To understand the boundary conditions that Brand views as integral to the “self-governing system” requires that we tease out the connection of WELL to its predecessor, the Whole Earth Catalog. Already in Turner’s description of the Whole Earth Catalog, we find the elements of WELL’s virtual community. Turner compares the Catalog’s readers to Buckminster Fuller’s Comprehensive Designer. Readers had the power to survey the “whole earth” that was embodied in the Catalog’s tools. But these tools are described as a process through which the reader has the capacity to create a personalized power over his/ her own life (Turner 2006:83). As he (2006:83) writes, “The reader could order the ‘tools’ on display and so help to create a realm of ‘intimate personal power’ in her or his own life (albeit by entering the commercial sphere first.” Using the high tech devices displayed in the catalog, Turner argues, is like participating in the wanderings of a pre-technological tribe. The New Communalist is an “Indian Engineer,” he is both an ancient and contemporary (Turner 2006:85).
In the WELL catalog, broad categories organize the different themes of this teleconferencing system. Subscribers dial up access to a central computer that enables them to type messages to one another. The shared consciousness that Turner attributes to this system is structured in relationship to forms of social and economic exchange the system facilitates. System users have the ability to converse with one another and the conversation is marketed back to its participants (Turner 2006: 142). Describing the system, Turner (2006:144) argues that from a technical perspective the system was not unique. PicoSpan was much like other conferencing software of that time. But the flexibility of the system made it appealing to its users. Just as with the Whole Earth Catalog, participants of the WELL could “move from topic to topic, jumping in and out at will, creating their own conversations if they wished” (Turner 2006:144). It is this capacity to link readings to the creation of new conversations that Turner connects to Whole Earth and its “whole systems” and “nomadics.” Readers/ users are both participants and creators in a process where contributions can be sold back to the user.
We should keep in mind how careful Turner is to stress the distinction of this system from commercial counterparts like Prodigy or General Electric’s GEnie system. Unlike the WELL, these systems viewed conferencing as “a new medium of the delivery of information” (2006:144). For Turner it is peer-to-peer communication that makes possible “self-governance.”