Phantom Public

Phantom Public

Have we lost the deeply democratic vision that animated the early internet?

(Rosa Menkman / Flickr)

In 1964 the enigmatic Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously declared “the medium is the message.” At the same time he called media “extensions of man.” Fifty years ago these assertions were provocative enough to turn McLuhan into a countercultural celebrity. Today, it all seems somewhat unremarkable: who doesn’t feel their smartphone, for both better and worse, to be a part of them? The idea that media extend us—making us more connected and sociable, informed and empowered—is not just pervasive; it is essential to the promotion of the digital economy, or what theorist Jodi Dean has dubbed “communicative capitalism.”

Though McLuhan’s work fell out of fashion for a few decades, there has been renewed interest in his theories since the advent of the internet, which some say McLuhan—never afraid to make sweeping pronouncements or predications—anticipated. McLuhan imagined a vast electronic web encircling the globe, with cinema, television, radio, telephones, and the printing press enabling individuals to communicate with one another in a “global village.” “Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language,” wrote McLuhan in a particularly optimistic—today, we might say “techno-utopian”—passage in his groundbreaking 1964 book Understanding Media. “The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity,” which would lead to the unfolding of a “general cosmic consciousness.”

Today you don’t have to be a card-carrying McLuhanite to believe that forms of media have their own inherent politics. Many academics and pundits have built their reputations arguing that the rise of the internet leads to the decentralization and democratization of communication, and of social life more broadly. While some contemporary critics have challenged this sort of “technological determinism,” the proposition that new media is irrelevant to understanding politics is equally problematic. We need more historically informed analyses of the way power operates in an era of digital networks and electronic media, and more pointed critiques of the ways the powerful purposefully obscure their influence over and through these channels.

The work of Stanford historian Fred Turner is a good place to start. As he explains in his fascinating and illuminating 2013 book The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties, McLuhan’s apparently pioneering thinking on media owes a large and largely forgotten debt to an earlier group of anti-fascist campaigners and well-meaning Cold Warriors. They were the first to articulate a vision of a media-driven democracy that, though never perfectly implemented, has suffused much of today’s popular thinking about the internet and social media.

These trailblazers were reacting to the dominant view of their age. In the 1930s, with another world war looming on the horizon, media became the subject of widespread and intense suspicion, a tendency epitomized by certain associates of the Frankfurt School (Theodor Adorno famously warned of mass culture’s “liquidation” of the individual). Those struggling to make sense of the rise of fascism latched on to a theory hewn from then novel psychoanalytic concepts: Nazism’s appeal could only be explained as a consequence of media manipulation. Adolf Hitler, people hypothesized, must have hypnotized his audiences through radio and film. The expert deployment of broadcasting systems stimulated and influenced the unconscious desires of defenseless citizens (even sophisticated European ones); the exertion of dictatorial power, in other words, depended upon propaganda. This hypothesis put those intellectuals, artists, and government officials who hoped to rally their fellows against fascism in an uncomfortable bind. If mass media fueled authoritarian mass psychology, how, then, could they mobilize Americans without inadvertently turning them into fascists, too?

Liberal elites sought a new bottom-up theory of communications that could defuse and redirect totalitarian currents and inoculate regular citizens against them. They aimed to devise a set of practices that nurtured not the dreaded “authoritarian personality” but an individualist and democratic one. A group of social scientists and scholars sought to establish these ideas through the Committee for National Morale, founded in 1940 by a Manhattan-based art curator named Arthur Upham Pope. If Nazi morale was conformist and brittle, the U.S. version would be flexible yet strong and involve the “whole” self, an idea that dovetailed with recent interventions by psychoanalysts like Gordon Allport, Karen Horney, and Erich Fromm. If Nazi ideology rested on racist pseudoscience, the American alternative would stress nurture over nature, as anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, both eminent committee members, did in their field work.

While the Committee for National Morale has been mostly forgotten, Turner makes the case that the group sowed the seeds of a new communications paradigm and a new conception of the democratic self. They helped innovate the kinds of immersive and interactive media environments that are now ubiquitous—the “democratic surrounds” of Turner’s title. This kind of thinking was essential to U.S. efforts during the Cold War to build democratic character and facilitate communication, both within America’s borders and globally. But as Turner shows in his examinations of international trade expositions and world fairs where the United States sought to distinguish itself from its communist adversaries, the democratic personality was becoming synonymous with the consumer mindset. Democracy was equated with commercial abundance and choice.

By the late sixties, this consumer-inflected democratic surround became fully entwined with the egalitarian and expressive individuality of the counterculture, which was not as dramatic a break with the past as its denizens believed. When tens of thousands of hippies flooded Golden Gate Park in 1967 for the “Gathering of the Tribes” or when rock bands performed alongside trippy projections, these aspiring rebels were in fact fulfilling the democratic ambitions of their parents’ generation, not overturning or subverting them. It follows, then, that the same holds true for all of us who abandon ourselves in all-encompassing digital media today. Our everyday behavior can be traced back down a winding path that leads past counterculture rebels to U.S. Cold War propagandists.

“The democratic surround was not only a way of organizing images and sounds; it was a way of thinking about organizing society,” writes Turner of this subterranean current. In other words, multimedia environments and multi-channel modes of communication were initially conceived of as a means to an end. Here we catch a glimpse of the genesis of the current fetish for horizontal networks over bureaucratic hierarchy. “If fascist society was static and ruled from above,” Turner writes, “democratic society would be ever-changing and managed via the interplay of the senses.” Who, though, does that managing? From where does their authority arise; are they accountable, and if so to whom? Is this arrangement any more democratic than what preceded it? However well-intentioned its originators, the social vision embedded in the surround model raises deeply problematic questions.

Fortunately, Turner has written another, earlier book that can help us find answers. Published in 2006, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism is an eye-opening and essential account of the rise of what could be called the “managerial mode of control.” In it, Turner examines how a close-knit group of countercultural collaborators and colleagues who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s—with one figure, Stewart Brand, front and center—adopted “cybernetic” ideas that could later be found at the heart of the internet-fueled “new economy” of the 1990s. Taken together, Turner’s studies shed indispensable light on contemporary thinking about media, technology, democracy, and the free market.

In 1948 Norbert Wiener coined the term “cybernetics,” derived from the Greek term for “steersman.” The appeal of cybernetics, as Turner writes, lay in its “picture of humans and machines as dynamic, collaborating elements in a single, highly fluid, socio-technical system” where “control emerged not from the mind of a commanding officer, but from the complex, probabilistic interactions of humans, machines, and events around them.” Though the term has a slightly dated ring, its concepts remain with us. They have diffused into fields as diverse as life sciences, engineering, mathematics, business management, the arts, and anarchist theory. (As historian John Duda has pointed out, the phrase “self-organization”—now taken as a central principle within radical circles—only began to appear in translations of classic anarchist texts in the 1970s, at the height of cybernetics’ vogue.)

Wiener’s contribution was quickly overshadowed by other scholars who began to adopt, adapt, and amplify his approach, among them the aforementioned Gregory Bateson, author of the surprise cybernetic hit Steps to an Ecology of Mind, which was a tremendous influence on Brand who sought Bateson as a mentor. The frame of cybernetics made it possible to link the countercultural and the cutting edge as never before. Cybernetics permeated the work of psychedelic art pioneers of USCO, which Stewart Brand joined in 1963 (the group was also deeply influenced by McLuhan). USCO claimed to offer participants a chance to both “be completely themselves” and to “dissolve into the universal human pool.” A promotional brochure for a 1968 presentation at the Whitney Museum of American Art described USCO as uniting “the cults of mysticism and technology as a basis for introspection and communication.” Turner credits Brand and his colleagues with pulling off this unification on a global scale: thanks to their efforts, computers and technology more generally ceased to be seen as stodgy tools of government bureaucracy and became instruments of personal expression and liberation.

Brand, a quintessential Bay Area entrepreneur, played a key role in this transformation. In addition to his work with USCO, traveling with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and curating and promoting the popular 1966 Trips Festival, Brand founded the enormously influential Whole Earth Catalog, a massive compendium of tools, reviews, and reflections that graced bohemian coffee tables all over the nation. The Catalog later became the CoEvolution Quarterly and then morphed into the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, or WELL, an online conferencing message board system widely recognized as a precursor to today’s social media.

In the hands of Brand and his cohort, the rhetoric of cybernetics was employed to facilitate networking and entrepreneurship, making such connections and activities appear as inevitable as biological systems. In keeping with this logic Brand mustered all of his social capital to launch the Global Business Network (GBN) in 1987. Meanwhile Brand’s longtime compatriot Kevin Kelly promoted an explicitly economic cybernetic vision in his own books and as the executive editor of Wired. In Kelly’s hands the internet became a symbol of the post-Fordist marketplace that was deeply compliant with natural principles and governed by an invisible hand. The Whole Earth Catalog’s “technocentric attitude toward social change, its systems orientation, its preoccupation with information, and even the cluster of networks it brought together,” as Turner describes it in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, would filter through Brand and Kelly’s later work to become “central features of the 1990s debates about networked computing and the ‘New Economy.’” Their doctrines lent a “potent ideological boost to executives seeking to outsource labor, automate industrial progress, and decrease the stability of worker’s employment.”

Brand and his partners sold GBN in 2001, but he has hardly gone into retirement. Long interested in ecological systems, in 2009 he published a book called Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary, which challenges what Brand sees as an alarming and growing parochialism within the environmental movement. Brand is a firm believer in anthropogenic climate change, but his aim in this book is to challenge left-wing shibboleths. All of the book’s copious ire is heaped upon environmentalists who are skeptical of technological panaceas. While so-called “deep ecologists” certainly go to ridiculous extremes in their defense of the “natural,” Brand is more inclined to rail against those who campaign against genetically modified crops than to utter an unkind word about the executives and shareholders who are determined to profit from fossil fuels at humanity’s collective expense. This emphasis is not surprising: GBN was in many respects an outgrowth of a planning group at Royal Dutch Shell, the oil refining behemoth, and would eventually list Texaco and other multinational corporations as clients.

Brand’s latest offering, 2011’s The SALT Summaries: Condensed Ideas About Long-term Thinking, echoes many of Whole Earth Discipline’s themes. Once a month, beginning in 2003, Brand has convened an invitation-only group of experts and opinion-makers in San Francisco, California under the auspices of the Long Now Foundation to, as the website states, “help nudge civilization” in a new direction. SALT stands for “Seminars About Long-term Thinking”: the goal of the meetings is to shift the speed and scale of reflection on contemporary social problems. The SALT Summaries consists of short digests of every single SALT event, which musician Brian Eno calls “Power Bars for the mind” in his brief introduction. But the tidbits offered are even less satisfying than those meal replacements. Though an array of interesting topics are addressed—how to deflect an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, the search for extraterrestrial life, urban planning and slums, Easter Island’s demise, human life extension, the Singularity, climate change—many of the summaries barely stand on their own, and some are little more than biographies of the speakers.

Nonetheless, when read through the lens of The Democratic Surround and From Counterculture to Cyberculture, The SALT Summaries become more compelling. Indeed, the collection presents an intriguing portrait of a successful class of technocrats who, though believing themselves to be post-ideological, nevertheless want to change the world by disseminating their ideas through their social networks. The project’s participants present themselves as pragmatists or technicians, not politicians or dogmatists. As Brand puts it in Whole Earth Discipline, drawing on philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, they are “foxes” who draw on a variety of experiences and ideas, not “hedgehogs” who use the one thing or idea they know to understand everything else.

The SALT speakers are all very smart, to be sure, but they more closely resemble hedgehogs than they would like to admit. The SALT Summaries present a worldview in which technology is invariably the solution to problems, never the cause. The possibility that problems cannot be so easily solved, or that desirable solutions are not always obvious or agreed upon, is pushed to the side. The luminaries invited to lecture—including Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama, Chris Anderson, Niall Ferguson, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Clay Shirky—generally steer clear of structural questions about politics or economics. They appear blissfully unaware of inequality in all its guises. If SALT is our guide, there are very few women in the future (only 15 percent of presenting speakers were female) and almost no people of color. Turner highlights this elitism in his study of Brand’s Whole Earth Network: if its demographics offer any guide to the society of the future, “it would be masculine, entrepreneurial, well-educated, and white. It would celebrate systems theory and the power of technology to foster social change. And it would turn away from questions of gender, race, and class, and toward a rhetoric of individual and small-group empowerment.”

The SALT Summaries is a portrait, to put it another way, of the managerial mode of control; it provides a window onto a certain branch of cybernetic thinking in action. The technocratic elites Brand convenes and mingles with want to exert power but disavow their authority at the same time. They see themselves as ahead of the curve, adopting concepts and tools that will trickle down to everyone else through self-reinforcing feedback loops.

Was another world possible? It is clear that part of the reason that Turner wrote The Democratic Surround was to remind us of good ideas that have been abandoned and alternative paths not taken. As he writes in the book’s introduction, “What has disappeared is the deeply democratic vision that animated the turn toward mediated environments in the first place, and that sustained it across the 1950s and into the 1960s.” It is this “radically liberal, diverse, and egalitarian” vision that Turner wishes to recover through his research; he hopes that “with a new generation’s efforts, it might yet live there again.” It sounds desirable enough. Yet for such ideals to be revived we have to better understand the way their absence adversely affects us, and that’s something Turner never clearly articulates.

For Turner a pivotal rift occurred in the 1960s, when the politically oriented New Left and the free-spirited counterculture parted ways. In tracing the roots of the “Be-Ins” and “Happenings” to the democratic surrounds of preceding decades, Turner highlights the shortcomings of the former, making the case that some critical democratic potential got lost. The multimedia experimentation of the period—and the counterculture more broadly, in Turner’s view—promoted the personal psyche as the proper terrain of social change; collective responsibility, effective organization, and direct action got the shaft. No doubt Turner is right that our political ambitions have become contracted and privatized, but placing so much blame at the feet of the counterculture seems both overstated and oversimplified when you consider the larger economic and social forces involved. The countercultural mindset Turner laments was more a symptom of neoliberalism’s ascension than its cause.

Of course the counterculture is hardly the only realm of diminished utopian horizons. In 1946 and 1949 Norbert Wiener wrote two agonized letters on the politics of technology. The first, published in the Atlantic Monthly under the title “A Scientist Rebels,” was a response to an employee of the Boeing Aircraft Company who had requested a copy of an out-of-print article. Though he conducted military research during the Second World War, Wiener refused to share his paper, deploring the “tragic insolence of the military mind” and the “bombing or poisoning of defenseless peoples” to which his scientific ideas might contribute. The second was an unsolicited warning about advances in automation to Walter Reuther of the Union of Automobile Workers, declaring that he had “turned down unconditionally” invitations to consult for corporations. “I do not wish to contribute in any way to selling labor down the river,” he wrote.

Wiener agonized over the role of science in a world warped by power imbalances, particularly economic ones. And he chose sides. In our own age, it is imperative that more people take similar stands. Turner suggests that if enough people do—and if they come together and advocate for their beliefs by building associations and institutions—they may have more of an impact in the long term than they could ever imagine at the outset. But this comes with a warning: their efforts might lead us to a situation they could neither anticipate nor comprehend. “Were the world we dream of attained, members of that new world would be so different from ourselves that they would no longer value it in the same terms in which we now desire it,” Margaret Mead says in an epigraph that begins The Democratic Surround. “We would no longer be at home in such a world.” Those of us who live within the surround and under the managerial mode of control, and who hope to change it, can only welcome the possibility of one day finding ourselves discomfited and cast out from the world we call home.

Astra Taylor is a documentary filmmaker and writer. She is the director of the films Zizek! and Examined Life and the author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Metropolitan Books, 2014).

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: