I will take away quite a lot from this course. Before the first session I was unfamiliar with most of the individuals we have been reading and speaking about throughout the course. I had a minimal generic knowledge of the early days of the Internet but did not give much thought to the historical background of the digital technology we take for granted today or the players who were responsible for bringing it to life. I feel that we have covered a lot of territory in this class and it has significantly expanded my way of thinking about digital media. As for the readings, each of the authors brought something different to the discussion but some spoke to me more than others.
I enjoyed Astra Taylor’s writing quite a bit. My favorite chapters in “The People’s Platform” were “For Love or Money” and “The Double Anchor.” Since my presentation was on the “The Double Anchor,” I probably spent the most time with that chapter which may be a reason it has stayed with me. But I also found that he Copyright/Copyleft wars resonated with me because Taylor gave such simple examples, such as that of filmmaker Jem Cohen who speaks of mutual respect between the creator and the receiver and used the wonderful analogy about the farm stand collection box. I also appreciated Taylor’s use of her personal history and anecdotes from her experiences as a film-maker and writer.
I did not find Trebor Shulz’s “Digital Labor” as accessible, although I did enjoy the Ahyan Aytes piece, “Return to the Crowds” and the comparison between the Automaton “Mechanical Turk” and Amazon’s crowdsourcing platform. I agreed with some of the other students in the class that “Free Labor,” by Tiziana Terranova was the most difficult reading to absorb.
As for Fred Turner’s “From Cyberculture to Counter Culture,” I found the history of Stewart Brand, the New Communalists, The Merry Pranksters, the Whole Earth Catalog and The Well very illuminating and valuable in understanding the transformation of computer technology from the military/industrial world to that of counterculture and community. I admit I had never really thought about the link between the hippie culture and the internet and after Turner’s in-depth history of the progression, it all seems so clear that I don’t know how I missed it. While I did feel that Turner often repeated himself, I appreciated his attention to detail.
I really enjoyed this class overall, especially the format of having a different student presenter for each reading. I was not sure at first how that would be but after the first presentation I looked forward to that segment of class each week.
In chapter 6, Turner reports, “In 1987 the networks and cybernetic thought style of the Learning Conferences became the basis of the Global Business Network (GBN)” (183). How did the Learning Conference model explore group learning as a way of networking? How did the countercultural social theory which contributed to the Learning Conferences evolve into the Global Business Network, a consulting firm with corporate clients?
In chapter 7, Turner reports on the history of Wired magazine and the people who played a part in its evolution, beginning with its conception by Louis Rossetto and Jayne Metcalfe. Kevin Kelly, who had been a writer for the Whole Earth Catalog and the Well, was hired as the founding editor, bringing with him “the simultaneously cybernetic and New Communalist social vision of the Whole Earth publications and their networked style of editorial work.” (209) From the beginning, the New Communalist ideology was a large influence in the editorial content of Wired. Articles from Wired were discussed on the Well and members such as Stewart Brand, Howard Rheingold and John Perry Barlow wrote articles for the magazine. “Editorially, Wired made no pretense of pursuing balance in either its point of view or its sources.” (216)
Turner connects these early affiliations with the New Communalists to the Esther Dyson/ Newt Gingrich interview by way of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Global Business Network and the Media Lab. The EFF, founded to promote digital rights and preserve personal liberties, was linked in a 1994 Wired article to the Merry Pranksters when writer Joshua Quittner “suggested that their current work was an extension of the 1960s consciousness revolution, undertaken with grown-up sobriety.” (219) Turner argues that these groups were the prototypes for ways to organize a life in the emerging world. While bringing the ideals of the New Communalists, they also were fighting for telecommunications deregulation in which they shared common ground with New Right politicians such as Newt Gingrich. While Dyson did not share the same politics with Gingrich, in the 1995 article in Wired magazine, they seem to agree on some things. After what I had read about Dyson, I expected the interview to be more confrontational. But they shared a similar agenda in maintaining the Internet as a model of a decentralized society and a “new frontier” in which cyberspace belonged to the people and should not be censored by the government. In one section of the article they discuss the legality of encryption when it comes to terrorist threats and if it will or should be illegal for some groups to use encryption. It’s hard to believe they were having this conversation 20 years ago. In 1995, the article apparently was a big step in aligning the former counterculturalists, New Right conservatives and the computer industry.
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.
Buckminster Fuller’s book Ideas and Integrities had a tremendous impact on Stewart Brand. At the time it was published, Brand was working on and off with USCO (short for the US Company,) a troupe of artists that collaborated on multimedia performances, lived communally and “created art intended to transform the audiences consciousness.” (49) A New Communalist movement, USCO created the first “be-in,” calling it that because the audience members were to “be” a part of the experience, not just observe it. They used technology in innovative ways and many artists had to combine their individual skills and talents to create each installation or “happening.” As Turner states, “…they could see themselves as parts of a techno-social system, serving new machines and being served by them.” (58) This vision closely aligned with the writings of Fuller who saw technology as a way of social transformation and Fuller became an inspiration to Brand.
In his book, Fuller introduced his vision of the “Comprehensive Designer” as a person who would not be a specialist but instead would “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.” (56) Simply put, he would anticipate what was needed to solve a problem in the present or in the future, coordinate resources and design the technology to meet those needs. By anticipating the needs of the future, the Comprehensive Designer could save mankind.
When Brand was a college student he worried about the future, fearing both a nuclear holocaust and becoming an adult in a hierarchical world. His search for a more meaningful mode of living brought him to USCO, Indian reservations and the writings of Buckminster Fuller. Brand fully embraced Fuller’s insights and when in 1966, he promoted the Trips Festival in San Francisco, he became the definition of Fuller’s Comprehensive Designer. “[The festival] shunned hierarchy in favor of anarchic togetherness; it turned away from emotionally removed, objective consciousness and toward a delicious, embodied, experimental magic.” (67) In combining technology (images, music and lighting) with the New Communalist social ideals, Brand set the stage for new Comprehensive Designers to set forth across the country to do the same. Fuller’s vision of the world now seemed possible and Brand no longer had to fear growing up to be a middle manager or “worker bee” in a hierarchical society.
In Chapter 1 of From Cyberculture to Counterculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, Turner speaks of “two somewhat overlapping but ultimately distinct social movements” (31) that formed as a response to the threat of technological bureaucracy felt by the youth of the 1960s. The anxieties over the peril of nuclear warfare, coupled with the uncertainties of their own professional futures, gave young people –mostly college students – the incentive to break away from mainstream society into these two groups. The first group, known as the “New Left,” grew out of the fight for civil rights and was committed to social change through protests, sit-ins, civil disobedience and the forming of political parties. Protesting the Vietnam War became their biggest cause. While this group turned toward political action, the second group Turner discusses turned toward Zen Buddhism, Beat poetry and eventually psychedelic drugs and music to enhance their consciousness. While the first group was more concerned with the betterment of society for all, the second group often referred to as “counterculture” was more concerned with their personal selves.
The counterculture was a threat to both the Right and the New Left. The Right saw their drug use and open sexual mores as a challenge to conservative American values. The New Left saw them as a threat to their political struggles and a temptation to their members to abandon their righteous fight for the more alluring hippie culture. Turner differentiates between the New Left and the Counterculture by calling our attention to what he calls the “New Communalists. “The New Communalists include the tens of thousands of counterculture members who between 1967 and 1970, broke away to form communes across the country. In forming communes they were turning away from the middle class cold war America and toward a vision of “a new nation, a land of small egalitarian communities linked to one another by a network of shared beliefs.” (33) Unlike the New Left, the new Communalists saw the value of a “free” culture in which the Internet could be expereinced as a social movement. Their movement was a movement of the mind and by turning toward consciousness they “opened new doors to mainstream culture, and particularly to high-technology research culture.” (38) They embraced cybernetics as a way to increase peer-to-peer channels of information and a vision for a better future as made evident in the 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan that Turner uses to close the chapter.
The word, “whatever,” in its popular use as a response today, denotes no preference or commitment to what has been stated. It does not quite ignore the statement since it acknowledges that it has been heard. But there is no gesture to attend to the message, so it remains unaddressed, undermining the sender’s position. Jodi Dean compares the utterance, “whatever,” to the famous response of Bartleby in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” When asked by his employer to perform tasks, Bartleby would say, “I prefer not to.” His answer has often been seen as the resistance of capital control. Yet by refusing to refuse, he has acknowledged the request and stated his preference – he prefers not to comply with the request. He has preferences and they matter to him. In contrast, Dean states, “The term ‘whatever’ asserts no preference. It neither affirms nor rejects. And it doesn’t expose the subject as a desiring subject to whom something matters.” (170) Dean describes “whatever beings” as those who communicate for the sake of communication, without worrying too much about what they are saying. She speaks of their sense of “belonging” but not to anything in particular. The act of belonging is what is important, not to what one belongs to. The blogger’s purpose is to connect to someone, anyone, everyone. And while often trivial, there is bound to be someone who is interested in whatever the blogger is saying. As Dean says,” Every aspect of the ordinary and everyday matters to someone –for like a second (175).
Dean elaborates on the ways that mass media communicates with society in highlighting Susan Buck-Morss’s Dreamworld and Catastrophe. In it Buck-Morss points out how easy it is to manipulate the masses through cinema. During the Depression, Hollywood and the Soviet cinema presented film in starkly different ways. Both affirmed the culture that they wanted to preserve while denying their reality. Hollywood presented huge spectacles depicting luxurious lifestyles that “captivated Depression-era audiences and attempted to channel their desire toward fantasies of consumption.” (173). Soviet films idealized production and glorified collective projects. Both spoke to their own masses with their own messages. Blogs, on the other hand, do not address the masses and do not bring people together. Contrarily, Dean says, “[blogs] not only do not create such a space for a mass body but dissolve any sense of it.” (175)
In Return of the Crowds, Aytes compares Amazon’s crowdsourcing platform, Mechanical Turk, to the Automaton Chess Player also known as “Mechanical Turk” or the “Turk,” that was constructed in the late eighteenth century by Wolfgang von Kempelen and was a popular attraction in Europe. It is easy to comprehend why Amazon chose to name its digital labor market after the chess-playing machine.
The “Turk” was a life-size model, dressed in traditional Turkish garb that appeared to be a formidable chess-playing machine. The presenters of the “Turk” toured Europe challenging opponents to try to beat the automaton that would often win matches against the (human) players. Like a magician, the presenter would make a point of showing the audience that the cabinet under the desk the ‘Turk” sat at was filled with only machinery, as he spun the cabinet around, opening doors. In fact it was all an illusion and there was a chess master hidden inside the desk controlling the chess pieces with the help of magnets and string.
In Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, humans are used to perform Human Intelligence Tasks (HITS) that computers cannot easily do. Amazon turned to humans when its attempt at using artificial intelligence failed at certain tasks. There were some things that the computer could not accomplish – they required human intelligence. But while human beings are performing these tasks, they are “hidden” in a sense, behind the machine, much like the chess player was hidden in the cabinet. The workers (known as “Turkers”) are paid ridiculously small amounts of money per task and they have no direct contact with the “requesters” for whom they are completing the tasks. Amazon promises its clients an online workforce that will make their companies appear brilliant, while the Turkers, like the chess master, stay virtually invisible as they are “pulling the strings.”
Besides the extremely low pay associated with each HIT, Turkers are not even guaranteed to be paid that .01 or .10 agreed upon fee after they complete the task. The requester can accept or reject the work and still keep the rejected work, profiting from it but not paying the worker. Besides not receiving payment, the Turker will receive a lower online rating, making it more difficult to get more work. So the Turker is invisible in more ways than one. The public is made to think that they are dealing with a sophisticated computerized program while the invisible Turkers are working for pennies behind the scenes to maintain the illusion for the companies that utilize Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
Subcultures are formed when members of society branch off from a particular culture, forming a connection with like-minded people while resisting the convention of the traditional cultural standard. I believe that Terranova is saying that while the original purpose of a subculture is more akin to rebelling against capitalism, members of a subculture eventually contribute voluntarily to capitalism by the very nature of their communication and distribution of knowledge about it. When a subculture is first born, spreading the word is the natural inclination of those involved. The subculture becomes “successful” as word gets out and more people idealize it and strive to be a part of it. Terranova speaks about free labor fueling the digital economy as cultural knowledge is shared for pleasure rather than payment. The subculture ideal is shared voluntarily at first but in time as it becomes more popular it is adopted into the mainstream and becomes the means to a profit. Terranova says it is not that capitalism is seeking out the subculture, but rather that a subculture contributes to capitalism from the “active participation of subculture members in the production of cultural goods” (p. 53-54) Subcultures pave the way for new styles to emerge in music, clothing, TV and film by providing the latest thing that society wants to be a part of. By the time that popular culture has caught on, it is the end of what Terranova calls the “authentic phase” of the cultural formation. She says that the appropriation of capital has not come from outside the subculture but actually from “channeling collective labor within capitalist business practices.” (p. 53)
Subcultures usually begin with the dissatisfaction of a culture or societal norm. In the late 1960s the “hippie” subculture began when young people protested the Vietnam War and refuted all things capitalistic or “establishment.” By wearing patched jeans, long hair, bare feet and preaching peace and love, members distanced themselves from the “older generation” who were seen as being cogs in the wheels of capitalism and proponents of the war machine. Poverty was idealized. Commercialism was vilified. But even long before the digital age, subcultures eventually became conventional. Before long one could buy patched designer jeans for hundreds of dollars and “Hair” was a Broadway hit that tourists flocked to. The peace/love message remained but even the most anti-capitalist movement succumbed to capitalist business practices.
Ross talks at length about the new forms of free or token-wage labor that are available to employers today. He makes a point of saying that while free labor on the web gets most of the attention, it is not only a web problem. One of the increasing uses of free labor is through internships. While some internships, such as those in finance, are often paid, many others are not, especially in the social services or non-profit world. For college students in some concentrations, it is understood that the only way to secure a job after college is to do a summer internship (or 2 or 3) in that field before graduation. An article in the NY Times by Steven Greenhouse describes the lengths some parents will go to in order to have their child work for “experience” but no pay. (Internships Abroad, Unpaid with a $10,00 Price Tag, 2-5-15). In the new normal, some people are willing to pay thousands of dollars for the chance to work. Of course, this creates a disparity between those who can afford to work for nothing (or pay to work) and those who must take a paying job over an unpaid internship. Ross says “The internship is particularly relevant to our overall discussion because most interns do not see themselves as hard done by.” Where people tend to recognize unfair labor practice in say, a sweatshop, they tend not to recognize the exploitation of interns.
As Ross points out, self-service in the digital age also contributes significantly to the cheapening of the labor market. Back when phones that could be dialed by people first replaced telephone operators, the public had to be convinced to take on the task of dialing. When Bank ATMs were first introduced, people feared it was the end of the job of the bank teller and many were skeptical about using them at all. When they first appeared, Citibank actually stationed actors at the newly invented ATMs to convince people to try them. The notion seemed to be that a friendly face (and carefully scripted upbeat dialog) could ease the transition from man to machine. Indeed, ATMs did greatly reduce the number of bank tellers in banks but today we don’t think twice about using them. (I now deposit checks with my phone app– how long until we don’t even need the ATMs?) We now scan our own purchases at CVS and I am sure many stores will soon adopt this cost saving practice as well. Whether it is online or off, we have become accustomed to taking on tasks that workers are no longer being paid to do.