How did hippies living on communes help create the Internet? Is Mark Zuckerberg today’s PT Barnum? What can we learn from 17th Century Protestantism about inequality in Silicon Valley? Fred Turner, perhaps the definitive historian of the Internet and counterculture, joins us for a thrilling conversation about how we need to shake post-WWII politics to make not just a better Internet, but a better world.
This is the second part in our Internet history series, “How They Imagined the Internet.”
- Communes were insular, and so was the first Internet community created by back-to-land hippies.
- Silicon Valley’s cult of personality follows from Protestants’ belief that wealth is a sign of godliness.
- “Seeing Silicon Valley” documents the inequality that fuels tech with portraits of the rich and poor.
- We need to reckon with issues of class that started during the Vietnam War.
- Institutions that bring people to come together despite identity and ideology differences are crucial.
Hey everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. I am Ethan Zuckerman. I am thrilled to be here with part of our indefinite series that we’re calling How the Internet Was Imagined.
We’re getting people who’ve written wonderful internet histories to tell us about some of the historical networks, some of the precedents that have sort of taken us to this moment today and really help us think about what it would mean to reimagine the internet going forward.
With that in mind, I could not be more thrilled to be here with my friend, Fred Turner. Fred is the Harry Norman Chandler Professor of Communication at Stanford. Like many smart professorial types, he has appointments in half a dozen other are departments at Stanford.
He’s a recovering journalist who did some wonderful work in the 1980s and 1990s before getting sucked into academe. He is someone I teach virtually every year and I go back and forth between two incredibly important books.
One of which was called From Counterculture to Cyber Culture, which looks at the roots of the early web in late 1960s counterculture. And then remarkably enough, rather than going forward to the future, Fred went backward to look at the rise of multimedia and sensoria in just truly a mind blowing book called The Democratic Surround that goes back into preparations for World War II, fighting Nazi propaganda, Margaret Mead. It’s an amazing book. It’s a crazy ride.
Fred has a new book, which is much, much closer to home called Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America, which is a book of portraits and essays with Mary Beth Meehan. Fred, we are so happy to have you here. Thank you for joining us.
Oh, Ethan. Thank you. I’m completely honored to be here. Thanks for having me.
Look, I want to start by going backwards if we can. You came to the attention of a lot of internet scholars with this amazingly wonderful book, From Counterculture to Cyber Culture. I found the book when Dana Boyd pressed a copy into my hands and said, “Someone gets it.”
Sort of understanding that the internet as we know it, is not just a technological creation. It is the manifestation of a very particular imagination. Can I get you to talk a little bit of the story of that imagination either specifically through Stewart Brand or through that larger narrative of how the 1960 shaped the internet?
Sure, sure. Absolutely. From Counterculture to Cyber Culture was a very lucky thing for me. It changed my life and the idea of Dana Boyd handing it out, makes me just thrilled.
The thing about the book is that it was widely thought to have told a story of how the counterculture brought us the internet. But what I thought I was doing and still think I was doing was talking about how the tech world of the 1940s brought us hippies and how hippies, Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog legitimated a turn toward ubiquitous computation that had already taken place or was taking place around them.
Let me just start actually with Norbert Wiener and cybernetics. So Norbert Wiener, a mathematician, World War II, military contractor work together with Gregory Bates in a group of anthropologists, a group of social scientists and reimagines a world made of information.
He really thinks that the world is almost a Buddhist vision. Things are signaling one another. We get feedback from one another. We govern ourselves in this process. He has that vision in the late ’40s. And it travels straight into the 1960s.
So Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and later the Whole Earth Electronic Link is hanging out in art worlds in the early ’60s. He’s sort of escaping from his life on a military base nearby. He’s a draftee like everyone else. He gets his hands on what other people around him are reading Norbert Wiener’s book, The Human Use of Human Beings and his work on cybernetics. Brand, I think, and the people around him imagine an entire society built on terms set by Norbert Wiener.
Let me see if I can walk this through a little bit. I was always told that the counter culture was one thing. You get up in the morning, you protest the Vietnam war, you come home at night, you drop acid, you play, you get up, you do it again.
When I started working on my book, what I found quite quickly was that there were at least two very distinct worlds. One, the new left, devoted to doing politics, to change politics, anchored in Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement led by students for a democratic society and the other, a much more diffuse and still unnamed movement associated with Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog, Ken Kesey, the electric Kool-Aid asset test kind of world. That movement was really headquartered in San Francisco.
That movement was part of and helped sustain the largest wave of commune building in American history. Between 1966 and 1973, 3 quarters of a million Americans left their homes and headed back to the land as the saying went at the time. What they wanted to build was a world around a shared mindset, a shared consciousness and they wanted to do it using technologies that have been developed in the industrial world.
Stewart Brand and his wife, Louis, created a catalog of these technologies called the Whole Earth Catalog, became a million seller and they did it as they traveled around to different communes trying to figure out what people needed. Now, what’s intriguing about this catalog is if you were headed to a commune, if you’re going to go farm in 1967, Ethan, would you take with you?
In 1967? I think I would be desperately looking for a Massey Ferguson tractor because they’re pretty easy to maintain and et cetera, et cetera, and lots of spare parts and probably my favorite pair of old furrows.
Right. So ironically, you would’ve made a terrible commune dweller certainly in 1957.
That surprises me not at all Fred.
Well, ironically, you would’ve been terrible because you would’ve been focused precisely on the farm. The communes that I looked at were actually really not focused on the farm. They were focused on the question of how do we share consciousness and build a different kind of polity around shared consciousness.
The answer to that question turned out to be among other things, information technology. One of the biggest shocks to me in the Whole Earth Catalog was opening it up and seeing Norbert Wiener’s book, Cybernetics, advertised as a tool that you should take back to the land with you. Likewise, right next to it was Hewlett Packard’s first big desktop calculator, this huge thing, they actually called it a… I think they called it a Personal Calculator at the time. And why would you need a calculator on a farm?
And these things cost tens of thousands of dollars. Somehow, this is part of this worldview that Brand is putting forward, but you’re making it clear that the catalog is not necessarily a practical document so much as it wants to tell people that it is. It’s really sort of a visionary document. It’s a way of imagining and invoking the possibility of a new way of being by showing that these technologies and these products already exist and could be combined in a different way.
Showing that they already exist and that there’s an information system, the catalog itself, that would let you get access to the tools that you would need to transform your life. Brand is working with an idea that came from Buckminster Fuller, this sort of peripatetic architect. He had this idea of the artist designer, who is supposed to valve the resources of the industrial world down into his everyday life and transform that life thereby.
That’s what Brand was doing. He was using an information system to valve the resources of the day down to everyday life, but where this connects back to Wiener and forward to our own time is in the politics. Norbert Wiener believed that the world was an information system that we formed ourselves by achieving feedback with one another and that information technologies could both map and improve that process of feedback seeking. Stewart Brand believed the same thing.
In the late 1960s, he was hanging out here at Stanford where he graduated and in the Bay Area here, and he was seeing technical people and he designed an information technology, the Whole Earth Catalog, to help people valve the resources made by industrial America into tools for the transformation of their consciousness. And hopefully thereby, the transformation of the world as a whole.
One last thought and I’ll leave the floor. The other thought is that communes were radically horrible. I did not know this. I thought I would go start studying communes and I would discover this sort of world of free love and relaxation and being in touch with nature.
No. When I interviewed people who’d been on communes, few exceptions, but not many, they talked about how they were radically heteronormative white spaces in which sort of powerful charismatic men took charge. What turns out to happen is when you try to rule with consciousness and with technology enabled consciousness, what you get are charismatic authoritarians. I hope you’re hearing a little whisper of Mark Zuckerberg here.
I’m hearing Mark Zuckerberg. I’m also hearing Donald Trump. I’m hearing any number of charismatic authoritarians, because we seem to be in that charismatic authoritarian movement. But before we move to either Trump or Zuckerberg, which are sort of conversation topics that everything will circle around. As soon as you bring them in there, you’ll sort of lose the rest of the conversation.
Let’s talk about how the Whole Earth Catalog, which is this way of sort of purchasing your way into this new consciousness. Now that’s a very cynical way of looking at it. Brands sees himself as filtering out these resources and allowing you to live in a different way. The Whole Earth Catalog eventually becomes the Whole Earth Electronic Link.
I see this in many ways as this Bay Area based vision of cyberspace that Brand and others who followed him very much saw as what they hoped to come out of communer networks, which is that it was not universal. It was connecting a fairly small number of extremely smart people.
By the way, most of which happened to be white dudes with a decent amount of money and quite a bit of charisma and ego. Let’s talk about two things with this. First of all, how does the well come out of the Whole Earth Catalog, but then maybe more importantly, how do the various myths of the well affect how we end up seeing the internet because it’s an enormously influential moment in time.
Yep. Great. The well comes together about 1985. And by that time, the counterculture is about 10 years in the past. What I want to stress for you here is that Stewart Brand was a celebrity in the early 1970s, so was Ken Kesey. By the early 1980s, he and an entire generation of people who had believed that the communes really would reform America would bereft. They needed work. They had a dream that had died and fortunately for them, they were in Northern California, many of them, as the computer industry was bubbling up around them.
The computer industry being driven by self-described nerds who had never had the cultural cache of a Stewart Brand or the counter-culturalists. So they began to collaborate most famously at the hackers conference of 1984, where computer folks began to say, “Wait, we’re hippies too.”
And hippies began to imagine themselves as hackers. All right, enter the Whole Earth Electronic Link. So Larry Brilliant, who would later go on to work for Google, a friend of Stewart Brand, had built a computer system, a network system, didn’t know what to do with it and went to Stewart and said, “Hey, could we put the Whole Earth Catalog online?”
Stewart said, “Well, no. Let’s use it as a conversation system organized around topics and we’ll gather a community.” He kept costs very low by comparison to things like CompuServe which is another technology available at the time or prodigy. And he invited his friends, former Deadheads, Bay Area computer science folks and with free accounts, journalists. That was the mark genius.
That’s the key moment.
That’s the key moment. Journalists like John Markoff, then of the New York Times, or Katie Hoffner were not only players on the well, but they were people who told stories about the well, turning it into an example for the rest of us.
Now, the well, this is the interesting thing, the well became a repository of commune ideals for the new media era. Howard Rheingold famously published a book called Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier in which he described the well as a virtual community. Talked about it as how it’s a place where you go back down, you go to the blacksmith at night. There are no blacksmiths in Silicon valley.
What’s intriguing to me, is that it was run on these principles of kind of universal consciousness. Before there were visual images on the web, it was just text scrolling across your screen and it felt like, “Oh, finally. Now we have the community of consciousness we tried to establish on, but our bodies got in the way.”
Now, folks who tried to enter that community who were not from it lamented the fact that in the community, they spoke Bay Arean, and that was the term that was used, Bay Arean. You can’t make this stuff up. And so it was very difficult for people to crack.
Moreover, the online network relied in turn on a series of offline parties, well, office parties.
[inaudible 00:13:36]. It was a little bit like a system that is officially open, but actually by invitation only. What I think it does in our time and how it comes down to our time is through this notion of the community of consciousness. I’m just going to get together a like-minded group of people who share a certain mindset and that mindset will organize us and then we will build an architecture to sustain our mindset. And the next thing you know, you have a gated community.
That was the logic of the communes as well, come down to us now through the well.
Of course, the gated community in this case is theoretically open to anyone, right? You can sign up for the well, you can become a member, but whether or not actually become part of well culture is entirely different. The communes in many ways are, at least on paper, sort of more exclusive. If you show up there, you’re going to have a trial to decide whether you meet with the particular intellectual community.
But the well had its ways of excluding people sometimes just through shear volume. It required an enormous amount of work to keep up with the well. You had to really put several hours a day towards being a well person if that was something that you wanted to do in a serious way. How did that space go on to have such a foundational influence on maybe the first generation of internet scholars, Fred?
My friends over at the Berkman Center very much ended up with a cyber utopian, John Perry Barlow view of the inner that was rooted pretty heavily at least in Howard Rheingold’s work. Is this just as simple as Brand inviting the journalist, Rheingold being a very fine writer and thinker about this and suddenly in many ways, if not public consciousness, at least scholarly consciousness of a lot of these spaces is deeply cyber utopian and deeply non-critical at least for the beginnings of the commercial internet.
Yeah. I’m afraid we have to use the word now that my non-Marxist friends really hate and the word is class. The challenge here is that yes, Stewart Brand and the folks on the well were exceptionally adept publicists. Their community became the core of wired magazine. At a certain moment in the early 1990s, Wired Magazine had to be on every CEO’s waiting room table.
They weren’t reading it a lot, but it looked like the future. So they were very good at kind of branding the future and never minded that Newt Gingrich was on the cover now and again. They were good at branding the future. That was part of it. But I think the deeper story and this is one that pains me enormously is that the folks at the Berkman Center, the folks of our generation were as invested imaginatively in the hopes of the counter culture as the people who actually went back to the land were.
We dreamed of a world where we could just talk to our friends at ease and where the kind of intimacy that was possible, we imagined was possible on the communes would be possible there as well.
We dreamed, in [inaudible 00:16:45] words, of a world in which work and play could be one. Who wouldn’t want to just get up and play all day and get paid for it? Little did we think that these patterns might have very different implications for people in other kinds of lives. And that precarity works one way for members of the upper class who have deep family resources and quite another for the working class. When I go back and I read stuff from the nineties on flexible labor, on gig labor, on how wonderful it is that we can just collaborate in this open space and play to together, one part of me says, “Oh, I remember that’s very nostalgic.”
But another part of me is mortified because at that very moment, the factories of the mainstream American working class and manufacturing industries have been and are continuing to be outsourced and destroyed.
Our flexibility, our class based flexibility was built on the backs of people who could not be so flexible. That was true of the ’60s as well. The other piece that we need to mention here that maybe we never talk about in the context of computing, but I do think it matters strangely is the Vietnam war. As we go through the Vietnam war, Stewart Brand and his counter-cultural generation are anchored in the campuses and they are speaking and teaching to other campus dwellers a kind of elite language of collaborative individual centered flexibility. That’s what makes a good protest happen.
Meantime, a lot of working class guys are going to fight in the Vietnam war and they’re suffering enormously. The college guys can escape by virtue of a deferment. The working class guys, not so much. By the end of the war, you have thousands of hard hats for Nixon marching in New York, angry, enraged, muscular carrying American flags, looking not a little unlike the people who went to the capital on January 6th, but you have those of us here on the campuses, flexibly imagining a world in which work can play are one and we are wholly satisfied and pursue our own self-satisfaction.
That vision is what I think drove the cyber utopianism of the 1990s among academics. I think we should be ashamed of ourselves.
I think in many ways, I think a lot of us are ashamed of ourselves. I think the idea that this space would be liberatory despite the fact that it had been imagined only by hyper privileged white men designed by hyper-privileged white men, documented by hyper-privileged white men and then as you really sort of detail, based around surprisingly oppressive regressive structures as were built in the physical world, as people tried to build communes around this.
It is perhaps not so surprising that many of the things that have ended up surprising us ended up happening. That Uber is completely predictable. When you sort of realize that you’re not looking at any of these things from the perspective of someone who’s been badly exploited by bosses and the notion that the reduction to systems in which we are interchangeable parts is another possibility that comes out of Norbert Wiener.
That Wiener, in many ways, wants to know what machines and humans can do together. One of the things that machines and humans can do together is that machines can make things very, very difficult for humans and very, very easy for machines.
Do you think we’ve escaped this legacy? Do you see it… Obviously you see it in labor. Do you see it around the imagining as well? We’re recording this at a moment where Mark Zuckerberg has just announced that Facebook is going to be renamed Meta and that the Metaverse, which is a space that has its own imaginative history, that has a lot of the same common ground as what we’ve just talked about here, are we still exploring these ideas, Fred? Are we still in the same sort of set of intellectual baggage or have we made any progress?
I don’t think we’ve made a whole heck of a lot of progress and I think we’re going to have to break down the we here. Mark Zuckerberg and the Metaverse is I think a deeply cynical effort to leverage the language of individual empowerment of the ’60s to create a hyper powerful advertising environment.
I think of it as times square with augmented reality. That loud billboard that’s screaming at your eyeballs will now be a loud billboard that is talking to you directly as if it were a person in front of you with your AR glasses. I think it is the most cynical kind of thing. I see Mark Zuckerberg as the proper legate of the robber barons of earlier eras or the oil barons, devoted to mining the social world, pumping its oil out, nevermind the pollution.
Zuckerberg, in addition to being the inheritor of an internet vision is the inheritor of P.T. Barnum’s vision of the social world. I bring you into my tent to give you your opportunities. I show you the world you couldn’t otherwise see from my tent and you’ll pay me. And it’s great. But where I think the rest of us are still struggling is with that commune-based sense that if we just get our culture right, we won’t need to do the state anymore. We won’t need to do laws anymore. We won’t need to do labor laws anymore. We just need to get it right.
Particularly we need to get representation of difference. Here’s where my history and my politics get a little bit in conflict. I very badly want and celebrate the kind of diverse, flexible world that my colleagues and I on the left are hoping to make.
That’s just a given. At the same time, I’m deeply nervous on left and right by the organization of public life, along lines of culture and along the lines of ethnicity, perceived culture, signification. This is something playing out on the ground in a way that the commune folks had it playing out. As one commune member said to me, “It’s just easier to work with people like yourself.”
Well, yeah. That’s also how you get to redlining. But I do see that logic alive today in social movements on the right and on the left. I see the struggle for proper signification occupying all of us on the left, kind of intensely. Trying to find the right language to express our differences and constantly focusing on language.
Now, in the late ’60s, ’70s, early ’80s, we focused on identity and language and helping ourselves become more whole, flexible tolerant people while the factories quite literally crumbled around us. And the working class quite literally went crazy in the countryside while we sat on campus. I do see elements of that again. I do fear that my class and folks who share my left values are simply not hearing the voices of those to whom their self understood liberating politics of culture and signification are in fact also an elite politics of discrimination.
Let’s bring this to your current work, Fred, because you just produced a book that I would say in some ways was a bit surprising. I am used to thinking of you as an incredibly thorough historian, willing to sort of follow the thread back wherever it leads you. I mentioned in passing and I’m going to mention it, not because we’re going to talk about it, but just because it’s so damn good, your book, the democratic surround where you start following this question of multimedia and the idea of surrounding people with image and sound and sight and you follow it back to anti-propaganda efforts during World War II.
I was expecting the deep history of marginalization of labor going back into the postwar economy and connecting up to Uber. What we get instead is incredibly thoughtful, incredibly insightful, but a combination of photos and essays titled Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America, which I can only read in some ways as your reaction to this truly crazy moment where you are at this university, which in some ways is literally the center of this imagined internet world and it is ringed on most sides by broken down RVs that are the only places that people can afford to live in the town in which you teach.
What is that got you to write this book and to take it from the particular frame that you approached it from?
Well, first off, thank you. I was a little worried there that the book wouldn’t satisfy. The long histories are wonderful to write. This is the personal story. The long histories are wonderful to write. I love doing them. But I have been very frustrated working at the center of an ideology of kind of disembodied informational power that is also closely linked to the un-raced, unmarked nature of whiteness.
I’m right in the middle of that. I keep writing about this mythology and I keep writing about these folks like Steve jobs, when I go home at night and I pedal my bicycle by [inaudible 00:26:18] and places where people who don’t have money live. I wanted to make that actual Silicon valley visible because there are all these mythological claims that we’re making a new world, we’re changing the world with our technology.
Well, actually, we’re making a very real world, a very material world, a very embodied world and that’s right here and I live there. This is a world that I think we need to literally see. I think part of Tech’s strategy for domination has been to render its consequences in the material world, invisible. Maybe you put your server farms in Northern Iceland or you bury the waste you’ve created in the ground.
You know from the book that Santa Clara county, one of the two counties that makes up Silicon valley is the most polluted county in America. It has more super fun sites than any other county in America. Now, you wouldn’t know it because it’s all underground, but it’s here.
Likewise, 25% of families in the area right now are food insecure. What do you do with that? One in four, one in five families are food insecure. In a world where we are making billions of dollars, there are more than 70 billionaires in this valley. That just seems obscene to me. It seems like an emblem for the larger question of what kind of America we’re making and what kind of world tech is making. What I wanted, Ethan, was a way to concentrate people’s attention on that problem in an excessively accessible way. My academic books are academic, this was not.
There’s a lot of stories that we hear sort of again and again to try to center people in that world. People love telling the stories of the private buses that go from San Francisco onto the various tech campuses and the protests that happen around them periodically.
People particularly love the stories of homeless people living outside of Twitter’s headquarters. But these seldom get beyond the sort of juxtaposition. Frankly, I did the same cheap juxtaposition. I did the broken down RVs right outside of Stanford, but I did it because it strikes me so profoundly every time I come to visit your campus. Help us get beyond just that simple juxtaposition. What’s the complexity that we should be finding here?
Sure. There’s a couple of different things. The first I think is historical. I’m going to unpack this. I’m going to bring my inner historian back into the game here.
My first intellectual affection was the American Puritans. The American Puritans came from England in 1620 and some, a little earlier, some a little later, with the notion that they would come here and live out what they understood to be their predestination. They believed that God had decided who was going to heaven and who was not before anyone was born and they couldn’t know that for sure. But of course, they thought that if God loved them enough, to keep them in heaven forever, they’d be probably love them enough to make them wealthy on this earth too.
It’s in that way that wealth becomes a symbol of being chosen. The early Puritan communities in new England where you’re now living are communities built to pursue wealth as evidence of selection for heaven. There are communities that are also radically discriminatory. Native Americans are not human, homosexuals are buggers and they’re off doing funny things in the hills, which the Puritan’s write about in some of the most comical Puritan literature you’re going to read. Let’s just say they’re very upset.
They build a kind of careful community of saints. Fast forward now to Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is as invest in the rhetoric of the community of saints as any post-Puritan culture could be. It’s not Puritan. It’s not… It’s religious sometimes, but not really. But is deeply invested in the idea that the wealth that you create and the way that you create it is evidence of your selection for a special even divine kind of way of being.
That the people, especially people of color, women, those who support you around the edges in their view are somehow lesser. Perhaps non-human like the native Americans of the Northeast. What I saw playing out here was that very ancient myth. In that context, the myth bumps up against new industrial practices. Practices of out-sourcing, practices of contracting.
One of the people in the book is a security guard for Facebook. When Mary Beth Meehan, the photographer, went to meet him, he met her outside a big house, and she thought, “Wow, this is wonderful.” She’s from Massachusetts. She thought this is wonderful, the security guard lives in this lovely house. Then he takes her around back to the garden shed where he lives.
He interviews her in the garden shed without plumbing, just with a bed and that’s where he lives. Why does he live that way? Because he’s a contractor for a company that could afford to pay him a great deal, more, but has no interest in investing in the whole, rather has an interest in proving the heavenly status of its leaders and his friends. That’s the old Puritan logic come back to bite us. That’s what’s bothering me.
It’s interesting how almost literal the parallels are. Let me first say by the way, I’m actually in the Hills of Western Massachusetts. I’m out where all the buggers were. After they got thrown out of… They went off into the [inaudible 00:31:41]. That’s where we are in Western Massachusetts.
We have a slightly different relationship with the Puritans than our friends to the East. But when I think about this cult of tech saints, I’m spending a lot of my time right now wrestling with the world of crypto and I’m wrestling with it because clearly, there are some very smart people and some very interesting ideas in there. There’s also an enormous amount of grift and there’s also an enormous amount of [inaudible 00:32:14] and faith. Faith is the only way that I can understand a figure like Elon Musk.
It is something about this idea of anyone that wealthy and that visible must in fact, be a genius and those in his inner circle of the PayPal mafia must also be a genius. I would like to think that we’re getting beyond the hopes of saying, “These people were extraordinarily successful at making money. Let us now let them make social policy.”
But of course, we saw that with Carnegie. We saw that with the birth of the library. We saw it with… We’ve seen it at all sorts of other moments in time, taking responsibility on this as well. My work is possible because of the Ford family and the MacArthur family and the people who sort of end up continuing to support me in all of this.
That cult of science goes all the way back. And it really goes all the way back through even the sort of philanthropic and frankly, academic structures that support you and me, my friend. Do you think that at some point, it’s going to be brought down to size or do you think that the cultish religious aspect of it makes it impossible for the people who are veterated in this way to ever actually sort of understand the many unfairnesses of the universe that they’re helping to create?
Let me start with the people on top. I think it’s almost impossible to appreciate the suffering of those, unlike yourself, when you are as buffered as the extremely wealthy have to be. I have spent a few days with a billionaire who will go unnamed and that billionaire traveled with a security team, a finance guy and basically a posse. Otherwise, that person could not have moved safely through the world.
He’s not going to see the things that you and I are going to see, privileged as we are. But the deeper point about the future, I think, depends on the left. A friend of mine is fond of saying, it takes a paradigm to beat a paradigm. We’ve inherited the paradigm of tech sainthood and of technologies as solutions that both solve social problems and prove that some people deserve to be the solvers of social problems.
All right. We’ve inherited that. It’s as old as America itself. Where are we going to find a language for collaborative institutionalized effective action when our left, and I include myself in this, is equally invested in an individualist notion of community. One of the things that the internet was made so attractive in the ’90s, one of the utopian ideas was that we could somehow be both individuals and a community at the same time.
That fantasy plagues our class. It’s a curse. It’s a complete curse. I still have a fantasy book which I will someday write called the curse of individualism. It is a curse. I think our class has been focused on the kinds of collectivity that emerged in the ’60s. We can have style tribes, we can have sexuality tribes, we can have ethnicity tribes. We can form all these different tribe we want to form, but what we’re not doing is reaching across to those radically unlike and perhaps even opposed to ourselves and building institutions that will sustain colloquy across those differences.
You just can’t have those conversations in an unbounded environment. You get to where you get in the communes where it’s shared consciousness and charismatic leaders. That won’t work. We need to bolster our institutions. I will say that that impulse, to bolster institutions, runs contrary to the streams of left thoughts, certainly for the last 50 years where what we wanted to bolster was individual freedom and self-actualization.
Well, we’ve ended up in this really interesting place where both the left and the right are suspicious of the state. The right is suspicious of the state because of restrictions on freedom, because of the assumption that anything that the government can do is wasteful, the basic tenants of neoliberalism. The left is suspicious in some ways, I think exactly because of that. They don’t want the imagination to be stifled to the extent that we want communities, their communities of unique individuals, where that unique individuality doesn’t disappear.
Fred, I have to say, I’m feeling this feeling in the pit of my stomach, talking to you because a lot of my project right now is about very small communities. It’s about trying to help communities between 50 and 5,000 people build their own spaces, build their own rules with the hopes that some of them will be that sort of colloquy between people who disagree because they’re brought together in the same geographic area with the same common needs.
But I’m also completely aware that I am romanticizing the small scale much in the way of the commune. Here’s the trick though. This podcast is very specifically about trying to get critical people to think about solutions.
Solutions don’t just have to be fixes. They’re not just, “Well, this is bad. Now let’s tinker with this.” They can also be reimaginings. So they can be essentially saying, “This is the wrong way to think about it. Think about it this way.”
Help me right now with this problem that you’re dealing with, which is the problem of the left not able to sort of articulate the need for a real collective welfare, that the left’s vision is one in which the billionaires might occasionally pay taxes and maybe, we can put plumbing into your friend’s garden shed. What’s the vision that gets us further than that? Reimagine for me?
Sure. I want to start with a different point just briefly, which is to note that the left and the right distrust government, but the right is self-consciously and deliberately manipulating the state to seize and hold power in an authoritarian manner.
I just want to… They may distrust the state, but they’ve been working it hard for 20 years if not longer. So I just want to get that on the table. I think that… I want to be sure that I don’t appear to be anti-community. Community is necessary, but not sufficient. I think that the key is to create settings in which people with radically different interests have a way of negotiating those differences without personalizing the argument. I know that sounds abstract, but let me try to bring it down to earth a little bit.
One of the things that we’ve lost in the last 50, 60 years are a series of mediating institutions. Things like ranges in the rural areas, churches and other settings. These were media institutions in that they brought together people of radically different political views for the purpose of a task that they needed to accomplish together.
To make I think difference work, you have to have tasks that have to be accomplished in common and you have to have a sense that for the purpose of this task, I’m going to set aside my deep disagreement with your view of whatever they are because you have to get past the views to see the person behind the views. I think that’s a big part of it.
I think the second part of it that is very much on my mind, and this is more of a left theory piece, we on the, I will even go so far as to call us the Identitarian left, have got to reimagine class, and we have got to invite white men back into the conversation. I understand that we’re a historical problem. I get that. I know that I am an old white guy and I recognize that and fair enough.
But the rage that you see among white men, particularly working class white men who have been exiled, not only from their factories, but from the theories of liberation that our left proposes is partly our doing. This goes all the way back to Vietnam. They fought that war. We went to college, we owe them.
That is something that we just don’t say nearly enough. We need a rhetoric of the left that says, everyone is welcome. You, working class folks who may be white, purple, green, who don’t have medical care, that’s wrong. We share that burden with you. We need to reach out and do it. That’s all I got.
Fred, let me sort of ask you for hope as sort of a closing remark. As we think about this question of imaginations from the 1960s that have led directly to economic systems that we’re suffering from in the 2020s, are there other imaginations out there? Are there other imaginaries that you find yourself looking at and saying, “I want more people to imagine this. This is the voice that I want people following. It’s not Stewart Brand and the Ti calculator and the commune. Instead, it’s…”
For me, it’s 1950s civil rights. The civil rights movements of the mid ’50s to the mid ’60s are powerful places in which people collaborate together in an organized manner, brought together often by churches, often by political parties, sometimes rallying behind charismatic leaders but doing it in a way that not only builds community, across difference, but builds institutions and changes institutions and is focused on changing institutions.
That also claims its power based on, I don’t even know how to describe this, likeness rather than difference. I know I’m treading into some very difficult territory here, but think back to 1968 and well, if you were alive then, think back to 1968 and the garbage worker strike. I believe it was Detroit. Black Americans marched on strike, in the garbage worker strike, carrying a sign that said, “I am a man. I am a man.”
We live in a postmodern era where the critique of the subject has been ferociously displayed and that’s brought us some real benefits. We live in a much more fluid gender world than we ever did. But what do we do with that idea that I am a man? I am like you? I deserve what you have and you deserve what I have. And we need to tend one another.
For me, the civil rights movement was a place where that happened. I’ll never forget the Black Panthers made breakfast in Oakland.
One other place that gives me hope, my wife and I are members of a radical formerly Methodist we got booted, church in San Francisco called Glide. We got booted for not being Christian enough despite the fact that we give out, I think it’s 5,000 meals a day.
The press loved it. Total heyday. “Church gives out thousands of meals chastised by Bishop for not being Christian enough.” Okay. But in that church, that church is a church that is radically all affirming. There is a representative of every world you’ve ever seen in America in that church. Every color is there. Every political persuasion is there, as far as I can tell, every sexual orientation is there.
It’s a place where people work together, talk across difference, wrestle with difficult ideas but when I walk in that building, I know I’m part of something that is an emblem of my ideal America, a place where everybody’s welcome and everybody participates and everybody has to negotiate across difference for the common good, not only for their individual welfare, a common good. There’s a reason Massachusetts is called the Commonwealth. I sometimes wish America was too.
That’s an incredibly helpful note to end us on Fred. I want to thank you so much for taking us both back and into the future. I like that. We started in the 1960s and eventually worked our way back to the 1950s through contemporary Silicon valley in the midst of it.
Professor Fred Turner, his most recent book is seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America. Don’t sleep on his earlier books as well. The Democratic Surround, From Counterculture to Cyber Culture. And if you really want to go back to these questions about how America’s still wrestling with Vietnam, Echoes of Combat, The Vietnam war in American Memory. Thank you so much, Fred.
Thank you, Ethan. Delightful to be here.