact, had never touched a computer myself. Though I understood that digital technology was a coming thing, I still viewed the subject from the stance I’d taken during my college days—computers were depersonalizing machines that made war and surveillance more efficient while turning us all into numbers. I expected hackers to be antisocial recluses with an element of the mad scientist.

But while doing my background reading, I had a shock. Almost a decade earlier, a writer had already addressed the subject—brilliantly. What’s more, he had done it for Rolling Stone. Written with a hardy enthusiasm that barely cloaked a brimming “Yes!” behind every sentence, the article, entitled “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” described communities of coders as playful rebels who saw machines as tools of personal and social liberation—and toys. (They turned the ludicrously expensive Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1 minicomputer into the venue for an interstellar jousting match called Spacewar.) What’s more, the article was written by Stewart Brand, a name I recognized as coming out of the ether of the ’60s. Wasn’t that the Whole Earth Catalog guy?

Of course it was, and Fred Turner, author of the sharply observed and painstakingly researched From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, has produced a lengthy argument that Brand’s feat of bringing computer geeks into a magazine best known for rock-star-tour journalism and gonzo attacks on Richard Nixon was just one step in a decades-long crusade to transplant the ideals of the ’60s from the dirt-flecked fields of the commune to the elysian fields of cyberspace. In Turner’s meticulously detailed if somewhat slow-motion book, he postulates that Brand was an idealistic (albeit Barnum-esque) leader of a merry band of cybernetic pranksters who framed the concept of computers and the Internet with a seemingly nonintuitive twist: These onetime engines of government and big business had transmogrified into a social force associated with egalitarianism, personal empowerment, and the nurturing cocoon of community. Furthermore, says Turner, Brand’s promotion of this concept actually helped turn at least some of that vision into reality.

In the spirit of disclosure, I should say that Turner includes me among the Brand names who sold the world that picture. (As it should be, more prominent figures in the so-called Whole Earth network, such as Howard Rheingold, Art Kleiner, and Kevin Kelly, are discussed more fully.) My small role in this story is writing a book (Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, published in 1984) that Turner rather generously cites as a key in focusing Brand’s thoughts on hackers, whom he would describe as “the most interesting and effective body of intellectuals since the framers of the U.S. Constitution.”

Turner has haunted library stacks, rereading sociological studies of the now-quaint New Left, turned thousands of crumbling pages of forgotten ad hoc journals like the People’s Computer Company, and spent hours in deep conversation with the guru in question. This has allowed him to construct an impressively authoritative history of Brand’s intellectual adventures. We first learn how Brand’s discovery of cybernetic thought shaped his ’60s experience and allowed him to straddle the acid-tinged social scene of Ken Kesey and the pioneering computer-interface work of Douglas Engelbart’s group at the Stanford Research Institute. (Brand actually was a helper on the “mother of all demos,” Engelbart’s fabled introduction of the first computer system with a mouse and windows.) But it wasn’t until the Whole Earth Catalog—which began in 1968 as a 6-page mimeographed list of items for sale and by 1971 had evolved into a National Book Award–winning 448-page broadsheet-size omnibus––that Brand took the counterculture into fast-forward and began the transformation of the New Left into what we now know as a mix of the New Economy, computer geekdom, and hive mind.

Turner’s view of the movement hinges on a familiar dichotomy: On one hand, a stern political wing preached rebellion against the establishment; on the other, a crunchy, nonviolent back-to-the-land movement turned its back on it. Though this is well-trodden ground, Turner dwells on the split, proudly naming the latter group the New Communalists, an ungainly moniker he uses to distraction for the rest of the book. Brand, though not himself a communard, is firmly planted in that vein.

Brand did much to define the New Communalists, most triumphantly with the Whole Earth Catalog. He recognized that lurking beneath the rural yearnings was an almost mystical belief that the proper technology could solve the toughest problems. Armed with the right tools for the job, be they geodesic domes or the new electronic pocket calculators, Communalists reading the Catalog were able to see each of themselves as “a visionary, with a view of the planet’s condition, and a local actor, with the ability to shape the larger world by shaping his local surroundings. Scrambling across the industrial landscape, plucking its technological fruits and replanting them in his own garden, this reader would be nomad and technocrat, local citizen and Comprehensive Designer.” This, Turner notes, is well in keeping with Brand’s epigram “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Turner’s chapter on the Whole Earth Catalog is by far the book’s high point. It’s a long, strange trip that blends scholarly rigor with the stream-of-consciousness epiphanies of a late-night rap session. Turner convincingly argues that the publication was itself a whole system, linking disparate tools and a surprising bounty of literature to create “a guide to a new way of being an individual.” What’s more, Turner argues that the Catalog stunningly foreshadowed the libertarian, egalitarian ethos that would come to be associated with cyberspace. (This libertarianism would put Brand in a pickle during the 1990s, when he and his friends found themselves in an uncomfortable embrace over a shared love of the open marketplace with the likes of Newt Gingrich and George Gilder. Turner includes a terrific quote from Brand explaining that such discomfort led him to abandon his previously consistant libertarian beliefs: “I didn’t make me a liberal: the Republicans made me a liberal.”)

Though From Counterculture to Cyberculture proceeds chronologically, there’s not much narrative force, and the locutions of academia (“As so-and-so has demonstrated . . .”) would have been better left to a notes section. Turner follows Brand and his informal crew as they organize the Hacker’s Conference, begin the ill-fated but fondly remembered Whole Earth Software Catalog, establish a conferencing system, form a network-based consultancy to global corporations, and, in 1992, create the digital fan mag Wired. (This last move is a stretch, since Brand was more influencer of than participant in the magazine.) At each step, Turner diligently tabulates the similarities to the ideals and images of the earlier counterculture, up to and including the over-the-top predictions of each movement that from now on, everything’s different.

It’s a somewhat procrustean argument that gives short shrift to other areas of Brand’s interest, like writing about how buildings learn and promoting the idea of “deep time.” (Meanwhile, I can’t believe that Turner didn’t make a bigger deal of the Brand-related 1990 Cyberthon, a star-studded public event promising “24 Hours in Virtual Reality.”) Turner does a fine job, though, in drawing on Brand’s unique career to show his influence on how people came to see the connection between the New Communalist strain of the counterculture and the ecstatic proselytizers of the digital revolution.

But what’s missing in From Counterculture to Cyberculture is a serious look at the technology itself, along with the people who actually created it. There is a genuine question here: Did Brand and those who shared his views will the connection of digital technology to the counterculture? Or was the very nature of personal-computer technology and, later, the Internet ineluctably in tune with the ideals of the ’60s? Brand’s Rolling Stone article made a huge impression on me—and later, working with him on the Whole Earth Software Catalog, the moral force of his personality made an even bigger one. But it was the actual experience of interviewing and hanging out with the hackers themselves––as well as playing with their toys––that really led me to associate computers with intellectual freedom and irreverent experimentation. Brand didn’t need to read my book to see this—he saw the same things years earlier, with Stanford hackers playing Spacewar, and the Xerox PARC crew who sat around on beanbag chairs and invented the graphical user interface. (No coincidence that one of the PARC wizards came out with the famous quote “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”) How many of the countercultural aspects of digital technology, rather than coming from Brand and other observers, came from what was inherent in the technology itself?

Because Turner doesn’t wrestle with this question, reading From Counterculture to Cyberculture is like studying a painting by regarding only the comments of critics, admirers, and the artist and ignoring the actual art. What was important about the Macintosh wasn’t what people said about it or how its television advertisement evoked 1984—it’s what it was and what it did. Likewise, Brand’s role in devising the legendary computerconferencing system called the WELL (for Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link) was innovative and significant––but there were already thriving participatory online systems, in computer bulletin boards and the Usenet realm of the Internet. As an early WELL-head, I can attest to its greatness, but a lot of its status came because it had good press. (After all, the WELL was loaded with journalists.) And by the time Turner’s narrative reaches the point where the Internet becomes a massive phenomenon, he just about ignores how the open protocols of the Net—determined by geeks, not hippies—changed the world. Instead, pursuing the thread of “digital utopianism,” he lingers over the colorful hyperbole dolloped out by the crowd at Wired. (New York Times technology reporter John Markoff’s recent book What the Dormouse Said, which also looks at how the counterculture affected computer culture, takes a flip-side approach: In his account, Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute is a lead character and Brand is in a supporting role.)

This Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern problem haunts Turner’s concluding chapter. In some respects, the prof is on a roll, constructing a mighty theory that ties together the agrarian impulses of the ’60s with the techno-networking ethic that Brand pioneered. From an epidemiological standpoint, Brand is Patient Zero in infecting the business and institutional world of today with the memes of the ’60s, along with a good measure of cybernetic theory. (With the convenient side effect, Turner adds rather cynically, of aggrandizing Brand himself.) Here’s the key takeaway: “By imagining the world as a series of overlapping information systems, and by deploying that imagination in particular organizational and media forms, Brand and his Whole Earth colleagues ultimately preserved certain New Communalist ideals long after the movement itself had faded away.”

There is an alternative explanation, not considered by Turner, that Brand was simply the most salient link between an era obsessed with freedom and a technology whose potential to foment freedom was part of its very fabric. In either case, spending time with Brand and the Whole Earthies illuminates the bridge between the two cultures without necessarily giving the whole picture.

Steven Levy is a senior editor at Newsweek and author of The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness (Simon & Schuster, 2006).