“I thought the Cold War was a black-and-white world and then everything turned into technicolor hippies. That turned out not to be true.” -Fred Turner

Fred Turner had just finished a Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory when he moved to San Diego in 1996. He had seen technology used as a tool of war, and he thought that “hippies were against technology — computers especially.” Then he saw a copy of Wired.

“It was all psychedelic colors, a big picture of ‘Whole Earth’ on the front and daisies. All this iconography I recognized from the counterculture in the 1960s.” In fact, he learned that countercultural dreams of shared consciousness had found a natural home in the computer world, where cyberspace was seen as a new electronic frontier. Former “communalists” had found new hope in “virtual communities.”

“I thought the Cold War was a black-and-white world and then everything turned into technicolor hippies. That turned out not to be true,” said Turner, a former journalist and now an intellectual historian at an important moment in our history. “I started reading my way into the 1940s and 1950s. I began to see a much more radical period than I ever knew about. I began to see a very direct protest against mass media and mass culture.” The result was The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties.

With the rise of fascism in the 1930s, people worried about how mass thinking and mass media worked together, focusing our attention on a single media point and a single magnetic leader – thus feeding our longings for control, leadership, and submission. The antidote? “The notion that has run through 30, 40, 50 years of media theory, is that you have to decentralize ownership, decentralize media technologies, give everybody a microphone, and suddenly we will all be in a free space. That turns out not to be the case.”

Our multi-sourced multimedia “surround” has been mass marketed for us in a dispersed and globalized media environment, infiltrating even our attempts to create such “free” spaces. “I’ve done a lot of work at Burning Man, and that’s a very Dionysian place, in which the ecstatic impulse to dance naked in the desert and build giant bonfires meshes very nicely with high ticket prices, the transportation system, and the politics of personal display that also animate Facebook.”

Our politics, too, have been turned upside down by media dispersal – especially by Donald Trump. “He becomes the embodied voice of grievance, and that’s what Adolf Hitler was. He speaks that grievance into Twitter, which is a hyper-personalized medium. It then gets amplified by a whole series of other media, which interact in the ecosystem that is decentralized and yet, ironically, because it is decentralized, tends to be an ever larger megaphone for the very charismatic forces that decentralization was meant to combat.”

“Our democratic surround is so saturated with images and voices – even more with Twitter. And all the chatter is one of the unintended wars on thinking.” -Robert Harrison

Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

Prof. Fred Turner chairs Stanford’s Department of Communication. He is the author of The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (University of Chicago Press, 2013), From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago Press, 2006), and Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory(Anchor/Doubleday, 1996; 2nd ed., University of Minnesota Press, 2001). He also worked for 10 years as a journalist. He has written for newspapers and magazines ranging from the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine to Nature.

 

Image from Charles and Ray Eames, Glimpses of the USA, 1959