nettime's avid reader on Fri, 25 Nov 2016 09:25:26 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Fred Turner: Fascism and The Historical Irony of Facebook

Kim-Mai Cutler, 24.11.2016


I wanted to catch up and get his [Fred Turner's] reflections on the
election and Facebook and Twitter’s impact on American politics.
Much of the discussion in the press feels ahistorical and there is
this irony in that the ideas behind networked and peer-to-peer media
are rooted in a resistance to fascism and emerged from the lessons of
World War II.

Q: So can you explain the core argument of your book ["The Democratic
Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the
Psychedelic Sixties"]?

Turner: In the late 1930s, when Germany turned fascist, Americans were
mystified. Our intellectual leaders had long thought that Germany was
the most culturally sophisticated nation in Europe. They were all
asking how this had happened.

How did the country that brought us Goethe and Beethoven bring us

Many Americans blamed the mass media. They had two different ways of
thinking about it. First, some believed that Hitler and his clique
were clinically insane. Somehow they had transferred their madness
over the radio waves and through newsreel movie screens to ordinary
Germans. Second, many believed that one-to-many media forced audiences
into an authoritarian kind of passivity. When everyone turned their
eyes and ears in the same direction, they appeared to be acting out
the obedience expected of fascist citizens.

When World War II started, the Roosevelt administration wanted to
create propaganda to make Americans fight fascism abroad. But the
problem was — what media were they going to use? If they used
mass media, they risked turning Americans into authoritarians. But
if they didn’t, they wondered, how would they achieve the national
unity they needed to fight fascism?

There was one school of thought that said, “We’ll just copy
[Joseph] Goebbels. We’ll de-program Americans later [if they turn

But there were about 60 American intellectuals who were part of
something called the Committee for National Morale who had another
idea. These were people like anthropologists Gregory Bateson and
Margaret Mead, psychologist Gordon Allport, and the curator Arthur
Upham Pope.

They believed that we needed to create a kind of media that would
promote democratic personalities. And if we did that, we could
prevent racist nationalism. They dreamed of media that would surround
you, that would require you to make your own choices and use your
individual perception to define the images that mattered most to you.
It was meant to be a kind of media environment within which you could
make your own decisions, and so become more individually unique. At
the same time, it put you in the company of others doing the same
thing. The environment was designed to help forge both individual
identity and collective unity simultaneously.

The Committee for National Morale didn’t end up making media. But a
group of Bauhaus artists, who were escaping Hitler’s Germany, took
up their ideas and began creating immersive, multi-image environments.
Their first big work was a propaganda exhibition called “The Road To
Victory” at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1942. Herbert Bayer
and Edward Steichen surrounded visitors with images of all different
sizes so that people could choose to be citizens in the company of
others. It’s a form that surrounds you, which is why I called the
book “The Democratic Surround.”

Over the next 50 years, through a series of twists and turns, the
democratic media dreams of the Committee for National Morale actually
set the stage for Facebook, Twitter and other kinds of peer-to-peer

The irony is that with Donald Trump, we are seeing a medium and a set
of tactics designed to confront fascism being used to produce a new


Q: Let’s go back to media now. You’re talking about media
exhibitions in the 1940s. How does the work that these thinkers and
artists were doing translate to how online media works today?

Turner: The multi-media images in “The Democratic Surround”
provide a glimpse of the kind of perceptual world that media thinkers
believed would make us less racist and more embracing of our
differences. It’s a world in which we’re meant to practice looking
at and identifying with others who are not like ourselves.

The surround aesthetics of the 1940s came to shape the 1950s, 60s
and 70s by moving through two worlds. One, they became the basis of
cold war propaganda exhibitions. Well into the 1960s, Americans built
multi-image propaganda environments, with an eye toward democratizing
populations in authoritarian countries. They built multi-image
environments as part of trade fairs or exhibitions in the belief that
they would give people the ability to practice the modes of perception
that democracy depends upon.

In 1955, Edward Steichen built what remains the most influential of
these environments, “The Family of Man.” It was an exhibition of
500 photographs of people around the world, hung in a surround format.
The US government sent the exhibition around the world for a decade.
It’s now on permanent display in Luxembourg. The show’s catalog
has sold more than 8 million copies.

The second way the surround aesthetic has come down to us and helped
drive the rise of social media is through the art world. Thanks to
John Cage, it became the basis of Happenings in New York in the
late 1950s. Cage believed that concerts and symphonies embodied the
hierarchies of old Europe and were essentially exercises in domination
by aural means. He knew the Bauhaus refugees well. And so he did with
sound what they had done with pictures. He designed sonic surrounds
that would open people up to listening to sounds around them and
choosing the ones that were most valuable to them.

In the late 1950s he taught these techniques to the artists who made
the first Happenings. Then the people who are hanging out in this
art world, like Stewart Brand, saw this open surround form and took
it with them to make things like the 1966 Trips Festival in San
Francisco, which was a psychedelic surround.

Events like the Trips Festival helped drive a countercultural dream
of escaping party-style politics through technology. If they just
built the right geodesic domes, took the right LSD, and surrounded
themselves with the right music and light shows, lots of folks
believed they could establish a new and better society. This society
would be based on a shared mindset, a shared consciousness that
technology would help create.

This idea of shared consciousness became a conceptual foundation of
the Internet as it emerged into public view. Stewart Brand and the
people who were building communes in the 1960s reimagined computers
as technologies of liberation. They turned the dreams of the commune
movement — which by then had failed — into fantasies that
the Internet could be an “electronic frontier.” The computer would
now be a “personal” technology — that is, a tool like LSD
for the transformation of consciousness. And the net would link these
technology-enabled minds together in “virtual community.”

The counterculture’s utopian vision of technology still lingers
in the air when, say, Ev Williams founds Twitter, or even when Mark
Zuckerberg declares his desire to connect everyone on the planet
through Facebook.

Q: But most people weren’t experiencing these exhibitions or
psychedelic festivals. They were watching ABC, CBS and NBC.

Turner: By 1968, the psychedelic experiences I’m taking about were
widespread. The rock concert was available. Thousands of Americans had
gotten to experience it. They were quite universal by the 1970s and

One questions we might have is why multi-media didn’t replace
one-to-many media, the way the Committee for National Morale hoped
it would. If multi-media was such a democratizing force, why is mass
media still here?

One of the things we see with Trump and the Twitter-sphere is that
when new technologies come on the scene, they don’t replace old
technologies. They layer onto older technologies.

Twitter and its liberating potential is already mass mediated. It’s
already commercial. When Donald tweets, he isn’t just tweeting to
a general populace. He’s generating stories for CBS and NBC, and
for that matter, Facebook. He’s generating stories that create an
entire media sphere on their own. That is the source of his power.
He is using the old fascist charisma, but he’s doing it in a media
environment in which the social and the commercial, the individual and
the mass, are already completely entwined.


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact:
#  @nettime_bot tweets mail w/ sender unless #ANON is in Subject: