Bay Area Disrupted: Fred Turner

Fred Turner lehrt an der Stanford University im Herzen des Silicon Valley Kommunikation. In seinem Buch „From Counterculture to Cyberculture“ legt er die gemeinsamen Wurzeln der Gegenkultur und des Silicon Valley offen. Sein neuestes Buch „The Democratic Surround“ schildert die Vorgeschichte vom 2. Weltkrieg bis zu den LSD-Experimenten der 60er Jahre. Bemerkenswert ist auch seine Arbeit über das Burning Man Festival, das er gemeinsam mit einem der Erfinder der Siri-Sprachsteuerung für Apple-Geräte besuchte (pdf).

About the counter-culture and Silicon Valley:

We often think the counter-culture – the American counter-culture – and the world of high technology are separate. We often tell the story that military technology – military research – produced the internet, produced computers, whilst the counter-culture was born in a reaction to the Vietnam-era militarism of the 1960s.

In point of fact, I’ve argued that, inside the research industry of the 1940s and ‘50s, an enormously collaborative culture emerged. That collaborative culture actually set the stage for the kind of counter-culture that emerged here in the 1960s.

“What the counter-culture did for computing was that it took devices that were really seen as enemies of human life, during the Vietnam era, and turned them into emblems and tools of personal transformation. You know, the counter-cultural ideal – at least, among the commune side of the counter-culture – was that we would build a new world based around a shared mindset, a shared consciousness. And we had to find the right tools to give us that consciousness.

In the 1960s, those tools were LSD, and music – and amplified music, especially. Now, in the computer era, they were meant to be small laptop computers, and the kinds of connection that we could get on the internet.

So the other important thing to understand about tech culture in California is that the location of tech culture – Stanford University, Silicon Valley – completely overlaps with the location of counter-culture. When the tech culture was being born here, in the ‘70s, ‘60s, the counter-culture was flourishing, all up and down this peninsula. And, you know, the people who were programming by day were out with the counter-culture at night – those were not separate social worlds. And so the values of the counter-culture came to permeate the tech culture.

I would also argue that the values of the tech culture – the celebration of business, the celebration of technology as a mode of social change – came to permeate the counter-culture as well. So, certainly the new, communalist wing of the counter-culture was, by German standards, radically apolitical. You know, we had a political wing of the counter-culture, but we also had a kind of pro-business, pro-technology wing, and that wing was really very influential in how Americans think about what the internet is good for today.

 

About the collaborative work style of Silicon Valley:

One of the arguments that I’ve made is that a new way of manufacturing goods is emerging on the internet. And, in that way of manufacturing, people come together in more or less open spaces. They’re sometimes private, sometimes public, and in those spaces they work together on projects of their own design.

Burning Man is exactly that. It’s a defined space, it’s, you know, about two miles square, it’s fenced in. Inside that space, people display themselves to one another, form coalitions, make art together – it’s very much a do-it-yourself space. The state government stays more or less out of it – there are police there, but they try to hold back – the Burning Man team actually has its own internal police force.

And it’s a place where people practice what the scholar Yochai Benkler has called ‘commons-based peer production’. It’s a commons – it’s an open area; it’s peers – people working together as equals; and they’re producing something, in this case a festival.

But that’s very much the same logic that drives open-source software production, or engineering teams inside Google.

 

About Burning Man:

So, the Burning Man Festival got started, actually, way back back in the 1980s – 1986. An artist named Larry Harvey went out to a beach near San Francisco and burned a kind of wooden figure – people began gathering around. Each year, he did it again and each year the crowd that came got bigger, until the city of San Francisco said, ‘Hey, you can’t have hundreds of people burning a man on the beach.‘

And he joined up with a group called the Cacophony Society – sort of an anarchist, artistic group, really fun – and they went out into the desert – the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, which is a very difficult place. I mean, it’s really dusty, really hot, middle of nowhere. So they go out and, very famously, they get to the desert and they draw a line in the sand, and they jump over the line. And when they jump over the line, the rules that apply in regular life no longer apply.

And it becomes a space of – I think, they imagine it – great freedom. It’s interesting, you know – it’s a place where there’s not supposed to be any money but, in fact, if you don’t have any money, it’s very difficult to go to Burning Man.

You know, it’s a place where people work very hard to be creative and free, but very much, I think, in terms that are similar to the ways that entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley work to be creative and free. I think those things are really closely tied.

 

About libertarianism:

Here, it’s focused on individuals. You know, a libertarian belief would be that my job as an individual actor and as a citizen is to pursue my individual satisfaction. You pursue yours, I’ll pursue mine, and somehow, probably through the marketplace, we will arrive at some kind of new sociability.

That’s partly what you see at Burning Man. At Burning Man, what you see is people being radically individual, together. That combination – ‘I’m going to be most myself, while also being with others who are being most themselves‘ – that’s what a libertarian, in a sense, society looks like.

Now, it’s a bit of a fiction, because at Burning Man, as at everywhere else, there is actually an infrastructure, there are actually governing forces and, if there weren’t those things, it wouldn’t work very well. And, I think, one of the things we tend to forget here in the States is how much our government has done to supply the conditions that allow for the entrepreneurship we value.

You know, the internet was not the product of individual entrepreneurs – it was the product of state-sponsored research. Even the World Wide Web – Tim Berners-Lee was able to do that because of European-sponsored, government-sponsored research. You know, that’s something that, I think, we tend to forget in our telling of these heroic tales of individual lives.

 

About musicians:

One of the things that I’ve been most fascinated by in the counter-culture and in Burning Man is the way in which culture and style, music, performance, art, serve as the new gathering place for people of all different kinds of work.

My sense is that the working conditions of musicians, which have always been pretty rough and pretty precarious, are becoming the working conditions of all of us. And in some ways, that looks very attractive. You know, you think to yourself, ‘Wow! Maybe I can be as creative and as free as Jimi Hendrix’. But in point of fact, it’s not that easy.

You know, Burning Man’s just one week a year. The rest… the other 51 weeks, you’re working in somebody’s company. And that tension – between the dream of being Jimi Hendrix, and waking up every morning to work in Apple or some other firm – is a tension that plagues Silicon Valley. And it’s one that, I think, will come to plague many of us elsewhere.

 

About charisma:

One of the things that became most clear in my counter-culture research was that, when you go to informal systems for bringing people together and doing things – when you leave bureaucracy behind, it sounds really freeing. But what it tends to do is reinvigorate prejudice. It’s the weirdest phenomenon.

So, on the communes of the 1960s, people said, ‘No more bureaucracy – we’re just gonna be cool here.‘ Well, who’s cool? ‘Charismatic people are cool.‘ Okay, who’s cool? ‘People like us.‘ Well, what does it mean to be ‘like us’? Well, it means to be white, it means to be young, it means to be wealthy.

Suddenly, there are racial exclusions going on, anti-poverty exclusions going on, that you can’t hardly even talk about. There’s no more language, there’s no technology for talking about how to distribute resources.

 

About inequality:

 

You know, one of the things that, I think, the US allows and tolerates, to my great shame – it tolerates starvation-level poverty. You know, there are parts of the United States that are easily Third-World countries. And that’s shameful. There is no excuse for that in our country. I just find it astonishing, and I don’t think the ‘Sharing Economy’ is going to help us fix that problem.

 

About entrepreneurs:

 

You know, if you think of your role as an entrepreneur being to raise the standard of living of your entire society – not simply to make profit for your investors but to raise the standard of living for your workers, their families, their community, their nation – then you have a different set of obligations.

You start to have a set of obligations to manufacture in those spaces. You know, Henry Ford built the automobile that built American wealth: the ‘Model A’. And, you know, when he built that car, he built it in a place and in a way that empowered his workers to buy that car. He created a virtuous circle, by which the workers themselves and their state and their nation were empowered.

What kind of virtual [sic] circle are companies like Google and Apple creating?

 

About disruption:

 

I think, if you imagine yourself as a disruptor, then you don’t have to imagine yourself as a responsible builder. You don’t have to imagine yourself as a member, as a citizen, as an equal – you’re the disruptor. Your job is to disrupt, and do whatever it takes to disrupt.

Your job is not to help build the state, build the community, build the infrastructure that made your life possible in the first place.

I think it’s a matter of how you imagine yourself. And this is where ‘disruption‘ as an ideology is such a problem. It makes it very difficult to build continuity and community and, and… you know, an egalitarian kind of society.

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