Due by midnight Tuesday, December 8th (350-400 words).
Part 1. Turner (2006:208-9) argues that “a close look at Wired’s first and most influential five years suggests that the magazine’s vision of the digital horizon emerged in large part from its intellectual and interpersonal affiliations with Kevin Kelly and the Whole Earth network and, through them, from the New Communalist embrace of the politics of consciousness.” How does Turner connect these early affiliations with the interview in the August 1995 issue of Wired between Esther Dyson and Newt Gingrich?
Part 2. Point to a passage from chapter 6 and craft one or two questions that will help guide our discussion next week.
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.”
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.
I’ve said this in class, but I want to thank all of you again for bringing so much energy and insight to the themes and issues addressed in this course. You are all so thoughtful and have made this class really fabulous.
For your interest, I want to tell you about another course I’m teaching this spring. This is in addition to the Urban Sociology course we discussed in class. This is a hybrid course on the family (I think it’s listed as Sociology of the Family.)
I’m not quite done with the syllabus yet, but there will be some interesting connections to the work we’ve done this semester. We are going to explore Arlie Hochschild’s work on emotional labor, a concept not unrelated to the “free labor” connected to digital economies online.
In addition, and I think this might be particularly interesting to some of you, we will explore how the shape of the family (in the U.S. and around the world) is influenced by war. There is a lot of really smart work that has been done about how the Korean War impacted family life, both there and here. We will discuss how traumatic events like war can have structural impacts on the family. Alongside these impacts we will ask after the psychological implications of war on family life, considering how war can lead to an unresolved trauma unconsciously passed from one generation to the next through the family.
Thanks again everyone and see you Thursday!
In response to the question posed in this week’s reading, about what distinguishes the New Left from the New Communalists, many of you noted the change of consciousness that was sought by the New Communalists in contrast to political efforts to eliminate the hierarchy of power prevalent in the US in the 1960s. There is an interesting relationship to institutionality that is implicit to the way Turner distinguishes these two groups. Where members of the New Left were fighting the University, “laying their bodies across the stairways and office floors of the institution” (Turner 2006:13), Turner proposes the New Communalists sought freedom from the institution itself. More over freedom from the institution is characterized in relationship to matter, and an identity that has no body. As former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, John Perry Barlow, writes “Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based in matter, and there is matter here. Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge” (Quoted in Turner 2006:13).
But equally as curious as the identity that Barlow describes is the way Turner is linking this social identity to the institutional context of MIT’s Radiation Laboratory (the Rad Lab). He describes Rad Lab as “a site of flexible, collaborative work and a distinctly nonhierarchical management style” (Turner 2006:19). Turner suggests that the new interdisciplinary networks that produced technologies for fighting the war were at the same time generating new ways of thinking and speaking. Drawing on the work of Peter Galison, Turner writes that “scientists, engineers, and administrators in the wartime laboratories worked not so much as members of a single culture, but rather as members of different professional subcultures bound together by common purpose and a set of linguistic tools they had invented to achieve it” (2006:19). Turner suggests the process of computation emerged from this context: where cybernetician Norbert Wiener and electrical engineer Vannevar Bush alongside others pursued scientific work in the boundaries between their varying disciplines.
All this is even more interesting when we consider how Turner connects the metaphor of computation to Wiener and Julian Bigelow’s visions for the automaton and the self-regulating system. Wiener and Bigelow suggest that human beings are machines on some level that can be programmed as mechanical information processors. Understanding the relationship of behavior and purpose for these processors in connection with information theory is how Wiener defined the field of cybernetics. Cybernetics can also be understood as altering the way that society is defined. As both an organism and a machine, Wiener viewed society as a self-regulating system that uses the TV screen to measure and adjust its performance.
Due by midnight Tuesday, November 17th (350-400 words).
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.
In her essay “Whatever Blogging,” Jodi Dean (2013:) points to the affective spaces that are connected to the world of blogs and social networks, where we “express ourselves, share our feelings, and reach out with little hope that someone will be touched and reach back.” In this sense, as many of you note, Dean is registering an indistinguishable character that is joined to our participation in social networks, where “[t]here is belonging, but not to anything in particular” (2013:169).
As a form of communicativity, whatever blogging is described by Dean as a deflection of the effort to communicate. Dean suggests we consider our status as the recipient of a message such that, as a subject, we are exposed to the obligations of the sender. At the same time, she indicates this status is altered by the affective spaces online as we can alter the direction of the message and where communication has no register of affirmation or rejection. As she (2013:171) writes, “the only affirmation in ‘whatever’ is of communication as such. Another has communicated. This communication in no way obligates me to the recipient of the message. […] ‘Whatever’ asserts no preferences. It neither affirms nor rejects. And it doesn’t expose the subject as a desiring subject to whom something matters.”
If we believe the distinction between public and private life has always been somewhat artificial, as Diami suggests in his response to Dean’s work, a point I’m inclined to believe Dean would agree with, there is a question about the way computer processing and human experience are drawn together, such that cognition is embodied differently. This is a question that N. Kathleen Hayles takes up in her book How We Think (2012). R. Joshua Scannel has recently written a review of Hayles’s book that I think you will enjoy as he touches on many of the same concepts and readings covered in this class.