I think the most important takeaway for me from this class was figuring out how to put my finger on some of the problematic attributes of digital media. When I first came to CWE, I was an unabashed techno-optimist. I was about two years removed from having procured my first iPhone and became convinced that easy access to these apps and services was going to lead to exactly the kind of linked consciousness Stewart Brand and some of his allies proffered. I remember being asked by my professor at the time to “take a position” on what I thought it all meant and I groped for something obvious; a critique of how the integration of digital technology into built environments had unintended consequences and could in some very particular (almost straw man) cases enable injustice. Over the next few semesters, my techno-optimism started to wane as I became reattuned to real world injustices and saw the tech community’s responses to them, which often seemed hopelessly shallow if not culturally insensitive. This made me start to sour on the tech community as a community, but I put their insularity down to their having ascended from privilege and having been infected by capitalist notions of profiteering above all else. Much of Taylor’s work helped to reinforce this notion, but took it a step further by discussing the cultural impact of capitalist ideals inherent to the digital “revolution” and what we were losing in the name of this supposed gain.
Scholz’s book was the coup de grace as it introduced me to a totally new concept in thinking of cultural production as labor. Terranova’s parsing of the autonomist notion of the social factory, Jodi Dean’s (somewhat disagreeable) characterization of the blogosphere, De Kosnik on fandom as free labor and Scholz’s own introduction to the concept of “playbor” made me downright queasy in thinking about how I’ve spent my time online, whiling away the hours in support of products and services all in the name of community. Turner’s book on where the association between these communitarian philosophies and the online experience came from just made the experience all the more disturbing, no matter how neat it is. Too many things in the book spoke directly to me and what attracted me to digital “culture” in the first place.
So when faced on the role digital media plays in my life, or rather, the relationship I want to have with it going forward, I think I would say that it’s still all important. Like Taylor, I believe the platform can be given back to the people, but only through deliberate usage of it to bring about the end of capital rather than reification of systems of exploitation that are virtually baked into the code. I would like to devote my life, at least in part, to retaking this crucial platform or at least designing empowering systems outside of it.
I remember seeing the Wired cover with Newt Gingrich and being mostly confused by it at the time because the social conservatism of the so called Republican Revolution. I identified Wired at the time with Bay Area leftists, largely conflating Silicon Valley and its evangelists with the progressive countercultural heads of the 1960s due to its geography. Over the years, I became convinced I was incorrect and that in fact there must have been some sort of entrenched conservatism that led to the celebration of free market ideology. Turner makes the case fairly convincingly in Chapter 6 that my initial hunch was at least partially correct, though before reading this book, it was hard to understand how countercultural veterans morphed into modern day libertarians. Turner demonstrates how the anti-bureaucratic rhetoric being pushed by the New Communalists dovetailed perfectly with the message being pushed by Gingrich and his colleagues. While that Congress is largely remembered for impeaching Clinton and inaugurating a rash of socially conservative reforms (most notably to welfare), they also picked up on the ideology of Reagan and Milton Friedman, pushing an agenda of nimbler, leaner deregulated America that followed the dictates of the free market. While Turner posits that the former New Communalists developed relationships with people like Gingrich due to an ideological kinship fomented by “market populism” it seems to me slightly more plausible that these alliances were just as likely to be materially motivated. In the burgeoning entrepreneurial model that was coming to comprise Silicon Valley, there was a need for startup capital that would lift many of the fledgling companies out of garages and into access to the financial markets that would allow them to grow into the mega-corporations many of them are today. For Turner, the notion of free consciousness, so ballyhooed by the New Communalists, gave way to the belief in the internet as the medium for realizing free, interconnected consciousness. This seemed to coincide neatly with the market populism being pushed by Gingrich and others who could themselves see the internet having adequately prepared the country to live out their fantasy of free economic exchange. It’s a compelling argument, but having read a little about how Silicon Valley grew into what it is today, the metaphor was indeed little more than a convenient rhetorical device to serve both the political actors and the V.C.s looking to grow their wealth unfettered by government interference. Later when Turner talks about how this unholy alliance led to the the Telecommunications Act, I think he’s on slightly firmer ground as it points to a very specific policy objective that benefited tech companies and points to the influence of a clear lobbying strategy.
When Turner describes the crafting of the Telecommunications Act as the magna carta of internet (de)regulation, he draws a parallel to Gingrich’s party’s Contract with America. (p. 231)
There’s a certain irony in Brand’s journey toward advocating for a self-governing system in light of his repudiation of self-sufficiency in 1975 as he broke from his earlier New Communalist orientation. He decried it as a “woodsy extension of the fatal American mania for privacy” (2006:132). In this way, he foreswore notions of self-governance, after a fashion, though he would go on to create a system of self-governance on WELL that emanated from the same ideological stripe as the Communalist mentality. The idea that a system could be intrinsically self-governing means that there have to be certain expectations about the personalities and capabilities of users. It wasn’t solely the structure of WELL that made it governable principally by its users, but there was an implicit social contract they consented to when they entered that online space. To whit, it was that everyone will abide by certain cultural norms to keep the community sustainable. What helped bring about these norms was not necessarily structural magic or even an intentional community making process so much as a certain pre-existing cultural and ideological uniformity. Brand and the early WELL users were able to believe in an organic self governed system due to certain expectations about a predispostion toward self sufficiency in the user base. The idea that Turner seems to be hinting toward is the Brand and co. outsourced their beliefs about governance to the way WELL was designed, including its charter and its premium experiments.
This was another section that very much hit home for me as a longtime participant in online communities and having only recently founded a new one and become a community moderator. The community was originally founded under self governance ideals, but they quickly fell apart necessitating the drafting of a formal list of community standards and a move toward participatory governance. The idea of self governance is pervasive in online communities, largely because of a common libertarian strain that may hail from early communities like WELL, but is likely also connected to the semi-anonymity of the web. From my own anecdotal observations, it usually leads to site administrators giving themselves sweeping powers via hastily drafted terms of service and then executing them through authoritarian means.
It was interesting to see the influence of people like Don Norman and Kevin Kelly on the construction of this community since they’re regarded almost as folk heroes in tech circles these days. The picture of how this group of people informed the creation of modern web culture is almost crystal clear at this point. Turner has mentioned DARPA and PARC a few times so I’m waiting for Marc Weiser and Tim Berners Lee to eventually show up.
This chapter really hit home for me as it made sense of the through line I’ve been tracing in the ideas of many thinkers I’ve encountered over the past few years. The design theorists, smart city advocates, resource based economists and even transhumanists whose work I’ve encountered all harken back, at least in part, to Buckminster Fuller. Fuller’s notions of the world as an integrated system which only the Comprehensive Designer is suited to interpret grew out of his own ideological and experiential influences. Fuller had seen systems he encountered as highly flawed, such as industrial planning and distribution. In a manner of speaking, his ideal of the Comprehensive Designer blended a sort of pseudo-Marxist redistributive ethic with a Taylorization of processes and protocols throughout systems. The Designer who stands outside it all, discerning the overlapping nodes of systems and data, functions as a Frederick Taylor, assigning microtasks to accomplish the big picture goal efficiently and effectively. Fuller fused this mode of thinking with a passion for technological innovation, which would foster an anticipatory solutionism that would be superior to instruments such as bureaucracy. This easily calls to mind modern disciplines such as project management.
That Stewart Brand and his USCO colleagues would buy into this is unsurprising. Like Brand, Fuller espoused a rejection of institutional hierarchy in favor of integrated systems that took advantage of technological progress for the supposed elevation of state mankind required. This synthesis of technological spoils with liberated consciousness that might save humanity from the very real existential threat of nuclear annihilation, which Brand and his generation grew up constantly reminded of, gave a sense of hope to a group obviously in search of a semi-coherent ideological framework. Fuller’s theories also represented a break from the grim models of cooperativism espoused by the Soviets and perhaps espoused by some of the Communards counterparts on the New Left.
This cultural ethic is fairly clearly infused into the modern tech community, but suborned to capital in way Fuller might not have imagined, though Turner convincingly has made the case that it was always an innovation within capital with its roots in wartime industrial production rather than an outside methodology. Brand continued this trend with the organization of the Whole Earth Catalogue, even as he rejected the trappings of his society.
Fred Turner does a great deal to disambiguate the often monolithic idea of “the counterculture” we’re presented with in latter day retellings of the 1960s. He draws sharp distinctions, in particular, between the political movement that was the New Left and the lifestyle movement that characterized the New Communalists. Where the New Left believed that organizing political parties, staging direct actions and creating an alternative political structure as a means of achieving social democracy, for the New Communalists, institutionalism was itself inherently flawed and the goal was not so much to subvert it as to opt out of it altogether. The New Left largely emerged as a bloc of white college educated students who borrowed from philosophical and political critiques of capitalism to frame a critique of the encroaching blend of military and industry. They decried the blend of man and machine as ultimately destructive and likely to bring about rationalist subjugation if not total annihilation. New Communalists, conversely, were less dismayed by the blend of military and industry per se than they were by the notion of hierarchical structures in general. They blended esoteric philosophies with a form of libertarianism that sought a society that was generally flatter and more internally focused. The inward journey toward an elevation of consciousness as the principals means of liberation from society as it was naturally dovetailed with the early promises of cyberneticists, who theorized that the merger of man and tool, or, more specifically, man and machine, could upend social relationships and alter our understanding of what it meant to be human. The systems theory that resulted out of the interdisciplinary atmosphere from which the cyberneticists hailed easily appealed to the New Communalists, according to Turner. Systems theory’s lionization of non-bureaucratic interrelations coincided neatly with the New Communalists ideas of autonomous networked communities working outside the mainstream. Turner argues that neither the New Left nor the New Communalists were operating outside the mainstream in any authentic way and neither were subverted by capitalism as much as simply as simply an outgrowth of it. This aligns with several of the Scholz readings, most notably Terranova, who argues that both digital culture and economy are deeply linked to capitalism and not operating outside as a new social order, having descended from the miraculous digital ether. The New Communalists as cultural antecedents to the modern internet certainly explains a lot of the modern optimism within the industry and even the emergence of the notion of Technological Singularity in the popular consciousness (an idea, perhaps not coincidentally, reported on at length in the Whole Earth Review and written about extensively by both Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly).
Most of my understanding of Communalism comes from Murray Bookchin and seems somewhat different from the New Communalist movement Turner is here describing as Bookchin’s version is a clear outgrowth of the politics of the New Left. As such, I’m left to wonder if he may be making the same error of generalization about communalism that he criticizes historians for making when conflating the counterculture as an amorphous mass.
In “Whatever Blogging” Jodi Dean makes a case that the instruments of the web, particularly blogging and social media lead to a flattening of identity and a general collective apathy. It is not an emotional apathy she describes, but an apathy of effect. Investment in the fate of civilization or government accountability is reduced to participation in spaces that are both part of the whole and a product of it. The individual is subsumed as part of the mass, conforming to its structural norms regardless of their form of expression. The result is a world devoid of true individuality engaging instead in a sort of kabuki theater of individual expression. In being about whatever their authors wish, blogs in particular (and social media by extension) operate in a limbo of meaning everything and nothing all at once.
Dean parses the arguments of Giorgio Agamben and Dominic Pettman in describing “whatever being.” This state of transitive existence dismisses traditional markers of identity such as nationality, cultural group or political orientation in favor of personal exceptionalism. This exceptionalism, however, is inherently depersonalizing because it values being seen, heard, felt and remembered over being oneself. It concedes a sense of validation to the mass rather than discerning one’s value through internal processes. Even resistance falls into a dialectic of power reification when it happens online as all that is actually occurring is that a thing is being said, rather than that structures are changing.
From what I can infer, Dean is writing in 2009, approximately, as her descriptions of the use of Twitter sound fairly primitive and her descriptions of the blogosphere hearken back to a time that seems to have already passed. While she seems generally dismissive of authentic transgression on the web or through the web, she is writing before the Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter movements took shape as organized, but generally unexpected attacks on societal hierarchy and entrenched inequity. Information about these direct actions largely spread online in the social media and blogosphere and shifted conversations on issues of control. She is also writing before the revelations of Edward Snowden on the mass state surveillance campaign of the NSA, which made many users question the stewardship of their providers, portals and government in accessing and managing their personal information. The Snowden revelations served as a reminder that even in a mass world, the impressions of personalization are sufficient enough representations of people to establish their identity.
Dean also mentions, as many authors have, the merger of public and private life brought about by communicative capitalism. Consumption, participation and creativity are a unified state of being. The blogosphere is not a separate reality, she holds, but “instead [they] extend out from, amplify, and reflect on whatever aspect of whatever life” (2013:177). My sense, however, is that the distinctions between one’s public and private world have always been mostly imaginary, at least within the scope and lifespan of capitalism. Private life reproduced capitalism’s ethics, hierarchical relationships, and consumptive imperative just as much as public or professional life. They have always existed in a dialectical relationship with even resistance no more or less than a reinforcement of power or redistribution of access to the same systems of dominance from certain groups to others.
Finally, Dean’s critique of the word cloud seems to be a bit of a straw man argument. The word cloud is not meant to imply or speculate on meaning. It is, as she says, simply a descriptive tool to visualize word choice. It seems its utility will be principally as a linguistics dataset rather than a way of divining what matters. I don’t think this quite meets the definition of the whatever being Dean is decrying and almost weakens or overextends her argument, particularly as a conclusion.
Ahyan Aytes takes us deep into the labyrinth of Enlightenment thinking to explain the symbology behind the meaning of the automaton in general and the automaton chess player conceived by Wolfgang von Kempelen. For Aytes the original mechanical turk was a tool for demonstrating the wondrous possibilities of industrialized objects to a credulous public and a system of enclosure for the assistant who secretly maneuvered its inner workings. The apparatus of the machine, enclosing a secret laborer was especially unique in that said laborer’s work was principally cognitive. Unlike other industrial objects that might be manipulated by men only to perform a mechanistic function, it was intelligence itself on display in the case of the mechanical turk. Aytes propounds that the enclosure of cognitive labor within the apparatus of industrial capital is a disturbing analogue to the modern day experience of Amazon’s Mechanical Turks.
Like von Kempelen’s assistant, Turks also function within an apparatus of digitized network enabled labor. They perform the equivalent of piecework in crowds, moving the pieces across the neoliberal chessboard at a depreciated wage, expected to perform their duties mechanistically (according to notions of the Protestant Work ethic that is so essential to capitalism), lest they face unspecified and arbitrary rejection of their work. This cultural labor apparatus reifies conceptions of racist Orientalist docility common in the Enlightenment era, particularly in that many of the Turkers hail from southern Asia.
What is most interesting is Aytes’ notion that the mechanical turk represented almost, but not quite. The ghost in the machine was human, yet anticipatory of future devices which would have their own capacities for semi-autonomous action (i.e. IBM’s Watson), though even those bear the mark of humans as they are programmed by human minds. The crowd which performs the functions of divided mental labor in the case of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program serves as a kind of circuitry of an integrated system of capitalism. What labor system the turks anticipate in late digital capitalism is anyone’s guess, but it seems reasonable to think it will include disquieting notions of self-regulation and disempowerment.
Tiziana Terranova has a compelling counterpoint to popular theories about subcultural appropriation. She first presents the common wisdom, which portrays subcultural movements as originating in an authentic space outside of capitalism before being swooped down upon by corporate vultures and carried off to all and sundry for the purposes of profit. Believers in this theory posit that this typically occurs as a transfer of culture from the local to the global stage, ostensibly for the purpose of either creating a homogenized world or enclosing parts of every culture within the corporate structure, all roads leading to Rome, as it were. Terranova finds it more compelling to note that capital is in actuality never outside the manufacture of culture and that cultural flows, whether mainstream or underground, blossom within the larger capitalist structure, thus being by nature a part of it. In Marxian terms, it is labor that gives cultural contributions their value and so cultural valuation must be determined in terms of the labor that goes into its creation. Culture as feeder of wealth in corporate capitalism is not a new phenomenon unique to the digital economy, Terranova states. Rather, capitalism is vertically structured so that subcultural movements have nowhere to go, but toward proliferation into the mass consumer society. Success is defined as being able to reach the masses and few cultural producers strive for solitude. The subcultures themselves are built on the mainstreaming of earlier subcultures that have flowed through capitalism’s byways and thus they are borne of a symbiotic relationship from the outset with the capitalist system they may decry. “The fruits of collective cultural labor have been not simply appropriated, but voluntarily channeled and controversially structured within capitalist business practices,” says Terranova. A familiar artist’s lament is nostalgia for the days prior to the corrosive descent of success, as if it represented a more authentic period, but the exigencies of survival may well have pushed an artist to switch to a different form of labor besides cultural production had they not voluntarily engaged with corporations.
What interested me most in reading Terranova was her use and descriptions of the term “free labor” in the digital economy, which at first brush evoke the notion of virtual slavery, but I wonder how much its proponents are borrowing from the original Northern conception of free labor prevalent in the 1800s as a system that competed with slavery. Then as now entrepreneurialism was valorized and the idea of voluntary work to carve out one’s own patch of land (or in the modern sense, legion of followers or number of upvotes) was seen as meritorious. Also, then as now, labor was vulnerable to the exploitation of interests of more established capital.