Fred Turner devotes chapter 5 to the history, philosophy and community of the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, known as the WELL. The WELL began as an expansion of the Whole Earth Catalog and as with the catalog, Stewart Brand “hoped to allow the system’s users to converse with one another and to market that conversation back to its participants.” (142) But the catalog was published only a few times a year so while its subscribers contributed by writing letters or reviewing products, they were not actually communicating in real time. The WELL gave users a chance to collaborate and “meet” one another instantaneously. The team that designed the WELL in 1985 had seven design goals, one of which was that it would be self-governing. The plan was a text-based forum that would combine a business and a community and would do away with the hierarchical model of business but still make a profit. The conditions would be such that the users, who were both the contributors and readers, (producers and consumers) would subscribe to the WELL by paying to participate. The subscription model was one that Brand thought worked best but he set the subscription rates much lower than the rates of commercial competitors as a way “to shape interpersonal relations on the WELL.” (145)
In his design of the WELL as a self-governing system, Brand was bringing the New Communalist’s vision of community to an electronic forum. The WELL’s first managers were veterans of the FARM, a commune in Tennessee that was founded by San Francisco hippies. They brought their experience building and supporting relationships with members of the commune to the participants of the WELL. Turner compares the proposed structure to a homeostat, where the manager would set the original conditions and then stand back and observe. “Once set in motion by its creators, it was to learn as it went, to find its ideal temperature, so to speak, through the actions of its constituent parts.’” (146) The users would supply and monitor the text that would determine the direction of future conversations.
A self-governing system, such as the WELL, operates on the belief that the users will take more responsibility for their contributions in a system where there is less direct involvement with a manager. Since they have more control in deciding the direction the work will take, they have more at stake in the outcome. They are thus likely to create the environment they want to be a part of, and in doing so will continue to be an active part of it. So managers, by ceding control to the users, increase the likelihood of the continued participation of the users. Businesses that have changed from the traditional organizational structure to a “Holacracy”, or self-governing structure, claim that their employees are more likely to contribute more, be happier and to stay at their jobs longer.
By interpreting the descriptions given by Turner, the self governing system operates by being completely inclusive and dependent of itself. While it is not exactly self-perpetuating, it does, for lack of better phrasing, grow of its momentum – generating growth from the efforts put forth by the users but at the same time those efforts are the product consumed by the users. The act of the product being consumed creates more product, as well as increases the value of the product. And in the case of the WELL, what is the product? The product is a user community developed through forum based interaction AND the information that is shared through the conversations and relationships created on the WELL, which are both archived by the system and individually user managed.
The ability of the system to grow and evolve is made possible by the WELL managers who are equally uninvolved observers and involved as observers. They enable the system to operate in the model of a homeostat, that is being capable of adapting to its environment. The system is able to evolve because the managers make the boundaries pliable. The users themselves can manipulate the platform as they explore and test its boundaries, making the WELL develop as the users develop as individuals and not by direct involvement by managers. That is, the more the users experiment the more the platform will reflect those efforts. The managers do not push or suggest changes, they monitor the needs of the users and act accordingly by allowing the system to be manipulated.
The self governing system, using the WELL as a model, can be interpreted as an operating system in which the users have a great amount of control and create the world (platform, system, product) in which they want to interact (or consume). The more efforts put in by the users means more capabilities granted by the system moderators who are otherwise hands-off, which then cycles back to the users wanting to interact even more with the system as it improves (evolves). The cycle encompasses interpersonal (user community), electronic (user platform), and economic (user subscription) spheres so it, as a cyberculture, can perpetuate.
Fuller’s idea of the comprehensive designer, as addressed by Turner (2006:56), left me reflecting on the two very different inflections given to technology in this chapter. On the one hand there is an association of technology with the Cold War and the possibility of a Soviet invasion of the U.S. At the beginning of chapter two, Turner underscores how this vision of the influence of technology on society is also imagined in relationship to the hierarchical bureaucracies that already exist in the U.S. Turner (2006:42) stresses these two senses of invasion. This first understanding of technology is what Turner is defining as “technocracy.” But the vision of technology related to the work of Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan is remarkably different. I’ve included the following a rather lengthy quote from Turner because it does a good job of illustrating the different vision of technology that he is attributing to McLuhan, Fuller, Brand and others affiliated with New Communalism.
“McLuhan offered a vision in which young people who had been raised on rock and roll, television, and the associated pleasures of consumption need not give those pleasures up even if they rejected the adult society that had created them. Even if the social order of technocracy threatened the species with nuclear annihilation and the individual young person with psychic fragmentation, the media technologies produced by that order offered the possibility of individual and collective transformation. McLuhan’s dual emphases [his simultaneous celebration of new media and tribal social forms] allowed young people to imagine the local communities they built around these media not simply as communities built around consumption of industrial products, but as model communities for a new society” (Turner 2006:54).
These two visions of technology illustrate the different ways of approaching social institutions in the 1950s, as conceptualized by the New Left and the New Communalists. On the one hand the New Left views this relationship as one of power and resistance, and on the other hand Brand views technology as a means for dismantling an institutionalized, hierarchical power. In thinking about these two visions of technology, I found myself returning to Taylor’s work to consider what she adds to this discussion, particularly as she indicates how exploitation is implicit to our participation in creative labor/leisure online. On this point it is interesting to think about the Turner characterizes Brand’s interest in Native American tribes. His interest in visiting Native American reservations is not driven by the injustices these people have lived through. Instead he views Native Americans as symbolic figures for an authentic community. As Turner (59) explains, “If the white-collar man of the 1950s had become detached from the land and from his own emotions, the Native American could show him how to be at home again, physically and psychologically.” What should we make of this techno-vision of relatedness where inequality is a symbolic reminder of what “home” might be?
Due by midnight Tuesday, December 1st (350-400 words).
When outlining the subscription process at WELL, Turner (2006:145-146) argues that Brand “lay down boundary conditions for a self-governing system.” Drawing on details from chapter 5 which describe the virtuality and community on the WELL, explain how you think a self-governing system operates.
Turner (2006:56) references Buckminster’s Fuller’s idea of the “Comprehensive Designer,” described in Fuller’s book Ideas and Integrities (1963). As Turner (2006:56) explains, “[a]ccording to Fuller, the Comprehensive Designer would not be another specialist, but would instead stand outside the halls of industry and science, processing the information they produced, observing the technologies they developed, and translating both into tools for human happiness.” Elaborating on the idea of the comprehensive designer, describe the vision of the world espoused by Fuller. Why do you think this vision was so appealing to Stewart Brand? If you are unsure, take a guess.
I found an article that gives a detailed description of the idea of the comprehensive designer:
Comprehensive Designer would be aware of the system’s need for balance and the current deployment of its resources. He would then act as a “harvester of the potentials of the realm,” gathering up the products and techniques of industry and redistributing them in accord with the systemic patterns that only he and other comprehensivists could perceive. To do this work, the Designer would need to have access to all of the information generated within America’s burgeoning technocracy while at the same time remaining outside it. He would need to become “an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.” Constantly poring over the population surveys, resource analyses, and technical reports produced by states and industries, but never letting himself become a full-time employee of any of these, the Comprehensive Designer would finally see what the bureaucrat could not: the whole picture.
Being able to see the whole picture would allow the Comprehensive Designer to realign both his individual psyche and the deployment of political power with the laws of nature. In contrast to the bureaucrat, who, so many critics of technocracy had suggested, had been psychologically broken down by the demands of his work, the Comprehensive Designer would be intellectually and emotionally whole. Neither engineer nor artist, but always both simultaneously, he would achieve psychological integration even while working with the products of technocracy. Likewise, whereas bureaucrats exerted their power by means of political parties and armies and, in Fuller’s view, thus failed to properly distribute the world’s resources, the Comprehensive Designer would wield his power systematically. That is, he would analyze the data he had gathered, attempt to visualize the world’s needs now and in the future, and then design technologies that would meet those needs.
Fred Turner (2006:38) writes that “For both the New Left and the New Communalists, technological bureaucracy threatened a drab, psychologically distressing adulthood at a minimum and, beyond that, perhaps even the extinction of the human race. For the New Left, movement politics offered a way to tear down that bureaucracy and simultaneously to experience the intimacy of shared commitment and the possibility of an emotionally committed adulthood. For the New Communalists, in contrast, and for much of the broader counter-culture, cybernetics and systems theory offered an ideological alternative.” Explain how Turner distinguishes the New Left from the New Communalists through the affinities of latter to a cybernetic vision of the world “built not around vertical hierarchies and top-down flows of power, but around looping circuits of energy and information” (2006:38).
While both movements of the New Left and New Communalists were revolutionized because of the fear that both sides had, due in part to what they considered as being inconsistencies in governmental monopolies and problems that steered separation and phobia after the war. The New Left was nervous about the process of change and the New Communalism formed communities that were not against the war. Turner distinguished the New Left from the New Communalist through different visions, one from the other as having the same ideas of technology and war while the other is the formed communities and organizations to make for a stronger design made by all. However both were overshadowed by forces of capitalism and according to the Book Review by Anna McCarthy: Turner’s history of the New Communalism, a cultural formation as rooted in the collaborative, interdisciplinary research culture of Cold War defense science as it is in Trips Festivals and tofu potlucks, offers us a far more complex, and to my mind, more interesting and politically necessary story of how present day visions of new media came to be. If contemporary spin offers us a potent, if naive, vision of the digital network as a space where community, democracy, and economic growth can finally coexist, Turner’s book is a convincing account of very tangible social networks, embodying and disavowing certain forms of power and privilege, that made such visions possible.
Due by midnight Tuesday, November 3rd (300-350 words).
In her essay “Whatever Blogging,” Jodi Dean (2013:169) articulates the “new modes of community and new forms of personality anticipated by the dissolution of inscriptions of identity through citizenship, ethnicity, and other modern markers of belonging.” Choose at least two examples used by Dean to elaborate on this notion of “whatever being” and the form of communicativity that it points to.
I will start with the new forms of community as I look, and find that there is a vast amount of gentrification around where I was born and raised, and the new craze is “Brooklyn”. People have a need to belong, and when they are part of a new community and have called it home; although they have “no mileage” they will claim it as a representation of who they are, and for that matter that they have always been. Therefore the “whatever being” term is when people see “whatever” they belong to at the moment, as being the identity that they’ve formed on who they have become. It is funny to me when I see a person born and raised in the mid-west and come to move in a community like Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn; they now represent Bed-Stuy and are attending Brooklyn Nets games, wearing Brooklyn logoed clothing and opening restaurants and shops with the tag “Made in Brooklyn”, when they don’t know anything about its history, its stories or people who called the borough home for many years since birth. Therefore, “whatever” is wherever I am, or whatever I do that I represent, I am a part of its community and its following. The same holds true with it comes to internet blogging. I find that bloggers tend to focus on the less important things and form opinions on that of which are trending and have the audience’s attention, that makes for a less than meaningful discussion in order to feel like part of a discussion of a story and or being a part of a group who has an opinion, even if it’s not that important.
In “Return to the Crowds,” Ahyan Aytes explains the source for Amazon.com’s micropayment-based crowdsourcing platform called the Mechanical Turk: from an 18th-century Automaton Chess Player. In your own words, explain the connection Aytes wants to make between a chess-playing machine and Amazon’s new platform.
I believe that since the Mechanical Turk or Automation Chess Player was a so-called illusion to have one believe that they were playing the game of chess against the brains of a machine, that Ahyan Aytes explained the connection between the Mechanical Turk and Amazon’s new Mechanical Turk as being an illusion that the machine is actually doing all of the work, when in fact there are people behind the work that are doing the job for the machine. Since computers can’t perform certain tasks, it is the labor of man who actually does the work for the computer, while having the user believe that they are one against the machine, as the case with the Turk in the 18th century when it was believed by the user that they were playing chess with a machine that was smart enough to move the pieces across the board and win every time. And as Aytes explained; “it may seem to your customers that your application is somehow using advanced artificial intelligence to accomplish tasks, but in reality is the Artificial Artificial Intelligence of the Mechanical Turk workforce”. So, Aytes makes a valid point that the customer will believe in the machine and think that the machine is actually working for them, but in fact, it’s the machine that is being used as the work-horse while there is a human cracking the whip on the horse to push the and haul the material.
Buckminster Fuller, utilizing a military research culture model of information systems theory, essentially believed in a future where systems management would be undertaken by a comprehensive designer. The comprehensive designer would be an eclectic and free example of an artist and scientist, endowed with a healthy grasp on the psychological dimensions of his task.
Fuller believed that the universe operated according to its own system and that the comprehensive designer would essentially map out this information and be a sort of renaissance man when it comes to pulling from across disciplines and technologies in order to work with the existing order in a harmonious way to create from an inner place. Fuller believed that systems were already in existence, that it was possible to map everything to a set of patterns as information.
This is more or less what Stewart Brand believed in – and the model for the Whole Earth Catalog was a chance for the information processing of a multitude of sources to filter into a harmonious mixture that accentuated the aptitude of each user and employed systems theory in order to change future consciousness. I believe that Brand was attracted to Fuller’s concept of the Comprehensive Designer because the idea was shaped in the belly of military-research culture and Brand’s own background, (though no longer part of his emerging worldview) was shaped by his own experiences in Ranger school. Though he dropped out, it seems to me that a kernel of that enterprising and individualistic or heroic ideal remained in him, and further encouraged his interest in navigating a path outside of the tense political period of the cold war. Capitalizing off of his own divergent interests and desire to be free of a bureaucratic future, the allure of Fuller’s ideology of a Comprehensive Designer, suggested a community of like-minded individuals looking to take the best aspects of existing technology and fuse that together with learning how to understand the existing structures. I believe that Brand was enchanted with Fuller’s notion of mapping the world as an information system – which means that the ideal course of direction for the new vision of humanity – a humanity enabled by technological innovation and free from social and bureaucratic constriction, was to process the data and focus on building a future that relied on a creative and collaborative culture. This becomes more evident later in Brand’s expansive travels through different scenes and communities of other free thinking and technologically plugged in (or at experimental) folks like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.
The vision of the world espoused by Fuller in his idea of the “Comprehensive Designer” allowed an individual an outside view of all the different systemic processes that the bureaucrat could not see having “been psychologically broken down by the demands of his work.” The “Comprehensive Designer” would have available to them all the information from all different types of industry and try to figure out how they can work together in the world they inhabited.
This was appealing to Brand because he appreciated “cybernetics as an intellectual framework and as a social practice; he associated both with alternative forms of communal organization.” The whole theory of cybernetics is a collaborative process of using information for a common good without any hierarchy. The “Comprehensive Designer” and cybernetics are very similar in the fact that there is a collaborative effort that did not deal with politics. It was all about the greater good of the community combining data that was gathered in an attempt to see the world’s needs and hopefully design technologies that would solve those needs.
Brand was a man that needed his individuality and he did not want to give that up. He even fought in a war not to fight for his country, but to fight for his right of individuality that he felt might have been taken away from him otherwise. After coming back from the war he studied the readings of Wiener, McLuhan, Fuller and Ehrlich who all believed in cybernetics which was a new way to look at the world. Fuller’s “Comprehensive Designer” idea was so appealing to Brand because it aligned with his own sensibilities in what he wanted to see the world looks like.
Fuller was someone that was considered a key figure in the world that Brand was a part of at the time. His “intellectual frameworks and social ideals” may have come from the military research culture but it was endearing to the avant-garde world that Brand saw with the USCO.