Web Exclusive: Interview with Fred Turner

by Patrick McMenamin

published April 25, 2014

Editor’s Note: This unexcerpted interview accompanies “Young and Younger: the creative practices of tech’s next generation” from Issue 9.

Fred Turner, an Associate Professor at Stanford University and director of their Program in Science, Technology, and Society, has written several books on the relationship between media cultures and political philosophies. His book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism traces the development of The WELL, an early online community, and Stewart Brand, its founder, from its origins in the New Communalist movement of the sixties counterculture to the cyberculture it helped create. In so doing, he shows the continuity between these cultures of the idea that productive social change—oriented toward utopian ideals—can occur as a result of personal interaction with technology.

     We spoke on the phone about the rhetoric of creativity in technology, youth’s role in it, and the possibilities of change.

The College Hill Independent: Reading your work, your project seems to be one of demystification, that you want to take the egalitarian and utopian rhetoric around tech and show it to be historically based. I’m wondering what you see this as demystifying and what you think your project does for looking at the current tech industry.

Fred Turner: Sure, so, I live out here in Silicon Valley and here, I think there’s a really robust rhetoric of entrepreneurship. It’s very individually centered. It suggests that if you fail early enough and often enough, you will somehow be able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, make a new technology, and through that new technology or new software system, change the world. And that’s a really powerful sort of working ideology out here but I think that also is an ideology that if you export it out of here—or even here actually—has the tendency to mask the work we really need to do to make this country a better place. It’s a deeply self-centered rhetoric. It’s a rhetoric that masks class divides and suggests that everyone has an equal opportunity to be an entrepreneur when, in fact, that’s not quite the case. My hope is to both show the historical origins of that idea and make it clear that what we need to do collectively is to act collectively, that individual entrepreneurship is not sufficient. It’s just not enough to make a better America.

The Indy: In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, you talked about how tech has inherited from the counterculture a “habit of seeing the cultural space as the space in which we do business and make change.” I think it’s really interesting to look at the tech industry’s emphasis on “culture” as a part of business. I’m wondering how you think that cultural space of the tech world relates to a broader conception of culture and whether you seen the distinction between the two as collapsing or expanding.

FT: Yeah, it’s really hard to say and a lot of it is a very regional story. Out here, Bay Area countercultural styles are still very, very active in the tech world. I mean, 40,000 people go to Burning Man in the summer and a lot of people in the tech world especially go there. The Silicon Valley traffic really eases up in the last week of August when Burning Man is going on. So I think in that context, the cultural space and the business space come together in a way where countercultural ideals legitimate new individualized and individualistic business practices to support the flexible economy that we work in. So, I think that’s what’s going on there. Some people will say that when you look at tech companies, that the fact that they have foosball tables and cafes is a sign somehow that they just want to take care of their workers. There’s certainly an element of that but I think that there’s something deeper going on there. I think it’s about the blending of workplace and home-place, which was actually a countercultural ideal that’s sort of getting worked out now in the tech world.

The Indy: In your article about Burning Man, you talk about how artistic practice and consumer tech converge at Burning Man, but in such a way that it seems to only occur in the production phase. There then emerges a dissonance when the countercultural frame of production results in a consumer product. How do you see this dissonance playing out today?

FT: So I haven’t thought much about consumption and that’s actually one of my weaknesses as a scholar. But I think that what’s interesting about digital technology and about the ethos of digital technology that bubbles out of Silicon Valley is the notion that every consumer can be a producer and that the moment of consumption is itself also always a moment of production. And so, consuming digital media, because it’s interactive, because it’s online, because it’s so often so personally oriented—with pictures of things that you’re putting up or making or engaging with—tends to feel like an act of creation. And so I think that consuming digital media—particularly certain kinds like social media—is an opportunity to rehearse the ideals that are alive in Burning Man. Ideals of making one’s self by making technology, building one’s identity by building digital systems. These are ideals that animate the tech world and the Burning Man world, and that people can actually live out as consumers using certain systems, Facebook for instance and some parts of Google. So I think that’s part of what’s going on. Does that answer your question?

The Indy: Yes, and I think, related to that, the initial impetus toward what the counterculture and WELL were trying to do early in the tech world seemed to be toward connectivity. What you’ve been talking about makes me think that it has almost been mutated to become a logic of individual entrepreneurship and the economic empowerment of the individual.

FT: Yeah, that’s really interesting. So I think that connectivity in the counterculture is a precursor to networking in our own time. And I think that the notion of a connected community really is a notion of connected individuals. It’s a web-y model of the social world. Not an institutional model of the social world, not a geographically co-located model of the social world. It’s a world of individuals linked together. Barry Wellman up in Canada has this idea of “networked individualism” and I think that’s exactly what we’re talking about here. And I think that only works if you have a really strong idea of the individual. That’s something that the counterculture really amplified for us. In some ways a hippie on LSD is a technologically enabled individualist seeker, right? He or she’s someone who is seeking to expand his or her horizons by having imbibed a small-scale technology. It’s a very individually centered project. I hear that rhetoric again every time I hear someone talk about his or her iPhone. This is a tool that expands my intellectual and social horizons but it does so on a very individualized basis. I think that persists. From my own perspective, I would like to see us working on not building new networks, not building a hyper-individualized society but working on building a more diverse society and building the kinds of institutions that allow us to reach across racial and class divides, that allow our society to become ever more equal even as it is becoming now radically unequal. Those are the kind of projects that we have ahead of us and I don’t see digital media or digital media firms yet speaking to those needs.

The Indy: I’ve been reading a lot of op-eds recently by young people in Silicon Valley who are talking about how there is something that feels missing from tech industry’s rhetoric—whether that’s a concern for the environment, family, racial or class divides, which is ignored or written off. But to me there seems to be an undercurrent of resignation to this, that the inevitable march of progress prevents them from acting upon these issues. And I’m kind of wondering what you think would allow them to act on these issues, if there’s a reframing of rhetoric that could accomplish that?

FT: So, a couple of things. I think that there is a resignation and the only cure for resignation is collective action. People feel resigned to the extent that they feel powerless and they feel powerless to the extent they feel they are the only one like themselves around or maybe there are just a handful of people. So, if you can keep people just in small groups, they’re going to feel pretty powerless. And so organizing is a real key to that. And organizing not just in the kind of get together and network sense or even in the Occupy sense, but in the sense of building institutions, that’s the real key. You know, in your community, figure out what needs to be done, get your friends together and build something that will outlive you that will do that. So I think that’s one thing that we can do. I don’t think it’s a rhetorical thing, I think it’s a real, working, living thing.

     Second, I think that there’s something leaders in the tech firms can do. It’s so interesting to me that in the wake of the counterculture and in the wake of the 80s Reagan revolution, the corporate space is seen as a space for social change, but there’s no prescription of what social change might be or of how business leaders might also be real social leaders. If you go back to the 1950s, which is a time I’ve spent a lot of time in mentally because of my research, what you see there is a corporate world where corporate titans see themselves as citizens first. Not only do they not take exorbitant salaries but they also turn the wealth of the companies that they make toward social projects they see as benevolent, toward city planning, toward the arts. Our leaders need to do that, they need to not just be individual philanthropists, which some like Mark Zuckerberg have done very effectively, but they need to be political actors. Not just in promoting political Republican causes. They need to promote the world they want to see, a more diverse, more egalitarian, more collaborative world. They need to serve the whole, not only their shareholders.

The Indy: In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, you show how Brand and the WELL were able to shape their own rhetoric by both creating conservations and reporting on them as journalism. How much does this sort of circular strategy facilitate what we just talked about, where leaders can get away with talking about social change and use that as evidence of their leadership? Do you see this idea carrying over into the present moment?

FT: Yeah, it’s tricky. I think people often tell themselves the kinds of stories that enable them to live lives in the conditions in which they find themselves. And sometimes those stories are true, sometimes they’re not quite so true about the way the world is. I think that Northern California is a region that has been focused on being a kind of exemplary region for social change for a long time and folks here, in the tech world, want to see themselves as members of both the really elite technological engineering world and a world that is culturally focused on benevolent change. They negotiate that relationship—that dual membership—in lots of different ways depending on who they are. But the terms of the membership for change are more psychological than social. I’ve written a lot about how this part of the San Francisco part of the Bay was very involved with the New Communalist movement, really focused on commune building and not on doing politics whereas over in Berkeley and other parts of the country, people were more focused on what we think of now as the New Left, doing politics to change politics. The New Communalist legacy, I think, is one that allows people—like Steward Brand to a degree but like others as well—to imagine themselves as change agents even while they are at home changing the circumstances of their everyday lives. And so, making the world better and making their own lives better start to seem like the same project. And that can melt into a kind of self-serving vision very quickly.

The Indy: Lately I’ve been very curious as to what it feels like to grow up within Silicon Valley or to be a young 20-something living there today. There seems to be almost a second generation emerging in information technology to me. The counterculture and tech both have such an emphasis on youth as the creative time of your life. My question then is how do you see this legacy of the counterculture carrying over to today’s youth in technology?

FT: I wonder about that a lot as well. San Francisco’s undergoing almost a gold rush right now. Literally thousands of predominantly young 20-something or early 30-something, very well educated tech workers are moving into the city. It’s incredible. There were parts of the city that were relatively quiet and quite diverse five years ago. You have dinner there now and you see literally hundreds of people between the ages of 26 and 33 walking through. And they’re all there for a reason. I actually spoke to a group like that a couple weeks back, that’d all been in San Francisco for two years, and they were trying to figure out how to contribute to the city, how to become citizens in the city. And I think it’s a real challenge because it’s not clear that they’re going to get to spend their lives in the city. They’ll certainly be there while there’s work but how long will there be work? I don’t know. And so, for that second generation, I think the challenges are how do you commit to institutions and places if your employment seems radically individualized, risky and flexible. And I think that’s a real challenge. It’s a challenge not just for the workers who have to live in this radical, flexible space but it’s also a challenge for the society that depends on people hunkering down and making commitments to places. I mean the government gives you money back on your taxes for your home because it wants people to own their homes and commit to the towns they’re members of, citizens in. How can you do that if you’re a flexible tech worker? I don’t know.

     The role youth plays in another way that I think is super important is that you can afford to take the risks the tech industry requires only when you’re young. I’m super aware of this. When I was in my twenties, I was a freelance journalist and I could be very flexible, I could make some money some years and not so much the other years and it’d be OK. I’m 53 now, I have a family, I’ve got to make a steady living. I can’t do that other stuff. I also don’t want to work all night, the way that I did back then. I don’t want a 24-hour coding cycle, you know? And so, I think it’s harder for the older folks in that space.

The Indy: Do you think the tech industry as it’s set up rewards youth uniquely in the way it talks about creativity?

FT: I think it takes advantage of it, actually. I think the tech industry is exceptionally effective at taking advantage of youth. Youth as a rule is more optimistic, more wide-eyed, more trusting in its powers to make change than old age is. And that’s fine, that’s a good thing and it’s been that way for generations. The tech industry does an excellent job of taking that ambition and that desire to be creative and harnessing it to an industrial project devoted to the making and the distributing of software and hardware. I think that’s a very powerful thing to do and I think that a lot of people in the industry believe—and particularly when they join up—that a company like Google or a company like Facebook will be a space for creative self-expression. And for some of the workers, it might be. But, it’s certainly not for all workers and nor is it even for the most creative workers all their lives.

The Indy: In the introduction to From Counterculture to Cyberculture, you mention that the transitional period between the counterculture and the cyberculture involved a reframing of the world as systems of information and how this operationalized the counterculture’s spiritual goals of connectivity in the tech world. I’ve been reading a lot about people coming to see this reframing as leaving out the human truths behind these systems. How do you see this playing out in the contemporary space?

FT: That plays out in the contemporary space really powerfully. The first thing it does is it makes it much harder to talk about the living bodies that are in the workplace and around it. So at Google, the living bodies in the kitchen frequently don’t earn enough to pay for health insurance. That’s a powerful indictment at a company that wealthy. If you have a rhetoric of all creative bodies that are parts of an information system, it gets very difficult to talk about the bodies who are not admitted to that system and who may not have the skills to be a part of it. It gets very difficult to talk about racial prejudice. It gets very difficult to talk about the way the bodies change over time so that a young body may not want to have kids or need to have kids but a 35-year old body sure does and a 55-year old body needs time to be with them and to raise grandchildren. It gets very hard to talk about how information system building—the corporate work of a Google or a Facebook or an IBM—helps us build a better society. And at the end of the day, I think that the work of business is not shareholder value, it’s the work of building a better society. And ironically, that’s a dream that was actually alive in the counterculture. And that’s one of the things that got pared away when we began to imagine the world as an information system. And that’s one of the things I’d like to see come back.

The Indy: Right, is there a way in which you see movement towards that? That people are starting to conceptualize systems of information as imperfect?

FT: That’s really interesting and you might be right about that. Information tech is so new, it’s one lifetime basically. It’s been around 25 years in the way that we know it now. I think that people are just beginning to glimpse the fact that maybe being connected 24/7 is not a benefit. But I think it’s a glimpse, I don’t think it’s more than that yet. And I’d like to see it become more than that.