Fred Turner: The link from anti-fascist art and the “historical problem” of Facebook

Fred Turner, the leading chronicler of the links between the 60s counterculture and the internet revolution, turned his sights to the rise of multimedia in America prior to the 1960s in his recent book The Democratic Surround. On February 4, Turner returned to his hometown and to MIT, where he previously taught, to talk to architecture students about ideas of democracy, interactivity and public space. (I’m a Turner groupie, not an architecture student, so I came as well, along with roughly half of the Center for Civic Media.)

Turner explains that the story he will tell unfolds in building 7 of MIT, many years ago. But he starts the story with the “historical problem” of Facebook. Facebook offers a world in which connecting through a commercial, institutional space is presented as a democratic good. Our relations, connected through devices, is supposed to be a good – how on earth did we come to believe this is true? Oddly the answer comes from World War II and a turn away from centralized communication systems and the sense that these technologies were connected to fascism. That led to the idea that multimedia – sounds and images from all sides – would lead us to an appreciation of democracy and choice. Further, Fred wants to explore how computers got attached to that story, first by Norbert Weiner at MIT.

Turner tells us that we are currently surrounded by screens at all time – our phones, laptops, televisions. They are usually technologies of interpersonal connection. They invite us to create a new polity based on connecting with one another, united by seeking. The images we create for Facebook are the ones we encounter in the commercial sphere. We are being offered a model of democratic politics that is not democratic at all – it is a model based on surveillance and control.

After checking to see that the room is free of “card carrying historians”, turner explains that historian of 20th century America tend to cite Roosevelt as one of the most important figures of the 20th century. Their history tends to be a history of political leaders and the social forces they manage. “That boggles my mind,” he explains, since one of the most interesting aspects of the 20th century is media: radio, television, cinema. These are so far from mainstream American history that these historians have their own professional societies. One goal is to return media to the center of studying American history. Another is to historicize media studies.

His book, The Democratic Surround, covers the period from 1937 to 1967, and it’s a prequel to his earlier book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which covers from 1968 to 1993. In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Turner finds the roots of Wired Magazine and digital utopianism in 60s countercultural movements. Completing that history, he wanted to go further back, to the origins of those countercultural movements in reactions to World War II.

In 1938, American intellectuals had a problem. Germany was the center of intellectual culture and music. When Germany turned itself over to the leadership of Adolf Hitler, an obvious madman, people needed to figure out why. A popular explanation given was that Hitler had somehow mastered mass media – newspapers, movies, radio – and figured out how to capture the unconscious allegiance of ordinary Germans. One theory is that Hitler and Goering were literally insane, and that the media was the channel for making their madness communicable. Another theory was that the mass media was profoundly powerful, that the one to many practice of mass media was essentially a fascist model.

Reading old issues of the Sunday Evening Post, Turner was shocked to find FDR described as “the fourth fascist”, alongside Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini. Why? Because he had managed to capture mass media through his fireside chats and channel American public opinion in support of his policies. By 1941, many Americans feared that mass media could turn people into fascists… and this wasn’t an absurd idea. Father Coughlin had an audience of 3 million, and he used the airwaves to push The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In Madison Square Garden in the late 1930s, 22,000 people rallied for fascism, against Judaism, in defense of “Christian America”. Fascism was surprisingly popular with Americans, even Naziism.

Turner invites us to yell out Bogart films – Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre – and notes that none of us mentioned The Black Legion, a 1937 film in which Bogart is a blackshirt fascist who kills his Polish neighbor in the hopes of starting a fascist revolution.

The fear is that mass media creates fascists, either by conveying the insanity of American leaders, or by putting us into masses that all point in the same direction. If we want to confront fascism, how do we do so without turning them into fascists. FDR has an idea – he wants to copy Goebbel’s methods to deprogram Americans. But there’s another group at work – the Committee for National Morale, assembled in 1941, a group of 60 leading social scientists who work together to make propaganda that would promote “democratic character”.

The idea of democratic character ties to the idea that nations have a pre-existing personality that can be triggered by media. Germany’s authoritarian character was triggered by Nazi media. How can America’s fundamental democratic character be triggered by media? And once we trigger this character, how do we “coordinate the intelligences and will” of people? They theorize that they need to build a medium based on “non-hierarchical principals”. They have theories about images for all sides, smoke bombs, spectacles to force individuals to choose and integrate different images.

Fortunately, a bunch of refugees from the Bauhaus were down the street. Turner focuses on Herbert Bayer, whose theory of exhibitions was enormously influential. Bayer challenged the idea that pictures were meant to be held on walls at eye level. Instead, as a gestaltist, Bayer believed that we needed to see images all around ourselves and knit these images into a single experience which helps us integrate our whole self. When Bayer comes to the US fleeing the Nazis, he’s happy to bring this idea to the project of creating the democratic man and pushing against the Nazi regime.

Bayer’s first exhibit in the US was “The Road to Victory”, shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942. 800,000 people saw the exhibit over 6 weeks, an awfully large number in the context of the population of New York City. It’s clearly a propagandistic, jingoistic exhibit. But the nationalism of the imagery wasn’t what people appreciated – it was the fact that the images were shown at different levels and that the exhibit forced people through a particular path, inviting the viewer to integrate the images as she passed through.

This idea of integrating multiple perspectives is surprisingly influential on cybernetics. Many of the members of the Committee for National Morale participated in the Macy Conferences, bringing social scientists like Margaret Mead into contact with technological thinkers like Norbert Weiner. Weiner believed that we should think of democratic citizens as self-regulating machines, taking in feedback and reacting accordingly. Fascist citizens, on the other hand, can be understood as mechanistic ants. To be fully human is to understand that you are information system seeking information from other information systems.

The democratic surround – these multimedia exhibitions – go out into the world in travelling propaganda expos and through the art world, eventually influencing the 1960s counterculture. In both cases, computation is deeply implicated in the process. Turner shows us “Glimpses of the USA”, an exhibit of US technology in Moscow in 1959. The US Information Agency with large American corporations built a massive exhibition seen by 2 million Soviet citizens. Inside a geodesign dome designed by Buckminster Fuller are seven huge screens designed by Charles and Ray Eames, showing images that move at different rates, designed both to show American abundance, and to give Soviet citizens the chance to choose between images as in Bayer-style exhibits.

In the archives, studying these exhibitions, Turner discovered that USIA’s approach to this exhibit was for the exhibitors to “act like therapists”, understanding the psychological conditions of the Soviet visitors, to attempt an intervention and to evaluate its success. In essence, the Glimpses of the USA exhibit was to surveil and record the mindset of the Soviet Union. A IBM RAMAC Computer answered questions in Russian, and compiled dossiers on what Soviets wanted to know.

Turner juxtaposes these propaganda exhibits against the art world of composers like John Cage. Cage explains 3″44 and the idea that listening to “silence” and environmental sounds is a part of creating an integrated self. It’s widely believed that Cage came to this line of thought through his interest in Eastern religion. But Turner has found evidence that Cage was a profound patriot, who was interested in using percussion and electronic music to help Americans understand the experience of freedom.

We jump forward to 1952 to Black Mountain College, the rural educational retreat where Buckminster Fuller deployed his first dome, and where Cage and others deployed the first “happening”. Someone climbed a ladder and declaimed a poem. A dog ran around. Someone pounded on a piano, and people put teacups on a chair. “That was it. On what planet does that transform art for the next two decades?”

In 1957, Cage goes to New York and teaches the founders of the “happenings” world. In 1966, they hold an exhibition called by a journalist a “be-in”. It was a multimedia, psychedelic environment designed to help you understand yourself as a global citizen. This was the aesthetic of late universal humanism.

Turner explains that this is a world where artists and engineers want to play together. At the Pepsi Pavillion in Osaka in 1970 are cybernetic organisms you can interact with. When you enter, the space is designed to be a three dimensional computational and art experience. The builders of this space are associated with everyone from Cage’s happenings to Bell Labs, all working for Pepsi, who are trying to bring us “the young generation”. It was computer monitored and maintained environment designed to create psychological freedom. You see yourself in the mirrored Mylar ceiling, literally surrounded by reflections of yourself. (“Facebook”, Turner notes.) As you walk across the floor, you trigger different sounds which play to you on a handset. You are part of a cybernetic loop, free to experience the diversity of the national and mechanical world. As Weiner says, “We are but patterns of information in rivers of time.”

You would think there would be a happy end to this story. The people who participated in the be-ins that led to the summer of love were exactly the self-actualized people Margaret Mead and the committee for national morale were trying to create in 1942. But there’s a problem.

In these multimedia exhibitions, you are free to explore, to cluster, to see yourself in the images of very different people. But this whole experience has been intensely curated, and power is being exercised on you via aggregation. And those powerful shaping forces are invisible. “You can shout back at Hermann Göring, but how do you shout back at the exhibition designers?”

And that’s where we are now, Turner explains. We are in a world of personal choice, where reaching out to connect with distant others is, in fact, the tool used to control us.

Some of the questions ask whether Turner is being unfair or unkind in describing Bayer and others as oppressing those who experience their exhibits. Turner explains that we’re too often looking for a bad guy. In this story, we have many people whose intentions are good, who are working on the right issues, and end up creating systems that act counter to what they expected and intended. Asked how artists could avoid being “accidentally oppressive”, Turner points out that the key involves who you collaborate with and how – while the 1960s happenings were run almost exclusively by privileged white men and featured women primarily as objects, Turner asks us to imagine genuine expressions of equal collaboration in a polyracial and feminist society.

Also published on Medium.

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One Response to Fred Turner: The link from anti-fascist art and the “historical problem” of Facebook

  1. dmf says:

    thanks for this, glad to see Fred’s story updated to include the unfolding political tactics/ambitions of Facebook (MIT Arch has the lecture up on utube now) for an account of related contemporary developments folks might be interested in:

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