[iDC] Re:From Counter Culture to Cyber Culture

Fred Turner fturner at stanford.edu
Fri May 11 21:44:27 EDT 2007

Hi All,

         Thanks Trebor and all for such a thoughtful engagement with 
the book. I want to offer a couple of clarifications and maybe a 
provocation or too and see how they sound.

         First, yes, I do think the influence of the anti-war 
movement on the winding down of that war was less than many think it 
was now. At the same time, I think the anti-war movement was 
enormously important  morally and socially and that it transformed 
American culture in other ways and continues to. I've addressed some 
of this at length in my first book, Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War 
in American Memory.

         I also want to be sure that it's clear that I'm not 
anti-activist. On the contrary -- it's partly because I want activism 
to be effective, and to understand the ways in which it really has 
and hasn't changed things, that I study the things I do.

         That said, let me clear up one other misconception of my 
views. I don't think activists -- in the '60s or now -- face a binary 
choice of working inside the system or outside it. What I do think a 
lot of my research has shown is that large institutions can 
concentrate, preserve and deploy material power in ways that are very 
hard to combat with voices alone. At Kent State, the state had the 
guns; the anti-war marchers didn't. When the National Guard shot at 
the demonstrators, they went a long way toward quieting the anti-war 
movement. Today, despite all sorts of protests, the IMF is still able 
to deploy resources with a power unlike anything a distributed 
network of activists have so far been able to muster. And part of 
their ability to do that is simply because they are not a distributed 
network. They are a bureaucracy -- organized by rules and 
regulations, able to outlive their individual members, and able to 
claim financial and other material resources on that account. Do 
protestors have to join the IMF to beat them? Of course not. Will 
protestors be able to substantially alter the course of IMF policy 
only by demonstrating -- that is, displaying, even en masse -- their 
dissatisfaction with the institution? I doubt it. In this respect, 
it's worth taking a page from the environmental movement. I don't 
believe that activists need to fight from within (on the contrary: I 
think that very idea is a canard left over from the '60s, about which 
more in a minute). I do think they need to form organizations that 
can persists in time, collect and deploy material resources 
effectively, and most important of all, reach out to people who might 
otherwise not be natural members of social movements and enlist them 
in making change.

         So, about the inside/outside problem. One of the most 
pernicious legacies of the 1960s in my view is the notion that object 
of our protests, the enemies of our freedom, are hierarchy and 
bureaucracy, and that the alternative, the site and source of 
freedom, is the expressive social network. This view is full of 
problems on its face -- bureaucracies for instance were formed in 
order to create rule-based systems of social inclusion that could 
replace the far more exclusive use of cultural and social capital 
within feudalism; the notion that self-expression alone is a force 
equal to the material power deployed against it is romantic in the 
extreme; the sense that simply by virtue of being networks social 
networks are in fact open and inclusive is likewise overdone. Each of 
these are points it took me 350 pages to make and properly support -- 
I humbly urge folks looking for a substantial case to visit my book. 
But for the purposes of our discussion, a brief summary: in the 
1960s, the counterculture was not in fact a unified youth movement. 
While the New Left did politics to change politics, marching, forming 
SDS and other groups, engaging with institutions, the New 
Communalists (whom Brand founded the Whole Earth Catalog to serve) 
turned away from politics and toward technology, shared consciousness 
and communication. They believed that these things would be 
sufficient to form an alternative social world, one that could be 
brought into being on backwoods communes, and that once that world 
existed, it would set an example that the straight world could and 
would follow.

         Well, it didn't work out that way. Most communes collapsed 
very early, and depended on subsidies from their wealthy, 
college-aged, largely white membership until they did. In the place 
of rules and regulations, many found themselves governed by charisma, 
hustle, and those who could muster the most cool. In other words, 
they didn't do away with politics; rather, they drove it out of 
sight, away from the realm of rules that could be challenged and into 
the cultural sphere, the realm of personality and attitude, in which 
it couldn't. Challenge Kesey on the bus? Uncool. Call out a 
long-haired bully at Drop City? Uncool. Challenge the largely male, 
heterosexual dominance of many rural communes? Nope.

         This hope for alternative and improved communities built 
around small-scale technologies, communication and social networks 
dominates much discussion of the web today. And in some ways, it has 
been very empowering. The barriers to entry to participation in 
dialogues have never been lower. But there are still barriers. In 
lieu of bureaucracy, many systems work, as communes did, on the basis 
of interpersonal connections and cultural affinity. Many still do a 
very bad job of reaching out to people unlike themselves -- which I 
take to be one of the best tests of an effective social movement and 
as an effective way to distinguish one from a technologically enabled 
salon. When social practice is organized around performance -- of 
style, of personality, of communication -- rather than the search for 
and pressing of levers for material social change, my sense is that 
personality and charisma, social and cultural capital, tend to 
dominate and to exclude. And even where they don't, communicative 
communities, detached from persistent and organized means for 
claiming and deploying material resources, remain insufficient for 
making social -- as opposed to cultural or symbolic or intellectual -- change.

         One last thought: My book has often been misread as arguing 
that the hippies brought us contemporary cyberculture. In fact, what 
I argue is that a technology-based mode of networked sociability 
emerged during World War II at the epicenter of military research 
culture, and especially at MIT. The New Communalist wing of the 
counterculture embraced that style and over the next thirty years 
translated it not only into a story about how computers would 
liberate us (by making all of us part of the network society born in 
small arenas during the war) but also into a very powerful way of 
influencing key American institutions (such as the Pentagon and major 
corporations). As I try to show in the book, we may imagine that by 
participating in communication networks we are de facto opposing the 
centers of power in our world. But networks, technology, and 
communication are at the heart of power today, as they were fifty 
years ago. Now however, they carry with them the cultural legitimacy 
of bohemian cool. In this sense, contemporary styles of communicative 
activism often look to me like celebrations, rather than critiques, 
of the contemporary organization of power. The work of some groups -- 
Critical Art Ensemble, for instance -- notwithstanding, it's been a 
long time since I've seen truly dangerous art.

         I'm still looking though.


At 07:26 AM 5/10/2007, Trebor Scholz wrote:
>Thanks very much to Fred Turner for joining this forum. I highly
>recommend his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture.
>Fred Turner argues that the political influence of cultural resistance
>in the 60s and 70s is vastly overestimated. Friends of mine who claim
>that they stopped the Vietnam War with the San Francisco Summer of Love
>and ten years of persistent demonstrations against the Vietnam war would
>not be too pleased. Fred would be frank, he'd simply disagree.
>He is also cautious with his beliefs in the power of information;
>revealing the facts and mobilizing affect may not change much at all,
>he'd say. He has been there- he was a journalist for ten years. That's
>tough stuff to swallow for artists with political intent. As it is, it
>needs a whole lot of faith to believe in art as anything beyond the
>market. So, what does he suggest?
>Fred learned to respect the power of mighty brick and mortar
>institutions and suggests to link (social) networks to these power
>centers that are often wrongly portrayed as villains, he says. His
>argument is grounded in his research of the Back to the Land Movement,
>the communitarians who distrusted everybody over 30. Their attitude, in
>fact, did not change much at all, Fred argues.
>I agree that the times for binary oppositions are over and that hybrid
>interventions are the most hopeful sites for social change today.
>Fist raising rhetoric is not helpful. Simplistic activism is not
>helpful. It makes people feel radical, it gives us a rush, it sounds
>cool but it shuts down the other side and it does not convince many
>people. I don't think that faux radicality moves us ahead.
>Changing things from the inside, however, is an old and definitely
>dangerous, tactic with many historical precedents; many agents who
>worked for the Stasi motivated their actions exactly like that. For
>Fred, the powerhouses of real social change are hegemonic institution
>and the only actual chance for networks to not kid themselves in their
>aspirations for building alternatives is to infiltrate those
>institutions. Did I get that right, Fred?
>If so, how do you make sense of the social networks-- mailing lists and
>BBS's of the 90s-- that were the intellectual back bone and inspiration
>of social movements like those in Seattle, Genoa, ...? What about
>February 2003 with its ten million Iraq war demonstrators, coordinated
>through the Internet? Sure, the WTO is still around and even ten million
>demonstrators did not stop the war. Does not your argument give up on
>cultural resistance as part of a multiplicity of contributions to social
>Trebor Scholz

Fred Turner
Assistant Professor
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Dept. of Communication
Building 120
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-2050
O) 650-723-0706
Fax) 650-725-2472
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