I have really enjoyed learning more about the history of digital technology. As much as I have complained about Fred Turner’s glut of details, I really value that he has written such an intricate portrait of Stewart Brand’s projects and the ripple effect that those projects (Whole Earth Catalog and the WeLL) set in motion. These are histories that have been obscured from public reception, okay, maybe not obscured but the average social network and digital media user is surely unaware of the chain of players and innovations that issued from the New Communalist reception of cybernetic ideals and systems theory. I think I have definitely taken for granted how the modern cyber landscape is truly dependent on all of these innovations and networks. To be honest, it is sort of scary to know that so much of what is in place is reflective of larger power structures that although were supposed to be the anti-thesis of bureaucratic order, ended up replicating that power dynamic. I am not surprised by this but maybe just disheartened – especially after reading in depth breakdowns of how these powered dynamics function, a la the essays in Trebor Schulz’s such as Mechanical Turk or my personal favorite, the essay I presented on, Fandom as Free Labor, by Abigail De Kosnik. I think the difficulty I had with a number of essays in the Schultz anthology was mainly due to my novice level understanding of the fundamentals of Marxist analysis, specifically the definitions of various kinds of labor and how these explications shift in ways that are complex to map in the digital age – I’m thinking of dead labor and some of the other shades of waged / unwaged labor. I wish I would have had a firmer grasp on these concepts but I definitely feel excited about having opened up this modes of thought and look forward to learning more as the scholarship will indubitably continue to move forward, perhaps matching the pace at which digital media and technological innovation seems to operate at.
Well, this chapter focused on making it abundantly clear that the network of corporate/political alliances that arose through the pages of WIRED during the first five years of the magazine had long reaching effects on the shape that the web and its attendant technologies assumed. Basically the web and the world look the way they do because of the affiliations between the ideological and technical impressions that that WIRED gang penned and partnered with actual politicians that were socially conservative and had their hands in creating legislation that would make the development of various technologies and the corporate structures from which they issued free to do as they wanted. Esther Dyson and Newt Gingrich go on to write “The Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age” which later becomes the guiding principle to Gingrich’s efforts (successful) to deregulate the telecommunications industry. People want to make money and want to feel free to do so – without any legislative restrictions to hold them accountable to the means by which they do so – and to ward off any socially inspired pangs of conflict over what they do. Gingrich and his political base to render, in absolute terms, personal freedoms with corporate deregulation, utilized the “Magna Carta” that these two created. This document was like a Manifest Destiny for the “frontier of cyberspace” and in my impression replicates much of what American exceptionalism is about – that entrepreneurial and vigilante sensibility specific to the business individualism that stands in for the idea of freedom.
I always find it bizarre when an obvious spiritual guru or pundit partners with the corporate sector to develop interpersonal pedagogy for business relations, or rather when an aforementioned mystical figures ideology is utilized for business minded ends. (Thinking about the mention of Gurdjieff’s “Remarkable Men” concept as employed by Pierre Wack at Shell.) This occurs on page 185.
Drawing on the mish mash of information that Turner provides in chapter 6, I can see how this trend was established via the Global Business Network and their web of connections, though nothing about it seems remarkable to me or even slightly different than what I imagine the Business/Corporate sector operated like, pre-cold war New Communalist “innovation”.
Isn’t it all just nepotism and an elite class protecting its interconnected interests? That’s literally my question.
Like what even is the remarkable social change that this global business network is achieving? Do they just feel better about how they extract resources and labor from the global south because they incorporate more holistic activities into their managerial profile?
In many ways this chapter is like a confirmation of whatever off the wall conspiracy theories one could conjure about the corporate tech elite. I don’t really feel swayed by the jargon that Turner parrots in this chapter – all the talk about these networks bonding together and seeking to unify their business goals with vaguely New Communalist socio-ethics and consciousness is really tiresome. I don’t know what that means, even with the pages and pages of detailed historical charting.
I suppose the only piece that seemed personally relevant or of interest was the mention of Paul Hawken – the organic grocer/founder of Erewhon Trading Company and later Smith & Hawken gardening supply company. My best friend used to work for Smith & Hawken, and I am very familiar with Erewhon – the natural foods brand. I used to work in the Health and Wellness industry and watched Whole Foods become the behemoth that it is (specifically in New York City) over the last 13 years. The CEO and “spiritual” founder of Whole Foods Market is a man named John Mackey – a noted multi-millionaire, organic foods proponent, and libertarian. He wrote a book called conscious capitalism (cringe) and is himself a mish mash of holistic seeming eco-ethics and terrible labor practices.
All that to say, I wonder if perhaps the influence of the particular confluence of socially indebted change making that the Global Business Network derived from its blend of New Communalist derived interdisciplinary and politically conscious, information systems informed networking has rubbed off on other industries outside of the tech bubble climate. We see this with the big players mentioned in chapter 6 – shell, and other evil empires, but I am wondering if we see can trace this methodology of doing business to other arenas – such as lifestyle peddling empires like Whole Foods Market. I would identify Mark Zuckerberg as an heir to this innovation – not just because he wields the (arguably) most powerful social practice technology to have arisen in this century – but because the earnestness of his ideas about connection harken back to a lot of what the New Communalist networks were about – trading information and building relationships via platforms such as the Whole Earth Catalog and the WeLL.
What figure would you identify as belonging to this kind of social/business practice enterprise mentality?
Turner establishes in this chapter that the innovation of the WeLL was a direct descendant from the ideological and technical framework of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Even though WeLL reflected the anti-authoritarian and technologically ambitious new communalist communities adherence to cybernetic ideals, the WeLL still needed a financial base to function beyond the limitations of its capacity at that time. The subscription support provided by the Dead Head community seemed to underwrite much of WeLL’s continued offerings to the general communities that were it’s original inhabitants – the technologists and journalists and communalist entities from scatter shot communities. I’d like to point out that this dead head influx of money via subscriptions was crucial to supporting the WeLL. This niche fan subculture and community contributed money and intellectual and cultural value to the overall purposes of the conferencing system, and allowed the other, primarily targeted users to continue to participate with free subscriptions. (Fandom as free labor, ahem.) And it seemed to work – all these different communities under one network – with the ability to interact freely and without fear of restrictions or criticism, which seems to be a blend of the countercultural stance against autocratic rule, and the militarily derived systems theory that Brand and other technological adopters took in and fashioned to their own ends.
The inclusion of the seven design goals of WeLL of page 143 was really interesting , a casual blend of profit and free peer led (driven) experimentation that would establish WeLL’s ethical and technical parameters. That the goal of its self-design is set for early users to determine is really striking – and while it seems altruistic and cool, it signifies that whomever had access to this early iteration of “the web” played a huge role in determining who and how it would function in the future. Suffice to say it makes the reader wonder if the communities that had access – via free or paid subscriptions were really that diverse beyond the eclectic countercultural and technologically ambitious.
In the sense that this system was self-governing, it’s probably apt to assume that the control of self-governance was dictated by a heavy sense of individualism and personal investment in belonging to a very elite and enlightened strata – and that this demographic reflected the typical user. In chapter four we saw evidence that the communalists had developed a new age survival religiosity in response to the nixon era inflation and amping up of cold war tensions. My guess is that they wanted to harness the positive attributes of a technological future without investing in cosigning on the legacy of waging war. The additional publications developed in tandem with the Whole Earth Catalog, CoEvolution Quarterly as the prime example for instance, speaks to that spiritual reinvigoration that many of the communalists turned to while mitigating the impending mid-life crises they faced. A liberatory consciousness and attendant right living as detailed in chapter four is what these people were after, and the cybernetic ideals of the WeLL provided these people with a new way to manage the information technology that fused their consciousness. Referring back to the seven design goals, in many ways they can be interpreted as a set of tenets like a cybernetic bible for the emerging consciousness of this peer led and peer driven network. That’s attractive sounding though like any system, there are bound to be individual pieces of its control that don’t work for everyone. And ultimately these designs were adhered to by the users not created through consensus by the users.
Personally speaking, my understanding or vision of what a system of self-governance could look like is informed by a consensus or collectivist agreement. In many senses, Brand’s vision of a subscription system of self-governance was akin to this, the main agreement that users were paying into developing and sustaining a shared space for connection and building a counter-consciousness to the dominant paradigm of society at that time. I imagine that at that point, this system was relatively free of surveillance – so the appeal to all these disembodied nomadics (individualists really) was a sense of opting out of mainstream society and the fear driven cold war technocracy, as Turner mentions in chapter four. What could people accomplish together outside of a surveillance based state? Well, the idea that all these separate entities, communes, journalists, niche subcultural fans, could even just locate each other without having to announce themselves in a public space is a pretty big deal, and almost impossible to imagine now, as we live in a culture of round the clock surveillance.
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.
Fred Turner depicts the New Communalists as being a contingent oriented primarily on changing the socio-consciousness of the era rather than achieving the progressive and leftist political shifts that the New Left organized itself around. That the New Communalists embraced the innovations of cybernetic technology is not surprising to me though it seems like the language to distinguish these two groups, the New Communalists from the New Left, is steeped in pitting a seemingly radical yet debatably apolitical ethos against a social justice centered movement wedded to effecting systemic change. The New Communalists wanted to get rid of the hierarchical structure of power and communication whereas the New Left sought to augment the structure of the systems of power in place. Both groups were informed by the unease of the Post-World War II Nuclear age that arose in during Cold War era, however the New Left took a more traditional course of action through utilizing common political organizing tactics to confront the gross inequities that American Society was facing at that time – namely via the Civil Rights movement and Anti-Vietnam War activism. This type of action characterized the types of relationships to power and information that allowed for a type of communal basis within the New Left. The New Communalists were distrustful of everybody – the left, the right, the state, and activists that were aligned with changing the state.
To me the New Communalists have a Libertarian vibe – I could definitely see some intellectual and political thinking in common with both groups – as if the N.C. begat the Libertarian movement. I guess that makes sense though as the N.C. were enthusiastic adopters and supporters of the type of university – military – science collaborative efforts to develop new cybernetic technology – an interesting amalgam of state and secular systems united to essentially think outside of the box – even though these establishments are the “box”. I guess one of the main appeals is this sort of generalist approach that the scientists and technologists brought to the collaborative efforts – the notion of workflow is not dependent on staying in ones lane per se as much as it is concerned with exploratory and entrepreneurial spirit. This is the ethos that the New Communalists seemed to thrive off of – and the objective of their desire to be a part of a consciousness shifting movement. I do understand and sort of respect the culture war that it seems like the New Communalists are depicted by Turner as waging in their awe and adoption of cybernetic innovation as it relates to a new emerging way of being or consciousness not dependent on the static systems of power that determined access and mobility of information. But anytime anyone goes off the grid or seeks to create a community that is essentially separatist or seeking to sever ties with the society from which its discontent sprung, it’s difficult for me as an outsider to not have a skeptical take on their ideological platform.
The New Left appears sort of grumpy and luddite-like in Turner’s estimation – but I suppose this is just an assessment of other writer’s depictions of the social justice led movement. I gathered that the New Left was interested in breaking down the trifecta of information – knowledge power producing machine that was the academic/military/industrial complex. I bet folks from the New Left would have been on board with a redistribution of the fruits of that cybernetic rhetoric – but my guess is that the kind of political and activist work against structural racism and the war machine that was going on precluded them from gaining access to the vested interests of that trifecta.
Perhaps I’m just jaded but I also had the sense that the New Communalists were largely white artsy weirdoes. That’s the subtext I picked up on.
Ayhan Aytes basically draws a connection between Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Chess Player Automaton and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system in order to create a historical base from which he can implicate AMT as carrying out neoliberalism via the shared commonality of this cloaked cognitive labor performed in both models of comparison. The Chess Player presents the illusion of artificial intelligence and is a metaphor for the illusory quality of AMT’s system, the fact that the cognitive labor being performed is alluded to by referring to those cognitive worker’s as “mechanized turks” or “turkers” is a sly and problematic ping back to the orientalist roots of the Chess Player Automaton. Ironic or perhaps not (as is the way Neoliberalism works) that AMT is in name a continuation of the “Oriental” automaton that of current employs the cognitive labor of people from the Global South, most notably, Indian workers. The work is piecemeal and is similar in comparison to the chess player automaton due to the micro and macro elements at play in both systems; as chess is an intellectual and strategic game (originally from India too) and reliant on individual moves in order to achieve capture of the other player’s pieces. AMT is a system that relies on singular tasks being completed and does not involve the same worker in a unified or ongoing relationship to the work – I mean to say, it’s almost like an assembly line (using a factory metaphor here even though that is not totally relative) in that the worker is performing one task that goes towards a whole but that is not aware or connected to that whole process. This system differs from our ideas of Chess, as that game infers a level of awareness of all the potential roles or ways a piece could potentially affect the desired outcome of the game on a large scale – that is why the “Mechanical Turk” of the Chess Player Automaton was so intriguing and romanticized, even after it was discovered to be a hoax. This idea of mechanized intelligence represented infinite possibilities to the West, to be able to reap all the benefits of human intelligence, without the human. But the bottom line is that, technologically speaking, we are not there yet, and there is still a reliance on the human and their human intelligence, there is a person inside both systems that make them function, this is the crux of the analogy and also important to consider when thinking about what this kind of reductive labor practice as a trope (vis a vis a major corporate entity, Amazon) has on the cognitive worker’s it employs.
By presenting this labor being performed as automatized, and emanating from a machine or machines somewhere (in the case of AMT many of it’s Turker’s are outsourced from far outside of the Western Sociocultural environment) the labor and the considerations towards workers performing it are made invisible. Not only does the cognitive labor take place outside of the mechanization, but also takes places outside of the society it usually serves (this is an estimation, as I imagine that the main target is the American West.) What does this mean for the cognitive workers within the AMT system? What does it mean for the actual pieces of work that they perform? Aytes does a great job of breaking down how these cognitive workers fall into a “state of exception” as disembodied laborers within a neoliberal framework.
Subcultures or subcultural movements are largely identity based or community based – their function is to create a shared communal space outside of the conventional or mainstream society. (I can’t remember where in the reading I spotted it but the triumvirate of “knowledge/culture/affect” stood out to me. It’s a good way to break down what makes a subcultural movement a shared experience or process.) Community can be a way to party with others who are into the same cultural products and experiences as you or community can function as a way to survive and organize against the dominant paradigm of the society you find yourself within. Community in my opinion has never been solely or explicitly identifiable as a physical-spatial place or region, it can exist digitally, and pre-internet has existed via older media and technologies, through print culture or via the telephone. I, myself am a member of several subcultures, some which are identity based in an intrinsic way and some which are relative to the cultural affects I enjoy.
Breaking down the word, subculture – the prefix sub literally means below or beneath. The word itself implies a binary relationship, an unequal or an offset power dichotomy. Maybe it’s useful to think of a subculture as something that cleaved off of the main culture or dominant culture. It’s not as hegemonically demonstrative but it possesses vitality and gathers it adherents in a powerful counteraction to the dominant mode. That said, I think that subcultures tend to be romanticized from within as well as from without. There is a particular kind of idealization of a movement or community of likeminded individuals that replicates (or perhaps just is and has always been) a form of commodification akin to the process of commodification that is the life force of capitalism. I think it’s human to want or desire a fixed symbol – we live in an unfixed world – and by extension, the internet is even more amorphous and unsteady than the actualities we have been dealing with for centuries before it’s creation.
The main idea is that all current cultures sub or dominant exist within a capitalist framework. Terranova gets that, and clears up any misgivings that even the most savvy Marxist or lefty political enthusiasts almost organically assign to a reading of the digital economy as appropriating the labor of various networked subcultural protagonists.
Drudging up the knowledge/culture/affect triumvirate again, is key here because Terranova gets that what is being offered and also commodified is an extension of human intelligence – which is not just facts or mind focused, its feelings focused. Terranova talks about this in the beginning of her essay, as the reflexive consumption/production action. The commodification of feelings, sensation of belonging, conformity of appearance, anything that communicates membership, ownership, and authenticity is what is being produced, willingly by members of subcultures via products or ephemera that is a part of capital. There is already consumption going on – but now in the networked age, it’s not easily or neatly identifiable as just consumption, it’s also a labor being performed as it offers something in response or through utilizing the consumable.